Bentonville, Arkansas: A Worthy Capital?

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By Tom Jow — Enter a search for “Bentonville mountain biking” and you will find the statement “Mountain Biking Capital of the World”. For those of us in the Mountain West, it seems a bold statement from a locale where the highest elevation is around 1,300 feet above sea level. Therefore, what reason could they have for this title? Could it be, according to the Trailforks app, the presence of 342 mountain bike trails, not including neighboring Bella Vista, Fayetteville, or Eureka Springs? Or maybe it has something to do with the additional twenty-six interconnected paved city trails not including the Razorback Greenway which stretches more than thirty miles from Bella Vista in the north to Fayetteville to the south? In April of this year, I went to visit a friend that lives in the area. This is what I found out.

After arriving at Northwest Arkansas Regional Airport the day before, the first area my friend took us to was the Coler Mountain Bike preserve. Completed in 2020, this area contains seventeen miles of trails for riders of all skill levels. On the east side of the preserve, “The Hub” features several trails departing in many directions, much like the spokes of a wheel (hence the name). This area features smooth, fast flow lines with perfectly sculpted and maintained jumps, berms. For those that like it rough, the Rock Solid, Rock Soft and Rock Salad trails include man made rock gardens, jumps and natural tech features. Once at the bottom, five of the six trails use the low angle Pedal Assist trail to return to the top. After a few laps here we headed to the westside trails. One of the few natural trails in the preserve, “Here’s Johnny”, is a narrow single track with several natural technical rock features and minor exposure. After that, we went to a real fun feature of the preserve, the half mile “ThunderDome” dual slalom track. Race your friends. This was so fun we had to do a few laps. On the last lap we made a bet that the winner gets a free lunch. Guess who paid?

Masterpiece Bridge, rideable art number 13. Bentonville Mountain Biking. Photo by Tom Jow

Nestled inside the preserve, the Airship Coffee Shop serves tasty sandwiches, pastries, coffee, and beer. Besides having delicious food, the shop is only accessible by human power. After lunch we rode perfectly paved bike paths and more manicured flow trails to the Slaughter Pen trail network. Along the way we crossed the Masterpiece Bridge, one of sixteen pieces of rideable art in Bentonville. Another work of art (though not one of the sixteen) was our destination; the Castle Hub. This mass of stonework, metal and wood is the starting point of seven distinct downhill trails; three green, two blue and two black. The green trails have well-made berms and jumps. The blue trails are similar, except with bigger jumps. The black trails have even bigger jumps. One of the black trails, Dragon Scales, is a tech flow trail (meaning it has rocks in addition to jumps). The other, Loam Wolf, descends on rough single track through tight trees with natural obstacles. All the downhill runs are short, between a quarter and half mile long. The return trail to the top is about a half mile. Because of this, it is easy to ride multiple laps in order to see which is the favorite. It’s also a great way to work on skills and progress to more difficult terrain. One drawback to the town trails is that being inside the city limits, they tend to be very busy.

The Castle Hub, Slaughter Pen trails. Bentonville Mountain Biking. Photo by Tom Jow

The following day we headed out to Eureka Springs, home of the Great Passion Play theater performance and the sixty-seven-foot-tall Christ of the Ozarks statue. The trails at Passion Play are all built in a more natural style, there was not a single high berm in sight. A funny feature of the network are the religious names, Genesis, Exodus, and Deliverance for example. The trail’s surface here is of many varieties, kitty litter, square marbles, large rocks and even a little dirt. All levels of rider are welcome. There are not too steep undulating descents for some, and steep rocky tech and drops for others. My favorite here was the Deliverance trail. Halfway down there is a long rocky patch followed by a steep chute with a quick right-left turn, through a “keyhole” in the rock. It’s not too difficult at a moderate speed. However, miss that left into the opening, and it’s head first into a wall of rock. Despite not having high altitude, the thirty or so minute climb to the top requires just as much effort as some of the trails at home in Utah. We rode a few laps before stopping for lunch, and afterwards rode a couple more. It was a lot of fun.

After two days of pedaling, we were ready for some pure downhill riding. We headed back out to Eureka Springs to the Lake Leatherwood Gravity Project. Located at the Topo Motel on Arkansas Highway 62, this area features seven downhill trails and all-day shuttle service for $45. Surrounded by some cross-country trails, the downhill area has seven trails departing from two hubs.

