Bentonville, Arkansas Is Disneyland for Mountain Bikers
Our New York City–based bike columnist visited America's most up-and-coming cycling destination and found it well deserving of the hype
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How do you get to your regular mountain-bike trails? Are you one of the privileged few who lives just pedal strokes from the trailhead? Or are your rides bookended by drives or long pavement slogs?
If you fall into the latter category, as I do living in New York City, or if you could simply use a change of scenery from those trails right outside your front door, you’ve no doubt contemplated taking a riding vacation. Everybody’s heard of places like Crested Butte, Moab, and Park City in the context of mountain-bike fantasylands, but increasingly, Bentonville, Arkansas, is emerging as a riding destination. Yes, Bentonville, a city heretofore known best as the birthplace and world headquarters of Walmart; and yes, Arkansas, a state Americans in the Snob Belt have recently come to associate with citizens under siege by 30 to 50 feral hogs.
This summer, Bike Bentonville, an organization that promotes a cycling-oriented culture and tourism in town, invited me to speak at the Arkansas Bike Summit in Bentonville. I’d read stories of how the Walton family (heirs to Walmart founder Sam Walton) was turning the region into a mountain-bike paradise, so I eagerly accepted, but beyond that, I really didn’t know what to expect out of the town. What I got was not only a highly satisfying weekend bicycle escape but also a surprise infusion of art and culture I hadn’t realized I needed and quite possibly a preview of my next family vacation.
Because vendors flock from all over in order to supplicate themselves before one of the largest retailers on the face of the earth, Bentonville is easy to reach—you can fly nonstop into Northwest Arkansas Regional Airport from most major U.S. cities, and I had no trouble finding an inexpensive flight from LaGuardia. Moreover, the Phat Tire bike shop is located right in the middle of downtown Bentonville, and for anywhere from $38 to $120 for 24 hours, it rents a full range of bikes, from cruisers to hybrids to road bikes to hardtails to high-end dual-suspension bikes to e-mountain bikes. It even has bike trailers for $20. Sure, we’re all attached to our own bikes, but between the airline fees and the onerous process of packing and unpacking (not to mention the risk of damage), traveling with them is arguably not worth it. I was so secure in the knowledge that a pro-level shop had me covered, I simply threw a few things in a backpack and warmed up for my trip by riding to the airport.
The first thing you notice when you deplane at Northwest Arkansas Regional Airport is the smell; the region is also the country’s largest poultry producer and the home of Tyson Foods, so the air immediately around the airport is a bit funky. The second thing you notice—at least if you ride a bike—is the life-size mountain-bike diorama in the airport promoting the Oz Trails network, which includes the trails in and around Bentonville and boasts 300 miles of singletrack.
These trails are a product of the Walton Family Foundation’s commitment to “investing in our home region of Northwest Arkansas and the Arkansas-Mississippi Delta,” according to its PR boilerplate language. It’s a sizable investment, too; according to the foundation’s website, it has spent $74 million over ten years to build 163 miles of paved and unpaved bike trails. The investment is paying off for the region: the foundation says bicycling provided a $137 million boost to northwest Arkansas in 2017 alone, in part because “proximity to bicycle infrastructure” encourages people to relocate to the area. You can thank the Waltons’ love of bikes for this. (Brothers Tom and Steuart Walton, grandchildren of Sam Walton, are passionate cyclists.)
On the morning of my first full day in Bentonville, I headed to the conference and got my first glimpse of downtown. Moderately upscale-looking restaurants and shops surrounded Bentonville City Square, which was beginning to fill with food trucks, stalls, and vendors for the Saturday farmers’ market. On the southeast corner of the square was Walton’s, the five-and-dime store Sam Walton opened in 1950 that now serves as the home of the Walmart Museum. Preserved as a mid-century idyll complete with a soda fountain and a gift shop selling Red Ryder BB guns, its quaint folksiness belies the downtown-killing retail behemoth it ultimately spawned.
And yet downtown Bentonville itself is clearly thriving. After spending some time at the summit, I wandered around as storm clouds amassed overhead. Block Street Records sold actual records, made from vinyl. Ozark Mountain Bagel Co. combined two words I, as a New Yorker, never thought I’d see together on a single sign, those being Ozark and bagel. A gift shop sold T-shirts comparing Bentonville to Manhattan, and overall I got a sense that this was a place that was warm and southern and at the same time not ashamed to trade on a sense of cultural cachet.
