“It is by riding a bicycle that you learn the contours of a country best…”
– Ernest Hemingway
by Mark Carter
If Ernest Hemingway was right, if in fact one best learns the contours of a place on two wheels, then riders across the country are becoming experts on the lay of the Natural State.
Biking has become a big deal in Arkansas, not only as a quality-of-life catalyst for cities across the state but as a genuine tourist attraction, mountain biking in particular. Once considered a hidden gem in the biking world, Northwest Arkansas has emerged as a template for growing a biking community and Bentonville as a legitimate U.S. mountain bike “destination.”
The Walton Family Foundation reports that cycling – be it road, trail, gravel or shared use path — delivered $137 million in economic benefits to Northwest Arkansas in 2017 and over a span of 12 months beginning in the spring of 2017, more than 90,000 “mountain biking tourists” visited the area, 57 percent of them from out of state. That’s on par with “blueblood” trail destinations like Colorado and British Columbia.
And in 2018, out-of-state biking tourists provided a $27 million economic boost to NWA. Another WFF study found that between 2015 and 2017, average weekday ridership volumes among NWA residents increased roughly 32 percent to 187 riders and by 14 percent to 336 cyclists on weekends per study site. Annual volumes per study site increased 24 percent to 83,700 riders.
NWA metro ranks fourth nationally in volume of cyclists with 5.45 riders per 1,000 residents behind Minneapolis (25.48 per 1,000); Vancouver, B.C., Canada (24.07), and Portland, Ore. (9.34).
“Mountain biking serves as a major economic driver for the region,” says Nelson Peacock, president and CEO of the Northwest Arkansas Council, a nonprofit focused on economic development in the region. “This includes not only the economic benefits of increased tourism, but steady improvements to trails and other cycling infrastructure augment the natural beauty of our region, improve the quality of life for our residents and attract the brightest talent for our companies.”
Statewide, outdoor recreation overall generates $9.7 billion in consumer spending and is directly responsible for 96,000 jobs, according to the Outdoor Industry Foundation. OIF also estimates that 63 percent of Arkansans participate in outdoor recreation activities, which include hunting and fishing with a growing emphasis on cycling and especially mountain biking.
In 2019, national advocacy group PeopleForBikes listed four Arkansas cities among its top 25 bike towns: Bentonville at No. 11, Fayetteville at 15, Springdale at 19 and Bella Vista at 22. Also making the top 100 were Rogers (67) and Siloam Springs (72).
Precise numbers of riders can be hard to quantify. After all, trailheads don’t include turnstiles. But Stacy Hurst, cabinet secretary of Arkansas Parks, Heritage and Tourism, counts mountain biking and cycling together as one of the state’s primary tourism draws.
“Our state is a compelling destination for cyclists with our moderate, four-season climate, a variety of terrain and incredible natural beauty,” she says. “Arkansas saw the potential of cycling and mountain biking over a decade ago and published the first Arkansas Cycling Guide in 2008. We’re bullish on cycling and believe Arkansas will continue to grow in awareness and stature relative to those travelers seeking a memorable outdoor recreation experience.”
Tourism now represents the state’s second largest economic driver with an annual impact of $7.3 billion, and riders are credited with helping fuel the 5.7 percent increase in state tourism-tax collections seen over the first half of 2019.
t’s no coincidence this raised tourism profile coincides with the state’s emergence as a national mountain biking destination. Allied Cycle Works CEO Brendan Quirk thinks 2019 was the year Arkansas elevated from “best kept secret” to “full-on bucket list” destination in the mountain biking world.
“The most exciting part is that the region’s momentum is only increasing,” he says. “We’re seeing more and more emphasis on building world-class trails for novices and families to ride together.”
Quirk has seen first-hand the growth of biking (road and trail) in both central and Northwest Arkansas. Allied is the Rogers-based manufacturer of carbon road and gravel bikes that formerly called Little Rock home. The League of American Bicyclists recognizes four Arkansas cities and two counties as bicycle friendly communities — Little Rock, Conway, Fayetteville, Rogers and Washington and Benton counties. (And it’s awarded gold status to the University of Arkansas as a bike-friendly campus.)
Prominent trail systems across the state cater to riders of all levels (beginner greens, immediate blues and expert black diamonds, to borrow snow-skiing parlance). They include the renowned Oz Trails in NWA, with more than 300 miles on 14 trails; the still growing Northwood Trails in Hot Springs, with 16 miles open and 45 total planned on more than 2,000 acres of wilderness near downtown; the Monument Trails system from Arkansas State Parks and the Arkansas Parks and Recreation Foundation featuring world-class trails at several state parks, and of course the noted Razorback Regional Greenway, 36 miles of paved shared-use path connecting the NWA metro from Bella Vista to Fayetteville and the Arkansas River Trail, connecting Little Rock and North Little Rock with paved loops of up to 88 miles including both the Big Dam and Two Rivers pedestrian bridges.
