The folks in Bentonville have begun referring to the city as the Mountain Biking Capital of the World. It's not a stretch.
"During the past decade, our community has built a reputation among mountain biking enthusiasts and athletes as the premier global destination for the sport," says Mayor Stephanie Orman. "We're the heart of the trailhead in the Ozarks and headquarters to the most innovative mountain bike trail designs."
Coming from one of the world's richest families, brothers Tom and Steuart Walton could live and invest anywhere. Fortunately for Arkansas, they've chosen to do so here. Their company known as the Runway Group is helping make northwest Arkansas the most desirable place to live in the region.
"This incredible distinction has come after years of intentional work from Bentonville's city leaders, trail builders, maintenance teams, new and experienced riders, and countless others," says Tom Walton. "From the outset of our shared vision to transform our city as a mountain-biking paradise unique from other destinations, city government and community leaders provided the support and balanced leadership we needed to make the dream become a reality."
Bentonville has about 130 miles of what's known as singletrack connected to downtown. There's also access to more than 250 miles of regional trails. The Walton brothers are making sure those trails are connected to award-winning restaurants, upscale coffee shops and craft breweries. You can toss into the mix one of the top hotels (21c) and art museums (Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art) in the country. Kalene Griffith of Visit Bentonville, which is the city's convention and visitors bureau, compares the social and recreational scene to that of a ski resort.
"Bentonville is the birthplace of a modern mountain-biking landscape, much like a ski town is out west, only we'll be riding all four seasons," she says. "Just one day of visiting here and you'll quickly learn why there's no place quite like Bentonville."
Graham Cobb of the Greater Bentonville Area Chamber of Commerce calls the biking craze a way to "redefine rush hour."
Other kinds of biking have also caught on. Recently added features at the Coler Mountain Bike Preserve at Bentonville include overnight camping, an open-air cafe, barns for group events, yoga platforms, pavilions, more parking, additional restrooms, bike wash stations and better trailhead access.
The 300-acre park, which opened to the public in 2018, was established by the Walton Family Foundation. It's now managed by the Peel Compton Foundation, which was founded in 1992 and also oversees the Peel Mansion & Heritage Gardens and the Compton Gardens & Conference Center.
"Weaving the Coler Mountain Bike Preserve into our operations fits perfectly within our mission of connecting the community through nature, education, recreation and preservation," says Debra Layton, executive director of the Peel Compton Foundation. "We can't wait for everyone to come experience it."
The cafe is known as Airship at the Homestead and will serve locally brewed beers and coffee drinks. A porch, rooftop seating and an outdoor garden will feature views of the preserve. The camping amenities, meanwhile, will include eight single-tent and eight group sites, which can be reserved online. An area known as Coler Grove will have a pavilion, yoga platforms and a plum orchard.
David Wright, the parks and recreation director for the city of Bentonville, calls the Coler Mountain trails, camping and event spaces "the perfect ingredients to serve the recreational enthusiasts who live in and visit our community. The opportunity to preserve 300 acres of greenspace and tree canopy will ensure this land continues to give back for generations to come. Bentonville is fortunate to have the Peel Compton Foundation and Walton Family Foundation as partners."
A report commissioned by the Walton Family Foundation showed that there has been 36 percent growth in cycling use and 13 percent growth in pedestrian activity since 2015. The heaviest volume is along the Razorback Regional Greenway.
"Northwest Arkansas residents are continuing to take advantage of trail options," says the Walton Family Foundation's Karen Minkel. "Yet there's still work to do to ensure the trail system serves the region's mobility needs and is seamlessly connected to safe streets."
Washington and Benton counties have 484 miles of trails. There are 322 miles of natural-surface trails and 162 miles of multi-use paved trails. The number of miles of trails has grown 32 percent in the past two years, and there's no end in sight to efforts to expand the system.
The pandemic has led to even greater trail use. In June, the natural surface trails in Blowing Springs and the Back 40 Trails at Bella Vista saw a 105 percent increase from the average monthly use last year. Some Bentonville multi-use trails had increases of more than 75 percent. The Razorback Regional Greenway at North Street in Fayetteville had its highest monthly user count (more than 41,000 cyclists and pedestrians) since opening in 2008.
"Our trail system unites our communities," says Kim Seay, a coach and coach trainer with the National Interscholastic Cycling Association at Bentonville. "It's a way for people to get out, enjoy nature and meet others. It's also one of the most diverse trail systems around. ... We have beginner trails, trails for intermediate riders, hikers. We have rocky and smooth terrain. It's not intimidating to come out and hike on the trail."
Senior Editor Rex Nelson's column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He's also the author of the Southern Fried blog at rexnelsonsouthernfried.com.