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Adventure, Cycle / May 28, 2017

Middle America has its first great MTB town

Written by: Matt Minich

Almost no one expected Bentonville, Arkansas to become mountain biking’s next big thing.

The sleepy town of 50,000 is far from the sport’s usual mainstays (think Vancouver, Crested Butte, or Moab), both culturally and geographically. Among those people who have heard of Bentonville at all, it’s famous only as the corporate headquarters for Walmart.

But over the past decade, the community has quietly developed some of the best bike infrastructure in the central United States. Bentonville is now surrounded by almost 100 miles of soft-surface bike trails, and many of those can be accessed by a paved urban trail network. The town has placed bikes and bike culture at the fore of its planning process—and people are starting to notice.

“It’s been amazing watching it grow around here.” said Lindsay Custer, president of the local trail maintenance organization FAST Trails. “The growth here has been crazy. Now you can go in any direction—there’s trail everywhere. I haven’t even done all of the new trail in Northwest Arkansas.”

Photos by Carl Zoch.

Trails for everyone, all the time

Bentonville is surrounded by the wooded foothills of the Ozark mountains, and that terrain provides something for riders of all styles and abilities.

“Our terrain changes considerably between different areas,” said Custer. “We’ve got something for everyone.”

The town’s oldest trail system, called Slaughter Pen, is scattered around town in three independent sections. The system contains 23 miles of trail, but most of those trails are less than a mile long. That makes it a tight, flowy trail system with high berms and wide turns—perfect for intermediate riders who want to run a few laps before or after work. It’s also popular among trick and BMX riders for its jump lines and wooden features.

(No one interviewed for this piece could remember how this trail system got its name. When asked, all stressed its relative safety).

Those seeking longer rides generally head north of town to the Back 40: a 40-mile system that stretches all the way to the Missouri Border. The trails there are longer and wilder, if not overly technical. Most include sustained climbs and offer scenic vistas and smooth, fast downhill travel as a reward.

Technical riders will get their own area later this summer, when the Coler Mountain Bike Preserve fully opens. Located on the northwest side of town, this area is designed especially for full-suspension downhillers. Expect jump lines, rock drops, and other features of black diamond and double-diamond trails.

Northwest Arkansas’ older, more established mountain bike destinations can be found just outside of town. Devil’s Den State Park (the birthplace of Arkansas mountain biking) is just one hour’s drive to the south, and the world-renowned Upper Buffalo trails are two hours to the east.

And there’s the weather. When many other bike towns convert to ski destinations, Bentonville’s trails look like this:

 

“You can ride here 365 days out of the year,” said Visit Bentonville President Kalene Griffith.  “Our winters are very mild. Our springs and summers are beautiful.”

The town’s knobby-trail offerings are supplemented by an extensive urban paved trail system, which connects residential and commercial districts to mountain bike trailheads. A 36-mile paved trail called the Razorback Greenway connects Bentonville to nearby Fayetteville.

 

The Walton element

Like most of Bentonville, this bike renaissance was built around the Walmart cornerstone. The Walton Family Foundation (WFF) donated the Slaughter Pen trail system in 2006, and has now spent more $59 million to help develop local trails.

“[Trails were] seen as a way to protect natural assets and to preserve public access to those assets,” said Karen Minkel, who directs the WFF’s Home Region Program.

They also serve a recruiting tool—part of the Walton family’s larger efforts to make Walmart’s corporate headquarters more appealing to potential new hires. And they’re working.

“It’s validating for the people who live here, but it also attracts interest. More and more we hear anecdotes from people who are moving here just because they like the quality of life,” Minkel said.

The Walton family’s philanthropy is a sort of institution in Bentonville. Alice Walton almost single-handedly launched the town’s art scene in 2002 by founding the sprawling Crystal Bridges Museum, and the WFF was a title sponsor of the International Mountain Biking Association’s 2016 World Summit in Bentonville.

The 36-mile Razorback Greenway connects Bentonville to nearby Fayetteville. Photo courtesy Visit Arkansas.

Built in 2002, the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art is at the center of Bentonville's cultural scene. Photo courtesy Visit Arkansas.

An economy of bikes

The energy of Bentonville’s ballooning bike scene is not just felt on its trails—local businesses have tapped in as well. Craft breweries and gastropubs have cropped up alongside the Greenway, and three new bike shops have opened in town in the last ten years (prior to 2007, there were none).

“We’ll have people starting and finishing rides from just out of our parking lot,” said Chris Dillard, owner of Highroller Cyclery. “It’s just advantageous because people can grab a bite along the Greenway and then get right back on in seconds.”

Local hoteliers have reported bike-minded visitors from as far as Colorado and Minnesota, and many hotels now offer outdoor bike washing stations and bike lockers. Some even loan out bikes to their guests free of charge.

“[Bentonville has] a lot of big city amenities,” said travel writer Jill Rohrbach, who has covered Bentonville’s growth. “It has a small-town feel, but big city amenities.”

 

If you go:

Fly: Into the Northwest Arkansas Regional Airport. It’s just 20 minutes from downtown Bentonville, and flights there are often even cheaper than flights into Little Rock.

Stay: At Bentonville’s 21C Museum Hotel. The chic hotel is bike friendly and within walking distance from Crystal Bridges and several bike trails.

Gear up: At either Phat Tire Bike Shop or Highroller Cyclery. Both shops rent out mountain bikes.

Eat/Drink: At Peddler’s Pub. Probably the most bike-friendly place in town. Swing by after a day of riding for a pitcher and a wood-fired pizza.

Ride: Anywhere. We’re particularly fond of the Downhill Flow Trail in Slaughter Pen. For more photos and videos of Bentonville’s MTB trails, visit oztrailsnwa.com.

Do you have questions or comments about this piece? Email them to [email protected]

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about the author

Matt Minich

Matt Minich is Editorial Director for Shoulders of Giants. He has spent more than a decade writing, editing, and curating content about outdoor sports and adventure. As an adventure journalist he has climbed peaks in Patagonia, rappelled waterfalls in Colorado, B.A.S.E. jumped in Moab, and sampled fermented horse milk in Kyrgyzstan.

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