But it’s the world-class mountain biking trails that are making riders across the country take notice. Five Arkansas trails are designated as prestigious EPIC-designated rides by the International Mountain Biking Association — the Ouachita National Recreation, Lake Ouachita Vista, Upper Buffalo, Womble (near Mount Ida) and Syllamo (near Mountain View) trails. Currently, 53 trails across the globe are so recognized by IMBA (all but 10 in North America), and Arkansas is home to more than any other state.
Making the designation even more impressive is the manner in which EPIC rides are selected — not by industry working stiffs wined and dined by local chambers of commerce. The list is crowd-sourced annually through a public nomination process, which means a whole lot of riders not from Arkansas voluntarily are recognizing its trails as among the world’s best.
Plus, Bentonville, Fayetteville and Hot Springs are among just 41 communities worldwide recognized as IMBA “ride centers” for their “world-class amenities and high standards of hospitality.” Furthermore, Northwest Arkansas was recognized as the first-ever regional ride center.
And the past decade has seen NWA host prominent national biking events such as the IMBA World Summit and Outerbike, both in Bentonville, with more on the calendar including the 2022 Cyclocross World Championships (trail/road/cross country hybrid) and Lifetime Fitness’ Big Sugar NWA Gravel race in Fayetteville. Plus, the annual Oz Trails Off Road has become a national event.
The industry is adjusting to this emergence. In addition to Allied’s move northwest, Rapha — the upscale British biking accessory brand now majority owned by Walmart heirs Steuart and Tom Walton — recently announced plans to relocate its North American headquarters from Portland, Ore., to Bentonville.
Last year, in a story about those bike-promoting Walmart heirs and their goal to make NWA a biking destination, Outside magazine even coined the term “Arkansas effect” to describe the rise of mountain biking in the state and its contagious impact on the “fledgling trail-building industry.”
Indeed, biking is a thing now in Arkansas, for those of you who missed that pack of road cyclists humming along like a flock of geese headed south or failed to glimpse out of the corner of your eye those mountain bikers catching air just beyond the treeline. In the case of Bentonville, those trails can be situated just steps from downtown. David Wright, Bentonville’s parks and recreation director, calls the city’s fabled town square the best trailhead in the country.
Even harder to miss are the biking commuters, especially in Northwest Arkansas, who access the increasingly bike-friendly infrastructure to ride to work, the store or even hit the microbrewery trail. (Many new businesses have been opened on the Greenway specifically to accommodate riders.)
Bentonville Chamber of Commerce CEO Graham Cobbs incorporates riding into his workday, be it road or trail. “Road/gravel riding gives me time for reflection, almost like meditation,” he says. “It gives me head time to work through ideas and issues personally and professionally. It gives me time for uninterrupted creativity.
“Mountain biking? It’s a hard restart. You can’t think about anything but the trail, your position, etc. Your mind clears completely. Want to shake off the day? Hit some single track. Need to feel improvement and accomplishment? Single track. Need to change your headspace ASAP? Single track.”
Biking now represents one of Visit Bentonville’s three key destination drivers alongside art and business travel, says CEO Kalene Griffith. And the prongs of this tourism trident are formidable.
Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art attracts more than 600,000 visitors to town each year, and its newly minted and highly anticipated satellite space, The Momentary, should further solidify Bentonville’s status as a mid-American art mecca. And as long as the world’s largest retailer and its orbit of global vendors call Bentonville home, Northwest Arkansas will remain a business hub. Walmart, of course, isn’t going anywhere (and neither are its neighbors and fellow Fortune 500s Tyson Foods and J.B. Hunt Transport).
But biking’s spear is becoming equally sharp. In 2018, the city hosted Outerbike, a prominent national bike show and festival that helped establish it as a national destination. Just the third city ever to host an Outerbike event, Bentonville represented its first foray east of the Rockies. The success of the event, and the strength of the biking community found in NWA, convinced event organizers to make Outerbike Bentonville an annual thing beginning this fall.
Industry publications now routinely place Bentonville among the country’s top destinations along with locales such as Moab, Utah, and Crested Butte, Col.
Transformed from small, simple Walmart company town, Bentonville now boasts more than 51,000 residents; its population has more than doubled in the past 25 years. Yet the city maintains a Norman Rockwell vibe that belies a growing urban-chic aesthetic. The incorporation of biking into its DNA is key both to its Mayberry-ness and hipness, raising the quality of life and meeting the needs of a culturally expanding community.
Griffith says the Slaughter Pen trails, just steps off the downtown square, provide the kind of urban trail experience — available for riders of all levels — that’s enticing to visitors and residents alike.
“Our trails are right off the heart of the city,” she says. “Usually, you have to get in your car and drive to the trails. But we have a unique experience that people from other cities want to emulate.”
