If you’ve paid any attention to mountain biking news in the past couple of years, chances are you’ve heard there’s mountain biking in Arkansas. All the press is well deserved, too. Bentonville, a small town in Northwest Arkansas, has been building world-class trails expeditiously in part thanks to a $13 million gift from the Walton Foundation. After all, Bentonville is home to Walmart. The result? Critical acclaim for the entire region and a revitalized local mountain bike scene.
And although Arkansas has mastered the art of the urban mountain bike trail system, that doesn’t mean it’s a slouch in the backcountry. In reality, the state has some of the most stunning and secluded scenery in the Mid-South. To preserve the sublime countryside, much of this recreational playground is managed as the Ouachita and Ozark National Forests.
Located in the central and northern parts of Arkansas and into Oklahoma, Ouachita and Ozark National Forests make up the heart of the state’s protected land. But the legal designation isn’t the area’s only protector. Bisecting their namesake National Forests east to west, the rugged Ouachita and Ozark mountains bar contact from the outside world. As a result, visitors are immersed in a wonderful land of hidden coves, unrestrained streams, primitive trails, and dramatic mountain slopes.
Furthermore, the wilderness vibe isn’t the only thing that makes the Forests great for mountain biking. Riders can actually choose the type of mountains they want to play in thanks to the two chains’ different personalities. The Ouachita’s high, accessible, and unending ridges are similar to those of Virginia’s George Washington and Jefferson National Forests, promising big descents for those willing to take them on. On the other hand, the Ozarks remain a dense tangle of lonely peaks where riders can pedal all day and not see another soul. Here, shorter, steeper climbs and descents that will push riders’ limits are par for the course. In a nutshell, these areas are a paradise for all types of mountain bikers.
Whichever region suits you best, here’s a guide to making the most of your stay so you can see the Natural State at its most natural.
10 of the best mountain bike trails in Ozark and Ouachita National Forests
On the eastern border of the Ozark National Forest, Syllamo is a medium-sized trail system, with low-lying — but physically-demanding — terrain that’s typical of the Ozark foothills. It is a perfect introduction into mountain biking the mountains of Arkansas. Accordingly, this IMBA Epic isn’t just a place for jump-boosting, trials-skills-wielding experts. Beginners should try the undeniable flow of the Bad Branch Loop to get a good taste of real mountain biking while more advanced riders can treat themselves to technical obstacles and “The Stairway to Heaven” on the Scrappy Mountain Loop.
Beautiful trail and very worth the drive from about anywhere. – Dave Simonelli
This trail is fantastic! great tech sections and climbs that will challenge the best riders. Great views and lots of amazing limestone features. – AKArky
Upper Buffalo Headwaters
Wilderness tends to be fairly elusive in the Eastern United States. That said, it’s pretty easy to come by in the highest reaches of the Ozarks. Crystal clear streams, expansive mountain views, and picturesque wooded slopes set the tone for this secluded spot. But the views aren’t the area’s only draw because an astoundingly diverse set of trails — the Upper Buffalo Headwaters system — form a web of singletrack under the canopy. These trails have it all: machine-cut flow, old-school gnar, steep runs, and easy-going pedals. All you need is a full day and a sense of adventure.
Overall – this is an amazing trail system that is well maintained and full of sheer 2-wheeled joy to experience. It’s also a true backcountry trail – T-ROF
Eagle Rock Loop
I’ll be the first to admit that I can get tunnel vision while chasing big views. In reality, nature’s beauty can be found anywhere. Look at any prospering tree, rushing river, or tiny insect roaming the ground for evidence. Luckily, riders can easily get back in touch with nature’s small details on the Eagle Rock Loop. Whether you’re fording the (intermittently) tranquil waters of the Little Missouri River or soaking in a waterfall, you’ll have plenty of opportunities to (literally) soak it all in. The singletrack happens to be great, too.
Lake Ouachita Vista Trail
Not looking to bust your gut in the high mountains? The 40-mile Lake Ouachita Vista Trail (LOViT) will be happy to oblige with both beautiful lakeshore scenes and awesome ridgetop vistas encompassing the lake and the Ouachita Mountains. As for the trail type, take your pick. Why? This IMBA Epic showcases varying levels of fast and flowy and loose and technical that leaves riders wanting even more.
