Traci Berry manages (and pedals hard in) Hot Springs’ Northwoods TrailS System.
By Lindsey Millar Photograpy by Novo Studio
In November, Traci Berry became trail coordinator for Hot Springs’ Northwoods Trails System, the most exciting mountain biking development in Central Arkansas in years. The multiuse trails designed especially for mountain bikes are the centerpiece of the newly opened Northwoods, 2,000 acres of pristine woodlands a short distance north and west of downtown’s Park Avenue. The park includes three lakes that were built as drinking-water reservoirs: 13-acre Lake Bethel, 24-acre Lake Dillon and 28-acre Lake Sanderson. The lakes, along with much of the park, have been closed to the public since around Sept. 11, 2001, for security reasons.
Visit Hot Springs, the Hot Springs Advertising and Promoting Commission, officially opened Northwoods in November. It matched a grant from the Walton Family Foundation to fund the $1.3 million Phase One of the city-owned project. There are 14.5 miles of trails for riders of all skill levels, with another 2.5 miles under construction (Garland County has long operated Cedar Glades Park, which has 15 miles of mountain bike trail that’s connected to Northwoods). By May, if not sooner, all 17 miles of Phase One, of what’s envisioned to eventually be a 45-mile system, will be open.
Berry, who is enrolled at the Clinton School of Public Service’s executive master of public service program, has a resume that’s long and varied, but it adds up to make her an ideal fit for her new job.
After graduating from Henderson State University, where she attended on a basketball scholarship, she coached and taught for years in Mayflower, Bentonville and Little Rock. “For the longest time, I thought there wouldn’t be a day when I wasn’t in the gym,” she said. Though she says she’s always been “outdoorsy,” it wasn’t until the early 2000s that a friend in Northwest Arkansas introduced her to mountain biking. At the end of her first ride, she said, “I was beat up and worn out, but I was like, ‘Man, I like this. I gotta keep doing it.’ ” From there she got into kayaking and rock climbing. She helped build and manage Buffalo River Canopy Tour in Ponca, and became race director for Raid the Rock, a 24-hour adventure race that covers approximately 100 miles with mountain biking, running, canoeing and rope elements. She later managed a warehouse and sold advertising for the Arkansas Times. After getting out of education, she became more outspoken in her advocacy for the LGBTQ community and active in politics.
Enrolling in the Clinton School was a way for her to figure out how to channel all her diverse interests, she hoped, but along the way she learned about the Northwoods development and the newly created trail coordinator job, and it checked the box on many of her passions: outdoor recreation, community development and education.
As trail coordinator, she’s responsible for traveling to festivals and the likes of Rotary meetings to talk about “how we got where we are and where we’re going and all the possibilities.” She works with the International Mountain Bicycling Association, whose Trail Solutions division designed and constructed Phase One of Northwoods, to learn about the engineering involved in building trails, so once Trail Solutions is gone, Berry will be able to oversee her new hire, trail system specialist Jake Meredith, as he works to sustain the trails. She’s also focused on what the next section of trail will look like, but said it’s too early to describe the details. One concrete development coming soon: The city of Hot Springs is working to repair several of the park’s dams. Once that work is complete, Berry expects Visit Hot Springs to begin promoting the lakes for paddleboarding, fishing and more.
Event promotion promises to be a significant part of Berry’s job mix. The government shutdown led to Northwoods’ first big race. Texas-based Kodiak Tough had scheduled a marathon race at the Lake Ouachita Vista Trail (LOViT) in the Ouachita National Forest in February, but with the shutdown dragging on early this year, organizers decided to relocate to Northwoods. The event includes a 45-mile marathon race Feb. 16 and a 20-mile enduro race Feb. 17. Some 300 riders were expected to travel to compete. “That’s what these trails were built for — to bring people here,” Berry said.
Of course, as trail coordinator, she’s got to make time to ride, though she says she’s gotten teased. “I’m still riding my 2004 Giant Anthem 3,” she said in late January. “People are always making fun about how my bike is antique.” But soon after we talked, she got a new bike — a 2019 Orbea OIZ Trail — which she said, laughing, would give her the extra edge to take over as “queen of the mountain” on Strava (the top time on the social running and cycling analytics app) on some of the Northwoods trails.
“People have been coming [to the area] to mountain bike for years,” Berry said. “But they’d come here and maybe just stop in to eat and leave” to go ride the nearby Womble, LOViT or Iron Mountain trails. Now, even though those rides may continue to pull riders, the draw of Northwoods and all the amenities of Hot Springs make the city a more natural base for a cycling trip. Berry said it’s common to find cyclists from Shreveport, La.; Memphis; and Dallas hanging out and talking in a Northwoods hub, where multiple trails intersect, on the weekend. Meanwhile, she says there’s evidence the trail is converting people to mountain biking. Unlike the nearby “Epic” mountain biking trails, the beginners trails of Northwoods are forgiving and get progressively more challenging, so riders can get comfortable and then step up. Berry said she and Meredith have seen parents hanging in cars waiting for kids who were riding one week, then those same parents getting on bikes a few weeks down the line.
The goal of Northwoods isn’t simply “build it and tourists will come,” Berry said. It’s also “build it and, hopefully, people will stay or move to Hot Springs.”