Between the rugged summits of the Rockies and the swooping crests of the Appalachians, the Ozarks seem to barely spring out of the ground. But these relatively unassuming mountains, which cross from Arkansas into southwestern Missouri, hide more than 300 miles of mountain biking trails that cater to beginner and expert rider alike.
In Northwest Arkansas, an ever-increasing number of these trails weave through hills, valleys and bluffs that characterize the Ozark region, and the climate allows for year-round riding. Over the past decade, cycling and trail advocacy nonprofits, like the Ozark Off-Road Cyclists and Friends of Arkansas Single Track, along with the heirs of the Walmart retail empire, have united to transform Northwest Arkansas into a mountain biking hub under the banner of OZ Trails.
Here are four trail systems to get the most out of a two-wheeled visit to the region. Most double as hiking trails, and all of them are less than 15 minutes away from vibrant and growing towns.
An urban mountain bike playground
Bentonville is known as the home base of Walmart, but the town is also earning a reputation for investing in quality of life – an initiative reflected in the creation of one of the earliest mountain-biking trail systems in the area, Slaughter Pen. The name is an homage to the agricultural business that once thrived there, but now, this hollow just below the revitalized downtown is crisscrossed with over 20 miles of trails, with names like Apple Turnover and Boo Boo.
You can park on the Bentonville square in the morning and grab a coffee on your way to the bike shop, then descend into Slaughter Pen on the iconic All-American Trail, which sends riders past the gleaming copper roofs of the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art. From there, spend the day playing on flowing downhills, all manner of jumps, technical rocks and wooden features. Once you've had your fill, head back to the square to refuel at one of the many restaurants serving up tasty eats and local brews. Wrap up the day with a walk through the world-class art museum you saw from the trail.
Riders can explore an additional 15 miles of trail at Coler Mountain Bike Preserve just west of the city. It features cross-country trails, as well as several downhill-specific lines, which emanate from a raised steel platform that’s designed to blend into the woods around it. Or take a three-mile ride on a paved greenway to the neighboring city of Bella Vista to find more than 40 miles of riding on the Blowing Springs and Back 40 trail systems.
A back country escape in city limits
Tucked into the southwest corner of Fayetteville, just 10 minutes from the University of Arkansas campus, Kessler Mountain Regional Park packs a back country riding experience into 11 miles. The park has preserved some of the first community-developed mountain biking trails in the region, so the system mostly consists of hand-built single track. Jutting rocks combined with off-camber roots give trails like Spellbound and Crazy Mary an old-school rawness, while more recent, professionally built lines like Chinkapin Oak provide contrast with new-school flow.
Take a break for lunch on the Fayetteville square or Dickson Street to get a taste of this college mountain town that gets its organic funkiness from a mix of artists, students and Razorback sports fans who call it home. Then, for more back country riding head half an hour south to Devil’s Den State Park, which many local riders consider to be the birthplace of the mountain biking scene in Northwest Arkansas. End your day at one of Fayetteville’s seven local breweries.
A masterpiece in dirt and stone
Imagine ribbons of dirt punctuated by stretches of boulders that have been expertly knit together into undulating waves of trail. That's what you'll find at Fitzgerald Mountain, just east of downtown Springdale. The whole network of trails adds up to 11 miles, but the technical terrain, rocky descents and punchy climbs make it feel like 20.
Fitzgerald might be small, but its many features run the gamut, from a so-called 'strider' course for children who are just beginning to learn to ride bikes to some of the largest expert-level features in the entire country. Trails like Stage Coach, Coyote Cave and the affectionately named Best Trail Ever are worth riding for the stone masonry alone, and the challenging advanced and expert sections of trail include easier 'go around' options for less experienced riders. Once you’re done, grab a snack at one of the taquerias on Emma Avenue and wash it down with a cider at Black Apple Crossing, the only cider brewery in Arkansas.
Get shuttled up to get down
The quirky town of Eureka Springs is home to seven mile-long, downhill-only trails of varying difficulties that traverse one of the steep hillsides at Lake Leatherwood City Park. For a fee, which goes back to maintaining the trails, a shuttle service sprints riders and their bikes up the mountain to two stone platforms that serve as the launching pads for each trail. There are smooth, flowing trails for beginners, rocky and technical descents for intermediate riders, and massive jumps and drops for the experts.
Riders can also take in the 1,600-acre park on the other 20 miles of trails built and developed over the last two decades, largely thanks to volunteer advocacy and labor. The system weaves up and down the hillsides and takes visitors around Lake Leatherwood to one of the must-see spots: the 1940s limestone dam that created the lake. After hitting the trails, head to Eureka Springs’ main drag to take in the crooked streets, Victorian homes and haunted hotels in a town that’s part bohemian shops and restaurants and part motorcycle bars and barbecue joints.
Trail tips and etiquette
Ride within your limits. The trails in every network in Northwest Arkansas are graded green to black for difficulty, like ski runs, so pay attention to the signs and scout features before riding them. Since most of the trails are multi-use, yield to those who are not on a bike. Each trail holds up differently after rain or a cold snap. Try to check in with a local bike shop or riding group to get a gauge on conditions. You may have to adjust your plans, but even when some trails aren't rideable, plenty of others can handle it. You can use websites and smartphone apps like MTB Project and Trailforks to get to and around the trail systems. And check back often: there are two miles of new trail being built in Northwest Arkansas every week.