Bikes are a major part of Bentonville’s sales pitch, and the Walton Family Foundation’s investment in cycling has clearly informed the cityscape. The Visit Bentonville tourist information center had Bike Bentonville decals in the window, the sidewalk chalkboard outside the Bentonville Tap Room tempted cyclists with craft beer, Phat Tire took up a full corner of prime downtown real estate, and bike-specific way-finding signs similar to the ones you see in Portland, Oregon, (save for the Walmart logo) pointed to nearby landmarks.
Cycling has played a major role in the vibrant feeling of the city center. “Folks around here will tell you that no one came downtown about ten years ago, and now you see people everyday,” says Aimee Ross, director of Bike Bentonville. “Not only people, but people riding bikes and all types of people: families, young students, large groups of women only, and all types of bikes.” People did indeed roll around town on bicycles, and dirty mountain bikes leaned against walls and windows of local eateries. It was all enough to make me forget where I was, though the Confederate monument in the middle of the town square quickly re-centered my GPS.
By this time, the sky was about to erupt, so I ducked into Pressroom, an airy, wood-and-metal contemporary American restaurant that would be at home in any gentrified downtown in the nation. (Bentonville has a burgeoning food scene: “Good restaurants there,” remarked my brother, who works in fine dining, when I mentioned I’d be visiting.) In a way, I suppose coming from New York to Arkansas and ordering an IPA and a hamburger on gluten-free bread is not exactly branching out—in fact it’s kind of like visiting Europe and eating at McDonald’s—but I did it anyway, and everything was excellent. Other downtown dining options include the Hive, whose executive chef, Matthew McClure, is a six-time James Beard semifinalist for best chef, and Tusk and Trotter, which specializes in “High South” cuisine, which is northwest Arkansas’s signature culinary movement.
It was still raining when I emerged from Pressroom, but the worst of the storm had passed, so beneath a steady drizzle and under the spell of a craft-beer buzz, I walked the one mile to the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art via the Art Trail. Most people were still sheltering from the rain, and I hardly saw a soul as I made my way through a lush rainforest traversed by a clay-colored creek, the pitter-patter of the rain on the tree canopy lulling me into a trancelike state. Occasionally, I also glimpsed immaculately manicured, swooping ribbons of dirt paths twisting and undulating their way through the vegetation. They seemed precious, like a network of roadways for gnomes. In my experience, that degree of landscaping is always accessorized with a “No Bikes!” sign—not to mention I was also in the immediate vicinity of an art museum—so I was amazed when I finally figured out that these were mountain-bike trails.
Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, founded by Alice Walton in 2011, is a primitively modern concrete structure that emerges from a chocolate-milk-colored swamp, like something out of Planet of the Apes, and beneath the dreary gray sky it looked vaguely dystopian. Inside was another matter; it was way more Cameron Frye’s dad’s garage from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, except instead of a vintage Ferrari, it housed a gobsmacking collection of art: portraits of George Washington, Maxfield Parrish’s “Lantern Bearers,” paintings by George Tooker, who I’d never heard of but whose work had me transfixed. If back at the square I’d forgotten I was in Arkansas, here I forgot I was in the United States. Surrounded by international tourists and fine art, I could easily have been somewhere in Europe. It was only when the volunteers spoke—genially and regionally accented, like Walmart greeters—that I remembered I was back in Bentonville. Certainly you couldn’t have gotten me on a plane just to go to a museum and look at some art, but now that I was here, I felt as though Crystal Bridges alone had been worth the trip.
By the next morning, I’d recovered from my Stendhal syndrome and remembered why I’d really come to Bentonville: to ride bikes. It was dry outside, but the forecast threatened rain again, and so I made my way down to Phat Tire as soon as it opened in order to pick up a rental. Like tailors at a fashion show, the staff at this bike shop sets visitors up with rental bikes swiftly yet expertly and then sends them out onto Bentonville’s lavish trail network like models onto a runway. In short order, I was astride a Trek Fuel EX Plus, saddle in position and suspension settings dialed.
Given all the rain the day before, I was concerned that the trails would be wet, and I didn’t want to be the person who sashays into town, leaves a bunch of ruts all over the place, and then goes home. My fitter at Phat Tire allayed my concerns, explaining that the trails drained well, and that, in any case, Bentonville promises 365 days of riding and has the resources to keep everything in good repair. “You’re a guest, don’t worry about it,” seemed to be the prevailing attitude.
I needn’t have worried. “Even during a rainstorm, we have trails that are rocky in composition that you can easily ride,” Erin Rushing told me later in an email. Rushing is the executive director of NWA Trailblazers, a nonprofit that develops local multi-use trails. “Our climate is mild enough that it rarely gets too hot or too cold to ride. We use professional trail builders, who have years of experience building trails that are not only sustainable but enjoyable.”
