(From an article I wrote in February of last year for Arkansas Abroad…some updates have been made)
Easily riding along a natural bench trail, crossing the occasional stream I wind my way out of another hollow, the steep climb to get here is nearly forgotten, nearly. Pedaling past unique rock outcroppings and ancient trees I’m feeling glad that I brought my bike on this trip to the Ozarks of Arkansas. Actually, I usually take my bike when traveling around Arkansas. In what is known as The Natural State I’ve created my own saying, wherever you travel in Arkansas, always take your bike, you never know when a trail will happen.
Why ride Arkansas? Because it’s the place that everyone else is riding and not telling you about. It’s a place Northern colleges send their cycling teams to train because the roads and weather are perfect in the late winter and early spring. It’s a place wherein the dead of winter when many mountain bikers stare longingly at their bikes hanging in the garage, Arkansans are riding sweet ridgelines with unlimited views, no studded tires, no heavy coats, no worries.
In the Midwest there are three IMBA epic trails, one is in southern Missouri, not far from the Arkansas line, and the other two reside in Arkansas. The Syllamo Trail system has 50 plus miles of loop trails in the heart of the Ozarks near Mountain View, Arkansas. The Womble Trail in the Ouachita Mountains, Arkansas’s original epic, is one of the sweetest trails in the country following ridgelines and dropping down to cross creeks for over 37 miles and easily connects with the Ouachita Trail and local forest roads to create multi-day mountain biking adventures.
Each March the Womble is home to one of the premier mountain bike races in the country, the Ouachita Challenge. This 60-mile race draws professional and amateur cyclists from all over the country. Over the years nationally recognized cyclists such as Gary Fisher have shown up with their teams while Team Orbea and Team Topeak-Ergon are repeat competitors.
National tour operators are finding Arkansas to be a prime riding destination. Hermosa Tours of Durango, Colorado which runs tours throughout the western United States, New Zealand, Costa Rica, and Iceland recently started bringing tours to Arkansas. Hermosa Tours owner, Matt McPhee recently called Arkansas a “Diamond in the Rough” and said that he has brought groups from as far away as Alaska to ride the Womble and Syllamo trails. He’s also getting a lot of interest from riders in California, Texas, and Illinois. McPhee expects that he will be adding other trails in the state to his tours in the future.
The growth of mountain biking in the state is not only coming from riders outside the state. International cycling companies are calling Arkansas home. Orbea USA is based in North Little Rock, Arkansas. Trail experts from around the world have also been showing respect for The Natural State. Last winter, the International Trail Builders Conference was held in Eureka Springs, Arkansas and in 2008 the American Trails National Symposium was held in Little Rock.
Mountain biking in Arkansas is not a recent phenomenon, it’s just been a well-kept secret for a long time. Devil’s Den State Park in Northwest Arkansas held its first Mountain Bike Festival 20 years ago. In fact, 9 of the state’s 52 state parks have mountain bike trails with plans to add trails in 4 more parks in the future. Fred Phillips of DLTMultisport, a local race organizer, who manages the state Cross Country and Marathon Mountain Biking Series, said he has seen this coming for at least the last 10 years. “The state has so many mountain biking and adventure sports assets,” said Phillips.
Other participant adventure sports that rely on mountain biking like Xterra off-road triathlons and adventure races are also growing in Arkansas. Adventure racing has been happening in Arkansas for over 10 years and continues to grow with several promoters adding to the inventory of races.
One of the great things about mountain biking in Arkansas is the accessibility to trails, within a half-hour drive of the state capitol you can ride over 50 miles of singletrack most of which was designed specifically for mountain biking. If you are willing to drive another hour you’ll find that the number of miles tops 200. Mountain bike trails are constantly being added with more than 20 miles of new trail opening in the state in the next year.
The growth of road cycling has mirrored that of its dirtier cousin. The construction of the Arkansas River Trail in Little Rock-North Little Rock has created a focal point for road and paved trail riding. When the longest bridge in the world built specifically for pedestrians and cyclists was added to the trail, central Arkansas became a road biking Mecca, yes, I said Mecca. The Big Dam Bridge that connects the twin cities was one of the draws for the National Trail Conference meeting in Little Rock in 2008. Another bridge, the Two Rivers Bridge, is scheduled to open this spring (opened) and will allow cyclists to ride from downtown Little Rock all the way to Pinnacle Mountain State Park where they can enjoy more mountain bike trails or other road ride loops. This past fall the Clinton Library Bridge opened.
Cycling groups and event promoters host several century rides and multi-distance races across the state. The Joe Martin Stage race in Northwest Arkansas has attracted names like Floyd Landis. Miles of wonderful rural roads, organized centuries, and shorter rides make it easy to see the attraction for out-of-state riders. Another plus for road cyclists is that Arkansas is one of only 16 states that have 3 foot passing laws that protect cyclists on the road.
Businesses and government agencies like the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality, are finding that locating within proximity of the Arkansas River Trail is good for employee retention. They’ve added employee locker rooms and showers so workers can clean up after riding to work.
The Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism, recognizing the growth of the state as a cyclist destination, recently published a guide to cycling in Arkansas which includes 11 mountain bikes and 11 road rides throughout the state. As they say in the introduction, “…the brochure provides a sample…”
My ride on the Miner’s Rock Trail at Lake Leatherwood near Eureka Springs was ending. Tried as I might, I could not catch my wife who let out a resonating, “Yippee,” as she bombed down the trail to the end of our ride. I wish she would keep it down or everyone will find out about this place.