By Kent Laughlin, Designer, Alta Planning + Design
It’s not often a two-county region sets out to blaze hundreds of miles of mountain biking, hiking, running and walking trails, but Northwest Arkansas has a vision — a master plan, developed by Alta — to build on the momentum of the nearby Razorback Regional Greenway, which spans 36 miles through the heart of the region.
The vision began with two highly successful staples of the soft surface network: the Slaughter Pen Trails, a network of over 20 miles of soft-surface trails in Bentonville, and the Lake Fayetteville Nature Trail Loop, seven miles of trail around a local lake and hub of recreational activity. These two projects only got the ball rolling, though. A new recreational norm was established, and the major stakeholders in the area took notice.
Following the enlightenment shed by those two cities, local communities strived to preserve their own special places and the Walton Family Foundation set out to make the difference in transforming their visions into a reality. Such projects as The Railyard and Lake Atalanta in Rogers, Thunder Chicken Trails in Springdale, and the Kessler Mountain Regional Park and Nature Preserve in Fayetteville have completely transformed the entire outlook of what is possible.
However, one project was a total game changer: The Back 40 Trails, the first 40 miles of trails identified by the Alta-prepared Bella Vista Trail and Greenway Master Plan. The network required a plan for working around community amenities and took advantage of the unique topography by providing users with an unforgettable experience. All of the design and coordination — along with the construction of the trails — began in January 2016 and had to be ready and center stage for the 2016 International Mountain Bicycling Association World Summit held in November in Bentonville. Alta helped turn another vision into a reality. The event was a huge success with over 500 trail riders joining in on the fun and taking part in group ride around the Back 40 Trail loop.
Alta is switching gears to both new and past opportunities, including an expansion of a trail network at a local watershed learning center and outdoor classroom in Cave Springs, as well as the design of the next phase of trails in Bella Vista, another 40 miles of soft surface trails with a paved connector linking the east to the west. The Arkansas Natural Heritage Commission (AHNC), the property owner in Cave Springs, tasked Alta with laying out a hiking trail route acceptable for all ages and identifying areas for educational and interpretive opportunities. In addition to the trail layout, AHNC wanted to provide (limited) access to a rare and endangered ground cover, called Ozark trillium, found only in limited areas of the Ozark Mountains. This March, when the trillium was in full bloom, Alta joined the ANHC in identifying the best route for providing an educational experience without major impact to dense trillium communities.
It’s easy to get connected within the mountain biking community in Northwest Arkansas — they are advocates for conservation and locals looking to enhance special places. I have been volunteering since December 2016 with the Ozark Off Road Cyclists to remove invasive species and construct over a half mile of trail in an effort to upgrade my local park. I wanted to be part of this mountain biking insurgence. Now, Northwest Arkansas is experiencing how investments in connectivity aid revitalization of historic downtowns, spur commercial interest, raise property values and — most importantly — improve quality of life. With every project, Alta is helping to bring people together, bring communities together, and the world is taking notice.