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World-class mountain biking in Arkansas

It's easy to go unnoticed in this small north Arkansas town nestled in the Ozark Mountains - unless you've got out-of-state tags and a mountain bike strapped to your car.
A biker traveling the trails of Syllamo bike trail in Mountain View, Ark.
A biker traveling the trails of Syllamo bike trail in Mountain View, Ark. A.c. Haralson / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

It's easy to go unnoticed in this small north Arkansas town nestled in the Ozark Mountains - unless you've got out-of-state tags and a mountain bike strapped to your car.

Since the Syllamo Mountain Bike Trails opened three years ago, more people have been making the trip to Mountain View to ride the 50 miles of narrow dirt roads winding through the wooded hills.

And with a population of less than 3,000, Mountain View's locals are taking notice.

"I look for the cars with the bike racks and people have been sneaking in and riding the trails," said Steve Parker, a mountain-biking enthusiast who runs an insurance business in Mountain View. Parker helped start the trails with Joe Dabney, a retired park ranger who laid out and built portions of the single-track trail system. (Single-track trails are just wide enough to accommodate riders single-file.)

Chris Furr, a natural resource specialist for the Sylamore Ranger District of the Ozark-St. Francis National Forests, which maintain the trails, also is aware that the trails are drawing more tourist interest.

"You can tell just by the vehicles in town that have the bike racks that this has been a major attraction. We've gotten great comment from visitors," Furr said.

The International Mountain Biking Association recently named the trail system one of 37 epic rides.

But because it's not close to Moab, Utah - home to what many regard as the best mountain biking in North America - the Syllamo Trails remain a relative secret, perfect for riders in search of a new place to pedal, Parker said.

The trail system - named for a Creek Indian who lived in what was otherwise a Shawnee area - begins a few miles up Green Mountain Road off state Highway 5. Though the Forest Service warns those with roof racks to be careful of overhanging limbs, the rough road can cause more concern. It's a bumpy - and necessarily slow - drive uphill.

Along the road, there are three trailheads for five loops that comprise the more than 50 miles of trails. Each trailhead has parking and a toilet but no running water, so bikers need to provide their own when venturing into the forest.

Each trail varies in difficulty. The Bad Branch Loop - 5.6 miles up Green Mountain Road - is the most beginner-friendly of the five loops. Bad Branch, identified by red blazes, offers riders nearly 13 miles of single track that twists and turns through the forest.

For more experienced riders, there are the White River Bluff Loop, marked by green blazes, and the Scrappy Mountain Loop, marked by blue blazes. The Bald Scrappy Loop and Jack's Branch Loop, marked by orange and yellow blazes respectively, round out the five.

The White River loop is the shortest loop at 4.5 miles round trip. Parker, who has ridden all 50 miles of the system more than once, said that while portions of the trail are quite challenging, the views of the White River are too good to miss.

Maybe the biggest draw for the most serious riders is the Scrappy Mountain Loop, with 12 miles of trail that feature switchbacks along the mountain slopes, three creek crossings and the "Stairway to Heaven" - a stairway that connects the trail along a small bluff to the trail below.

Riders looking for another adventure can ride Jack's Branch Loop, which accesses Blanchard Springs Recreation Area. Here you can see Blanchard Springs caverns, or stop and rest along the streams.

But on the Bad Branch Loop, which has just under 1,000 feet of gradual elevation gain, no technical riding skills are necessary.

The loop can be ridden at an easy pace by those wanting to enjoy the scenery, while those with better skills can whiz through the turns between the trees. But the slower pace can divulge some of the forests' secrets.

It's not surprising to see turtles, squirrels, foxes, deer or other Arkansas wildlife on the trails, Furr said. There is also a group of wild turkeys that regularly make the Bad Branch loop their home.

But the abundance of wildlife also makes the National Forest lands popular among hunters.

"We strongly suggest that people do wear hunter orange," Furr said, referring to orange-colored safety vests and clothing. "We post that on the bulletin boards at the trailheads, so that people are aware."

In the Sylamore District, the heaviest hunting use occurs during the modern-gun deer season in mid-November and during the spring turkey season in April.

The trail is open year-round. "I think fall through spring is the best time to be out doing this kind of activity in Arkansas," said Cindy Snow, a ranger for the Sylamore District. "We just have spectacular falls here in Mountain View but it's also so pretty in the spring."