There is a mountain bike buzz about Bentonville, Arkansas that is getting louder and louder. Folks kept talking about the trails but I kept ignoring it. Sure they have Walmart money but they don’t have any elevation! And it’s in the Midwest where there are no bike destinations. Or is it in the South? Where is it anyway?
Well, folks who I respect and who ride a whole lot better than me have ridden out there and their reviews have been stellar. Not only are they talking about the riding but they can’t stop talking about the food! They even rave about the art (when they don’t have an artistic bone in their body, unless it’s bike art at from the Handmade Bike Show.)
And to top it off, a few folks I know moved there! And a couple bought vacation houses there so I had to visit and see for myself.
The legendary Jeff Kendall-Weed rode Bentonville and captured its essence along with the people behind it.
So I paid a visit on November of 2019, hosted by the Visit Bentonville organization to experience what the city had to offer a mountain biker and I learned a lot. This visit to Bentonville blew away all my expectations on and off the trail. The six different professional trail crews building 1.6 miles of new trail to an already expansive trail network was hard to comprehend given my experience with trail building conditions in Northern California. The crews and planners were always innovating, thinking bigger as each trail project benefited from the knowledge and building techniques gained from the previous projects.
I was blown away as well with the available food options. There were so many chefs eager to show off local ingredients, blending traditional styles with modern creativity. One can feel the pride and satisfaction of the locals at all levels of the food and service industry.
The appreciation for art was apparent with the art and light display embedded in the forest in the Northern Forest Lights exhibit of the Crystal Bridges Museum. Art is unpretentious and approachable in this town as they expose folks to art that is meaningful to them.
And I feel that I’ve merely scratched the surface of the Bentonville community that has built a lifestyle and economy around mountain biking and other healthy categories. They’ve accomplished so much in the past five years so one can only imagine the possibilities for this community in the next five years.
They’re grooming a generation of mountain bikers who appreciate food, art, and life. And they’re building a blueprint that many communities around the world will follow.
Who is Gary Vernon?
Gary is a quiet, unasssuming man who was active in the trail community in the last decade. He’s since earned the spot as Bike Program Officer for the Walton Family Foundation and he’s in charge of managing the design and buildout of the trail system in Bentonville and the Northwest Arkansas region.
Whenever he presents a visionary plan to Tom Walton and the foundation, the most common response is, “Think bigger!” He’s always encouraged to dream big and build big. Currently, he’s overseeing six professional work crews in the Bentonville area as they build around 1.6 miles of trail each week.
And what’s enlightening about Gary’s approach is that he is like a sponge. He travels the world to learn from others’ trail building efforts and to share what they’ve learned in Bentonville. The thing about trail building that he fully understands is the fifth trail you build will be significantly better than the first trail. So much learning happens with each build and he’s not afraid to try new designs, techniques and materials. He also recognizes the creativity of other trail designers and encourages them to take risks and fail as they develop their craft. Trail building is a craft and a profession in Bentonville and it’s a concept that is likely to spread around the world.
Gary Vernon says, “I moved here in 2003, and really, there was no mountain biking in either Bentonville or Bella Vista. But it wasn’t until 2006 that we heard a rumor about a trail coming to Bentonville, and that’s the trail system that Tom Walton went to the city council and got approval for, to build 5 miles of trail in Bentonville.”
Gary is no spring chicken but he can ride and jump like the wind. Next to his 12-year old son, Grayson though, he is the apprentice.
Who is Tom Walton?
Tom Walton looks like a mountain biker, long, lean, athletic. And he learned to ride in a place you’d associate with mountain biking: Flagstaff, Arizona, where Walton studied at Northern Arizona University. All sounds normal enough, except that Walton, 36, is the grandson of Sam Walton, who’s better known as the guy who founded Walmart. What started as a quaint five-and-dime store in even quainter Bentonville, Arkansas, became the world’s largest retailer, and made the Waltons America’s wealthiest family, with a current net worth well north of $100 billion.
The younger Walton brought the biking bug back home to Northwest Arkansas after college, and has since helped propel this region in the southern Ozark Mountains into one of the country’s best mountain bike destinations.
What’s fascinating about this saga is Tom worked through Walton Family Foundation to fund, inspire and enable Gary Vernon and the local community to build an infrastructure and an economy centered around cycling. The philanthropic organization helped back construction of hundreds of miles of paved and singletrack trails in Northwest Arkansas.
“Our goal has been to litter the towns in this area with accessible trail,” Walton told Mtbr. “We’ve worked with the cities and the planners and the businesses to build as much trail as possible as close as possible to the downtowns. The idea is to have trails that you can easily access before work, after work, or even in the middle of the workday. In Bentonville, it’s about a quarter mile from the downtown square to singletrack and that’s pretty special for the people who live here.”
Is it helping the local economy?
So the build-up of a great trail system has brought attention to the area and has increased biking and biking tourism from other regions. But does that really help the local economy? Does it improve the quality of life of the local population?
The centerpiece of this trail system is the $38‐million Razorback Regional Greenway, a 36‐mile shared‐use paved trail that links the major cities in the region. A study by the BBC Research & Consulting from Denver, CO has the following findings:
- Bicycling in Northwest Arkansas provides $137 million in benefits to the economy annually
- Bike tourism is a significant economic driver with tourists spending more than $25 million at local businesses each year
- Investment in soft‐surface mountain bike trails is a key driver of tourism with at least 55% of mountain bikers traveling to Northwest Arkansas from outside the region
- Bicycling in Northwest Arkansas generates $85 million annually in health related benefits
- Residents of Northwest Arkansas spend more than $20 million on bicycling annually
- Houses within .25 miles of the Razorback Greenway sell for an average of nearly $15,000 more than those two miles from the trail.
The Loam Ranger takes on the Bentonville Experience
It is a work in progress but what exists today is incredible. It’s definitely worth checking out in 2020. If you’re within driving distance, it’s a must-do. And for others, Fayetville airport is only 20 minutes away and is dialed. Put it on your list and discover what mountain bike utopia is like.
Check here to start planning your journey: Visit Bentonville.