ROUGHLY FIVE YEARS ago, the revival of trail building commenced in Northwest Arkansas. Seeming to materialize overnight, these rapid additions are impossible to keep up with—in fact, by the time this is published, even more trails will be built, forming a stronger bond between the words “mountain biking” and “Arkansas.” Although it’s difficult to truly pinpoint the defining moment that made our state synonymous with mountain biking, it’s clear that two key events certainly provided the momentum. In 2015, Bentonville earned an International Mountain Biking Association Silver-Level Ride Center status and played host to the organization’s World Summit in 2016. However, this building force is far from its apex. Between the swathes of oaks and evergreens that blanket the natural areas across the northwest and central regions, brand new russet ribbons are being carved into sacred places that haven’t been cut in almost a century: our Arkansas state parks.

On June 7 of this year, members of the Rogers-based Rogue Trails crew stood at the edge of the woods of Hobbs State Park, beaming with pride at one such ribbon: the first of four Monument Trails systems planned statewide (so far). The 16-member crew had spent the past 18 months on Hobbs’ 12,056-acre parcel—a part of which was a completely untouched peninsula—navigating the stands of trees in their mini-dozers, rearranging dirt and rocks near the familiar conservation area outside of Rogers. This was significant for several reasons. As the first major project by the Arkansas Parks and Recreation Foundation—created as a means to channel private resources directly into the parks, such as the contributions of the Walton Family Foundation—it represented a new era of trail-building, a duet of private and public partnerships. Soon, this partnership would move into central Arkansas by way of Mount Nebo and Pinnacle Mountain state parks, areas prime for trail building and full of expectant riders.

But more than that, every facet of this new construction—the thoughtfully constructed bridges, sustainable design, the emphasis on naturally occurring and locally sourced building materials—was in a sense, paying homage to the trail builders who’d come before: the Civilian Conservation Corps.


STANDING IN THE woods of what would become our state parks nearly 90 years ago, you might have seen a comparable construction scene—save for the mini-dozers, of course. Instead, a collection of young greenhorns—a fraction of the half million corpsmen spread across the country—armed with pickaxes and adzes, combed through the virgin woods of Petit Jean, Mount Nebo, Crowley’s Ridge, Devil’s Den, Lake Catherine and Buffalo Point. Working for a dollar a day, these men were members of the CCC, a federal group created during the Great Depression era by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. From 1933 to 1942, the corpsmen undertook more than 100 types of work, including the development of 28,000 miles of hiking trails nationwide, the rough equivalent of road-tripping coast to coast 11 times.

At the time, Arkansas’ parks system was, for all intents and purposes, nonexistent. Although Act 276 of 1923 formally established the system, it wasn’t until the CCC arrived—creating roads, trails, lodges, cabins, campgrounds, amphitheaters, bathhouses, picnic pavilions and beaches throughout the corners of our state—that the parks system we know today started to take shape.

“The stuff they were doing was pretty incredible,” says Tim Scott, the assistant superintendent of Devil’s Den State Park and a 40-year veteran of the state parks system. Devil’s Den is one of two state parks (Petit Jean, the second) with no small number of well-preserved CCC structures and trails. The park is also vital to the culture of Arkansas mountain biking, as it holds two key distinctions: The first mountain-biking event of its kind, the Ozark Mountain Bike Festival, was held in 1989, and “the godfather of Arkansas mountain biking” oversees this park: Tim Scott.

Tim, a deliberate, thoughtfully spoken man, flips through image after image of the 200-man CCC crew stationed at Devil’s Den in the 1930s. His office is a treasure trove of nostalgia: Stickers and magnets from the past three decades adorn nearly every visible surface, and rows of well-loved park-management books line the walls. Tacked behind his computer, in a place of prominence, is an aged print advertisement for the Fat Tire Festival in Crested Butte, Colorado.

When soft-surface cyclists started to appear in the area, the state parks administration had to decide whether to allow them, as Tim says, “in or … out.” Mountain biking in the 1980s was closely aligned with the skate scene from the same era and considered a counterculture. On top of that, there was concern over trail damage since a biker’s “footprint” is different from a hiker’s. To better educate themselves on this new movement, Tim and his then-boss road-tripped out to Crested Butte to observe the aforementioned Fat Tire Festival.

“Truth be told, in the ’80s, funding for the state parks system wasn’t great,” he says. “We were looking for ways to boost money and boost visitation. Mountain biking was a large part of that solution.” Soaking it all in from the base of the Rocky Mountains, the team brought this idea back to Arkansas to usher in the fledgling mountain-biking scene.

Now 30 years later, a new era of trail building is underway to provide unforgettable experiences and bolster pride in Arkansas. Monument Trails, “a constellation with individual multiuse trail ‘stars’” at each park, are slowly being woven into our state parks. The broad appeal of these trails, along with the architectural features, trailside camping spaces and epic views of some of Arkansas’ most scenic vistas, is what promises to further secure Arkansas as the Cycling Hub of the South.

