Editor’s Note: This story originally appeared in issue 210. If you like what you are seeing and reading Subscribe and help support independent mountain biking journalism.
By Leslie Kehmeier
“But is it foldable?”
I am told this was a question that was raised when the SQZBX (pronounced “squeeze-box”) Brewery and Pizza Joint was about to open in Hot Springs, Arkansas. It was long before the Northwoods Trail System opened, but in hindsight, it was good that someone was looking out for future customers: mountain bikers. Since then, another foldable food has entered the Hot Springs scene for post-ride snackage. Capo’s Tacos, a recently opened taco house, is a strong addition for a destination that has already seen a noticeable uptick of mountain bike visitors. After all, they are a group of people who can appreciate certain styles of food. I have never been one to articulate how foldable (or non-foldable) foods enter my pie hole, but I am certain that some knobby-tire-loving inquiring minds would be interested in their handheld options if they were traveling to Hot Springs to ride bikes and do all the other things that mountain bikers do.
With pizza and beer firmly in place, Hot Springs welcomed a boatload of new riding last fall. Officially opened in November 2018, the Northwoods trails, a network of mountain-bike-optimized routes, are just another amenity to this already tourist-friendly city in central Arkansas. Already known for its arts, summer lake culture and healing waters, Hot Springs is keen to bring progressive, high-quality recreation to both residents and visitors alike.
As a mountain bike nerd who is on a quest to experience every trail on the planet, I have noticed Arkansas on the rise over the last few years. Although the central part of the Natural State is not unknown, its mountain bike recreation might sometimes be overshadowed by offerings to the north and west. I had to see Hot Springs for myself.
Although the activity is not new to Hot Springs, the recently built trails at Northwoods are an entirely different experience than the surrounding long-distance rides that have attracted riders in the past. In just over a year, 14 miles of bike-optimized trails have been constructed, an ambitious start to what will eventually be a multi-phase project.
At first glance, the Northwoods trails do not seem shockingly different than other networks of trails that have popped up around the country in the last decade. We have all seen it: systems that have a spaghetti bowl of blue trails for competent mountain bikers. While they have become a means to ride and experience the outdoors, they have, in some cases, become stale over time. It’s a “been there, done that, time to move on” kind of scenario. What I found in Hot Springs was a complete spectrum of trails where every rider can find an experience to match their desire and skill level, whatever it may be at the time. From green flow trails and double-black jump lines to narrow and exposed traditional singletrack, Northwoods has what you can ride now and what you might aspire to ride in the future.
It goes without saying that the beginner experience is absolutely necessary to draw new users to the activity of mountain biking, but it might actually be the true expert experience that is often completely ignored. Much to my surprise, the city of Hot Springs, working with the International Mountain Bicycling Association (IMBA), planned for, and has already built, such a beast at Northwoods.
Up until recently, it has been rare to find a jump trail with real resort-style, bike-park-worthy jumps in the middle of a municipal trail system. The community and its stakeholders embraced the idea, a trail named Lucky 13. Tabletops, hips, doubles and gaps: It’s all there on this half-mile-long route that ends with a test-your-speed-and-amplitude road gap jump.
It is no small task to envision and build such a trail. It requires a unique skillset and years of experience. Fortunately, a few bright trail-building minds were available for this part of the construction, including Josh Olson, IMBA Trail Solutions trail specialist and project manager for Northwoods. An expert in both building and riding super-advanced jump trails, Olson brought the secret sauce for bringing Lucky 13 to life.
“The Northwoods Trails project is a great example of the future of mountain biking. You have trails for all ability levels, a well-planned layout of the trail network and the incorporation of modern-day flow and jumps trails. The city of Hot Springs’ support to build jump trails is a major win for the community. As mountain bikes and riding have progressed, so too has the desire for trails that allow you to ride the type of terrain that is the next step in the progression of the sport,” explains Olson as he sessions one of the features on Lucky 13, a step-down gap jump. Although air time is not my forte, seeing the work of Olson and his colleagues in action makes me excited for the future. I never imagined taking jump trails out of the bike park and integrating them into the forest.
Make no mistake, Northwoods is not a collection of manicured singletrack sidewalks through the woods. The trail network also challenges riders with an assortment of handbuilt trails that will test balance, skill and the ability to deal with exposure on steep side slopes. Some call it old school. Whatever the case may be, it is the kind of diversity in experience that will keep the locals engaged and visitors coming back again and again.
While sampling the trails myself, I intersected with a number of people, locals, and travelers from outside the region. One group was from Memphis, Tennessee, a major city just under three hours to the east, who had come for the flow and the terrain. “It’s flat where we live and we don’t have trails that are anything like this,” one of them told me. Later, I pored over Google Maps and discovered that Hot Springs is also likely to draw people from other regional cities like Shreveport, Louisiana, and Dallas, Texas.
While the city is welcoming visitors to its new trails, residents are keenly interested in Northwoods themselves. In fact, the organization that is overseeing the trail network, Visit Hot Springs, is surprised at how quickly the community has embraced the new system. The parking lot is already overflowing and local business owners are working hard to provide specific amenities for mountain bikers.
“If you build it, they will stay” is a phrase that comes to the mind of Traci Berry, trails coordinator for Visit Hot Springs. Berry sees the obvious value of the trails as a community asset, something that is accessible right from town and offers a range of experiences. “People who had not previously been riding are now buying bikes,” shares Berry.
One of those people is Berry’s co-worker Bill Solleder. As the marketing director for Visit Hot Springs, Solleder was a behind-the-scenes guy up until the trail opening last November. His interest was sparked. Fast-forward to a few months later and Solleder has a bike, all the gear and a newfound love for pedaling through the forest. “I don’t mind riding alone; it gives me the best chance to be connected to nature,” he says. Although Solleder feels the peace of being outside, he is also stoked to try racing. It is obvious that his enthusiasm is likely to keep him pedaling for the rest of his life. And if I had to venture a guess, I would predict that, someday, Solleder will be one of those people catching air on Lucky 13.