Great trail! Rode from Brady Mtn TH to Blakely Mtn Dam and back – 15 miles and 2000′ of climbing…. will be back to ride more of the LOViT soon! – pnieren
Yet another IMBA Epic located in Arkansas, Womble promises a good day on the bike for anybody willing to attempt the 35-mile route in one shot. Expect loose but flowing trail interrupted by the occasional hard-pack section, a healthy dose of exposed descents punctuated by beginner-friendly rock gardens, and a couple of stream crossings to get the juices flowing. In addition, stay on the lookout for massive crystals that can protrude from the landscape. Who knows, maybe you’ll strike it rich!
Absolutely epic…. This is a must ride for every MTB’er. – Ben Stolinski
A classic! one of the original IMBA epics. It is one of my favorites trails and I have spent lots of time all over the US. – AKArky
The Ouachita Trail
For those who are searching for the challenge of a lifetime, look no further than the Ouachita Trail. This brutal point-to-point bikepacking route which features 137 miles of trail and more than 16,000 feet of climbing provides a long-distance backcountry feel seldom seen in the East. This means riders must be self-reliant. This trail is nowhere near smooth, either. Travelers can expect many sections to be extended hike-a-bikes up grades most would refuse to walk. The reward? Striking mountaintop trails and bombing descents among bubbling brooks, postcard views, and teeming forests.
If an arduous bikepacking trip doesn’t sound fun, the Ouachita Trail can be tackled through a vareity of day trips to suit every skill and style. For example, those looking for big climbs and descents should try out the long, exhilarating, and rock slide-ridden Foran Gap Segment. The Iron Forks Scenic Area Segment offers a more eclectic mix of riding, with everything from undulating terrain and creek crossings to steep runs and rock gardens.
This is a “put on your big boy pants” kind of ride. If you want a true backcountry bike experience this is it…. This trail is raw, If you don’t like trails that are covered in leafs and animal sh!t you better stay in the park. – AKArky
Horsethief Springs Trail
Although most of Ouachita National Forest is in Arkansas, a small tract on Winding Stair Mountain extends into Oklahoma. And because the mountain abruptly gives way to the plains in the west, this little tract has some big riding. On the Horsethief Springs Trail, you’ll encounter almost 1,300 vertical feet of the most exciting riding in the Forests. From the top, loose rocks and webs of roots complement steep grades to test even the best rider’s abilities. The trail then opens up into a high-speed run before meeting Cedar Lake. Cracking open a beer and going for a swim, riders can finally finish the day the right way.
If you think you can ride, I mean really RIDE, then you need to try riding here. This place will humiliate you! – bdbrashier
Bohannon Creek Trail
If Horsethief Springs seems like a little too much, the Bohannon Creek Trail, also located on Winding Stair Mountain, might be a better fit. Essentially, Bohannon Creek dilutes the technical aspects of Horsethief while ramping up the steepness. The result is dangerously fast trail and exhilarating singletrack bliss as you let your brake pads do the work.
At the very western fringe of the Forest, the Boardstand Loop pairs a variety of the region’s best topography with compelling history. In fact, you’ll follow the footsteps of 19th century settlers and soldiers on the Old Military Road Trail. When you’re not reliving history, you’ll be shredding Bohannon Creek Trail or undulating through the Boardstand Trail’s pristine pines.
Moving on to the other side of Winding Stair Mountain, the Earthquake Ridge trail system contrasts deeply with the area’s epic all-day rides. Indeed, its compact, beginner-friendly singletrack is a great place for a novice to learn the ropes or for a warm up before hitting the area’s more challenging rides. In short, whip out the ol’ hardtail, shift into the big ring, and prepare to ride at “mach chicken.”
This network is a nice Gem in Mena. I would be out here, pretty much everyday. Earthquake Ridge is just one of the trails. – GTXC4
Notable events in Ozark and Ouachita National Forests
The Ellsworth O’Rock Epic Enduro
This EWS qualifier event brings big names to Winding Stair Mountain in Oklahoma for a good reason. Technical trails, a lot of descending (8,000 feet in 2018), challenging transfers, and an unbeatable atmosphere all make this race one for the books. The experience isn’t only for experts, either. The O’Rock is open to everybody from pros to amateurs, so you won’t have to stay on the sidelines. Good luck!
The 5 best off-the-bike activities in Ozark and Ouachita National Forests
Visit Hot Springs National Park
Hots Springs National Park is probably the best spot for post-ride relaxing thanks to its healing thermal waters. Even staying one day will refresh you and leave you eager to enjoy another long day in the mountains. After stretching your legs with a stroll by the bathhouses or a small hike, head to the Buckstaff Bathhouse for a traditional spa experience. Your sore spots and ailments fade into memory as you soak in the waters.
