Moab. Fruita. Whistler. Bentonville.
Yeah, Bentonville. While the rest of the world was focused on the big places, the well-known and incredible, breathlessly writing about, photographing, and shooting endless loops of GoPro footage of what is generally considered the promised land (and for good reason), something was taking place in northern Arkansas.
In the little place where Walmart was invented, they’ve got a thing – an itch, if you will – and they’re scratching like crazy. All the digging has resulted in roughly 100 or so miles of trail within 30 miles of the city’s center. Some 20+ of it is a short ride on the paved path that bisects the city. And it’s not just any old trail, but damn good trail. Flying judo chop to the legs kind of good.
More on that later.
Good trail is made better by good towns
A brief chat about Bentonville, if you don’t mind. Certainly you’ll prefer to spend time off the bike in pursuit of worldly pleasures. Or as I call it: beer. Trust me, Bentonville’s got your back.
There are enough breweries doing good stuff that you’ll slake your dusty tongue in more ways than you can imagine. We’re talking brilliant beer that has taken on heavyweights. Head to nearby Rogers, Arkansas, and try Ozark Brewing’s double IPA, which recently found its way onto a list with none other than Pliny the Elder and Dogfish Head 90 Minute IPA. Real champs in the beer world.
Food is another thing Bentonville seems to get. Pedaler’s Pub comes to mind. It’s owned by a mountain biker and all-around good guy who knows that wood-fired pizza, sandwiches piled high, and a broad choice of good beer is the key that unlocks the door to a mountain biker’s heart. His place happens to be right next door to Bike Rack Brewing, a place best described as small… but mighty. Speaking of double IPAs, theirs will have your mouth singing its praises at full volume.
If you want to go upscale, streetside (as in food truck), Middle Eastern, Mexican, etc., etc., etc., Bentonville can fix you up there too. Kind Kitchen – a personal favorite – parks on the square many weekends and offers tasty vegan choices and several more traditional dishes. You will not go hungry, or want for pictures to share on Instagram.
Nor will your brain go without stimulation. There are art galleries in every direction, including the undeniably remarkable Crystal Bridges. An architectural magic show, Crystal Bridges floats like a docked UFO, gently hovering on a serene blanket of water nestled between two rising, tree-covered slopes, each laced with snaking, paved bike paths and twisty singletrack. The art inside will hit you right in the eye, too.
Why’d you really come here?
There’s a reason Bentonville has become an IMBA Ride Center and will host the World Bike Summit in November, 2016. What drew IMBA – and what will draw you to this hot little wide spot in the road – are the Arkansas woods. And the sweet, undulating ribbons of glee the locals have carved out.
Obviously you should start at Slaughter Pen. Ride there using the bike path that seems to filter into every nook and cranny of town.
Slaughter Pen has about 20 miles of trail that is cut into small sections and, barring guidance from a local, might have you playing hide and seek to get it all. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try, because the rewards are plenty.
You’ll get everything from flat, flowing beginner trail to twisting climbs, chutes and ladders, and chunky flint rock sections that’ll keep you shaken and stirred. Personal favorites are Tatamagouche, a climb that’ll test your legs a little and then reward you with some contour, a few ladder bridges and walls, plus some smile-inducing berms.
Transition into Medusa, which takes you through some flow trail that will appeal to cross country riders that then drops into some steeper terrain with rollers and flat top jumps. Razorback Ridge is another fun trail that you can ride from Angus Chute. You start with a sustained climb with some rocky steps that then levels out and has you gliding across the top of an undulating ridge that drains you into more sweeping turns.
Turn it up a notch at Blowing Springs
Blowing Springs has about nine miles of trail that you can reach from Slaughter Pen, which can make for a big day if you connect them. These trails are geared more for the seasoned rider and include plenty of contour that rolls atop rock shelves, but you’re going to climb across that and some sketchy sections of roots and rocks to get there. You’re also going to negotiate some very tight switchbacks, pop some step ups, hug rock walls jutting 15 or more feet above your head, and face some exposure that will have you squealing with delight… or perhaps for your life.
