By T.J. Stallbaumer
BENTONVILLE, Ark. — The foundation for extraordinary mountain biking in Northwest Arkansas was laid long ago. The riders who once learned what it means to jump and how it feels to crash on the rocky dirt at Slaughter Pen are the same guys now a part of the full-fledged explosion in area riding.
It’s quite possible that none of that would have happened without the early interest Slaughter Pen ignited in so many of us.
The changes in the park over the past three years have been remarkable.
Where once the downhill consisted of shoddy table tops, big rocks and a single track experience forced upon the rider by overgrown vegetation, it became something completely different over a year ago now thanks to a major overhaul by everyone’s favorite trail guys at Progressive.
Beyond a redone downhill that will be a partial focus of this piece, Slaughter Pen saw the completion of another major update when Phase Three was finished in 2016, adding to the ever-expanding list of places that offer some pretty stellar riding of every sort.
If you’ve known Slaughter Pen for quite some time, or are just getting started riding in the area, it’s a place that deserves to be visited again and again.
For now, we’ll explore the flow lines and jump-oriented sections in the park. That kind of riding has become a real focus for a great number of area riders, all whom need to start realizing how spoiled they really are.
In psychology, something exists called ‘The Paradox of Choice.” It relates to the seeming irony in that with an explosion of choices, we actually become more dissatisfied. The more choices we have, the harder it is to pick and so the more likely it is we live to become dissatisfied with our decisions.
Northwest Arkansas mountain bikers are now facing this paradox, especially at Slaughter Pen, where the different phases of the park offer an array of awesome options.
Slaughter Pen is divided into three phases. Phases one and two each contain a great deal of single track riding, all of which is fabulous in its own right.
The options available are technical and particularly well marked. It’s possible to put together loops of all sorts and sizes riding through Slaughter Pen, which is part of what makes it so stellar.
But what I want to really focus on are the upgrades that have made the place even more rideable.
A couple years ago now, the downhill there was completely redone, turning it into one of the coolest experiences in Northwest Arkansas. Worth noting here is it may not be what you tend to think as a true downhill.
It’s much less gnarly than typical downhill runs, because it doesn’t contain any “rough” sections — there are no rock gardens or massive roots for the rider to conquer.
Rather, the downhill is more like a prolonged flow track that features some outstanding man-made features. There are several fun wall rides, as well as what I would call a wooden table top about halfway down the run, which I have yet to really figure out how to hit. Someday it will come.
One of the reasons this run is so excellent is because I don’t believe it forces the rider’s hand at any point. A brand new rider could tackle this course, roll all the jumps and still have a great time. That’s part of what’s so unique about Slaughter Pen — it provides options for riders across the board.
At this point, you may be wondering to yourself, “Does this guy see negatives in anything?” And while the answer is generally no, I recognize that a good review requires a skeptical eye to find a middle ground.
If the downhill has a problem, it’s really one that persists throughout Slaughter Pen — it could use some maintenance. But that’s a difficult complaint to level when you look at the structure of trail maintenance in the state.
The maintenance at Slaughter Pen is performed primarily by volunteers who coordinate the work through social media. Only some of the work will be by Bentonville parks officials. But even then, working on jumps especially requires a bit of knowledge. It would be super negative, for example, to build up a lip too high and then send your buddy soaring.
Pieces of Slaughter Pen, especially those where jumps exist, are likely going to be in need of some repair when you go ride there. Remember: It’s up to people to like us to eventually make those repairs.
Here’s one more negative that is unavoidable: The Climb.
Getting to the bottom of the Slaughter Pen downhill is one of my favorite things to do on a bike. Getting back to the top is one of my least favorite things to do on a bike.
Once you’ve ridden the entirety of the downhill a couple times, you may be ready for some more shreddage, at which point I would suggest heading to Phase Three.
You can get there a couple ways. The first is to ride through the park by heading toward the jump zone, or in the direction of Crystal Bridges. Slaughter Pen has some good maps, so it should be easy to orient yourself.
Option number two involves getting in your car and driving over to an easier parking space that’ll place you right at the bottom of the addition. There is a gravel parking lot right at the intersection of Northeast A Street and Tiger Boulevard that puts you just feet from the entrance to Phase Three, and is typically easier than riding there — especially in the wake of some killer downhill runs.
Phase Three’s most famed offerings are called Choo Choo and Boo Boo.
The former made an appearance in a Pink Bike video last year that went viral, while its cousin offers equal levels of shred but less time on the world’s imminent mountain bike website.
Choo Choo is so famous already because of its flow. It may be one of the most repeatable runs in all of mountain biking. My only issue with these two trails is their length. Neither is particularly long, though they make up for lacking distance by packing a lot to do into a small space.
Choo Choo’s massive back-to-back berms beg to be ridden as many times as you can in the course of a day, while Boo Boo’s more jump-centric approach offers the rider some tight technical little shred spots with some very fun table tops and a few hips on which to practice whips.
Finally, I want to highlight one more spot near Phase Three that you won’t want to miss if you enjoy being off the ground for a second. The Schroen Train, though technically a part of Phase Two according to the Slaughter Pen trail guide, has a Phase Three feel.
The run features three fun drops that are probably the biggest at the park. The landings are smooth, the height is good and the whole thing is a ton of fun. I will offer one word of caution for this run, though: If you’re freaked out by narrow bridges, stay away from this bad boy. The drops may be less intimidating than the run up in some cases, which is helpful to be aware of going in.
All told, Slaughter Pen is an incredibly unique place. It is one of Northwest Arkansas’ first true shred domes — a place that witnessed the birth and aided in the progression of the style of mountain biking that now dominates the area. Without this winding piece of dirt, many of us NWA natives may never have found the joy we now know from the seat of a bicycle.