Why do we travel to ride our mountain bikes? It’s a question I’ve been trying to answer for most of my adult life.
Of course we’d all love to have great bike trails located right outside our door, and many of us do. And yet day after day we all scroll through photos online, dreaming about putting tires to dirt in faraway places. More than anything, riding new trails is about connecting with people and places in an intimate way.
Perhaps no mountain bike destination has received more attention lately than Arkansas. The state, located almost smack dab in the middle of the US, is anything but middling when it comes to mountain biking.
Many years ago riders came away surprised by the quality of Arkansas trails, and now that the state has established itself as a mountain bike destination, we wanted to find out what makes it unique, and to see which stones are still unturned. Singletracks spent a week traveling the state, and here are six unique experiences mountain bikers will only find in Arkansas.
1. More IMBA Epics than any other state
The International Mountain Bicycling Association (IMBA) defines Epic trails as “immersive rides that are technically and physically challenging, beautiful to behold and worthy of celebration,” and Arkansas is home to five IMBA Epic trails, more than any other state: Lake Ouachita Vista Trail (LOViT), Ouachita National Recreation Trail, Syllamo, Upper Buffalo Headwaters, and the Womble Trail. To put that into perspective, California and Colorado both trail Arkansas in the Epic count, with four each.
While it might seem like Arkansas is a relatively new mountain bike destination, some of these IMBA Epics have existed for decades, and they’re still as rugged and remote as ever. The newer trails, particularly those located in and around Bentonville, get all the hype, but riders can still find hundreds of miles of challenging, natural trails to explore.
Hot Springs, Arkansas makes for a convenient starting point to ride three of the state’s Epic trails. Lake Ouachita (pronounced watch-it-taw) is located east of town and the Lake Ouachita Vista Trail (LOViT) provides riders with incredible views of the lake in a digestible, day-long ride format. For the more adventurous, the 100+ mile Ouachita National Recreation Trail is prime bikepacking territory. Driving just a bit further east, the Womble Trail is another IMBA Epic, this time tracing the banks of the Ouachita River.
Looking at a map, the fourth IMBA Epic, Upper Buffalo appears to be close-ish to the Northwest Arkansas scene, but in terms of remoteness it couldn’t be farther away. The 20+ miles of trails were originally hand cut and take riders deep into backcountry Arkansas.
Rounding out the list, Syllamo likely sees the fewest tire tracks each year, but it’s rewarding nonetheless. Located in north central Arkansas, Syllamo claims 50 miles of singletrack, which I can confirm is both challenging and remote.
In addition to the five IMBA Epics, Arkansas also boasts three ride centers: Bentonville (Silver), Hot Springs (Bronze), and Fayetteville (Bronze).
2. Bikes, spring water, and alligators, oh my
Hot Springs may not be as well known as Bentonville, but it’s a worthy mountain bike destination all its own. The town has been a tourist destination since the 1800s thanks to its natural hot springs that deliver purported health benefits to bathers and imbibers alike. Today it’s surrounded by a national park, and not only is the town close to three of the IMBA Epics mentioned above, the Northwoods trail system, located north of town, offers 30+ miles of high quality MTB trails that has been voted riders’ favorite trail system in the state in the past three out of four years, according to Arkansas Outside.
Northwoods can be accessed from town, though most riders will want to drive to one of the convenient trailheads. The Waterworks trailhead is closest and gives riders easy access to green and blue trails plus beautiful lake views. The Cedar Glades trailhead sits at the westernmost end of the trail network where many hand-built, legacy trails can be found. In between the two, riders will find jump, flow, and XC trails rated for riders of abilities.
The town of Hot Springs has countless hiking trails leading directly from the town into the forest. Bathhouse Row features historic spring-fed bathhouses, one of which has been converted into a brewery called Superior Bathhouse Brewery. The first brewery located in a U.S. national park, Superior Bathhouse brews some of the tastiest beer in Arkansas, perhaps thanks to the mineral-rich water used.
Bruce and Jann Hubbard have operated Parkside Cycle in Hot Springs for 28 years, and over the years the shop has helped support the longest, continuously running MTB race in the state. Formerly known as The Attila the Hun XC race, the event is now part of the 3-day Hot Springs Güdrun Festival held each November.
