A Puzzle of Rock
Northwest Arkansas quickly established its reputation as a mountain biking destination, but much of that attention has been centered in one corner of the state. Four hours south, in Hot Springs, a new trail system has opened that will add another attraction to the region.
Hot Springs already stood in an enviable spot, as the only city in the U.S. to have three IMBA EPICS within an hour’s drive. But like many communities around the country, the town wanted something closer to home—both as a tourism draw as well as a valuable asset for local residents. The Northwoods property opened to the public on November 17, 2018, with about 14 miles of trail completed in the first phase of construction. The trailhead sits only about two miles from downtown, making it easy for tourists and locals alike.
“It surprised me how quickly it’s gotten busy,” said Steve Arrison, CEO of Visit Hot Springs. “It’s amazing how many cars you can see coming through downtown with bikes on them.” Riders from a surprising variety of states have already visited to check out the trails, which were specifically designed to offer something different from the older, more traditional trails found in Arkansas’ IMBA EPICS.
“The highlight is that the town wanted to make something special and current in the riding market,” said Josh Olson, our IMBA Trail Specialist overseeing the build with IMBA Trail Solutions. “So we approved and created two jump lines, Lucky 13 and Bluejay. There’s a creek gap jump, a step-up jump—some really fun, modern-day jumping trails.” There are also sections of handbuilt, black-rated singletrack to offer riders a more rocky, technical experience. Finally, no community trail system would be complete without some green and blue trails to foster new riders.
“A lot of (local) people have taken up mountain biking,” Arrison said. “Your neighbor tells you, ‘I’m getting a mountain bike, I’m going to start riding.’ The other surprise to me was the number of people riding already, but you don’t realize it until you have good trails.”
Arrison had been inspired to start the project after meeting with Visit Bentonville in 2016 and being introduced to staff at the Walton Family Foundation, a longtime supporter of mountain biking in the region. After Hot Springs supplied $640,000 for the initial funding, the foundation matched that amount, and IMBA Trail Solutions was brought in later that year. They worked first on a regional trails concept plan, then spent over a month analyzing potential trail sites. The long-term goal is to have 45 miles total, and the subsequent build phases are currently in the funding process.
Meanwhile, many people in Hot Springs already consider the project a success. “I get nothing but positives from the community,” said Traci Berry, the Northwoods trail coordinator. “I have business leaders, hotel owners, bar owners, asking me how to market to mountain bikers. The partnerships and the amount of support we have here really makes things work.”
Trails have already proven their worth for the region, as shown in a study commissioned by the Walton Family Foundation and People for Bikes. In 2017, bicycling provided $137 million in economic benefits to Northwest Arkansas, and mountain bike visitors spent $27 million at local businesses. Residents contributed another $21 million on bicycling goods and events. The study put the number of trail tourists at 90,000, a number stated as similar to other riding destinations like Oregon.
“The attraction is quality trails,” said Arrison. “You need a well-built trail system that’s maintained, and every time someone comes back, that quality is still there.”