Inside the city limits of Fayetteville lies a hand-cut gem, an 1,800-foot-peak home to ancient stands of post-oak, boulders the size of Volkswagens and 13 miles of multi-use natural surface trails spanning 387 acres for mountain bikers, trail-runners and nature enthusiasts of all kinds.
Mount Kessler itself serves as the southern anchor of the 36-mile Razorback Regional Greenway, a breathtaking “end of the road” that when summited offers views of the Fayetteville skyline to the east, and to the west, sunsets impressive enough to convince even the most hardcore rider to pump the brakes.
“We gauge other trail experiences in the region to Kessler,” says Brannon Pack, executive director of Ozark Off Road Cyclists, who along with a dedicated team of volunteers have been hand-cutting trail on the mountain for over a decade.
Purpose-built isn’t the purpose of Kessler, says Brannon, whose team has incorporated the oddball geologic features and steep slopes of the mountain to create a riding experience like no other in the Northwest Arkansas trail system. And while you may not find wall rides and seven-foot berms on Western Myth, Eggbeater or Spellbound, you will find big elevation and natural technical elements along rocky, rooty and narrow climbs.
Much of the current trail is classified as “expert-level” by the International Mountain Bicycling Association, but most riders will tell you that 90-95 percent of the trail is accessible for beginner and intermediate cyclists as well, with green and blue trails in the mix. Reach a feature too gnarly to attempt? “Just get off and walk,” says one local. Kessler was originally settled by German immigrants in the mid-19th century, who established a popular local winery on the mountain selling “native grape wines…celebrated champagne cider…and peach and apple brandies.” While production has long ceased, the stone cellar and well are still visible at the property. With the permission of private landowners who occupied the mountain following the closure of the winery, volunteers began breaking trail—foot by foot—with nothing more than hand tools and a hankering for serious backcountry riding close to the city. Indeed, this humble origin and organic development are what make Kessler so meaningful to the locals, and so appealing to visitors.
Yet just as a serious cycling culture began to take root in the region, the mountain itself was in jeopardy of being developed. It was ultimately the existence of the trails—and the hard-fought work of local conservation and recreation stakeholders—that gave the city reason to preserve the space for future generations. At the base of the mountain, visitors can now find the Kessler Mountain Regional Park, a recreation complex with six lighted soccer fields, four lighted baseball fields, two restroom/concession buildings, 400 parking spaces, and trailhead access.
As word has spread of Kessler’s incredible topography and natural beauty, the mountain now plays host to much more than cycling. Trail runs and nature hikes are frequently organized by the parks department, and the city’s fourth-graders view their annual pilgrimage to Kessler for an “outdoor classroom” experience as a rite of passage. classroom” experience as a rite of passage.
There are also ample stewardship opportunities through Ozark Off Road Cyclists for volunteers to give back to the mountain, both through cutting new trail and supporting what the community has built together. As the sport grows in popularity with locals and visitors to the region alike, trail builders at Kessler are beginning to integrate some beginner and intermediate level trails into the mix thanks to a Progressive Trail Design master plan commissioned by the city. Forthcoming trails will create a “stacked-loop trail system,” allowing each connected loop to become progressively more challenging as riders advance up the mountain.
And though the winery is long closed, which once was what one historic text called “where the bad little boys of town congregate at nights to shove billiards,” visitors will find plenty of options to let off some steam at a host of local breweries and restaurants on the ride back into Fayetteville proper. It’s not unusual to spot a pile of bikes outside of West Mountain Brewing Company or Tiny Tim’s Pizza. It is, after all, a college town at heart. Master of all it surveys, Kessler is a quintessential Ozark riding experience—rich with rare plant and animal species, old-growth forest, marine fossils, rocky outcroppings, caves, boulders, and one hell of a view from the top. Rather than disturb the natural order, riders will find each trail a seamless enhancement of its surroundings.