Several factors have coalesced to make Arkansas a prime mountain biking destination. First, the Natural State has two separate mountain ranges, the Ozarks and the Ouachitas, with each offering their own geographical features that have made for some unique trail construction. Second, during the three or more months of the year when other popular mountain bike destinations in the United States are unrideable due to several feet of snow covering the trails, mountain bikers in Arkansas merely add another layer of clothing and continue to ride year-round. Third, Arkansas recognizes the positive quality of life associated with trails; therefore, trail construction has the community, government, and private sector support required to make trails happen.
With all of the great trails that are available in the state, to make the task of selecting my five top trail recommendations easier, I limited my choices to trails that have been constructed or had major enhancements in recent years. These trails will also demonstrate the direction trail construction is going in the state, with the majority of new construction emphasizing progressiveness to accommodate the growing skill sets mountain bikers are developing.
Back 40, Bella Vista
Back 40 contains 40-plus-miles of primo flowy-smooth, professionally-built trails. During 2016 there were five different construction companies working concurrently to complete this trail in preparation for the IMBA World Summit held in Bentonville in November of that year. Other states were contacting Arkansas to complain because they were unable to build trails in their areas because all the best trail construction companies were tied up here.
If you want a break from the rocks, ruts, and tree roots found on many other trails, come to the Back 40. As these well-groomed trails meander through the deep forested hollows, cyclists will encounter a couple of challenging climbs, plus the always challenging Ledges section. But as a whole, this trail is made for enjoyable smooth cruising up one side of a hillside then down the other, with tall earthen berms allowing you to glide through the sharp turns without losing your momentum. The trail even cuts across a golf course fairway.
And the Back 40 just keeps getting better. Rock Solid Trail Construction recently rebuilt some of the interconnecting trails, adding several fun rock kick-ups in the process. Also, during 2018 both Progressive Trail Design and Rogue Trails will each be constructing an additional 20 miles of trail in this area. By the end of the year, the Back 40 will be one step closer to its originally-planned 150 miles of soft surface trails.
There are several trailheads located along the Back 40; however, unless you know your way around the Bella Vista area, I suggest following your GPS to Blowing Springs Park. There is a trailhead located here, plus a campground. There are also plenty of places to eat nearby.
Coler Mountain Bike Preserve, Bentonville
The Coler Mountain Bike Preserve has transformed mountain bike trail construction in Northwest Arkansas into an art form. Architecture firm Modus Architecture Studio was even brought in to contribute to the design of these game-changing trail features.
The trail network is divided into the east side and west side sections, with the trails in the west side still under construction at the time of this article. But the 7.5 miles of trails comprising the east side are open and ready for business. However, these trails would not be a good place to bring a newbie for their inaugural MTB experience. They were designed to push and challenge even the most experienced riders to help them refine their mountain bike skill set.
The Coler MTB Adventure begins at The Hub. Located at the crest of the mountain at the epicenter of the network of trails, this elevated wooden boardwalk, built on steel supports, towers some 13 feet above the ground. With multiple paths branching out from it like spokes on a wheel, The Hub’s wooden ramps are designed to help cyclists obtain maximum speed within the first few feet of their ride. Your options down from the boardwalk are a choice between a 40-degree, short, sloping drop with a kick-up, or a 40-degree near-straight drop.
The droplines off The Hub launch mountain bikers into the more challenging trails in the preserve, such as “Cease and Desist,” which includes a 12-foot drop called “Drop the Hammer,” and “Rock Solid,” a continuous downhill rock garden.
In September 2017, Coler hosted Arkansas’s first true enduro race, and plans are in motion to make it an annual event. Future plans for the preserve include camping and a music venue.
Upon completion, the connecting west side trails will consist of approximately 8 miles of singletrack that will include several flyover bridges and a dual slalom race course, so riders can run head-to-head competitions against their MTB buds.
Coler Mountain Bike Preserve is located on the outskirts of Bentonville, at 11859 Peach Orchard Road.
