Lift-Served Downhill Trails with 1,300 Feet of Vert Are Coming to Arkansas

The one gap in Arkansas MTB trail offerings is lift-served downhill trails. That's all about to change thanks to the Trails at Mena project.
Riding a Monument Trail in Devil’s Den State Park. Photo by Jared Sorrells for GH Studios. © Garrett Hubbard 2021. All images licensed by and courtesy of Arkansas State Parks.

Thanks to the mountain biking trail boom in Arkansas, it seems like no matter your preferred flavor of mountain bike ride, you can find it in the Natural State. That is, unless you want true lift-served downhill mountain biking.

A coalition of partners aims to rectify this lack of lift-served downhill riding with an ambitious new trail proposal known as “Trails at Mena.” The proposal calls for a massive trail development between the town of Mena, Arkansas, and Queen Wilhelmina State Park. Mena was identified as a prime location for lift-served riding thanks to the dramatic terrain found in the Ouachita Mountains. While the terrain in Bentonville consists of low rolling hills and hollows, the towering forested ridges of the Ouachitas are reminiscent of the rugged Appalachian Mountains. Queen Wilhelmina State Park rests atop the second tallest mountain in the state, Rich Mountain, which rises to 2,681 feet above sea level. The town of Mena lies at 1,171 feet, and it is anticipated that the maximum vertical drop for a single downhill run will be as much as 1,300 vertical feet. That’s not just respectable, but it’s comparable to many bike parks in the Rocky Mountains.

Overlooking the Ouachita Mountains.

Between the town of Mena and Queen Wilhelmina State Park is a massive swatch of the Ouachita National Forest. This patchwork of land ownership means that almost every group in the region is involved in the Trails at Mena project: Arkansas State Parks, the Arkansas Parks and Recreation Foundation, the U.S. Forest Service, and the City of Mena. While this means that the trail project has many stakeholders that need to be consulted, having all of these groups on the same page and pushing for this trail development means that this ambitious project has an extremely good chance of succeeding.

Exactly how ambitious is this project? The scope of the NEPA study currently taking place covers a staggering 8,832-acre tract of the Ouachita National Forest and calls for the construction of up to 100 miles of new trail. That 100 miles includes roughly 30 gravity-specific trails with ~1,300 vertical feet of descending, 15-20 backcountry trail loops, a “backyard” trail system accessible from downtown Mena, and family/beginner-friendly trail opportunities throughout that entire network. The NEPA study also covers the development of “a Base Portal for arrival and guest services,” improvements to highway infrastructure, the installation of chairlifts, and the creation of supporting infrastructure and other non-trail-based recreation opportunities. Think campgrounds, picnic areas, and the like.

For an interactive ArcGIS map, visit this site and scroll down.

When I reviewed the published maps, I noted that the region is subdivided into four different zones and that there are five different potential chairlift lines noted on the map. Not one, but five! To help better understand the scale of the project, I spoke with Shea Lewis, Director of Arkansas State Parks and Secretary of the Arkansas Department of Parks, Heritage, and Tourism.

According to Lewis, “the initial documentation is very conceptual. We haven’t really gotten to the design phase just yet.” So while the map shows five potential chairlifts, it is currently unclear how many of these lifts will be constructed. It’s possible that just one lift will be constructed, or if demand is high, perhaps more than one will be built. Lewis said that construction will follow a phased approach depending on usage levels and popularity. It’s entirely possible that if the early phases see heavy use, the trail system could be expanded to meet the increased demand. It’s also likely that the first downhill trails will be constructed before a chairlift is in place and will initially be served by a shuttle system, thanks to a paved road that already climbs the mountain ridge to Queen Wilhelmina State Park.

Even though the original proposal was published in 2022, the USFS NEPA process is still ongoing. Original timelines called for the NEPA process to be complete by this point, but Lewis is hesitant to give a firm deadline for the conclusion of the study. However, they’re getting close—the coalition of land management agencies is currently in the finalization stages for the draft environmental assessment, and Lewis hopes that they’ll have more concrete information to share regarding the timeline in a few months. Since he couldn’t provide an estimate on when the environmental assessment would be complete, putting a date on the calendar for when the first downhill trails will be built is next to impossible. The scale of this project is massive, and that means that the Trails at Mena will be far from an overnight success story.

The ultimate vision of lift-served downhill trails in the Ouachitas is definitely worth the wait. Once completed, the Trails at Mena could provide a true 12-month-per-year downhill bike park. “The winter is one of the best times for bikers to come to visit when it’s cold out West or up North,” said Lewis. “These trails will be perfect to ride in December, January, February, in Arkansas.” Indeed, it’s easy to envision Mena as not just a draw for amateur riders but a mid-winter training ground for professional-level downhill racers in North America. 

Devil’s Den State Park Monument Trails. Photo by Jared Sorrells for GH Studios. © Garrett Hubbard 2021

Presently, there are very few mid-winter downhill destinations in North America. Aaron Gwin recently bought the current hotspot: Windrock Bike Park in Tennessee. However, Windrock is served by shuttle vehicles, which is a totally different vibe than a true lift-served bike park. Spider Mountain in Texas does offer mid-winter bike park riding served by a chairlift, but with just 350 feet of vert, it can’t offer the sustained runs that pros need to train on. It’s safe to say that when the lifts and trails are eventually finished in Mena, this destination will be in a league of its own.

While the grandiose vision for this project is still a long way off, crews are already building some of the first singletrack in the Trails at Mena project in the Ward Lake zone on city land at the bottom of the mountain. At the top of the mountain, the State Park is preparing to break ground on new trails as well. “Our goal is where the lodge is, to have some entry-level green trails to create that experience for anybody to ride up there as the rest of this kind of develops,” said Lewis. While we’ll have to wait for the fabled downhill trails, locals and visitors alike will still have some brand-new cross country trails to enjoy.