Hike the Upper Buffalo Wilderness
Because of the rugged gorges, transparent creeks, and abundant wildlife, hikers feel like they’re the first people to set foot in the trail-less paradise of the Upper Buffalo Wilderness. If you’re saddle sore but still want to be immersed in nature, this wild place is hard to beat.
Float the Buffalo River
Is your lower-body a absolute mess? Travelers who find themselves near the Buffalo National River in late spring and early summer can float scenic sections of water and let their upper-body take over. Just sit back and relax as the current whisks you past enormous bluffs, towering waterfalls, and formidable peaks.
Since river levels can fluctuate with weather patterns, check out the current river levels here. Additionally, floats can be booked with the Buffalo Outdoor Center if you don’t have gear or didn’t bring it.
Backpack the Ozark Highlands National Recreation Trail
There are few experiences more fulfilling than carrying your life on your back, and the Ozarks are one of the the best places to do it in the Central United States. The Ozark Highlands NRT traverses 165 miles of unspoiled mountain landscape from the Buffalo River to Lake Fort Smith. Along the way, the beauty is accompanied by a variety of geological features and historical sites, making this experience one of the most enriching in the Ozarks.
Go Rock Climbing
I can still remember Climbing Magazine’s depiction of the Central States: cars driving through them to get to the Rockies or the Appalachians. The mountains in Arkansas prove that misconception dead wrong. For example, the exceptional sandstone climbing at crags like Sam’s Throne and Horseshoe Canyon Ranch have accumulated praise from climbers around the country. The state’s backwoods climbing isn’t too shabby, either; all you need is the gear and a healthly wanderlust.
5 of the best campgrounds in Ozark and Ouachita National Forests
Blanchard Springs Campground
Blanchard Springs Campground is a gem for the Renaissance outdoorsman. In addition to being located beside the bike trails at Syllamo, campers can enjoy spelunking in nearby caves, swimming in Sylamore Creek, and fishing in Mirror Lake. Can’t get away from the kids? The campground’s cottages, which house live demonstrations of old-time trades like blacksmithing and knife-making, will keep them busy while you soak up some solitude.
Haw Creek Falls Recreation Area
If a remote campsite is more your speed, it’s hard to go wrong with Haw Creek Falls Recreation Area. It’s not even crowded; in fact, only 9 primitive campsites make up the lot, so your views of the surrounding forest won’t be ruined by a coffee grinder or people continuously vacating and arriving at sites. Couple that with Haw Creek Falls, a tumbling cascade of water visible from camp with rock walls that also make for some good climbing, and you have the perfect recipe for a relaxing stay in the woods.
Bard Springs Campground
In the southern portion of Ouachita National Forest, Bard Springs Campground provides a good base camp for tackling the trails in the area. A surprising lack of popularity has kept this rustic spot a quiet retreat situated by a clear-running stream instead of the often frustrating well-trodden alternative.
Winding Stair Campground
Few campgrounds rival Winding Stair Campground. Most campgrounds are established in valleys, where predictable conditions and easy access make “recreational sleeping” a no-brainer. Winding Stair, however, stands tall on the top of its namesake mountain, and many of its spots reflect that. The gnarly trails of Oklahoma’s Ouachita mountains also happen to surround it, so it’s ideal for a mountain bike getaway.
Sometimes driving miles down a dirt road to a campsite isn’t worth it if you just need a place to sleep or are planning big day trips. At the South Fourche Campground, you can enjoy the beauty of the Ouachitas just off the main road. Nearby scenic hikes and a canoe launch ramp make the area ripe for exploring off the bike, too.
Bike shops in and around Ozark and Ouachita National Forests
Parkside Cycle in Hot Springs makes for a great stop between the Forests if a bike is in disrepair. To add to that, their expansive inventory of accessories makes it easy to efficiently pick up extra items if needed.
Another easy traveling stop, Champion Cycling is dedicated to getting you back on the trail as fast as possible. Like Parkside Cycle, their impressive lineup of parts and accessories ensures that riders won’t be left in the dust. When you don’t want to work on your bike yourself, their thorough service department can save the day. And if your bike’s really trashed, their wide selection of brands might just include the bike of your dreams.
Mountain Home Bicycle Company
Bike shops aren’t very common in North-Central Arkansas. Luckily, Mountain Home Bicycle Company is available and willing to help. Their knowledgeable mechanics and staff will get your bike back in working order and on the right trail so you can get the most out your vacation to the Ozarks.
Your turn: Are their any MTB rides or events in the Ouachita and Ozark National Forests we missed? Share them in the comments below!