BI­CY­CLING BLISS

Re­gion’s soft trails earn na­tional ac­claim

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - FRONT PAGE - STORY BY MELISSA GUTE PHO­TOS BY BEN GOFF

The re­gion’s net­work of moun­tain bik­ing trails is quickly gain­ing a rep­u­ta­tion as one of the coun­try’s best with ac­co­lades in sev­eral mag­a­zines and blogs over the last few years.

A crew of 10 writ­ers, ed­i­tors, pho­tog­ra­phers and videog­ra­phers from bike magazine rode the re­gion’s trails for two weeks last fall to test out the 2017 model moun­tain bikes for its an­nual “Bi­ble of Bike Tests” ar­ti­cle, which acts as a gear and des­ti­na­tion guide. It pub­lished in Jan­uary.

Na­tional Geo­graphic in May named Ben­tonville one of Amer­ica’s 20 Best Moun­tain Bike Towns, al­though the ar­ti­cle notes trails through­out the re­gion. The towns were se­lected for their “buck­etlist

rides, new trail de­vel­op­ment and a va­ri­ety of out­door recre­ation, and a fun, bike-friendly vibe,” ac­cord­ing to its web­site.

Other towns in­cluded well-es­tab­lished moun­tain bik­ing mec­cas like Moab, Utah, and Crested Butte, Colo.

Ben­tonville made Out­side magazine’s list of “The 28 Best Trips of 2016” and again as one of “The 25 Best Towns of 2017,” with its trails cited as a high­light.

The numer­ous, glam­orous re­views reignited Chris Stro­bel’s in­ter­est in moun­tain bik­ing.

“I kept see­ing re­ally good, re­ally, re­ally good re­views. Peo­ple from all

over the world come here, pro rid­ers and ev­ery­thing,” he said July 27 at the Slaugh­ter Pen trail­head. “I thought if they’re do­ing it, it must be good.”

Stro­bel used to moun­tain bike wher­ever he could when he was younger. There weren’t spe­cific trails ded­i­cated to moun­tain bik­ing when he was grow­ing up in Mis­souri, he said.

He bought a $150 bike and hit the trails again a cou­ple of months ago, try­ing out Ben­tonville’s Slaugh­ter Pen, the trails at Hobbs State Park-Con­ser­va­tion Area and Lake Ata­lanta in Rogers as well as oth­ers.

The trails “far, far ex­ceeded” Stro­bel’s ex­pec­ta­tions, so he de­cided to in­vest in a bet­ter qual­ity bike to be able to tackle more tech­ni­cal trails. Moun­tain bik­ing is a car­dio ex­er­cise he can en­joy af­ter work­ing long hours, he said.

NOT JUST THE LO­CALS

A trail sys­tem en­hances the qual­ity of life for those in the com­mu­nity and in­creases prop­erty val­ues and tourism, area of­fi­cials said.

Moun­tain bik­ers, hik­ers, run­ners, dog walk­ers and bird watch­ers use soft-sur­face trails. They en­cour­age peo­ple to get out­doors and recre­ate.

“Moun­tain bik­ers build those trails, but they’re do­ing it for ev­ery­body,” said Bran­non Pack, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of Ozark Off Road Cy­clists, a non­profit or­ga­ni­za­tion started in 1997.

The group has de­vel­oped trail sys­tems across the state, in­clud­ing over­see­ing im­prove­ment to the Lake Fayetteville trail sys­tem, the Mount Kessler trail sys­tem, Lin­coln Lake in Lin­coln and Lake Leather­wood Park in Eureka Springs, among oth­ers.

It’s dif­fi­cult to mea­sure the eco­nomic im­pact of a trail sys­tem to a com­mu­nity, of­fi­cials said. How­ever, the out­door recre­ation econ­omy in Arkansas — which moun­tain bik­ing plays a part of — gen­er­ates 96,000 jobs, $9.7 bil­lion in con­sumer spend­ing, $2.5 bil­lion in wages and $698 mil­lion in state and lo­cal tax rev­enue, ac­cord­ing to Out­door In­dus­try As­so­ci­a­tion’s 2017 Na­tional Recre­ation Econ­omy Re­port.

