Riley works the black diamond Ledges Trail off the Back 40. Chris Shotz photos
Cycling with Chris Schotz
Oz-Scaping? And the Progressive Trail Design That’s Coming North
I have to admit that I hadn’t given Razorbacks much of a thought beyond the Arkansas governors that have a habit of running for President, but then I heard a rumor that nine hours straight south of St. Paul was a destination with world-class singletrack open 365 days a year. Having had enough of slush, I loaded the bikes for Bentonville this March and found even more surprises than I’d imagined. What I discovered is a town with the foresight and finances to support trail building as an art form.
Bentonville is perched on the western fringe of the Ozarks, a range of steep hills cut by untold ravines that feels like the mazes of Utah married to the coulees of Wisconsin, but just spectacular terrain alone did not make northwest Arkansas into a silent sports haven. That, of course, took a billionaire dedicated to the betterment of his old home town – Sam Walton – whose original five and dime store still sits on the city square just down the block from the new Trek dealer. People will debate the effects of Wal-Mart on their town, but Bentonville is one city thriving because of the contributions of the Walton Family Foundation toward creating a town that attracts the best employees to corporate headquarters and all of the vendors who have set up shop in the shade of the retail giant.
Bentonville and neighboring Bella Vista are still growing fast, with new houses going up on the crest of every hill, but efforts to maintain a small town atmosphere are paying off. You won’t find a shiny glass office tower in town, but you will notice a city that is culturally-centered around the city square that hosts a Friday farmer’s market which melds into a monthly arts party. While it was once a big deal for a Sonic drive-in to open in Bentonville, now there are new restaurants of every flavor opening fast enough to make a local’s head spin. This includes brew pubs that are newsworthy in a county that just went from dry to wet a few years ago, thanks to the lobbying of two Walton grandsons, Steuart and Tom. Those are the same Waltons who love mountain biking and were behind much of the millions of dollars spent on the paved Razorback Greenway Trail and the natural-surface singletrack network.
More riding on rock out the Back 40 way.
Their aunt Alice brought the work of the most famous of American artists to the Crystal Bridges Museum that just opened in a creek bed just across the Greenway trail from black diamond singletrack. The new museum is worth visiting just for the architecture alone. Cable, concrete and natural materials surround a reflecting pool to create a stunning building that melds into the green hills. Israeli architect Moshe Safdie travelled to Arkansas to design Crystal Bridges, but Bentonville would not have to look across the world to find a trail architect who could create the singletrack that would stand beside the work of Rockwell and Warhol.
Nathan “Woody” Woodruff had been riding renegade trails around his hometown of Fayetteville for ten years when the city of Bentonville contacted his landscape company to build the first official trails in 2006. That was the Slaughter Pen freeride park that grew up the hill into the varied collection of trail that are the signature of his work today. While some Midwestern flow trail seems like mile upon mile of similar trail, northwest Arkansas trail mixes things up with a sprinkle of wooden obstacles to spice up the jump lines, berms and rock features that give each trail its own flavor. Around the time that Woody had moved on to Slaughter Pen Phase Two he got the idea for Progressive Trail Designs, the company with a national footprint today.
The Progressive name has nothing to do with politics or insurance. Progressive is a design philosophy that presents a rider with the next greater challenge to work up to. The Ozark trail difficulty scale accurately represents the progression from easy to advanced trail on par with Upper Michigan ratings, but a bit tougher than typical Minnesota and Wisconsin ratings.
Cruising along the Back 40 boardwalk.
The other key element of Progressive Design is beauty. These trails merge naturally with an already spectacular landscape. They are not slashed through the forest haphazardly, but instead are painted with organic brushstrokes that flow with the terrain. Stone and boardwalk features follow earthy lines, and even the landmark features that require steel fabrication have a way of accenting the hillside that reminds a person of a Frank Lloyd Wright installation. Stone and earth used to build trail features are extracted from massive borrow pits that are later camouflaged into invisibility. A rider will not always notice the attention these trail landscapers pay to aesthetics, because the natural materials are arranged to flow into their indigenous surroundings. Some landscapers might resort to concrete retaining walls and drains, but Progressive takes the time to move native stone with mechanical wheel barrows and excavators to construct a sustainable surface that diverts the flow of water without looking like a highway off-ramp.