Parkside Cycle is conveniently located right next door to the Arkansas Alligator Farm and Petting Zoo, which has been in operation for over 100 years. It’s pretty much a mandatory stop if you have kids in tow.
3. Ride behind a waterfall or straight down a mountain
The Monument Trails, located within four Arkansas State Parks, are designed to be world-class mountain biking destinations in their own right, and each one has something unique to offer riders.
Devil’s Den State Park
To ride a trail behind a waterfall, head to the Monument Trails at Devil’s State Park and jump on the Devil’s Racetrack trail. After riding about a mile you’ll swoop behind the waterfall and come out the other side completely dry!
But don’t stop there. Beyond the falls the trail gets even more creative, slipping between narrow rock gaps and swooping under overhangs. The rock and trail work completed by Rock Solid Trail Contracting is stunning, and lower sections of the trail are full of swoopy and bermy goodness.
While the relatively new Devil’s Racetrack trail is the most recognizable in the park, the park has actually been hosting mountain bike events since 1989. As Assistant Park Superintendent Tim Scott tells it, “what happened is we started seeing mountain biking starting to appear in the mid-80s. And so we went up to Crested Butte to the Fat Tire festival in ’88 and basically stole everything they were doing and brought it back here for a festival and a race.”
Scott has been with the Parks system for 45 years, and at Devil’s Den since 1984. He says the Monument Trails at Devil’s Den are drawing riders from the Upper Midwest in colder months, and from everywhere else the rest of the year. The park offers campsites and rental cabins that allow mountain bikers to roll right onto the trails.
Mount Nebo State Park. Photos (clockwise): Mike Cartier, Mike Cartier, Daniel Palma
Mount Nebo State Park
Although Bentonville is known for its high quality trails, one thing the area is lacking is big mountain descents. Not so for the rest of the state, however. Mount Nebo State Park is home to another of the four Arkansas Monument Trail Systems, and this year the park hosted a race in the Big Mountain Enduro Series. Some trails were created just for the race, and they are steep and rowdy. Even the drive up the paved road to the top of the park is incredibly taxing for vehicle and driver alike.
The trails at Mount Nebo aren’t all steep gnar-fests. Several green-rated beginner trails loop the summit of Mount Nebo and offer long range, 360° views of the state. (Beyond the Monument Trails at Mount Nebo State Park, there are more challenging descents to be found on the grounds of The Great Passion Play and at Lake Leatherwood in Eureka Springs, which is located about an hour east of Bentonville.)
Hobbs State Park-Conservation Area
Hobbs State Park-Conservation Area offers the closest set of Monument Trails to the town of Bentonville, making it a popular choice for many visitors. The 12,000+ acre park was established in 1979 on land formerly owned by the family of Roscoe Hobbs, and today the park has 30 miles of trails open to bikes including the crown jewel, 18-mile Monument Trail network.
Visitors to Hobbs State Park-Conservation Area will find a fresh take on hike-in campsites: bike-in campsites. Mountain bikers can ride about four miles into the scenic Karst Loop to a set of primitive campsites complete with fire pits and benches and views of Beaver Lake. Sites cost $15 per night, and you can reserve them online. The bike-in sites offers a nice alternative to a full-on bikepacking trip, and place riders in prime position for an epic dawn patrol ride.
Pinnacle State Park
The Monument Trails at Pinnacle Mountain State Park are located just 15 miles from Little Rock, the state capital and largest city in Arkansas, making them uniquely accessible for a large population. The Pinnacle Mountain trails opened in 2020 and feature mostly green- and blue-rated trails, perfect for riding with family and friends.
4. Grab coffee and nachos at the trailhead
For those who are familiar with trail centers in Europe, having a coffee shop at the trail might not seem like a big deal, but here in the U.S. it’s a rare treat. Coler Preserve in Bentonville has one such cafe called Airship, where riders can grab a coffee in the morning or nachos for an afternoon snack. Mountain bikers can sit at a table on top of the cafe for views of the trail below then head onto the singletrack to bang out a few hot laps.
