I’m poised at the top of an undulating sculpture called the Masterpiece, my knobby-tired mountain bike pointed down the barrel of a rippling metal pathway. This 928-foot piece of “rideable art” looks like an industrial conveyer belt made of oversized bike chains and steel mesh, and when I start rolling down it, gravity takes over. The experts ride it fast, purposely going airborne where the “trail” swoops up and curves over a bridge, but I’d rather keep my wheels on the ground. Still, the feeling of flowing down the hill makes me hoot and holler like a twelve-year-old.
I’ve come to Bentonville, Arkansas, to check out the bike scene, but just as this stretch of trail blurs the lines between bike path and sculpture, I’ve found that the whole culture here focuses as much on museums and public art as it does pedaling. Toss in plenty of good coffee shops, a hip hotel, and a respectable dining scene, and it’s easy to understand why adventure travelers as far away as Austin are buzzing about it. Bentonville alone is home to more than 150 miles of bike trails, including dirt single-track trails tucked behind curtains of trees and graded similarly to ski runs for beginners, intermediates, and experts, as well as the 40-mile paved Razorback Regional Greenway.
And that represents just the tip of the handlebars, so to speak. In all, more than three hundred miles of bicycle trails—dubbed the Oz Trails, for the nearby Ozark Mountains —crisscross the northwest corner of Arkansas.
“We want to be the world’s destination for mountain biking,” says Gary Vernon, senior program manager for cycling and trail development for Blue Crane, a development company owned by the grandsons of Walmart founder Sam Walton. “If you’re a brand-new rider, we want you to come here and ride for the very first time. If you’re a pro, you can come here and ride stuff you can’t find anywhere else. We want to be the cycling destination for everybody.” That’s a tall order, but somehow this town of 55,000 seems to be making that happen.
Twenty years ago, people passing through the seat of Benton County might stop by the Walmart Museum on the tulip-lined downtown square to learn about Walton, who founded the multinational chain of discount and grocery stores. Then, in 2005, Alice Walton, Sam’s daughter, founded the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art. About that time, Tom Walton, one of Sam’s grandsons, came up with the idea to hand-cut five miles of single-track bicycle trails on property owned by the Walton Family Foundation. He, along with his brother Steuart and their friends, went to work with shovels, digging trails that zigzag through thickly forested hillsides. When they finished, the foundation gifted the land, which was once where animals were held before butchering, to the city. “Then we started seeing license plates from out of town,” Vernon says.
Since then, Slaughter Pen has expanded twice, each time adding dozens of miles of additional trails. And in 2011, the new Crystal Bridges Museum building, designed by celebrated architect Moshe Safdie, opened to the public.
Today the city is home to more than half a dozen bike shops, plus an array of breweries, restaurants, and coffee shops that cater to cyclists. Visitors can grab a beer at the Bike Rack Brewing Company, order up a pizza at the Pedaler’s Pub, or sip an espresso and buy chain lube at a combination bike shop and restaurant called the Meteor. Hotels provide bike storage, murals depict cycling themes, and bike racks offer easy parking all over the business district. Even the schools are getting in on it, teaching elementary students how to ride a bike and launching a new program this fall to train bike mechanics at NorthWest Arkansas Community College.
I didn’t even rent a car during my stay. Once I got to the 21c Museum Hotel downtown (part hotel, part museum, with exhibits throughout), I could walk or pedal everywhere I needed to go, including the main trailhead to Slaughter Pen.
From that starting point, it’s possible to explore new terrain for days. The All American Trail, with entry-level features including purpose-built berms, rollers, and jumps, and the paved Razorback Regional Greenway, spill from the trailhead into Compton Gardens. Pedal down either and you’ll discover hidden works of public art— a giant pair of hands stretching upward, an eleven-foot statue of Sasquatch made of bike parts, or a circle of rocks that looks like a miniature Stonehenge. There’s also easy access to Crystal Bridges, where you can see Norman Rockwell’s Rosie the Riveter or walk through a Frank Lloyd Wright house. (The Momentary, a new satellite of the museum housed in a former Kraft cheese factory, focuses on interactive experiential art, and is also easy to reach by two wheels from the other side of the courthouse square.)
I spent a day riding the Slaughter Pen Trails with Aimee Ross, director of Bike Bentonville, which promotes cycling in the area. We chugged up Armadillo’s Last Stand, one of Tom Walton’s original hand-cut trails, then dove into Leopard’s Loop, a chip-sealed flow trail with plenty of banked turns and smile-inducing dips. We passed kids practicing high-flying maneuvers off jumps and a trio of middle-aged women out honing their riding skills. Before my visit ended, I’d met mountain bikers who traveled here from Nashville, upstate New York, and Texas.
The next day I headed to the three-hundred-acre Coler Mountain Bike Preserve, also easily accessible from downtown, which opened in 2016 and is owned by the nonprofit Peel Compton Foundation. Vernon led me through the woods to a magical clearing, where a starting platform made of wood and steel called the Hub rises from the soft red dirt. “(Coler) is purposely designed to be a mountain bike experience,” Vernon told me just before pedaling his way up the ramp to the top of the Hub. I climbed up after him, without my bike, just to take in the view, but Vernon never even balked. He zoomed down the wooden chute, soared through the air and twisted his bike for style points, landing in a puff of dirt before blasting up a van-sized mound of dirt that formed the next obstacle.
When he finished, I hopped back on my bike and followed him through the woods, climbing up switchbacks and around ravines, hopping over roots and rocks as we went. “These rolling hills make it perfect for mountain bike trails,” Vernon said, nodding at the surrounding terrain. “What we like to say is Arkansas was built for mountain biking.”
We headed next to one of the most famous spots on Bentonville’s hit parade of bike trails: the Drop the Hammer. There, Vernon rode straight off a metal platform, flying over a trail beneath it and landing with a solid thud, all body parts somehow still intact. “You get a sense of weightlessness when you’re in the air,” he says. “It’s a really fun, exhilarating feeling to leave the ground on a bike.”
Unlike other popular mountain biking destinations, such as the mountains of Colorado or Utah or Whistler, the lower altitude here means less gasping and puffing. And everything’s easy to reach from downtown Bentonville, eliminating the need to load your bike into a car to reach a trailhead.
“We’re the muffin tops,” Vernon said of the network of trails. “There is no two-hour climb to get to the good stuff. You roll out the door and you’re on top of the muffin.”
When my adrenalin finally slowed, we headed to the Airship, a cafe that serves food, coffee, and beer and is located in a meadow near a beautifully restored old barn at the center of the Coler Preserve, reachable only by foot or bike. I felt like I was at a ski resort, taking a break at the on-mountain restaurant, as I sipped a honey lavender latte and watched people pass from a rooftop table.
And it’s all growing. In the last three years, bike trails have popped up at the rate of about 1.5 miles per week in state parks, city parks, and preserves owned by nonprofit organizations, according to Aaron Mullins, director of communications for Visit Bentonville. In 2020 alone, 128 miles of new paths —everything from steep, rugged and rocky to long and easy pathways suitable for families with small children—were built. Trail counters installed alongside trailheads recorded 860,000 passes in 2019. A year later, that number almost doubled to 1.45 million.
The city’s declaration last year that it was the Mountain Biking Capital of the World might still seem a tad premature, but I’ve had only three days to inspect the evidence. Surely, I need to head back to do some more riding and get the proof I need.
A version of this article originally appeared in the May 2021 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “Hop on a Bike.” Subscribe today.