Bentonville eagerly shares its story with others and even hosts IMBA trail labs that attract officials from up to 40 cities.
Meanwhile, Hot Springs officials aren’t wanting for attractions but are hopeful nonetheless that some of Bentonville’s biking mojo will rub off. With three of the state’s EPIC trails nearby and the popular Northwoods trails situated close to downtown, Hot Springs has committed to adding mountain biking to its impressive tourism buffet.
“When we talk about the economic impact of our Northwoods Trail System, it’s pretty nigh impossible to come up with precise numbers. There is no admission fee or ticketing procedure — people just park, get on their bikes and enjoy the pristine hilly terrain and its three beautiful lakes,” says Visit Hot Springs chief Steve Arrison. “We do things like count license plates in the parking areas and our trails coordinator, Traci Berry, always notes a good proportion of the cars have out-of-state license plates. In addition, we have anecdotal evidence from our lodging and dining owners that they see a good number of customers who have been using the trails or who intend to.”
If not the CEO, Joe Jacobs certainly is the historian of mountain biking in Arkansas. Officially, he’s the marketing and revenue manager for Arkansas State Parks and an avid trail rider, officially and otherwise. He serves on the board of the Central Arkansas Trail Alliance, an IMBA chapter, as well as the Arkansas Mountain Biking Championship Series, and helped design the mountain bike trails at Pinnacle Mountain State Park, Woolly Hollow State Park and Little Rock’s Boyle Park.
Mountain biking’s roots can be traced to the late 1970s and Marion, Calif., Jacobs notes, and as trends are wont to do, the sport slowly found its way inland to Arkansas. About a decade after those roots took hold on the west coast, mountain biking’s journey to prominence in Arkansas began at Devil’s Den State Park outside Fayetteville.
“Staff at Devil’s Den had traveled to Crested Butte, Col., to see if ‘this mountain biking thing’ should be embraced at the park,” Jacobs says. “Crested Butte hosts one of the oldest mountain bike festivals in the country and when park superintendent Wally Scherrey and park interpreter Tim Scott returned, they felt that it would be a good fit for Devil’s Den. This was at a time when surrounding states were developing rules to keep mountain biking out of their state parks.”
The Ozark Mountain Bike Festival introduced in 1989 at Devil’s Den became an annual event, big enough eventually to split into a spring festival geared toward families and a fall race.
The ‘80s also saw the development of dedicated trails at Camp Robinson in central Arkansas and the creation of Central Arkansas Recreational Pedalers (CARP) by local cyclists to help maintain trails, build new ones and organize races. CARP would become the state’s first IMBA chapter, and more than 40 miles of hand-cut trails at Camp Robinson remain heavily used, Jacobs notes.
More growth in the ‘90s — the iconic Womble trail and portions of the Ouachita National Recreation Trail were opened to mountain bikers, and the Arkansas Mountain Bike Championship Series was launched. “Still, during this time, mountain biking was pretty much relegated to old horse and motorcycle trails,” Jacobs says.
By 1997, future IMBA chapter Ozark Off-Road Cyclist began initiating trail construction in Northwest Arkansas, and throughout the decade of the 2000s and into the 2010s, “trail building really hit its stride in Arkansas.”
Mountain bike-specific trails were opened at state parks — Hobbs, Cane Creek, White Oak Lake, Pinnacle Mountain, Lake Fort Smith State Park, Bull Shoals-White River and Woolly Hollow — and in 2017, State Parks and the Arkansas Parks and Recreation Foundation began introducing the “Monument Trails” system of world-class trails.
“These trails are among the best designed and built trails in the country offering riders of every experience level a place to ride,” Jacobs says.
More than 25 miles of Monument Trails are open with 50 more under design or construction. The partially opened Monument Trail at Mount Nebo State Park near Dardanelle already attracts more than 1,000 riders per month.
With Walton support, trail systems were developed and opened throughout NWA including the Slaughter Pen in Bentonville, the Back 40 in Bella Vista and the Railyard and Lake Atalanta trails in Rogers, with most connected to the award-winning Razorback Greenway.
The state now hosts more than 15 sanctioned races a year, both marathon series (50 miles or longer) and cross country (10 to 30 miles), and the Arkansas High Country Route is one of 30 routes in the nation designated by the Adventure Cycling Association. It entails three loops (road and gravel) winding through the Ouachitas, Ozarks and Arkansas River Valley, spanning roughly 1,100 total miles.
To meet this demand, the Arkansas Department of Parks, Heritage and Tourism began publishing a special Arkansas Cycling guide in 2008. Jacobs says it now requires updating every two years as “the cycling product in the state continues to grow,” and that professional riders who visit Arkansas for events like Outerbike oftentimes end up relocating to the state.