There were 2,956 trail users at Mount Kessler Re­gional Park from June 13 to July 26, ac­cord­ing to num­bers pro­vided by Matt Mi­hale­vich, Fayetteville trail co­or­di­na­tor.

Ar­madillo’s Last Stand trail at Slaugh­ter Pen saw a monthly av­er­age of 2,642 users from Aug. 18, 2015, to July 26, 2017, ac­cord­ing to num­bers from the Ben­tonville Parks and Recre­ation De­part­ment. Slaugh­ter Pen’s Ur­ban Trail saw about 2,550 users monthly in the same time pe­riod.

There’s no way to know how many of those trail users are lo­cal or from out of town, of­fi­cials said. How­ever, it’s com­mon to see out-of-state li­cense plates at trail­heads.

Erin Rush­ing, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of NWA Trail­blaz­ers, said he re­cently ran into rid­ers from Canada and north­ern Min­nesota on the Back 40 trail in Bella Vista. They chose to spend their va­ca­tions check­ing out the area’s trails.

“Build­ing all th­ese trails, I didn’t see that com­ing,” Rush­ing said of the amount of trail users who come from other places. “In my shal­low mind, I’m think­ing we’re just build­ing th­ese trails for the lo­cals, but now it’s not. It’s for a re­gional draw, even a na­tional draw for peo­ple to come here and bike.”

Rush­ing was a con­sul­tant for the Trail­blaz­ers since the early 2000s un­til he was hired as its ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor in early 2016.

IN THE FORE­FRONT

Moun­tain bik­ing’s start in Arkansas dates back to 1987 when two Devil’s Den State Park em­ploy­ees took a road trip to at­tend the Fat Tire Moun­tain Bik­ing Fes­ti­val in Crested Butte, Colo. They brought back co­pi­ous notes and ad­vo­cated for moun­tain bik­ing to be an ac­cept­able trail use in a time when other states were ban­ning it be­cause of­fi­cials weren’t sure how to han­dle the grow­ing ac­tiv­ity, Pack said.

“Arkansas was re­ally a leader as far as moun­tain bik­ing goes, as far as ac­cess,” he said.

Fos­sil Flats was the trail bik­ers first started to ride in Devil’s Den. It’s still rid­den to­day. The park hosts the Ozark Moun­tain Bik­ing Fes­ti­val, which will cel­e­brate its 30th year in April.

Bik­ers built their own trails with­out per­mis­sion from landown­ers for the next decade, some­thing bik­ing of­fi­cials would not con­done now, Pack said. It was a na­tional trend that also took place lo­cally.

The Ozark Off Road Cy­clists formed in 1997 to be­come the state’s first moun­tain bik­ing ad­vo­cacy group. It’s grown to 500 mem­bers over five branches in 25 per­cent of the state and con­tin­ues to over­see trail build­ing projects.

The Ben­tonville/Bella Vista Trail­blaz­ers As­so­ci­a­tion was es­tab­lished in Ben­ton County around the same time the Ozark Of­froad group was start­ing in Wash­ing­ton County. The group con­structed a paved trail around Bella Vista Lake, which be­came a cat­a­lyst for other paved trail projects, Rush­ing said.

The or­ga­ni­za­tion is now known as NWA Trail­blaz­ers and is a key player in the soft- sur­face trail de­vel­op­ment as well. It spear­headed — along with Tom Wal­ton, grand­son of Wal-Mart founder Sam Wal­ton, and the Wal­ton Fam­ily Foun­da­tion — the de­vel­op­ment of Slaugh­ter Pen Moun­tain Bike Park, which opened in 2005.

The 18-mile trail sys­tem was just the be­gin­ning of soft-sur­face trails in Ben­ton County with more than 50 miles of trails added since.

