My tires bounced along a rocky path carved through a dense forest of towering pine trees. The sunlight filtering through the canopy revealed a scene that looked as though it was plucked from a J. R. R. Tolkien novel. We were completely in the wilderness, yet only minutes from downtown Hot Springs National Park, riding a newly-constructed network of trails that brings world-class mountain biking to Hot Springs.
The Hot Springs Northwoods Trail opens to the public Nov. 17 with the completion of Phase One (the first 7 + miles out of a planned 44). Designed and built by The International Mountain Bicycling Association (IMBA), the purpose-built trails crisscross a largely-untouched swath of city-owned land. While the area was used recreationally in the past, it has been closed to the public since 2001 - the year, I moved to Hot Springs.
That was also about the time I became interested in outdoor recreation, particularly hiking, camping and kayaking. And while the region is already home to three IMBA Epic Rides (The Womble Trail, the Ouachita National Recreational Trail, and the Lake Ouachita Vista Trail), mountain biking somehow hadn’t made it onto my radar. With a new trail system – designed by some of the world’s best trail specialists – opening up right in my backyard, it’s now front and center.
While discussing the new trails, local mountain biking enthusiast Jona Parker offered to take me out for a ride. A volunteer and advocate for the trails system, she and her husband Matt have been leading volunteer work nights and group rides in the Northwoods.
“We love the Northwoods,” she said. “It’s unlike anything else we have here. In many ways, the trails themselves are very different in style.”
The trails system includes hand-cut, single track trails, as well as machine-built flow and jump trails which boast a variety of features for beginner and experienced riders alike such as rollers and berms, table tops and doubles. The trails are marked according to their degree of difficulty: Green for beginner, blue for intermediate, and black for advanced riders.
The advanced trail, dubbed “Randy Spangler’s Black Trail,” was designed by professional rider and IMBA Trails Specialist Randy Spangler. It includes thrill-seeking features for expert riders, such as a jump with a clearance of 24 feet from the lift to the land.
“IMBA has so many talented builders on their staff. Randy Spangler is one of them,” said Gary Vernon, a mountain bike enthusiast and a program officer for the Walton Family Foundation.
The nonprofit organization played a major role in funding Bentonville’s immensely popular network of shared-use and mountain biking trails. Its success is due in part to its connectivity to downtown.
“If you have a trail leading from downtown, it actually enhances the cycling culture in a city,” Vernon said.
The Walton Foundation wanted to help fund a similar trails system in Hot Springs and provided Visit Hot Spring with a matching grant for the Northwoods Trail.
“We’re trying to create a world-class destination in the state of Arkansas,” Vernon said, “and Hot Springs is one of those cities that is going to contribute to that.”
When the Northwoods Trail opens on Nov. 17, there will be two trailheads: the Water Works Trailhead and the Cedar Glades Trailhead. The Water Works Trailhead is just two miles from downtown.
For Jona, that proximity is perhaps her favorite part. She and her family of five - all of whom ride - live within a mile and a half of the trailhead, and a proposed trailhead on Pullman Avenue brings the trails even closer… right into downtown Hot Springs.
“It’s amazing to have that accessibility,” she said.
The accessibility to downtown will be a major draw for visitors as well, who can potentially ride from their hotels to the Northwoods and back without ever having to get into a car. And the fact that Hot Springs has so much more to offer means mountain bike enthusiasts can bring the family along too. Imagine pedaling out from your hotel while your travel companion goes out for some sightseeing or shopping downtown, then meeting up later for a soak in one of the bathhouses before going out for dinner.
“When you have a destination that offers lots of different things, it’s always good,” said Seth Alvo, producer of the popular Youtube channel, Seth’s Bike Hacks. He recently visited Hot Springs to ride the Northwoods Trail and produce a few new videos for his channel, like this one on how the trails were built. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3-VYLLYUYcM
“It’s very well planned,” he said of the Northwoods Trail. “It’s hard to get lost out there since the trails converge in several places, and there's enough variety to satisfy just about any skill level.”
A resident of Asheville, N.C., Alvo travels to world-class, mountain biking destinations across the country. He visited Hot Springs last year when the trails were first being built and was eager to see the progress.
“Everybody wants their town or city to invest in mountain biking but nobody has implemented it quite as well as Bentonville and Hot Springs,” he said. “They’re sort of an example.”