“Besides the tourism impact, the quality of life created by world-class trail systems is driving more people to consider choosing Arkansas as a place to live.”
In 2018 alone, the Walton Family Foundation awarded more than $595 million in grants to community initiatives across the country; by then, it had already invested $74 million into the regional biking infrastructure.
That same year, in partnership with PeopleForBikes, the foundation commissioned a report that unveiled further components to biking’s impact on NWA. Research found that biking provides $85 million annually in health benefits; area residents spend more than $20 million each year on biking, and perhaps most telling, that NWA homes located within a quarter mile of the Greenway sell for $15,000 more than those located two miles from the trail. Biking delivers a substantial return on the foundation’s investment, says Jeremy Pate, WFF senior program officer for the home region. Economic and health benefits aside, a thriving biking community increases access to greenspace, revitalizes downtowns and delivers a much-needed transportation alternative, he says.
“We looked at the quality of life initiatives we could focus on and how we could sustain, improve and elevate the quality of life in Northwest Arkansas,” he says. “We’ve taken advantage of the natural assets we’ve been given.”
Those assets extend to the Arkansas Delta, where biking’s potential is just being tapped. In January, the foundation announced a $20 million matching grant with State Parks for completion of an 84.5 mile biking and pedestrian trail from Lexa to Arkansas City, 44 miles of which are constructed. The Delta Heritage Trail is expected to generate $700 million in tourism and create 600 new jobs when complete.
Walmart’s corporate office, meanwhile, is designing its new home campus to be even more bike-friendly and integrated into the community.
“Our goal is for 10 percent of our Bentonville-based home office associates to ride bicycles to work by 2023,” Anne Hatfield, director of global communications for Walmart, tells Arkansas Money & Politics. “About 7,500 of our associates live within five miles of the new campus and 4,000 live within three miles. We see the potential positive impact our associates can make in the area, and we think bicycles can be a viable mobility option.”
Spurred by recent “bike friendly” certification from the Bike League, Walmart is prioritizing its bike culture by making more resources available to employees and launching corporate goals, Hatfield says.
“Before we started ramping up our efforts about a year ago, you would rarely hear someone talking about riding to work. Now we have entire teams who ride together once a week, organized company-wide group commutes and training classes.
“The centralized message of support has helped shift attitudes about riding to work, and we’ve been able to show people that it’s a lot easier than you’d think. Today, there are more bikes on campus than ever and when the weather is nice, the racks are at full capacity.”
The percentage of NWA residents who ride is higher than the national average, according to the 2017 WFF report — 27 percent of locals ride at least six days a week, 11 points higher than the national average. And proximity to biking infrastructure was listed as a major concern when considering where to live, work or locate a business.
Walmart’s new home campus will be designed to make commuting by bike a seamless experience. Incentives are planned to encourage it. For Hatfield, there really are no down sides to this approach. The future of commuting is alternative transportation anyway, she notes, and commuting by bike is healthier, reduces traffic and parking concerns and supports the general well-being of the entire community.
And each “neighborhood” on the new campus will include bike storage, showers and changing rooms, as well as campus bicycles for employees to ride between buildings and to their vehicles.
“Embracing bikes has brought us closer to the community, and hopefully it can be one of the many aspects of our new campus that will help attract and retain the next generation of talent,” Hatfield says.
“If you build it, [they] will come…” — “Himself,” the mysterious voice speaking to Ray Kinsella, as portrayed by Kevin Costner, in the 1989 film Field of Dreams.
Arkansas built trails, and they came. Are still coming, like the line of headlights stretching to the horizon outside that Iowa cornfield in Kevin Costner’s best flick. Only with bike reflectors instead of headlights and in place of a straight line through fields of maize, a meandering line through hills of green. Tourists and new residents alike have answered the call.
Andrea Albright, Walmart senior vice president for snacks, beverage, candy & impulse, calls the trail system in NWA a game changer for the community.
“My family and I have really enjoyed exploring the trails as often as we can,” she says. “I’m looking forward to the incorporation of the trail system into the new home office campus as a more sustainable method of transportation.”
From the first five miles of track laid in 2007 to the roughly 400 miles of trails and paths in the region today, NWA is ahead of the national curve and bringing the entire state along for the ride. For Griffith, riding the Greenway with her family represents everything good about the state’s emphasis on biking — connectivity. She calls it the best experience in Northwest Arkansas.
“My kids could be riding on the trail, and I could stay on the Greenway, and we could connect at multiple places,” she says. “It’s a very family-friendly environment. And if you’re not an advanced rider, people will stop and help when you need it. Everybody wants to see everyone succeed.”
For Bentonville’s Cobb, biking represents a pretty simple formula whether you’re a biking tourist or a native.
“Cycling makes you feel like a kid again. It’s fun,” he says. “What do I get out of it? Smiles.”