Biking the Ouachitas
Each year, the International Mountain Bicycling Association, IMBA, selects a handful of great trails around the world that receive special ‘Epic’ status. These are described as must-ride routes for mountain bikers around the world to try out.
Arkansas holds title to five IMBA Epic trails, a prestigious designation that marks the state as one of the top mountain biking havens in the country.
“Cycling is booming here in Arkansas and the Ouachitas have a lot to offer,” said Jake Meredith, who co-owns Ouachita Rides & Guides, a local guiding and shuttling service based near Hot Springs. “Locals have run the trails in the Ouachita region for a long time now but I predict it’s a short matter of time before the rest of the mountain biking community catches on. We've had world-class trails here in our backyard for a long time and more and more are getting built every day. Hot Springs has always been known as a vacation destination and with trails like we have here, there's no reason to not plan your next trip here around the bike.”
Hot Springs has been rated a bronze-level Ride Center by IMBA, a designation which recognizes mountain biking communities that offer standout experiences for every style of rider, both on and off the bike. Hot Springs is surrounded by the Ouachita Mountains and has a national park, a thriving arts community and is in the midst of a craft brewery boom. Among the breweries in town is Superior Bathhouse Brewery, which uses thermal spring water as a main ingredient and holds the distinction of being the first brewery to be located inside a national park.
“One of the biggest draws to the Hot Springs area is all of the Epic trails close by,” said Meredith. “Arkansas is lucky to have five in the state and Hot Springs happens to be 30 minutes to an hour away from three of them. Not to mention the other trail systems that riddle the area. You've got options such as a quick five mile lap around Cedar Glades to an all day 38-mile Epic on the Lake Ouachita Vista Trail. It’s a great base camp for your mountain biking vacation.”
The three IMBA Epic trails in this region of the state include the Womble Trail, which has 37 miles of singletrack through the Ouachita National Forest. “My go-to ride is the Womble,” said Meredith. “There's nothing like it. Its got it all. Some of the most beautiful bench-cut single track you'll ever see, vistas that overlook the Ouachita valleys, and climbs and descents that will make you question your sanity. It's really remote as well.”
Also in the area is the Lake Ouachita Vista Trail, which includes around 45 miles of hiking and mountain biking trails along the southern shore of Lake Ouachita, the largest lake in the state. The trail meanders through the Ouachita National Forest with spurs providing lake vistas. The route has of a number of trail segments, along with some short out-and-back or loop spurs.
The state’s newest Epic in the area showcases 108 miles of the Ouachita National Recreation Trail, a long distance hiking trail through the Ouachita National Forest. This designated section of the route currently holds title as the longest mountain biking trail in the state. Though it has this distinction, the trail is still a bit under the radar.
“Over 100 miles of the trail is open to mountain bikes and I very rarely run into riders that have been on any of the trail,” said Meredith. “It is very challenging in places though. Hike-a- bike is just part of it. It is one of the most rewarding trails though.” The most ridden part of the trail is a popular section used during the Ouachita Challenge, a mountain bike race held each spring. On the western end of the route is Queen Wilhelmina State Park and the trail also connects with the Womble Trail.
There are several other popular trails in the area in addition to the three Epics. Cedar Glades Park near downtown Hot Springs offers 15 miles of biking and hiking terrain.There are various routes to choose from for various levels of riding.
A large-scale trail project is also in the works in Hot Springs. The overall route is a planned 44-mile system of mountain biking trails on the city-owned Northwoods/Cedar Glades properties in the northern section of town.
Nearby, the Iron Mountain trail system in Arkadelphia is located in the foothills of the Ouachitas on the south shore of DeGray Lake. The lake is a well-known fishing destination and is home to DeGray Lake Resort State Park, Arkansas's only resort state park. Arkadelphia is located along Interstate 30, about 10 miles from DeGray Lake Resort State Park, 25 miles from Hot Springs, 40 miles from Crater of Diamonds State Park, and 65 miles from Little Rock. The system is currently made up of over 20 miles of trail. The trailheads are easy to access and are located about 15 minutes off of Interstate 30. The topography provides challenges, yet is rideable by pretty much all skill levels depending on what section the rider chooses.
If one wants to continue exploring the Arkansas mountain biking scene, other IMBA Epics across the state include the Syllamo, a trail system outside Mountain View that has more than 50 miles of singletrack, and the Upper Buffalo, which showcases riding in the Ozarks. Other IMBA Ride Centers can be found in Bentonville and Fayetteville and the only Regional Ride Center in the country is located in Northwest Arkansas.
For Meredith, it is the act of exploration that he enjoys most about the sport. “There's nothing like riding a bicycle,” he said. “No mater if it’s a loop you've ridden 100 times or a new section of trail you've never been on, a mountain bike ride brings you a new experience every time.”