The towns that anchor mountain bike destinations are often just hubs for adventures—a grid with bike shops, brewpubs, and coffee shops between mountains with trails a short drive nearby.
While the concept of a mountain bike-driven economy is relatively new, the benefits of having a trail network that can be ridden from town square are undeniable. And though Bentonville, Arkansas didn’t necessarily intend to grow their singletrack this way, the Slaughter Pen trails were the first ones to grow around the homey Midwestern town and ultimately put it on the map.
But, before mountain bikers zipped up and down the hardpack singletrack and flowy trails in the Slaughter Pen network, much of the land held cattle.
“It just don’t look like it use to,” Gene Lovell, one previous slaughterhouse owner told the Northwest Arkansas Democrat Gazette in 2017. The area held six slaughter pens and became known as Slaughter Pen Holler by the 1940s. Gene took over the family business in the 1950s and some of the pens began to close in the 1970s when regulations around animal waste formed. The Lovell pen had a strong run, and was the last to close. The land’s history lives on in the network’s name.
“That little slaughter pen that dad and I had on Park Street there, we fed the whole north end of town,” he said.
The Trailblazers, Northwest Arkansas’ trail advocacy, procurement, and management group bought the property at some point around 2002, initially to bridge a paved path between Bella Vista and Bentonville. The land was one unfortunately shaped piece of the puzzle to make the path a reality. The Trailblazers didn’t need the entire parcel for the path, but that’s how it was sold. The land surrounding the path held the potential to change Bentonville’s future though.
“Once that was purchased that left all the wooded hillside of phase one available for soft surface trails,” said Erin Rushing, the CEO of the Trailblazers. “That’s when Tom [Walton] had the vision to make Bentonville a mountain bike destination.”
According to Rushing, this vision was inspired by Walton’s visits to other mountain bike destinations and he believed Bentonville had the community and the land to build something special.
Phase one, the installation of five miles of trail in the northern part of the park in 2007 was led by the Trailblazers and funded by the Walton Family Foundation.
At this point, Rushing remembers a slow and quiet downtown mountain bikers were just discovering. Only a few buildings had employees. If Rushing left work after 6 p.m., he was usually the only car in the lot.
The phase two expansion happened in 2010 and in 2012 and Slaughter Pen connected with downtown in 2013, signaling a watershed moment for Bentonville.
“And then it really clicked,” said Rushing. “You could ride in an out of the downtown square. There’s food, there’s beverage. So it started to work a lot better once it was connected to downtown. It got a lot more use once it was connected.”
By 2013, the Slaughter Pen network had evolved and grown into roughly 15 miles of singletrack and other trail networks in Northwest Arkansas grew in tandem. In 2016, Bentonville was chosen for the IMBA World Summit, which was “the turning point that made it a tourist destination,” said Rushing. After the Summit, tourists poured in. It’s estimated that 75% of mountain bikers are from out of town now.
Rushing calls the beginner-rated All-American trail which runs along the Razorback Greenway the “spine” of the system and its most popular trail. Most people who ride Slaughter Pen will end up on All-American at some point, whether it’s the hallmark of someone’s ride or just a way to connect other singletrack.
The Trailblazers have found that over time, the green trails are vital to the network’s success too. In 2018 after reviewing the system, they realized they needed more green trails to balance out the variety. With the majority being blue or black-rated trails, the system first catered to more advanced riders. Rushing calls the backfilling of green-rated trails one of the smartest things they have done in Slaughter Pen.
At around 30 miles, the Slaughter Pen trails likely won’t see many more additions. The property has slowly been turned over to the City of Bentonville with most of the land from the greenway and phase one donated to the City in 2008. City workers conduct light maintenance on the trails like weed eating or landscaping and the Trailblazers handle more trail-specific tasks like drainage or tread work with its pool of volunteers.
Bentonville’s investment into its trail network and city seem to have worked. In 2006, according to KNWA, the tourism budget was around $650,000. In 2020, the department had a budget of $2.8 million. Visit Bentonville estimates about one million tourists visit the area every year. In 2018, the U.S. Census Bureau reported Bentonville as the fifth fastest-growing city in the country adding about 10 residents per day, though the Northwest Arkansas Council credits much of the growth to Wal-Mart’s expansion.
The Trailblazers believe Slaughter Pen will only get better though and the connectivity is unbeatable. By paved paths or bike lane connections riders can make their way from downtown Bentonville to Slaughter Pen, to the Coler Preserve, the newly unveiled Handcut Hollow, or travel north to the Little Sugar and Back 40 trails.
“Slaughter Pen is the glue that holds it all together,” said Rushing.