One City’s Journey: Assessment to Construction
I dismounted my bike atop the start of the jump line at Cedar Glades Park; my eyes narrowed in the mid-day sun as my gaze surveyed the possible lines I could drop into. I rolled my bike over the tabletops, glided effortlessly through the massive gravity berm and was deposited into the adjacent skills park. This skills park is parallel to two trails: an intermediate and a beginner trail that takes riders directly into the Northwoods Trail System from the Cedar Glades side.
From Fall 2016 to Spring 2019, IMBA Trail Solutions designed and built Northwoods Phase I. This resulted in 16+ miles of progressive, bike-optimized trails that spanned the gamut of beginner trail to black jump lines and everything in-between. “Rich [Edwards] gave me the opportunity to build some of the trails that I’d always seen in my head,” said Josh Olson, IMBA Trail Solutions Director of Construction.
What makes the Northwoods Trail System unique for the area is the fact that it's a stacked loop system, one that allows trail users the ability to “bite off” as much mileage as they have time for or the ability to ride. With this style of build, as opposed to traditional singletrack, riders don’t have to worry about coming across features, 10-15 miles from the trailhead, that they aren’t prepared for yet. Its uniqueness also stems from the fact that its tread lies on federal, county and city land all within the same system.
Cedar Glades Park was already home to 11 miles of existing singletrack and once the newly constructed city-owned Northwoods Trails were connected, instantly the area had 27 miles on the ground. From spring 2019 to winter 2019, IMBA Trail Solutions completed approximately two miles of improvements to the existing trails at Cedar Glades through realignments and reroutes to give the park a more bike-optimized experience. Additionally, the Trail Solutions built a small bike park and skills area alongside McGill Trail Fabrications at Cedar Glades.
In Winter of 2020, a major milestone to the system came in a 0.6-mile package. At the start of the Northwoods master plan in 2017, one of the key trailheads that were identified to provide ride-in access from within the community passes through National Park Service land. Hot Springs National Park, one of the oldest national parks in the country, is adjacent to the city of Hot Springs and compromises much of the existing green space surrounding the city. Building a new National Park Service trail that’s open to bikes is no small lift. IMBA Trail Solutions, Visit Hot Springs, National Park Service, SE Group and the Arkansas State Historic Preservation Office all worked together to make the 0.6-mile trail, The Pullman Connector, possible through the Bike Rule authorization and NEPA process. With the commitment of the National Park Service, this process was expedited and only took two years which made this trail connection to downtown possible.
“The key ingredients that have made Northwoods a successful trail system are the support from Visit Hot Springs and the city and county entities, the paid [trail] maintenance staff, the variety of trails within the stacked loops system, and the signage package,” said Josh. When Northwoods opened to the public in 2018, hiring paid staff for a city’s trail system was a relatively innovative idea. IMBA Trail Solutions made a recommendation to the city of Hot Springs to consider creating positions that maintained their investment. The first hire at Northwoods? Traci Berry.
“My role is to promote and manage the Northwoods Trails,” said Traci, Northwoods Trails Coordinator, “and the growth of Northwoods in future phases and funding those phases through grants.” Distilled down, Traci’s in the relationship business. She’s equipped with a mellow, Southern twang, a knack for making people feel comfortable and a willingness to talk to anyone. She’s often speaking to local and regional organizations on Northwoods and working on committees that support bike and pedestrian infrastructure. She also stresses the importance of listening to the community and cites them as her number one resource for advancing Northwoods into future phases. “I’ll often get caught up at the trailhead for 30 minutes or more just talking to people,” Traci explains, “If I don’t recognize them as a local, I’ll ask them where they’re from, what they’re in town for and how they come across Northwoods.”
While Traci is attracting more riders to Northwoods, Jake Meredith is making sure they’re in tip-top shape. As a Hot Springs native and a mountain biker of 16 years, Jake has been shaping dirt for the Northwoods Trail System since its inception. “I got to follow [the IMBA team] through the initial flagging and design all the way into cutting the first trail itself,” said Jake. His in-depth involvement evolved into a full-time job as the Northwoods Trail Specialist in 2018 alongside Traci.
Jake’s daily duties span from mowing the grass at the trailhead, manicuring the jump and flow trails, and everything in-between. But, his daily duties all stem from the relationships he and Traci have built within the city. “We work with the National Park and AJ [Johnson] at Cedar Glades [a county park] daily to keep this entire trail system looking and feeling seamless to riders,” said Jake. One of Jake’s other key responsibilities is coordinating with IMBA Local Partner Trail Advocacy Coalition of the Ouachitas (TACO) for monthly trail workdays.
“I’ll try to get some of the brunt of the work taken care of…machinery work, sawyering work, things like that,” said Jake. From there, TACO volunteers meet up with him at the Northwoods Waterworks trailhead and he outlines the work that needs to be done.
“Working with Jake is extremely helpful when it comes to maintaining the trails that we have,” said Bucky Monreal, President of TACO. “We work with him on a day-to-day basis and enjoy a mutually respectful collaboration.” Jake is proud of the community that’s formed in Hot Springs as a result of Northwoods.
“If they’re not out here working on their trails, they’re forming group rides here or some of the other surrounding trail system,” Jake added.
As the ridership in Hot Springs has increased dramatically, the community continues to embrace Northwoods and its value to the area. Whether it's the support of building new mountain bike amenities or the next cycling event, regional and city businesses are investing their time and resources into attracting riders to Northwoods. “We’re doing things on the daily to make sure that Northwoods stays sustainable and a world-class trail system,” said Traci. “We couldn’t do it without our relationship with the county, our relationship with the National Park and we definitely couldn’t do it without the relationships we’ve developed with all the different city departments.”
Part III of The Making of Northwoods explores Phase II and its shift from front-country style riding to backcountry-esque escapes.