Sure enough, the trails were dry, save for the odd puddle or two, and even the red-clay singletrack that I’d been warned might not fare well was firm and rideable. Not only that, but navigationally, the trails were practically idiotproof. From the pump track right off the town square, I found myself on the swoopy trails I’d walked by the day before, and within minutes I was deep in Slaughter Pen, a trail network of over 20 miles. Everything was so intuitive and well signed that finding my way was mostly a question of just riding and occasionally consulting the MTB Project app to confirm I was where I thought I was. Even technical trail features were clearly marked with signs reading “FEATURE,” and there were always alternate lines if I was inclined to edit them out. Compared to the hardscrabble riding I was used to in the Northeast—where trail maintenance is intermittent, signage is a novelty, and it can take a full season to figure out the lines—the trails of Slaughter Pen felt positively sumptuous.
Crossing over Razorback Regional Greenway, a nearly 40-mile shared-use path that goes all the way to Fayetteville, Arkansas, I rode the twisty ups and downs of the Tatamagouche and Medusa Trails. This was the most fun I’d had on a bike since L’Eroica California in the spring; a network of red-clay ribbons, berms, smooth stonework and wooden bridges, all flowing into each other like streams beneath a lush canopy. It was the cycling equivalent of binge-watching a new show on Netflix—just pedal and watch it all unfold.
Beyond the trails, I was riding the Back 40, a 20-mile loop skirting the Missouri border that I had heard is a little more rough around the edges than the Slaughter Pen system. I was tempted to press on, but I considered the menacing storm clouds and the lack of food in my pack, and ultimately figured there was no point in turning a delightful romp into a possible slog. Instead I stayed in Slaughter Pen and gradually made my way back to downtown Bentonville, telling myself I’d have some lunch and then head out for round two. Alas, shortly after I returned to civilization, the skies opened yet again, and I was just tired enough to not mind having an excuse to stop riding. I returned the Trek to Phat Tire and trawled downtown for gifts before heading back to the hotel and getting ready for my return flight.
If the trails in Bentonville were a Whole Foods, then my ride was basically the equivalent of ducking in and nibbling on a free sample. But it was more than enough to make me want to return. And while I could no doubt lose myself on those trails for days on end, what was most appealing about Bentonville was the turnkey nature of it as a vacation destination and how well it lent itself to short but satisfying jaunts of both riding and culture. The town is walkable and bikeable, so if your hotel provides a shuttle (as mine did) or you hop in a cab for the 20-minute, $40 trip from the airport, you don’t need to rent a motor vehicle. You don’t have to pore over maps for days on end. You don’t have to pack a bunch of gear or do a lot of planning. Just bring some pedals, grab a bike at Phat Tire, and ride. Also, because Bentonville is designed for two things—mountain biking and hosting travelers from all over the place who want to do business with Walmart—there are not only plenty of flights but a plethora of accommodation options, ranging from double-digit chain motels to the 21c Museum Hotel, where a luxury suite will run you somewhere around $500.
I could easily imagine coming back for a full-on weekend shred fest, but what I really lamented was that my family wasn’t with me. Between the user-friendly mountain-bike trails, the greenway, and Crystal Bridges—all directly accessible right from downtown—it’s really set up perfectly for an active, car-free family getaway. I saw parents with kids riding the trails, which made me miss my own little ones. This multi-ability, multigenerational trail use is by design: “All new trail networks are built with progression in mind,” Rushing wrote in his email. “We are always looking for the perfect mix of trail difficulty for all ages and abilities. I have three boys (18,14, and 8) and we all ride, so developing trails and trail systems that we can all go to and enjoy as a family is important to me, as well as to our community.” So if you’re the family shredder, you can go rip it up early, then join up with the rest of the clan for some more mellow pedaling.
There’s also a lot more to come from the region. According to Rushing, roughly two to three miles of trails are being built per week, “so odds are you’re going to find new trail every time you come visit.” On top of that, he said, “We are also constantly updating and reworking existing trails in the older networks and making them even sweeter.” Then there’s cyclocross. In 2022, the UCI Cyclocross World Championships will come to Fayetteville, less than 25 miles away—it will be held on land at Millsap Mountain that is being developed as a cycling venue, with a grant from the Walton Family Foundation. Starting this year, the site also hosted FayetteCross, an elite two-day race in October.
If you’re leery of corporations, you may be hesitant to accept the Walton family’s largesse, but hey, if you appreciate bikes and art, then at least two of their interests align with your own. Anyway, it beats giving more money to the Walt Disney Company. And there are no mountain-bike trails on Space Mountain.