A high ridge section of the LOViT Trail - Lake Ouachita Vista Trail. (Photo courtesy of Arkansas Department of Parks & Tourism)

Arkansas Becomes a Bucket List Destination

Searcy County Waterfall

A couple of years ago, Arkansas was ranked by the League of American Bicyclists as the most unfriendly state for cycling in the country. Number 50, the bottom, the worst place in the United States to ride a bike. Of course, we know differently and by showing our pride in the bicycling facilities we have rather than actual new gains in bicycle friendliness, we followed up that year with a solid 37th place only to slip a bit to 38th this year. We have to stay focused. With the continuing improvements on the Razorback Greenway Trail in Northwest Arkansas plus upcoming completion of the Statewide Bicycle/Pedestrian Plan that the Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department has commissioned, we should see continued improvement in national bicycle friendliness rankings.

Meanwhile, a group of cyclists and trail lovers have been working hard to increase the visibility of our mountain biking facilities in the state, and they are getting national attention. Last week the International Mountain Bicycling Association (IMBA) announced additions to two important lists of mountain biking destinations, and Arkansas made a strong showing on both.

Epic Trails

According to the International Mountain Bicycling Association, “Epics celebrate true backcountry riding experiences that are technically and physically challenging, more than 80 percent singletrack and at least 20 miles in length.” This criterion was updated in 2013 and the Epics Trails were split into two categories, Epic Rides and Hall of Fame Epic Rides, the latter being previous honorees that no longer fit the new criteria. As of this month, the two categories combined consist of fifty-seven trail systems in the United States. Of those, six are new this year and two are in Arkansas. For years Arkansas was honored to have two trail systems on the list, The Womble, and The Syllamo. It was a strong showing for a small state that was relatively late to the mountain biking movement. Until recently, surrounding states did not have any trails on the Epic list. Texas now has two and Missouri has one. The Lake Ouachita Vista Trail (LOViT) and the newly opened Upper Buffalo River Trail System, and Ouachita National Recreation Trail were added to the list of Arkansas Epics giving us five trails on the international list.

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As a point of pride, Arkansas now ranks third in the country in the number of Epic Rides with California in the lead at six, Colorado in second with five and Oregon just behind Arkansas with three. That’s pretty good company in the mountain sports world.

Arkansas also added its first towns to the IMBA Ride Center list.

The Trails

The Womble – Our oldest Epic Ride and still one of the best trails in the state, it’s home to the most popular mountain biking event in Arkansas, The Ouachita Challenge, which incorporates both The Womble and portions of the nearby Ouachita National Trail for 60 miles of mountain biking bliss. The Womble itself is approximately 39 miles long following beautiful ridgelines and dropping through streams only to climb up through narrow bench cuts. This is an old school trail without a lot of machine cut, but it still has something for every level of cross-country cyclist. The trail is maintained by the hard-working Ouachita Cycling Club with some sections adopted by other groups. The trail is located near Mount Ida, Arkansas.

From the 2013 Ouachita Challenge - The Womble Section.
From the 2013 Ouachita Challenge – The Womble Section.

The Syllamo – Now a member of the Epic Ride Hall of Fame, The Syllamo suffers from one of the very things that makes it epic, its location. Just north of Mountain View, Arkansas, this trail is a popular destination; but, with few local riders and no local club, keeping the over 50 miles of beautiful Ozark trail maintained has been a challenge. Thanks to current work by the Regional IMBA Representative, Steve Schneider, a small group of dedicated cyclists and the Central Arkansas Trail Alliance, there may be improvements on the horizon.

From the 2013 Syllamo's Revenge Mountain Bike Race - The Syllamo.
From the 2013 Syllamo’s Revenge Mountain Bike Race – The Syllamo.

The Lake Ouachita Vista Trail – Referred to as The LOViT by local riders, it covers over 40 miles as it winds its way across the southern shore of Lake Ouachita, the largest lake completely within the Arkansas borders. Built over a twelve year period by a group calling themselves the Traildogs, mountain bikers, trail runners, and hikers will find themselves along the shoreline, climbing rocky terrain, crossing beautiful mountain streams and enjoying mountaintop views of one of the cleanest lakes in the country. The trail is punctuated by several lake resorts with Mount Ida near one end and Hot Springs, Arkansas on the other making it a great destination trail.

