We didn’t realize it at the time, but my boyhood friends and I may have constructed one of the first mountain bike trails in Arkansas back in the late 1950s. Up the hill and immediately east of our quiet little neighborhood in Jonesboro was a 40-acre undeveloped tract of rolling land, right on top of Crowley’s Ridge. Not only did we build a crude fort deep in the thicket, we laid out a long, twisting trail through the trees and brush for our large and cumbersome single-speed bikes. Dubbed the “Woods Run” and primitive by present-day standards, it kept us off the streets and out of trouble. Mostly.

About the same time that my buddies and I were bouncing around in our little corner of Craighead County, the AMF Company moved its bicycle manufacturing facility from Cleveland to Little Rock. The new 217,000 square-foot factory, located in the 65th Street Industrial District, initially hired 375 workers who made 20, 24, and 26-inch Roadmaster bikes that were shipped all over the country. This highly automated complex, incorporating more than a mile of conveyor belts, reached its peak in 1973, employing about 1,200 associates who produced around a million bikes a year. For a period, Little Rock was among the bicycle-manufacturing capitals of the world.

Fast forward a couple of generations – and Arkansas’s bicycling scene has changed dramatically. A Jonesboro subdivision consumed our beloved Woods Run and that AMF plant closed at the end of 1980. Yet our state’s cycling community has experienced tremendous progress in recent years.

Let’s start with mountain biking. The International Mountain Bicycling Association (known as IMBA) is the group which evaluates trails throughout the world, rating the best of the best as “Epic.” Of the 50 states, only California has more “Epic Trails” than Arkansas. The story of how we got there can be traced back to one of Arkansas’s game-changers, Tim Scott. A native of Rogers, Tim took a job with Arkansas State Parks in 1980 – and a few years later found himself on the staff at Devil’s Den State Park an hour or so south of his hometown. It was around 1986 that Tim and Wally Scherrey, then the superintendent at Devil’s Den, began thinking about the possibility of taking advantage of the park’s terrain via a mountain bike trail. But they were largely unfamiliar with the sport.

Mountain Biking at Wooly Hollow (Photo credit: BikeList)

So they each purchased a mountain bike and got acquainted with the nuances of their intriguing off-road machines by riding on old logging tracks within the park. Then in the spring of 1988 they were sent to Crested Butte, Colorado, to see first-hand the Fat Tire Festival, one of the country’s top mountain biking events. By 1990 Tim and his colleagues at Devil’s Den had built Fossil Flats, the first mountain bike trail in Arkansas. Later this year (September 15-16, to be exact) the park will celebrate its 29th Annual Mountain Bike Race – and hundreds of riders are expected to participate. The Fossil Flats Trail, originally three miles long, has since been expanded to a six-mile loop. And the park also hosts the popular Ozark Mountain Bike Fest every spring.

What Tim Scott did was to introduce mountain biking not only to Arkansans but to the many out-of-state guests who visited Devil’s Den. Likewise, Tim’s colleagues in other state parks across Arkansas began noticing the public’s interest in the sport – and additional trails eventually followed, with 13 parks now offering mountain biking experiences. Meanwhile, the Ouachita National Forest built the Womble Trail in the western portion of Arkansas near Mount Ida and the Earthquake Ridge Trail even farther to the west near Mena.

In central Arkansas, local mountain biking enthusiasts began riding the back roads and tracks of Camp Robinson, the training compound operated by the Arkansas Army National Guard, and by the mid-1990s had developed a trails network 20 miles in length. Working with the site’s land managers, members of the Central Arkansas Trail Alliance (and its predecessors) have continued to expand the system so that it now includes over 40 miles of trails for use by hikers, trail runners, and, of course, mountain bikers.