5. Glimpse the future of MTB, today in Bentonville
Bentonville gets a lot of the recognition when it comes to mountain biking in Arkansas, and for very good reason. The town has embraced the sport like nowhere else, and if you want a glimpse of where mountain biking is heading, head to Bentonville. Many riders expressed skepticism when Bentonville crowned itself the mountain bike capital of the world back in 2020; just three years later, that claim isn’t looking so far fetched.
Visitors will find some of the highest quality, and most creative mountain bike trails in the U.S. in Bentonville from flow trails and jump lines to rocky, technical ribbons of singletrack. No, Bentonville doesn’t have big mountain riding; the town isn’t located in the mountains, after all. What Bentonville does have is terrain that’s suited to a whole spectrum of riders from adult gravel grinders to kids on push bikes and groms on dirt jumpers, and everything in between.
“Flow trails and singletrack and gravel all work really well in Bentonville because you don’t need a ton of grade to make it happen,” said local trail builder Ethan Edman. “It’s easy to be critical of Bentonville trails, especially the ones that are downhill-oriented. But at the same time, you know, I don’t see any mountains around.”
Working with the available terrain, builders have created “this really cool atmosphere of lapping and sessioning” that Edman says is bringing new riders to the sport. “That’s one of the beautiful things about Bentonville is how accessible it feels to new riders.” Riding around town one gets the sense that anyone can become better at jumping, or just riding in general, by progressively sessioning trails and features, particularly in the Slaughter Pen trail system.
Trail designers have sprinkled Easter Eggs throughout the local trails like the Masterpiece, a rock and steel rolling jump line that’s become the backdrop for many a rider’s social media profile pic. Another iconic piece of trail art is the newly christened Oz Castle with a hub that’s designed to look like a castle tower and medieval-sounding trail names like Dragon Scales and Catapult.
Then there’s the Ledger Building in downtown Bentonville that’s said to be the world’s first bikeable building. Riders can pedal up to the sixth floor for a birds eye view of the town while deciding which pizza or taco spot to choose for dinner.
It’s not uncommon to see a rack full of $6,000 full-suspension mountain bikes sitting outside the local coffee shop and at times it feels like no one in Bentonville actually works for a living. In reality, many of the folks you see riding around town are just like you, tourists drawn to get a glimpse of the future of mountain biking.
🌈 6. The rain just isn’t as wet in Arkansas
A few days ahead of my most recent trip to mountain bike in Arkansas, the weather forecast was looking rainy and wet. I frantically reached out to all my trip contacts to let them know our team would be postponing, and everyone I spoke with said the same thing: don’t worry, the trails will be fine. We ended up postponing the trip anyway, though it did end up raining early in our trip. And guess what? The trails were fine.
“We’re really trying to push for this to be year round riding, you know, whenever you come,” said Uriah Nazario, Director of Soft Surface Trails for the Trailblazers in Bentonville. “Ethan [Edman] and the team have done such a great job working with the moisture content of these flow trails to get them to drain so fast that you can ride them in the rain.”
Beyond designing trails with drainage and water management in mind, Arkansas is blessed with rocky soil and Karst topography, which is derived from limestone. Jay Schneider, Assistant Superintendent at Hobbs State Park-Conservation Area, tells me that Karst allows water to easily permeate and that the park’s Monument Trails are usually ready to ride within a couple hours of rain.
In many parts of the country it’s not rain that keeps riders off the trails; it’s lingering winter snow and the associated snow melt. Tim Scott, Assistant Superintendent at Devil’s Den State Park, says the Monument Trails at his park are particularly popular with spring riders from the upper midwest. “We’ve seen an increase from the Upper Midwest — Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois — that have really been coming down starting around the end of March and through April.”
But wait, there’s more
No one can possibly capture everything that’s unique about mountain biking in Arkansas, and even if they could, that would be spoiling some of the fun. What’s most exciting about mountain biking around Arkansas are the things you’ll find when you least expect them!
Looking for more great photos to get inspired for your trip to Arkansas? Click over to our Arkansas destination page for a complete gallery.