There is plenty of flow at Blowing Springs to go along with what seems like constant elevation change, but if your idea of fun is threading the needle between two rock walls while negotiating a cascade of limestone crumbling beneath your tires, you got that, too. You’ll also find plenty of trail that twists through tight trees followed by bigger drops that will challenge your landing skills.
I’ve ridden Blowing Springs on my singlespeed and full suspension bike; both styles are appropriate and fun. Dave Neal, owner of Mojo Cycling, area trail builder, great rider, all-around knowledge master and super cool cat, recommends knee pads and full-face helmets in case you find yourself sliding across the highly-abrasive rock bed that makes up much of Blowing Springs. I opted for the more traditional, but somehow have grown fond of the scars etched on my legs that map more than 20 years of trail adventures (and pads are just damn hot in the summer, where temps in Arkansas can approach 100 degrees). Dave ain’t no dummy so pay his words some heed. The falls here will tear flesh from your bones the way a Bonobo opens a banana. On a personal note, I can attest. A recent trip found me sliced to bloody ribbons after I went over the bars and made contact with the ground.
Next stop: Mt. Kessler
There are many places for you to ride outside of Bentonville. Many. One, just 30 minutes down the road near Fayetteville and recommended by anyone who has ridden there is Mt. Kessler. This is all about rocks, roots, and testing your skill.
There’s no way around it: you’re going to climb at Mt. Kessler. And more than you think for a Midwestern trail. At Rock City you’ll scrape your bars (or walk) as you carve through narrow crevices between 20-foot-tall rocks. You’ll fight the urge to walk over, down, and around crazy chunky sections of sharp flint that take some top-notch handling to negotiate, but then your reward will be brilliant views of the valley below.
There are climbs that crisscross the contour and have you bumping up and over rocks, roots and through switchbacks that seem perfectly cut to test your technical skills. You’ll turn up, then turn up some more as you work for your supper, eventually finding relief as you crest Crazy Mary, which flows under a huge Ozark canopy. It quickly turns onto Egg Beater and Serpentine for a long, bumpy ride back down to the trailhead near 201. If you drive down from Bentonville on 265, you’ll hit 201 outside of Fayetteville. It’s a gravel road you follow for about a mile before running into the trailhead on the right of the road. Of course, you can go in from the trailhead in Fayetteville proper, but you’ll find yourself facing more traffic and congestion on the weekends.
My recommendation is to not miss Mt. Kessler. It’s a challenge that will test your skills in a variety of ways–not the least of which is help you understand how bad an idea it was to stop working out as much.
Is that all you got?
Okay, so that’s just three trails in the Bentonville vicinity. You aren’t that far from Hobbs State Park, Lake Atatlanta, Devil’s Den, Lake Leatherwood and the Upper Buffalo Trail System. Enough butt whipping to take you more than a few days to enjoy. And, as Dave likes to point out jokingly (but serious at the same time), “there’s going to be more trail to ride every time you come back.” One such section currently under construction will amount to an additional 35 miles of very well-designed singletrack that is just a hop, skip, and a jump down the road from Bentonville in the town of Bella Vista. That will be completed by the time the IMBA summit rolls around this fall. Yes, a few months go by and they carve out dozens of miles of trail. Talk about serious…
Of course, if you tire of singletrack, you’ll find a new, $2.2 million dirt jump park in Rogers (near Lake Atatlanta trails). There’s also a trials course and dirt jump park in the heart of Slaughter Pen, with enough obstacles to snap your arm like dry kindling.
There may not be purple mountains majesty in Arkansas and, honestly, I think you’ll find that these trails don’t truly rival the huge sweeping vistas and big days you get in the mountains. But there’s plenty to love in the Ozarks and a town like Bentonville. Tons to see and do, ribbons of singletrack that will keep you excited and tired, and, naturally, good beer. And food. And art. And…
Welcome to the new epic. Or as the locals call it, Bentonville.