In short, Arkansas was making slow but steady progress on its mountain biking front. That is until another game-changer, a young man named Tom Walton, entered the picture. Walton had discovered mountain biking while a student at Northern Arizona University, and he brought his enthusiasm back home when he returned to Bentonville following graduation. Convinced that offering an outstanding “quality of life” is key to developing a growing and sustainable community, Walton set about making northwest Arkansas a mecca for trail enthusiasts. His leadership, with help from the Walton Family Foundation, led to development of Bentonville’s Slaughter Pen Mountain Bike Trail, an 18-mile classic which was unveiled in 2005. Since then several other exemplary mountain biking trails – notably Mount Kessler, Back 40, Blowing Springs, and Coler – have opened to great acclaim in that corner of the state.

Then, in 2015, the City of Rogers dedicated the Railyard Bike Park, another project completed with generous assistance from the Walton folks. Designed to appeal to riders of all skill levels, this dirt track includes wall rides, jumps, and an actual rail car that bikers zip through. It’s even lighted for night-time use!

When it comes to biking, Tom Walton is an equal opportunity entrepreneur. He’s also a strong advocate for road biking – and proof’s in the Razorback Regional Greenway, a 36-mile paved, shared-use trail linking 6 northwest Arkansas downtowns, 3 hospitals, 23 schools, corporate headquarters, arts/entertainment/shopping venues, parks and historic sites, and residential communities. The result of two decades of planning and commitment, this visionary project has received accolades – and bikers – from across the country.

Another game-changer in the state’s road biking community is former Pulaski County Judge Buddy Villines. Not only did he work relentlessly to defeat a proposed thoroughfare through Murray Park which would have destroyed Little Rock’s long-term plans for the city’s riverfront, he led the charge to build the Big Dam Bridge, the $12.8 million pedestrian/bicycle span across Murray Lock & Dam. The centerpiece of the 15.6-mile Arkansas River Trail, the Big Dam Bridge provides an iconic view of Pinnacle Mountain for its quarter of a million visitors each year. The Two Rivers Bridge, located a short distance upstream and another Villines project, gives cyclists, walkers, and runners greatly expanded options for their recreational pursuits. Strangely enough, it gets two to three times the visitation of the Big Dam Bridge.

Three key individuals – Tim Scott, Tom Walton, and Buddy Villines – rose to the task and moved Arkansas into the forefront of one of America’s fastest growing interests: bicycling.

Working independently but ultimately for the same cause, they’ve positioned Arkansas to play a vital role in the cycling world for years to come.

And these advancements have not gone unnoticed. The International Mountain Bicycling Association brought its 2016 World Summit to Bentonville, largely because of northwest Arkansas’s growing prominence in the field. Over 400 delegates attended the record-breaking conference and for many it was their initial visit to Arkansas.

On the other hand, the IMBA staff has become well acquainted with The Natural State. Already five of Arkansas’s premier mountain biking trails have earned the “Epic” status and more are likely on the way. In addition, IMBA has designed Northwest Arkansas as its only “Regional Ride Center” in the world. Also encouraging is the fact that Hot Springs is working with IMBA planners on a mountain biking component for the city’s North Woods Urban Forest project.

Governor Hutchinson is well aware of the importance of Arkansas’s IMBA connections. In fact, several months ago he announced a cooperative arrangement between the group and the Walton Family Foundation for maintenance of mountain biking trails. More recently he’s appointed a Governor’s Advisory Council on Cycling to keep the momentum going.

Another item worth mentioning is that Arkansas is home of the Progressive Trail Design team, one of the nation’s leading firms devoted to planning and constructing outdoor recreation projects. Specializing in trail-related work, the company has private and public sector clients across the country.

Lastly, I should also note that once again Arkansans are manufacturing bikes. HIA Velo, with its plant in Little Rock, began producing the Allied brand of bicycles in January of this year. The company must be doing something right, given that a recent issue of Bicycling magazine named it “the hottest bike of 2017.”

So, here’s my take on the status of bicycling in Arkansas: things are pretty damn good.

:: By Joe David Rice, Tourism Director, Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism ::