Trails, trails and more trails.
By Lindsey Millar
Erin Rushing, executive director of NWA Trailblazers, perhaps the state’s leading trail developers, estimates that his group is building 1.5 miles of soft-surface trails on average per week. His nonprofit, which focuses exclusively on Northwest Arkansas, has greatly benefited from the Walton Family Foundation’s dedication to cycling, which is propelling many of the efforts detailed here. Read on to learn more about the Arkansas Parks and Recreation Foundation, a new effort funded by Walton grants to build mountain bike trails in state parks and connect many of them, from Bella Vista to Hot Springs, with a 1,100-mile mountain bike trail. And take a ride through Northwoods, the new world-class bike trail in Hot Springs (also funded in part by the Walton Foundation), with its new trail director and our guest editor, Traci Berry. What follows is, of course, just a sampling of the rapid growth in trail development in Arkansas.
Rattlesnake Ridge, Ranch North Woods (Pulaski County) and Bluffton Preserve (Van Buren County)
As part of a new strategy, the Arkansas chapter of The Nature Conservancy is building mountain bike trails on two of its largest land holdings in Central Arkansas. The Nature Conservancy’s mission is “to conserve the lands and waters on which all life depends,” but in Arkansas, within that mission, there’s a new strategy: connecting people with nature. “It’s trying to connect people back with conservation, connect people to the natural places that we have,” said Mitchell Allen, river restoration and recreation use project manager with the nonprofit. Nature Conservancy land has always been open to the public, but the nonprofit hasn’t promoted them to the public, Allen conceded.
Rattlesnake Ridge Natural Area is 373 acres The Nature Conservancy jointly acquired with the Arkansas Natural Heritage Commission in December 2017. It’s located just to the west of Pinnacle Mountain right outside of Little Rock. There’s an existing road to the top of the ridge, which rises 920 feet above sea level, which hikers can use to reach scenic views or access rock climbing areas. Meanwhile, through a private grant, The Nature Conservancy has contracted with Affordable Trail Solutions, a new trail builder out of Clinton (Van Buren County), to build a 6-mile loop trail up and down the ridge for mountain bikers and hikers. The roughly 1.6-mile section up to the top of the ridge is scheduled to be completed this summer. Allen said it’s designed to maintain the “wild feel” of the property. “When you’re on one section of trail you’re not likely to see other people,” he said. Nature Conservancy employees and members of the Central Arkansas Trail Alliance are also pitching in to help build the trails.
In Van Buren County, The Nature Conservancy is also building multi-use trails at its 985-acre Bluffton Preserve. The tract of land runs along the Archey Fork of the Little Red River. The plan is to build 7-9 miles of single-track trail, likely with a 6-mile backcountry loop, with a trail building contractor continuing work that’s already begun by volunteers this summer or fall. The Nature Conservancy received a $160,000 Recreational Trail Program grant from the Arkansas Department of Transportation to pay for the trail building.
In the summer, when it’s drier, Allen also recommends The Nature Conservancy’s William Kirsch Preserve within Ranch North Woods at the end of Ranch Boulevard in Little Rock. There are flat trails through fields that are perfect for introducing kids to mountain biking, Allen said. The preserve is 234 acres with 1.7 miles along the Little Maumelle River.
Burns Park (North Little Rock)
Central Arkansas Trail Alliance volunteers recently helped develop nearly a mile of new trail across the street from the park’s tennis center, on the north side of Joe Poch Road. The park has about 13 miles of unpaved mixed-used trails for biking, hiking and horseback riding. The new trail and other planned new downhill sections would be reserved for hikers and bikers.
Southwest Trail (Pulaski, Saline and Garland counties)
The Southwest Trail could do for Central Arkansas what the Razorback Regional Greenway has done for Northwest Arkansas. The planned 60-mile trail would connect the Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site with Hot Springs National Park along an old Rock Island Railroad corridor. It’s expected to be 10-12-feet wide and made of asphalt, much like the Arkansas River Trail, at a cost of around $40 million. Pulaski and Garland counties were awarded grants from the state Department of Transportation to continue the design work the counties began last year; once construction begins, it’s expected to take five years. A Friends of the Southwest Trail group was formed to raise private money to support the project.
Delta Heritage Trail State Park
When complete, this crushed gravel trail will stretch from Helena-West Helena (Phillips County) to Arkansas City (Desha County), almost 90 miles, 73 of which will come on former railroad right-of-way donated by the Union Pacific Railroad Company. So far, there are 21 miles open in the northern section (from Lexa, outside Helena-West Helena, to Elaine) and 14 miles open on the south end (from Rowher to Arkansas City). Crossing the Arkansas and White rivers and running the trail along trestles in the White River Refuge make it especially costly. There’s no timeline for completing it at this point.
The Great Passion Play (Eureka Springs)
Just a few years saved from bankruptcy, The Great Passion Play is working to bring new visitors to its grounds through mountain biking. Already, it’s built 18 miles of mostly cross-country trails throughout its 667 acres (though there are several blacks and double-black diamonds). By the weekend of Palm Sunday, April 12-14, when the Passion Play is hosting the Dirt Church Mountain Bike Festival, it plans to have 25-26 miles of trail in place. Much of the new trail will provide added connectivity within the existing system.
Also in Eureka: The city’s other main attraction, Lake Leatherwood, recently got new starting hubs on north and south downhill runs.
Coler Mountain Bike Preserve (Bentonville)
Perhaps the crown jewel of Northwest Arkansas mountain biking, this 300-acre preserve has been open to the public since 2017, but it won’t be fully complete until this fall. The 16 miles of soft-surface trails, 1.6 miles of paved greenway and most of the big features (like the 16-foot wood and steel Peak One Hub that launches riders into runs) have been completed. What’s left? One big feature at the bottom of the Thunderdome trail, a dual slalom trail; a cafe; pavilions; and camping area.
11 Under Trail System (Bella Vista)
This ambitious project is named for the 11 tunnels underneath Bella Vista roads that the trail will travel. There’ll be no conflict with riders and automobiles. Twenty miles of the system have already been completed; construction on the tunnels and the rest of the trail begins in March and is expected to be completed in October.