Mountain biking has exploded across the state with lots of new trails opening in every region of Arkansas. Not only are the trails new, the design of the trails and techniques to build them have changed. Many of the trails that we first rolled our bikes on were actually preexisting hiking trails. As the needs of mountain bikers grew, lovers of the sport began working with land managers and building new trails, usually by hand. As the sport has grown and mountain biking has become more mainstream, money became available to start building fancier trails, various machines were brought in to cut smooth flowy trails through the woods. Technical aspects were added to preserve that original challenging mountain biking experience. These new trails are wonderful and help to bring a new generation into the sport.
The Womble has a Glorious Past
This past Saturday, I wanted to visit one of those early trails, the ones built for hiking where technical aspects were lying in wait for cyclists with the intestinal fortitude to take the challenge. I wanted to return to an old friend, The Womble. A 37-mile trail system that runs point to point from North Fork Lake to meeting up with the Ouachita National Recreation Trail just north of Lake Ouachita.
The Womble Trail was built long before the advent of modern mountain biking as a hiking trail by the Civilian Conservation Corps. As mountain biking showed up in the 1980’s, the Womble soon became a destination for those looking for a true wilderness experience. During this time and through the 1990’s, the trail continued as a destination experience for mountain bikers along with several horse and motorcycling trails in the Ouachita Mountains. When I started visiting the area, it was a fairly busy area although never crowded. The trail reached a level of notoriety that attracted riders from Texas, Louisiana and Oklahoma.
In 2005, The Womble was named as the first International Mountain Bicycling Association Epic Trail in Arkansas and its position as a tourism attraction was set. Over the years, I don’t believe I’ve ever been on the trail when I didn’t come across someone from Texas.
Our ride this weekend would be relatively easy. We made the drive from Benton, Arkansas to the Highway 298 trailhead near the trail’s midpoint in about an hour and a half even with a quick breakfast stop. The plan was to head west on the trail until we reached Gaston Mountain and then head back. As we dove into the woods the sounds of the highway quickly disappeared. The only sounds became those of heavy breathing and the occasional mechanized sounds of our bikes. The temperatures were cool, but the humidity was high.
Classic Mountain Biking
One of the great things about this trail is that it feels like a natural trail. This should be expected as it’s approximately 80 years old. It often feels like you’re riding an old game trail as it moves from the wet creek crossings up the narrow bench cuts to the ridge tops. Our ride in was mostly up as we climbed the tight switchbacks up Mauldin Mountain. The trail was in beautiful condition with little to no overgrowth. It didn’t look like it was being ridden quite as much as it has been in years past. Today the trail has to share the limelight of Ouachita mountain biking with such groomed trails as Iron Mountain and new IMBA Epic Trails like the Lake Ouachita Vista Trail. We didn’t see a soul on our ride out.
After a fun downhill section, we crossed Hee Gap Road and started up again toward Gaston Mountain. As we crested before the trail headed down to the next forest road we took a break and decided this would be a good spot to turn around and head back. The humidity was beginning to get to us and we were soaked from head to toe. The trail had eaten my saddle bag which was now stuffed into my hydration pack. I had crashed once when a low hanging branch reached out and grabbed my handlebars on a short descent directing me off the trail on the downhill side. I was lucky to slide it out instead of tumbling. The bike was fine, but I was ready to really enjoy the next part of the ride. It would be mostly downhill back to the truck where a cold beer was waiting.
We bombed the hills letting our momentum hold us tight on the narrow singletrack, taking the dry streambed drops with relative ease, sucking it up for the few uphill sections and stopping for the occasional photo. About a half mile from the parking lot we came across a family of four from Texas, go figure. They had been in the Hot Springs area on vacation and had taken advantage of the nearby Cedar Glades and Iron Mountain Trails and were now enjoying this Arkansas Classic.
So if you are new to the area, or just visiting, make sure to check out the Womble, the first of our 5 IMBA Epic Trails in the state and remember why it was we started riding bikes on trails in the first place.
Please excuse the quality of the photos, the camera had some severe fogging issues due to the high humidity.