By J. Eli Powell — When my wife first mentioned that we would be taking our vacation this spring in north west Arkansas, I have to admit my first question was, “Why?”
Actually, I think my question was something more along the lines of, “Why would we take our hard-earned personal time off and go dodge tornados amongst the corn in the heartland?”
My wife, beside being very smart, is also a patient woman. She was patient enough to take the time not only to tell me, “That’s Kansas!” But also, to add a constructive observation like, “you moron! The Ozark frigging mountains are there!”
We laughed; I say stupid things all the time. But I was pretty sure I was right about this one.
We drove to Bentonville from our current home in Austin and passed through Oklahoma. Memories of reading the Grapes of Wrath about Okies fleeing the dustbowl passed through my mind as I dreamed about politely, nay benevolently, telling my wife that, “It’s okay, geography isn’t for everyone.” Well, to make a long story short, my self-satisfied chuckles faded as we passed through the Ozarks and through the wooded hinterlands of Fayetteville and on to Bentonville. There were big hills, there were vast expanses of woodlands and pastoral meadows. We were surrounded by natural beauty, and though the locals refer to this area of the Ozarks as “Oz,” we did not have to go through Kansas or a tornado to get there.
All joking aside (since my third-grade teacher, Sister Llewella, and her trusty yard-stick would have had my knuckles singing out over such geographical lapses) northwestern Arkansas and the Bentonville area is the home to some spectacular cycling no matter your preferred flavor of two wheeled adventure. Folks who follow American cyclosport may be familiar with the area as hosting the International Mountain Bicycling Association (IMBA) World Summit in 2016, the Red Bull Pump Track World Championship in 2019 and the 2022 Cyclocross World Championships. The area is also home to 5 IMBA EPIC trails. This designation is one the association holds for 20-plus-mile immersive backcountry routes of more than 80% singletrack. This is the most EPIC trails of any state, one more than Colorado! As for the rest of us who couldn’t name a pro circuit MTB rider to save our lives and for whom 20 miles of singletrack sounds, um … daunting, there is plenty of other terrain to keep any cyclist interested. It lays claim to more than 400 miles of singletrack and an abundance of paved and gravel routes.
Our visit to the area was motivated by the “Girls Gone Gravel Festival,” which my wife, Brin, and her friend Julie had signed up for. This three-day event caters to women gravel riders of all ages, ethnicities, abilities, and body types. It offered not only exciting rides but also skills clinics and social activities in a noncompetitive atmosphere. The festival provided a fantastic opportunity for women to connect with fellow riders, learn maintenance and repair tips, and have a great time together. For women interested in joining this group, which organizes events in various locations and advocates for women gravel riders, check out their website at https://www.girlsgonegravel.com/.
The cycling scene in the Bentonville area is infused with a real sense of playfulness. This was revealed to us in another event we stumbled across, the Double Barrel Gravel Ride. This event offers three distance options—15, 31, and 71 miles—taking riders through picturesque backroads in Arkansas and Missouri. Organized by the local Phat Tire Bike Shop, it culminated in an enjoyable post-ride experience with skeet shooting (never done that after a bike ride), live music by a tight cover band called the Frisky Squirrels, a damn fine crawfish boil with jambalaya, and the best beer we had on our trip from Fossil Cove Brewery in Fayetteville. Donations, merchandise sales, and raffle ticket proceeds went toward supporting local charities though the ride itself was free. The route was charming, with a few manageable climbs that won’t intimidate those accustomed to riding in the Wasatch and Rockies. The dirt roads were lined with tall trees and lush foliage, providing ample shade for the mid-May ride. Although some participants may have approached it as a race, without chips, bibs, or podiums, it was more of a casual gathering for fun-loving cyclists. Notably, we encountered very few cars during the ride—less than ten on the 15-mile route—and not a single loose dog! Despite inadvertently adding a few extra miles to our ride due to missing a turnoff, my wife and I enjoyed the day so much that we forgot to complain about course markings to anyone.
The heart of the Bentonville is a little like a mountain town that doesn’t have to split its allegiances between skiing and cycling. This town is all in on bikes. There are numerous bike shops throughout the town and no shortage of places you can rent or get repairs on bicycles. Cycling themed bars and restaurants abound (like the Pedaler’s Pub and Bike Rack Brewing Company) and you can even get your morning coffee and pastries along with tubes and chain lube at the Meteor Café. Paved bike paths course throughout the urban area and many of these lead directly to trailheads for mountain bike routes. The gravel scene is booming here, as in many places, but the area really seems to embrace having bicyclists and their bicycles on the road. Much of this pro-cycling attitude has to do with the influence of Tom Walton, one of the grandchildren of Walmart’s Sam Walton (Walmart’s corporate headquarters are based in Bentonville), who has used the resources of the family’s charitable fund to preserve, build and maintain local trails. I’ve rarely ridden on better constructed or marked trails.
There are some other incredible things to do in town when not sitting in the saddle. The Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art has some of the best examples of modern and contemporary American painting and sculpture that I’ve seen outside of places like New York or Chicago. The structure itself is a stunning piece of architecture that integrates the galleries with reflecting ponds, naturalistic landscaping and outdoor sculpture. They also have a house designed by Frank Lloyd Wright on the grounds to walk through. In the town center, you’ll find numerous boutiques and dining options, while summer Saturdays come alive with a charming farmer’s market overflowing the town square.
Getting to Bentonville can requires some commitment by travelers from the intermountain West. For example, the drive from Salt Lake City is a cool 19 hours (you can even choose a route through Kansas!). You can easily fly into the regional airport in Fayetteville with single stopovers and then drive the 40 minutes to Bentonville. Either way you get there it’s worth checking out.