Derrick launches at Leatherwood. Bentonville Mountain Biking. Photo by Tom Jow

Starting with green trail number six, I could tell it was going to be a challenging day. My tires felt like they were sliding all over the place. I felt off balance on the jumps. Good thing the trail was barely a mile long. In just a few minutes we were at the bottom where there was a shuttle waiting for us. Minutes later we were unloading for our next run. Boy that was fast. The next trail, blue level, I was still having a hard time getting into a flow. Were the trails too short? Was I just tired? Certainly, being on these trails for the first time is a factor. Then, while waiting for the shuttle, I read the trail information sign. It was stated that the trail ratings were relative only to the trails at Leatherwood. Thinking about it, the first trail did seem more difficult than most green trails. Maybe that was it. The blue trails were about average, or so they seemed. The black trails were, well…. big. It wasn’t just the drops that were big, but the jumps too. What was unique about some of the jumps at Leatherwood was the level of stone work that went into them. Perfectly shaped six-foot ramps made of stones. While by the end of the day I was feeling comfortable on the bike, I never did tempt any of those big stone ramps.

Need direction in life? Bentonville Mountain Biking. Photo by Tom Jow

After a rest day watching the total solar eclipse, we headed down to Centennial Park in Fayetteville. The weekend before my arrival a US Pro Cup XC Series race had been held there. I wanted to see what the elite race course was like. How close was it to the World Cup courses I had seen on television? Lucky for us, the tape and signage was still in place. The course started at the top of the hill, winding around the plateau before descending into the woods. Jumps, berms, and rock gardens are all part of the course. The “A” line usually contained technical features while the “B” line was smoother and a little bit longer. The trails were wide with plenty of room to pass. Climbs were steep, some with rocky tech sections and some were smooth and fast. The 3.2-mile lap with 373 feet of climbing was fun at a fun ride pace. At race pace a lap (not to mention four) would certainly feel much different.

After the race course, we descended to the west, eventually crossing through some neighborhoods to the Mt. Kessler network. Here we would ride what felt like the longest continual climb of the week (about three miles) piecing together the Fayetteville Traverse, Serpentine, and Trent’s Trail. From there we rode the Crazy Mary trail, the one mile of which looked steeper on Trailforks. Back up to the Fayetteville Traverse, and down the super fun Flight Training downhill trail to the road. After riding back up to the truck, I decided we needed to ride the unridden World Cup 5 trail. Boy, am I glad we did. Fifty yards after entering the trail we encountered a smooth six-foot drop on the “A” line. Can you imagine being at race pace and hitting a six-foot drop with mandatory air not once, but multiple times?

A nice big trailhead shelter with clean bathrooms, shaded tables, and bike workstation. Bentonville Mountain Biking. Photo by Tom Jow

My final day of riding was preceded by an afternoon and evening of light to moderate rain. The Back 40, Little Sugar and Blowing Springs trails surround the city of Bella Vista, where I was staying. After a short pedal we dropped onto the Tunnel Vision trail. This and the other trails in the area wind in, out, around, up and down the forested hills of the area. The trees were just beginning to fill out their foliage and for much of the ride we were in cool shade. The trail surface is mainly small rocks on top of well-draining soil. There were few puddles encountered during our ride. There were also few obstacles encountered, natural or man-made. The trails were cross country fast and fun. No wonder this area made up a large portion of the Big Sugar 100k and Little Sugar 50k race courses in 2023. I was really wishing I had my short travel bike on that day.

So, did Bentonville, Arkansas live up to the title, “Mountain Bike Capital of the World”? After a week of riding, I will say that it is about as close as anyplace is going to get. The city of Bentonville, along with Fayetteville, Bella Vista and Eureka Springs contain an extremely wide variety of trails; something for everyone. Smooth, wide bike paths to ride across town, or to the city next door. Flow trails for every skill level. Natural trails for cross country. A downhill area with a shuttle. A World Cup level cross country race course. The one thing missing is high altitude with climbs that go on for hours. Before naysaying, however, keep in mind that trails are only a part of it. The city is so bikeable. The people are so nice! Rarely if ever a cross word is shared by motorist to cyclist. Go to coffee or lunch and don’t worry that your bikes are not locked. The community is not just supportive of cyclists, but it seems like nearly everyone there IS a cyclist. Don’t believe me? I recommend making a trip to see for yourself.

Try your luck against former President Bush. Bentonville Mountain Biking. Photo by Tom Jow

Getting there

Northwest Arkansas National airport (XNA) in Fayetteville is approximately twenty minutes from Bentonville. Airlines serving the airport are American and Delta Airlines. Flights might be cheaper to Tulsa, Oklahoma but it is a two-hour drive. Other places one might be visiting nearby include Little Rock, AR (3 hours), St. Louis, MO (5 hours), Memphis, TN (5 hours), and Nashville, TN (8 hours).

Fun facts

  • An average of approximately seven miles of trail is built every day.
  • The Flow Feed trail app tracks real time trail soil conditions with in-ground sensors.
  • Northwest Arkansas Community College has degree and certificate programs for both trail building and bicycle technicians.
  • The Ledger Building downtown has exterior ramps in order to ride all the way to your office on any of its six levels.
  • The City of Bentonville has sixteen pieces of rideable art.

Not bike things to do

 

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