A high ridge section of the LOViT Trail - Lake Ouachita Vista Trail. (Photo courtesy of Arkansas Department of Parks & Tourism)
A high ridge section of the LOViT Trail – Lake Ouachita Vista Trail. (Photo courtesy of Arkansas Department of Parks & Tourism)

The Upper Buffalo River Trails – Probably the most remote of all of Arkansas’s Epic Rides, this trail is made up of both hand-built singletrack and machine built flow trails. Opened to the public just this year, the area has been the scene of the Buffalo Headwaters Challenge sponsored by the Ozark Off-Road Cyclists for the past 8 years. The trails are maintained by an agreement between the U.S. Forest Service and the Ozark Off-Road Cyclists.  The trail includes the highest point in the Ozarks plus beautiful singletrack through the headwaters of the first National River in the country.

Let's stop here! Break time on the Upper Buffalo.
Let’s stop here! Break time on the Upper Buffalo.

The Ouachita National Recreation Trail – At 110 miles long, it is the longest mountain bike trail in Arkansas and certainly one of the most adventurous. Built with hiking in mind there are plenty of hiking even for the most technical of riders. This trail goes from Queen Wilhelmina State Park to Hwy 7 north of Hot Springs. Shelters have been built about every 10 miles. We recommend carrying water since much of the trail follows ridges. If you’re looking for a true challenge, this is the trail for you.

Ouachita NRT
The ONRT is also used as part of the Ouachita Challenge.


The Ride Centers

The IMBA website states, “The IMBA Ride Center® designation represents IMBA’s Model Trail recognition for large-scale mountain bike facilities that offer something for every rider.” This recognition program began in 2007, listing destination spots for mountain biking vacations and getaways. Arkansas now has three, the City of Fayetteville received a bronze rating while just up the road, Bentonville had a silver rating bestowed upon it. Hot Springs has also been added and for good reason. Only one city in the country has received the coveted gold rating, Park City, Utah.  There are a total of twenty-seven destinations in the world that are on the list. You can find information on criteria for being a ride center on IMBA’s website.

All Sports Productions - Legend Highlands
Newly opened trails at Mount Kessler in Fayetteville, Arkansas.
Newly opened trails at Mount Kessler in Fayetteville, Arkansas.
Optional fun at the Slaughter Pen Trail System in Bentonville, Arkansas.
Optional fun at the Slaughter Pen Trail System in Bentonville, Arkansas.

Having the Ride Centers near each other plus four Epic Rides all within three hours of each other will go a long way to making Arkansas a destination for those looking for mountain biking vacations. Add to that the fact that most of our trails can be ridden year round and we suddenly become a winter destination option for those living in the colder climates.

Arkansas is a mountain biking bucket list destination.

Mullet Run - Northwoods Trails - Hot Springs

6 Responses

    1. I’d have to disagree with you there Brent. Roads were originally paved because of urging by bicyclists in the early part of the last century. As kids, most of us learned to ride bikes on the streets in front of our houses and continued on to ride them throughout our neighborhoods as they provided our first taste of freedom. By law, in most states including Arkansas, bicycles are considered vehicles on public roads. They should be a viable part of any communities transportation plan as they are less expensive than cars, provide freedom of movement not provided by mass transit and are ultimately better for our own health and the environment.

      1. I took Brent’s comment to be a gentle prod towards road bikers in general… But most mountain bikers will agree to get strong and fast, road bike training is necessary. 🙂 I enjoy all of my bikes.

    2. Bicycles can legally be ridden on all roads with the exception of controlled access highways (interstates). Arkansas is a state that could be as much of an outdoors destination as the western states are, but it will never be so long as you have people that think a road bike should be on a trail rather than on the scenic biways throughout the state. Cyclists, runners, climbers, backpackers, and other outdoors enthusiasts easily can bring millions of dollars into a state but the residents of that state have to have the sense to know they have to be friendly to this activities.

  1. This is a gorgeous state, and much of it is rugged. I’ve driven and climbed thru it for many years. And enjoy it all. Hopefully biking trails will be maintained and added. That has to be a great way to get right into all these beautiful places.

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