Arkansas Has Mountain Bike Trails to Challenge Even the Pros

Arkansas has mountain bike trails to challenge even the most experienced riders. These are the spots to visit.
Photo: Mike Cartier

By now you’ve probably heard that Bentonville, Arkansas is home to quality mountain bike trails, with something for everyone from beginners to expert riders. But Bentonville is just one dog-eared corner of the Arkansas MTB trail story. Whether it’s a chance to experience high quality gravity trails or to become a faster rider, mountain bikers from all over the US are discovering there’s a lot more to Arkansas than flow trails, and it’s accessible all year ’round.

“There’s a lot to offer in terms of fun and diverse trail aspects, but typically you got to go a little bit outside of Bentonville to find the more gnarly stuff,” says professional gravity racer Jake Ingram. After living in Colorado and Utah, Ingram now resides and trains in Arkansas while also working in the bike industry as a dealer sales rep. 

To learn about everything Arkansas has to offer more adventurous mountain bikers, we spoke to some of the professional athletes, aspiring Olympians, trail builders and race organizers who choose to ride in The Natural State.

Photo: Mike Cartier

Big mountain descents and shuttle routes

Ponca Downhill Trail in the Buffalo Outdoor Center (BOC) and Mount Nebo State Park are among Ingram’s favorite downhill-oriented trails in Northwest Arkansas. Both are located within an hour or two of increasingly populated city centers like Fayetteville and offer experienced riders a place to test their skills on long-travel bikes. They’re also places where ambitious shredders can quickly progress.

Ponca Downhill Trail (BOC)

Ponca Downhill Trail is located in northwestern Arkansas, about an hour and a half from Bentonville, with raw, natural downhill runs that will challenge even the most skilled riders. As part of the Buffalo Outdoor Center (BOC), Ponca offers shuttle service on their 6-mile trail system to allow riders to get multiple runs in a day for $20-$40. Of course riders are also free to pedal to the top too. The trails finish at the Buffalo Outdoor Center where you can meet the shuttle, grab a bite to eat and recharge before your next run.

Riding White Lightning to Skullcracker, one of the more direct descents from the top and pro-rider Ingram’s favorite, drops 1,300ft in about four miles. There are a few pucker moments along the way including steep rock slabs and loose, off-camber tracks with tight switchbacks. The trail offers significant jumping opportunities in the form of road gaps and fun kickers to boot. Each jump section has an alternative go-around for less daring riders. 

Rock formations aplenty and tall trees surrounding, Ponca delivers on a very visual and physically stimulating experience.  Mossy rocks and vibrant leaves during the spring make for a scenic environment to point your bike downhill. 

While Ponca is more gravity-based, there still remains the occasional uphill burst that’ll keep the blood flowing. The variety of terrain is one reason why Ingram sees this location as a suitable enduro training ground and test of skill. Downhill bike control and strength is required, but so is a good engine/leg pairing. Riding a single trail system that offers both in one continuous run is a fair test to apply to enduro racing. Add in the 40-mile+, IMBA Epic Upper Buffalo River Bike Trail network, and you’ve got a great location for getting in pre-season base miles too.

Running adjacent to the Buffalo National River, Ponca offers other recreational activities for those with active lifestyles to enjoy such as canoeing, rafting, hiking, etc.  The staff and shuttle drivers are warm, welcoming and helpful to ensure your visit to Ponca is pleasant and memorable. 

Photo: Mike Cartier

Mount Nebo State Park

Mount Nebo State Park is located south of Ponca and is about an hour and a half away from Little Rock, Arkansas. Nebo is part of the Monument Trails collection and is currently a stop on the Big Mountain Enduro series, hosting big names and top brands while shining a spotlight on some of the most incredible riding in Arkansas. 

Nebo has a number of trails to choose from, offering 1,000ft+ of descending. Whether you’re putting in the time to train to become a better racer or are simply a recreational rider, Nebo has a balance to suit most without feeling crowded. 

Our route had us climbing from the bottom to the top, racking up a total of 2,300ft of descending with everything from steep and loose to chunky rock gardens. While Nebo also offers some variety like Ponca, the 25 miles of trails are a tad more manicured and defined. Still, there are a lot of the steep and off-camber tracks where brake control and body position are key. 

Due to Mount Nebo’s size, the trail network feels extremely physical and at times, trying. For the relative distance from Little Rock (1.5 hours) and Bentonville (2.5 hours), Nebo is worth the trip for fantastic views and even more rewarding riding. 

“Ponca, Nebo and Eureka Springs are definitely worth owning longer travel enduro bikes,” says Ingram.