FIND­ING MO­TI­VA­TION

The re­gion’s and state’s trail sys­tem has grown over time and now in­cludes four In­ter­na­tional Moun­tain Bi­cy­cling As­so­ci­a­tion Epic rides, three cities with Ride Cen­ter des­ig­na­tions and the first re­gional ride cen­ter des­ig­na­tion.

The as­so­ci­a­tion des­ig­nates des­ti­na­tion-wor­thy trail sys­tems as Ride Cen­ters and long, ad­ven­tur­ous back­coun­try trails as Epics.

“We’re the small­est state west of the Mis­sis­sippi. That’s say­ing some­thing,” said Joe Ja­cobs, mar­ket­ing and rev­enue man­ager for Arkansas State Parks.

It was “just all of a sud­den very ob­vi­ous” moun­tain bik­ing was a ma­jor tourist at­trac­tion for the state, he said. Arkansas ranks at the top with Cal­i­for­nia as the states hav­ing the most Epic trails. Right be­hind are Ore­gon, Colorado and Vir­ginia with three each, ac­cord­ing to the as­so­ci­a­tion’s web­site. There are 43 Epic trails in the world.

An ex­plo­sion of soft sur­face trail growth over the past two years was an ef­fort to en­tice IMBA into hold­ing its bi­en­nial world sum­mit in Ben­tonville.

The group hand-se­lects its world sum­mit lo­ca­tions be­cause they need to be “best in class ex­am­ples” of trail ad­vo­cacy, de­sign, con­struc­tion, com­mu­nity en­gage­ment and tourism, said Andy Wil­liamson, di­rec­tor of pro­gram de­vel­op­ment for the as­so­ci­a­tion.

Pre­vi­ous sum­mits were held in Steam­boat Springs, Colo.; Santa Fe, N.M.; Augusta, Ga.; Park City, Utah; and Whistler, Bri­tish Columbia.

Ben­tonville bik­ers had asked the as­so­ci­a­tion to con­sider their city a few years ear­lier, but the trail sys­tem, though good, wasn’t where it needed to be to host the event, or­ga­niz­ers said.

So the Trail­blaz­ers, backed by the Wal­ton Fam­ily Foun­da­tion, went to work and built 40 miles of trail in Bella Vista and the first eight miles of Coler Moun­tain Bike Pre­serve in Ben­tonville within about 10 months in time for sum­mit at­ten­dees to en­joy, Rush­ing said.

The as­so­ci­a­tion no­ticed, Wil­liamson said.

“Boy they went gang­busters,” he said. “They earned it. They made it so we couldn’t say no.”

The de­vel­op­ment of the area’s trails is un­be­liev­able, said Todd Faubus, Ben­tonville res­i­dent.

“When they first started cut­ting in just this first trail right here, I thought that was all they were go­ing to do, and I thought, ‘Man, that’s awe­some,’” he said with a laugh at the top of the free ride park at Slaugh­ter Pen. “To see it where it is now is this sense of pride. It’s just re­ally, re­ally cool.”

Faubus de­scribed the trail sys­tems as “best in class” and some­thing for ev­ery­one and all skill lev­els. He was rid­ing the berms with his 5-year-old son and 9-year-old nephew the hot and hu­mid evening of July 27.

A trail sys­tem is en­hanced by the sup­port­ing ameni­ties — restau­rants, shops and other at­trac­tions — in the com­mu­nity and ac­ces­si­bil­ity to those ameni­ties, which is an at­tribute that makes the re­gion’s trail sys­tem unique, Wil­liamson said.

“You can le­git­i­mately ride from your house, res­tau­rant, ho­tel, brew­ery, bike shop to amaz­ing trails and back and never get in your car,” he said.

GROUP EF­FORT

The key com­po­nent to a qual­ity trail sys­tem, is the col­lab­o­ra­tion be­tween phi­lan­thropists, gov­ern­ment agen­cies, land own­ers and man­agers along with bik­ing or­ga­ni­za­tions and their vol­un­teers, Wil­liamson said. North­west Arkansas does it well, he said.