 


THE ENTIRE STATE is benefiting from this surge of trail-building—not just in the potential physiological and psychological boosts, but in economic refinement. Northwest Arkansas has already seen the economic and cultural perks of trails as they increase the state’s ability to draw and retain a young, energetic workforce. Amber Chambers, who moved to Arkansas from Colorado, is an exemplar of that workforce. The opportunity to be part of the escalating mountain-biking movement in Arkansas is ultimately what brought her to oversee trail-building efforts for Monument Trails. In her boots-on-the-ground role, she sees the potential to capitalize on the metro hubs of Northwest Arkansas and Little Rock to support the growing outdoor scene with the continued building of these trails.

Another person of that caliber is Logan Felder, a mountain biker who’s been riding for 20 years and a Russellville native. Although he was born in Arkansas, Logan called Oregon home from age 12 until he returned to The Natural State in 2014 and realized that the mountain-bike scene was really taking off in the northwest corner of the state. As an NICA (National Interscholastic Cycling Association) coach and bike mechanic, he recognizes the value that trails bring to an area, especially for future generations. Luckily for Logan and many other central Arkansas mountain bikers, the latest Monument Trail lies in the middle of the River Valley, just below the bench of Mount Nebo.

Amber Chambers

Completed this past spring, this 7-mile intermediate loop, named Chickalah Valley Loop for the scenic creek that flows through this part of the park, is phase 1 of what promises to be a robust and intricate trail system. Phase 2, set to begin in fall 2019, should feature more all-skills-based riding and add 25 additional miles of multiuse trails to the state park—some in parts of the park inaccessible until this project.

And this is just the beginning of the construction of world-class trails in central Arkansas.

While the work continues at Mount Nebo in Dardanelle, there are two promised state parks that will play host to Monument Trails: Pinnacle Mountain State Park and Devil’s Den State Park. Construction on both are set to begin this fall. Appropriately enough, Devil’s Den, the birthplace of mountain-biking in Arkansas, will feature a trail system with namesakes that honor the CCC’s legacy and truly come full circle for the history of the sport.


FACING CABIN 17 in the middle of Devil’s Den State Park, I daydream about the spirits of the CCC smiling down on the current progress of recreation in our state. Offhanded, I ask Tim what he thinks of the new Monument Trail out at Hobbs.

“I do like the approach they’re taking,” he says. “They’re stepping back and approaching it like the CCC. They’re building them sustainably. Those bridges are incredible—they echo the CCC-type of construction. This is the type of bridge you want in a state park. It looks like it’s part of the local environment.”

The parallel of the crews’ construction style to that of the corpsmen is uncanny. The Rogue Trails crew, the folks behind the Hobbs State Park trails, used CCC bridge-building techniques in their production, incorporating these bridges into the existing natural landscape. It’s an understood ethic that state parks host architectural objects that blend in as much as possible so as not to distract from the naturally occurring landscape. At Mount Nebo, Rock Solid Construction, a firm well-known for its rock armoring, was chosen because of the site’s ample rock material. In both cases, the teams constructed bermed switchbacks and lines that cut through the bench of the hillsides, carefully considering the topography, so that after a storm, water naturally drains away from the lines of exposed earth, not gumming up in corners and dips.

These trails, when finished, appear like they could have been part of the landscape 100 years ago—nothing forced, nothing over the top and with the spirit of the original crews, the CCC, always in the back of their thoughts. It’s that sustainable ethic that truly makes these trails stand out and become, in short, truly monumental. 


Mount Nebo State Park

Status? 

Tim Scott

Chickalah Loop (7 miles) opened summer 2019. Another 17 miles are slated for spring 2020.

Trail length?

When completed in 2020, 24 miles of Monument Trails.

Difficulty?

Chickalah Loop is an intermediate experience. As a mountainside trail, it includes intense climbs. The next phase will include plenty of beginner trail and an expert line as well.

Know before you go? 

Get an e-bike and stock up on snacks at Carr’s Chain Reaction bike shop in Russellville. The visitors center has plenty of ice-cold Gatorade and a bike-wash station with a view. Visit Tarasco’s Mexican Restaurant and Tony’s Italian in Dardanelle for the perfect post-ride dinner or lunch. Still got energy to burn? Go climbing at The Wall in Russellville.

Other trails in the vicinity?

Rim Trail (hiking) on Nebo, Old Post Mountain Bike Trail (6-mile green trail) and Ouita Coal Company Trail (9-mile green/blue).

(For more information, including maps, visit arkansasstateparks.com/trails/monument-trails)


Hobbs State Park

Status?

Opened June 7, 2019. Bike-in camping to come fall/winter 2019.

Trail length? 

17 miles of Monument Trails. More than 35 miles total at Hobbs State Park.

Difficulty? 

Green/blue (beginner friendly).

Know before you go? 

This is a backcountry experience, so be sure to pack extra food and water. Park at the visitors center, or park at Paige Sawmill Road for a nearly 8-mile shoreline loop. In downtown Rogers, don’t miss Onyx Coffee HQ, Ozark Beer Co., and Talulah’s Outfitters and Deli for a quick bite. Rent a bike from Phat Tire or Playtri. If you’re new but still want to experience the entire loop, consider an e-bike.

Other trails in the vicinity? 

In addition to the 20-plus miles of non-Monument Trail at Hobbs, the area is a mountain biker’s paradise. Try Lake Atalanta or the Railyard.

(For more information, including maps, visit arkansasstateparks.com/trails/monument-trails)