Eureka Springs

Under the watchful eye of the Christ of the Ozarks, the city of Eureka Springs lies tucked away in one of the many wrinkled valleys of the Ozark Mountains. Once a health and wellness hotspot thanks to its abundance of natural springs, this quirky, colorful town reminds visitors of a small European mountain village with its buildings neatly embedded into the hillsides. Despite being a small city of only 2,100 residents, Eureka Springs has a lot to offer riders looking for next-level challenges. 

The first time Lucas Lewter visited the area, “it was like a little ray of sunshine came into my soul,” he said with a laugh. Lewter has been racing enduro since 2018 and decided to settle down near Eureka Springs where he’s a mountain bike guide for Slaughter Trail Guides.

The “infamous gap” on DH 2. Photo: Carolyn Baldwin

Slaughter Trail Guides founder Dustin Slaughter started racing enduro in 2014 and today he operates the Southern Enduro Tour and the Arkansas Enduro Series, with races slated for Eureka Springs and Hot Springs this year. He says race promotion is a way to share great trails, just like guiding. “We’re giving a similar experience, but a lot more people at a time,” he said. By designing challenging race courses with clear signage, the goal is to enable racers to try something hard and ride a new trail system without the distraction of navigating unfamiliar territory. 

Singletracks got in some early-season riding with Slaughter and Lewter at two popular Eureka Springs locations, Lake Leatherwood and the Passion Play trails.

Lake Leatherwood

The Lake Leatherwood Gravity Project is a downhill haven for the air-time enthusiast in all of us. Consisting of seven distinct gravity-fed lines coming off of two hubs, this trail system has a combination of man-made and natural features. Arkansas has a reputation for being rocky and ledgy, and Leatherwood makes great use of both of these assets. Rocking a bit of a bike park vibe, the more challenging features at Leatherwood will command your full attention. 

Leatherwood is known for having gnarly features, with man-made senders and happy little accidents that have come together to create some unique obstacles for riders. The lily-pad on/off feature is a prime example of creative trail building that showcases all that Arkansas has to offer. 

At the top of the mountain riders will find the shuttle drop off point right next to the Topo Motel. From there, riders can choose one of the trail hubs to start their adventure. Self shuttling is an option, but if you lack an extra vehicle or want to enjoy every lap without having to trade off with your friends, consider hiring a shuttle service such as Slaughter Trail Guides or The Gravity Feed.

From the south hub you’ll find the first three downhill trails. Don’t trust the trail numbers as a scale or an order of difficulty, and pay close attention to trail descriptions. We rode the south hub with Slaughter and Lewter who were happy to show us the highlight reel. 

DH 2 is the trail that started it all. With some good twists and turns right off the top, DH 2 lures you into some flow before sprinkling in some fun kickers and tabletops. Carry your speed over the loose, gravelly singletrack and get ready for the techy little ledges right before the infamous gap. With a ridearound on the right, bikers can warm up to the idea of carrying enough speed for this feature. 

A group of riders from Colorado prepare for a descent. Photo: Carolyn Baldwin

“Our friends that come out from Colorado to ride here with me in Eureka… Obviously, Arkansas is not, you know, the big elevation mountain riding that Colorado has,” says Slaughter. “But what they have said they really like about riding here is all the features. We have all the jumps and drops that have been built. They don’t really have that on their local trails.”

Fortunately for riders living in the snow zones, Arkansas trails are open for riding year round, and there’s plenty to explore.

Photo: Carolyn Baldwin

Passion Play

The Great Passion Play is unlike any other mountain bike venue in the world, offering a popular live outdoor performance of the story of Jesus’ life and a Holy Land tour in addition to trails.  The 667-acre site contains a 20+ mile mountain bike trail network, with trails from the easy and mellow Genesis trail to advanced jump lines like Atonement.

Surprisingly, there are more black diamond (and double black diamond) trails here than intermediate trails. Many of the gnarly, enduro-esque advanced trails were built with the help of Jagged Axe Trail Design, and Passion Play hosts enduro races here regularly.  

Through guiding and building rowdy scratch lines and memorable race courses, Slaughter aims to carry on the tradition of enduro racing at venues like the Great Passion Play by getting people out in the woods for epic days of riding, shredding down hill.

“For a while I saw myself moving to somewhere like Colorado, or out west,” Slaughter told us. “But once I started my business with guiding and shuttling and saw the opportunity here, it would have been really hard to pack up and move away. So I’ve kind of always gravitated toward riding in Eureka.”

Within the Great Passion Play trail network, Deliverance offers riders a chance to open up and fly, starting with some small kickers and fast berms. On this double black diamond trail you’ll find some medium-sized drops, a couple tricky tech sections, and a fun and challenging rock skinny that leads into a chunky rock garden. Toward the bottom you’ll find a steep and ledgy descent that drops you into a blind corner and through a feature known as “Heaven’s Gate.” Make sure you choose a good line because there’s a loose right hander just after the exit! 