The Wal­ton Fam­ily Foun­da­tion has in­vested $13 mil­lion into the re­gion’s soft-sur­face trail sys­tem from 2000 to 2016.

“Soft-sur­face trails play an im­por­tant role in our ef­forts to pro­tect green spa­ces across the re­gion,” Karen Minkel, foun­da­tion home re­gion pro­gram di­rec­tor, said in an email state­ment. “Trails al­low us to pre­serve nat­u­ral as­sets and at the same time give hik­ers and moun­tain bik­ers ac­cess to the hid­den beauty of the Ozarks.”

Tom Wal­ton was named Arkansas Tourism Per­son of the Year in 2016 dur­ing the an­nual Gov­er­nor’s Con­fer­ence on Tourism, largely for his work to get trails built in the re­gion and state.

The foun­da­tion’s in­vest­ment ex­ag­ger­ated the speed and scale in which trails could be built, but the other stake­hold­ers needed to be­lieve in the value a trail sys­tem brings to a com­mu­nity, Wil­liamson said.

“Just be­cause the Wal­tons have a lot of money doesn’t mean they were able to ex­e­cute this [by them­selves],” he said.

FU­TURE

The re­gion hasn’t be­gun to hit its peak po­ten­tial when it comes to soft-sur­face trails, lead­ers said.

“I would say in five years we could eas­ily dou­ble, as­sum­ing we can main­tain what we cur­rently have,” Rush­ing said.

The Back 40 is the first phase of a 150-mile sys­tem planned for the Bella Vista area. An­other eight miles should be fin­ished at Coler by the end of this year, Rush­ing said. The Trail­blaz­ers are also look­ing at Eureka Springs for some projects.

Ozark Of­froad is help­ing with the de­vel­op­ment of five miles planned for City Lake in Siloam Springs, which is slated to open next year.

“What the limit is, what the ca­pac­ity is, I don’t know,” Rush­ing said. “If there’s peo­ple us­ing them and peo­ple main­tain­ing them, we can con­tinue to build more trails.”

Vol­un­teers have been essen­tial in the re­gion’s trail de­vel­op­ment and main­te­nance since the be­gin­ning of moun­tain bik­ing in Arkansas 30 years ago, Pack said. The growth of the trail sys­tem will not be sus­tain­able if fos­ter­ing a healthy vol­un­teer com­mu­nity isn’t a fo­cus.

Vol­un­teer hours can also be used for grant matches to se­cure money for more trail projects, he said. For ex­am­ple, the 1,100 vol­un­teer hours peo­ple gave to help build a mile of trail in Fayetteville’s Gre­gory Park last win­ter was used to re­ceive grant money to add flow trails, a skills park and pump track in the 19-acre park that’s two blocks away from Wood­land Ju­nior High School, Pack said.

“With­out vol­un­teers, this des­ti­na­tion we’re cre­at­ing doesn’t ex­ist,” he said. If the vol­un­teer base grows with the trail mileage, “We might have just scratched the sur­face as to what the pos­si­bil­i­ties are.”

Nick Han­cock, a cat­e­gory 3 racer from Russellville, fords a creek July 16 dur­ing cross-coun­try races on the fi­nal day of the 19th an­nual Fat Tire Fes­ti­val at Lake Leather­wood City Park in Eureka Springs.

Max­well Sawyer from Phat Tire Bike Shop in Ben­tonville rides a moun­tain bike July 17 at the Slaugh­ter Pen trails in Ben­tonville.

NWA Demo­crat-Gazette/BEN GOFF • @NWABENGOFF

An­drew Files (1045) of Lit­tle Rock leads his heat in the men’s cat­e­gory 3 race off of the start­ing line July 16 from Basin Park in down­town Eureka Springs be­fore mak­ing their way onto the sin­gle­track at Lake Leather­wood City Park dur­ing cross coun­try races on the fi­nal day of the 19th an­nual Fat Tire Fes­ti­val.

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