Northwest Arkansas has become a bubble set apart from the rest of the state by an influx of outsiders and a massive investment in trails. You will hear “you guys” as often as “y’all,” and you’ll find the $38 million Razorback Greenway ties the college town of Fayetteville to Bentonville and every town in between. A full day of riding could begin from a single parking spot where the Crystal Bridges trail merges with over 20 miles of Slaughter Pen trails that feature the famous downhill run and a sequence of wooden skinnies and drops that are designed to progressively push your courage just one notch higher.
A short jaunt down the Greenway brings a rider to the epic expanse of Blowing Springs and The Back 40, with well over 50 miles of topographic wonderment that wind through the common land that infiltrates a maze of Bella Vista cul-de-sacs. Some trails are all about rock ledges, while others roll and jump or just flow. Right off the Rago trail is Bella Vista’s Metfield Park, which is home to several fabricated skill features and a unique pump track that Progressive just covered in Shock-Crete this year. You have to love a town that thinks a bike park belongs next to the mini-golf course and public pool.
The entire Back 40 area never takes a rider far from civilization, but the new Coler mountain bike preserve west of town is like a trip to another planet. This system is built around a small mountain with a handful of uphill routes that merge at a gigantic steel structure called the Hub. When complete, the Hub will send riders down ramps in all directions to a variety of downhill runs, including the relatively-safe jumps of the Fire Line and the stone-infused ledges of Rock Solid. Coler is home to Bentonville’s most intense double diamond trail, which is intimidating just to look at, but fun to experience vicariously as you watch young hucksters floating through the air off diving boards and step-ups. Coler is one of several locations where Progressive has teamed up with Copper Harbor rock star Aaron Rogers to construct the most gorgeous trail ever to hang off the side of a mountain.
The author’s son, Riley, explores rock options on Blowing Springs Trail.
On this trip, we ran out of time before we ran out of trail. Bentonville has nearly 100 miles of singletrack, with a plan to reach 150 miles in five years, and that doesn’t include highlights from the surrounding towns. In neighboring Rogers, Progressive finished the $3 million Railyard bike park, which offers as much variation as their forest trail. The Railyard connects to the Lake Atalanta singletrack, which is a short jaunt from the camping and smooth singletrack at Hobbs State Park.
On my next trip to Bentonville, I’ll continue past the Pea Ridge Battlefield and White River to Lake Leatherwood, which offers camping and more than 20 miles of trail that some call a true downhill course. Further south, the locals favor the backcountry feel of the IMBA Epic at Buffalo River, which is also a destination for paddlers seeking Class III and IV whitewater and rock climbers who find the 400 routes at Horseshoe Canyon. Back in Fayetteville, the Kessler trails have hand-cut lines between boulders and over technical sandstone bluffs that some call typical Ozark trail. Whether the sandstone of Fayetteville or the loose chert of Bentonville, most of these trails drain well enough that they could even be ridden in rain if a rider was desperate.
Progressive continues to build in the Ozarks, while their craft spreads across the country, notably in Aspen, Col., where they have built trail for several summers and Birmingham, Ala., where you can find their Jeckyll and Hyde downhill runs for three miles down Coldwater Mountain. They’ve been busy finishing the lift-accessible lines at Detroit Mountain, Minn., and have contributed to the Duluth Traverse that Woody believes is the best example of a city dedicated to singletrack outside of Bentonville itself. This May, Progressive will be sending Aaron Rogers to Sylvan Hill in Wausau to shape Wisconsin’s premier urban bike park. By August, the CWOCC club will be ready to cut the ribbon on four gravity runs plus a perimeter loop, skills park and pump track. Arkansas is a magnetic spring break destination, but up north we are blessed with a blossoming collection of progressive singletrack ourselves.
Check out the skinny here:
This is the plan for Sylvan Hills that Aaron Rogers and Progressive Trail Designs will construct this summer in Wausau, set to open in August. Rogers is one of the shining trail-building stars with PTD, the company responsible for the Bentonville system.