If you’re looking for that bike park feel with a touch of Arkansas tech, drop into Atonement. There are plenty of opportunities to get air time on a good mix of rock kickers and table tops found on this black diamond trail. Work your way down and drop off some classic Arkansas ledges, or pick your way down the stair steppy B-lines. With some chunky tech to keep things spicy, riders will need to be well rounded with their bike handling skills on and off the ground.

Fast, loose and steep, Gn’Armageddon invites speed while providing questionable off-camber traction. As a double black diamond trail, riders should be careful to follow the singletrack and not the skid marks sliding off the gravelly trail. With more rocky chutes, gap jumps, and beautiful limestone ledges to send it, there is plenty of ‘gnar’ to be found.

Photo: Carolyn Baldwin

Mountain bike trails to challenge Olympic hopefuls

For elite athletes at the top of their game looking for glory on the world stage, the land of Oz offers the perfect classroom to refine their craft. And that’s exactly why, in 2022, USA Cycling chose to move their mountain bike program to Northwest Arkansas. 

Alec Pasqualina, director of the mountain bike program for USA Cycling, thinks of Bentonville as a natural fit for the program. Previously based in Colorado Springs, CO, the temptation of the trail access alone was enough to draw their attention from the fully decked-out Olympic Training Center.

“We really like these trails because they’re so interconnected. They’re so accessible for so many people. But they’re also technical enough, progressively built enough that we can be challenged.” Pasqualina explains. “It is such a competitive advantage for us and our athletes compared to other countries to have something like this.

“For us as mountain bikers, when we saw what was here in Bentonville, it made leaving [Colorado Springs] palatable, because there was so much more here in terms of the trail access.”

Photo: Carolyn Baldwin

Anneke Beerten, a former BMX and four cross World Champion originally from the Netherlands, made the move to Bentonville in early 2022. Coming from Orange County, CA, she was looking for a change of scenery and better access to riding. Now retired from racing on the world stage, Anneke now spends her time coaching clients and teaching clinics through her mountain bike coaching company Crank It Up in the Bentonville area. 

With two years of exploring Arkansas trails under her belt, Beerten has found ways to cater to riders of all levels. Skills progression is all about building confidence in the rider, and for Beerten, the task is made simple by having access to so many options to session. For riders seeking out more advanced technical skills sessions, she often uses trails such as Shotgun in Slaughter Pen to challenge her clients. For the Team USA U23 men, the loose, off-camber corners proved to be an interesting test of skill.

Todd Wells, former Olympian, pro racer, and now U23 coach, says it’s not just about trail access. Another appeal is simply the abundance of challenges available to every skill level. World Cup race courses have become noticeably more technical in recent years, almost getting to the point of feeling like enduro-light. With challenging man-made features, sizable jumps, drops, and even gaps, it’s critically important for athletes to get comfortable with these types of features.

The beauty of training in Bentonville is that riders have the opportunity to work their way up from the introductory level all the way to World Cup-style trail features alongside veteran riders and coaches. The U23 Women saw firsthand the benefit of training in the bicycle playground of their dreams.

Bear Team National rider Makena Kellerman, in town for USA Cycling training camp, appreciated the improvements that can be made with access to the right tools. “I’ve never had a whole area where you could practice drops and do jumps and have different lines. So it’s really cool to see the progression you can make out there [in] a small spot.” Her race day commitment to air time is sometimes met with hesitation, but after a skills session with Anneke, she found herself seeking out more jumps and drops to session. “Now I actually enjoy it, instead of just being forced to do it and scared. I can do this, and it looks like fun!”

Photo: Leah Barber

No off-season

Mountain bikers living in colder climates are finding that Arkansas offers nearly endless gravity riding year round, making it a popular shoulder-season and even winter riding destination. The Arkansas outdoor scene is full of southern hospitality that’s infectious. Communities are tight-knit, yet welcoming, attracting a rapidly growing number of new cyclists and giving experienced riders a place to call home. 

The variety of trails, lush vegetation, reasonable cost of living and incredibly strong communities are some attractive qualities that bring in new visitors by the truckload on a frequent basis. Several bike brands have already planted roots or are adding operations in Northwest Arkansas.

Photo: Mike Cartier

While Ingram for one is still pursuing racing on a professional level, he’s also diving into the cycling industry as a dealer sales representative, and he recently purchased 3.5 acres of undeveloped land to build a home and start a new chapter of his life. He even hopes to construct some trails on his property.

“I think Arkansas is a great place to live as a pro enduro athlete, because we do have a lot of variety and terrain. And that’s something that is a big benefit to living here.” Of course he’ll continue to travel around the country to race and ride for fun too. But he’ll be coming home to Arkansas.