I met Seth at a local coffee house during my interview with Jona. As she and Seth opined on different mountain biking destinations, I began feeling rather inadequate and nervous about my upcoming ride into the woods. Most of the riding I’ve done has been on roads or paved trails, such as the Hot Springs Creek Greenway Trail. Nonetheless, I was grateful for the invitation and knew Jona would be a great guide. (She is the head coach for the local youth mountain biking team, the Hot Springs Thoroughbreds. Her two sons are both members and her daughter frequently practices with them.)
We made plans to meet at the Water Works Trailhead on Pineland Drive, a gated road that leads to the city’s water treatment plant. Located just two miles from downtown (off of Cedar Glades Road), I’d driven past the entrance many times, often wondering where it led. Following the grand opening, the gate will remain open throughout the day, closing only at night.
Pineland Drive dead ends at the water treatment facility which offers plentiful parking and views of Bethel Lake, which is one of three lakes within the Northwoods. The trailhead was, at this point, marked only by a large magnolia tree at its entrance. Jona’s 14-year-old son, who happens to be a national championship mountain biker, joined us and the three of us cruised beneath the branches and onto the single track, green trail. It proved to be easy enough for a novice such as myself. I enjoyed feeling the earth beneath my tires and the sensation that I was experiencing something new. But Jona cautioned me as we approached the green flow trail, which features a series of short hills in quick succession.
“It’s not difficult to ride,” she said, “but you can get going really fast.”
I’d heard the term “flow” tossed around a bit recently and probably should have Googled it. The series of hills appeared rapidly, one after another, and while they were short, they were unexpected. An audible, “whoa” escaped my lips. I wasn’t at risk of going too fast though as I pumped my breaks and even dodged one of the hills.
But the Parkers? They were gone.
My attention had been on the ground right in front of me and when I finally looked up, I was alone. I pushed forward, scanning the trees, and began to worry that I’d missed a turn somewhere and was now on the wrong trail. Thankfully, my fear was short-lived as I spotted them waiting for me on the trail just ahead.
Having tested my skills on the green trails, we veered onto the blue single track trail. The uphill climb was quite challenging (leaving me with spaghetti for legs) but the ride back down was more fun that I could’ve imagined. Before our descent Jona had given me a few tips that were really helpful: Keep level pedals (to avoid knocking roots or rocks), keep your eyes looking ahead, keep one finger braking, and stand (with level pedals) when going downhill or over rough terrain.
The slight adjustment of my eyes (looking ahead rather than at the ground right in front of my tire) and standing (rather than sitting) made me feel much steadier and more confident. I allowed myself to gain some momentum as we sped down the hill I’d struggled to ascend and I actually enjoyed it. When I reached the bottom, I let a more than audible “Woohoo!”
Before it was designated “The Natural State” in 1995, Arkansas was known as the “Land of Opportunity.” For me, the Northwoods embodies both of these monikers. Locals saw an opportunity in the land around us, and thanks to a collaborative effort from the City of Hot Springs, Visit Hot Springs, Garland County, Hot Springs National Park, the Walton Foundation, IMBA, and countless volunteers and advocates, we now have an opportunity to experience the beauty of the Natural State in a whole new way.
And this is only the beginning! Phase Two includes more trails, more lake views, and some really cool concepts like a “floating trail.” And what’s perhaps most exciting is that the Northwoods Trail extends Hot Springs’ hospitality to yet another vibrant subculture inviting newcomers to the area to experience our town’s natural beauty and unique charm.
“We have traveled to a lot of mountain biking destinations and Hot Springs really is so unique in so many ways,” Jona said. “Maybe I’m more connected to it because I live here, but there’s something about Hot Springs and the surrounding area and the woods that are so magical and I just don’t experience that anywhere else.”
The Hot Springs Northwoods Trail will open to the public Saturday, November 17 with a Grand Opening Celebration from noon - 5 p.m. There will be a ribbon cutting, a group ride through the Northwoods, live music by Brian Martin, food trucks, vendors, a skills track, contests, and bike demos by Orbea and Rocky Mountain Bikes.
More information at www.bikehotsprings.com
For the Facebook event page, visit: https://www.facebook.com/events/496752967453865/
Contributed by Leslie Fisher