Iron Mountain, Arkadelphia
These 22 miles of trail are broken up into a series of loops, which is great for beginners so they can avoid long stretches of unwanted hike-a-bike. “Beginner,” in this case, is based more on fitness level than bike handling skills, because even experienced riders will enjoy the twisting, flowy trails I refer to as “beginner trails.” But, I don’t think cyclists who haven’t been riding that often will enjoy the steep climbs on the more demanding sections.
Skyline Drive is pretty much the dividing line, with the less vertically-challenging trails to the north and hillier trails to the south. The trail network includes several trailheads, but I recommend beginning your initial visit at the Upper Mountain Trailhead, located about one mile west of the DeGray Lake Dam on Skyline Drive. This will position riders at a perfect launch point for either the north or south trail sections.
Ride direction isn’t really a factor for trails north of the highway: the narrow singletrack flows equally sweet whichever way you choose. But for the south loops, I definitely recommend starting out clockwise. The downhill was designed for this direction, with a couple jumps included for those seeking a little air time. Plus, this direction helps break up the payback climb on the way back up. However, counter-clockwise works best for the connecting loop you will reach across the spillway, so you can better enjoy that sweet, fast, flowing descent.
Iron Mountain Trail is located about 25 miles south of Hot Springs. There are plenty of eating and lodging options on the highway in between, and also at the nearby lodge. If you prefer to camp, there is a campground within riding distance of the trails.
Slaughter Pen, Bentonville
The current 25 miles of mountain bike trails at Slaughter Pen (SP) are the product of several separate construction phases over the years. Nathan “Woody” Woodruff, founder of Progressive Trail Design, began honing his trail building skills on this trail system.
SP offers a virtual smorgasbord of styles for mountain bikers, from fast directional downhill runs and techie narrow wooden skinnies to cross country flow trails. Plus, if you’re up for a challenge, you can attempt “The President Bush Push”. This is a short, steep climb straight up a 25% grade that President George W. Bush once biked up.
If you haven’t ridden SP this winter you will experience several new enhancements on your next ride. Recently I was riding with Aaron Rogers, owner of Rock Solid Trail Construction, on a stretch of Schroen Train Trail they had revamped. The rock patio jumps and rollovers they added make for a sweet, swoopy downhill experience. They also have plans to rework sections of Ozone Trail and construct a new pumptrack adjacent to the system.
The Slaughter Pen Trail System is located in Bentonville. The area offers plenty of choices for lodging and food, and one of the trails in the network routes cyclists by Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art. By following a short paved connecting bike path, it is also an easy ride to access the Back 40 Trail mentioned above.
Upper Buffalo Headwaters, Boxley
Although this trail has been decades in the making, the official opening wasn’t until 2014. Mountain bikers can thank a group of locals who live in the Boston Mountains that surround the Upper Buffalo Headwaters Trail (UBHT) for this biking adventure. Perry and Suzanne Hayes, along with neighbors How and Kate Kuff, began a campaign back in 1995 to stop planned logging in this area, according to Perry Hayes. Their grassroots activities attracted the attention of Yvon Chouinard, founder of Patagonia clothing. He sent their group to training seminars in the West, where they learned what their rights were as concerned citizens and were made aware of the legal limits they had to observe during their peaceful demonstrations to save the forest around the headwaters. The initial trail system that the Hayeses and Kuffs began developing has grown to become the IMBA Epic trail system we all enjoy today.
Although the UBHT is well-signed, this 40-mile trail network is a truly remote wilderness experience. Be sure to carry plenty of food, water, spare bike parts, and be prepared to get wet on the numerous water crossings.
The narrow singletrack was mostly hand cut; however, there are some very sweet machine built downhill sections that truly justify the thigh-burning climbs required to reach their summit. In particular, the screaming three-mile descent on one of the trail’s more raucous single-tracks, Firetower Trail, is a must-ride.
To begin your UBHT adventure, pull up the township of Red Star on your GPS, then drive about a mile east of there on Highway 16. Turn north on Cave Mountain Road. Follow this gravel road about a mile to reach a trailhead located on the east side of the road.