Trails, hikes, museums and more: Exploring Bentonville, Arkansas

Hilly, wooded goodness awaits near Bentonville, Ark.

It seems a lot of my free time and time off is spent charging away at some trail, or hunkering down in a backcountry campsite. To be clear, I like it that way.

But not every getaway for yours truly is like that. And that’s a good thing. There is something to be said about mixing up some natural beauty with a more relaxed – and comfortable – break from the daily grind.

Earlier this fall, Bec and I did just that. Seeing how fun my last venture into northwest Arkansas was, a return visit seemed worthwhile. We made a bunch of stops: a huge lake, an incredible museum, some solid places to eat and, of course, a little time on the trail.

The locale this time was in and around Bentonville. Most people know the town as the headquarters of Walmart. And while this is true (and having a massive corporation anchor your city has its perks), there’s quite a bit more to be had. Bentonville and the surrounding towns have all benefited from the wealth a big company provides, but in many ways, this corner of the state has maintained some of its earthier flavor. And that, my friends, is also good thing.

Some of the highlights…

BEAVER LAKE

Beaver Lake and dam. (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers photo)

At more than 28,000 acres, Beaver Lake is massive. There are 12 parks located around the lake with 650 campsites. We stayed at a cabin near the lakeshore, and had easy access to boat docks. The lake is prime for fishing (it’s biggest draws are trophy smallmouth bass and stripers), water skiing and boating, and I imagine would be a great place to explore in kayaks or on stand-up paddleboards.

CRYSTAL BRIDGES MUSEUM OF AMERICAN ART

Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art.

It’s not unusual for smaller cities to have museums, but Bentonville punches above its weight with the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art. Funded by philanthropic endeavors of the Walton family, it’s a facility of jaw-dropping architecture, with airy, sunlit buildings laced together around a small lake. Glass walls let in natural light, and once inside, the collection of works from American artists dating back to the 1700s is impressive. Landscapes, portraits, sculptures and more modern pieces fill its galleries. My guess is any major American city would be all too happy to boast being home to a place like Crystal Bridges.

The museum has special exhibits, outdoor art, and is home to Frank Lloyd Wright’s Bachman-Wilson House. The house was deconstructed from its former New Jersey site, moved to Crystal Bridges and rebuilt. It’s a fantastic piece of architecture, and maybe my favorite part of the visit.

A Frank Lloyd Wright masterpiece.

Bentonville’s paved trails link Crystal Bridges to the rest of the city, and a walk from there to downtown isn’t too far.

One of the best parts of the museum is its free admission. There are paid, ticketed exhibits, but the main collection comes at no cost to visitors. The museum has a full-service restaurant and coffee shop on-site.

WAR EAGLE MILL

War Eagle Mill and Bridge.

This popular tourist destination is a working mill that dates back to 1832. The mill has been destroyed and rebuilt a few times, but it has persevered as an important site for nearly two centuries.

The mill itself still functions, powered by a paddlewheel that turns with the flow of an adjacent river. You can buy milled products there (as well as any number of touristy wares), and a café on the third floor is open from 10:30 a.m. to 4 p.m.

HOBBS STATE PARK

Arkansas does its state parks right, and Hobbs State Park and Conservation District is a glowing example of that. The park is host to a number of trails and looped routes through heavily wooded hills, some with overlooks of Beaver Lake.

The trails are great for hiking – they’re well-marked and maintained. Some portions might include some elevation gain and steep stretches, but for the most part, you can hike these routes whether you’re a seasoned hiker or a just beginner.

They’re also very runnable. Trail running enthusiasts train and compete here regularly. If mountain biking is more your thing, you’re in for a good time. Long, flowy stretches of singletrack await. Northwest Arkansas is becoming well-known as a mountain biking Mecca, and now I know why. I’m definitely bringing my ride next time.

DOWNTOWN BENTONVILLE

All that corporate affluence has made downtown Bentonville quite the scene, especially on weekend evenings. Several high-quality restaurants are located there (we tried Fiamma Ristorante and were not disappointed, and Table Mesa Bistro gets rave reviews). If that’s not your thing, an armada of food trucks is usually parked around the town square, and live music abounds. If you’re curious about the history of the world’s biggest retailer, a Walmart museum is also located here.

That’s a real quick overview of the area, and there is a lot we didn’t get to see. But I think you can get the gist. You can get your outdoor fix, clean up, and enjoy fine dining or a night at the museum if you please. Or just hang out at the lake. Either way, it might not be quite what you’d expect to find so far from a big city or more traditional resort town.

Bob Doucette

Fine dining, backcountry style

Kitchen prep.

Kitchen prep.

I get a serious kick out of reading the restaurant reviews from one of the writers of my local newspaper. The guy knows his food, and his recommendations are not taken lightly.

I also confess to being a huge fan of the television programs Anthony Bourdain produces. Part of it is the travel element, but also his wicked sense of humor, excellent screenwriting and music tastes. On top of all that, I want to eat the things he eats.

I’ve never been a cook of a chef, and I’m not the guy you would want writing about cuisine. I just like to eat, and eat well. The fitness side of me wants to treat food as fuel, but the rest of me says otherwise. Taste matters. So does setting.

This is a particular problem for those of us who like to spend time outdoors. Sure, if you car camp or otherwise have access to the tools that make cooking away from home easy, you can work wonders. But what if you’re backpacking for several days? Living from a tent? Packing as light as possible to cut weight? Cooking with a camp stove?

Often times, those dining experiences are relegated to dehydrated foods, energy bars, trail mix and powder drink mixes. Or maybe some beans and rice. Often those backcountry or outdoor dining experiences are long on atmospherics and short on taste.

But not always. I got to thinking of a few times where the food, the surroundings and the company made for some of the most memorable meals I’ve ever had.

Serve yourself-style. As fresh as it gets.

Serve yourself-style. As fresh as it gets.

Catch of the day

If you’re stuck living away from the coasts, you know all about bad seafood. The fresher, the better. And that doesn’t happen very often when you live far from the sea. All we usually get that somewhat qualifies as fresh fish come from catfish filets gleaned from large fish farms.

But all is not lost. You actually can live inland and get a meal more fresh than anything served at a Boston bistro or San Francisco eatery.

In this scenario, I was with my brother-in-law, Mark, somewhere near the town of Eagle in western Colorado. Inside a small alpine valley was a mountain stream, with its flow interrupted by frequent beaver ponds.

Storming through the weeds and sloshing away in this little wetland, we’re on the prowl for brook trout. They don’t get very big – a foot-long brookie is a whopper – but they are quite common and oh so tasty.

On the streams, we searched for those sweet spots behind boulders, in front of riffles and around the bends. But the real action was in the beaver ponds. Lots of hungry fish in still, deep pools carefully engineered by those tree-gnawing rodents we all know and love.

The end of the day brought us a modest catch, but more than enough for dinner. Mark was the man in this scenario. He came prepared. Corn meal, salt, pepper and some vegetable oil. We cleaned the fish at the campsite, fired up the stove and fried up a few filets for the evening meal. The simple ingredients, paired with the brookies’ light, flaky and tender meat turned out to be the perfect end to that day.

I dare you to match that dinner in terms of freshness. You can’t surpass it. Straight from the stream, to the campsite, to the pan and on my plate within a couple of hours. That’s how you do fish.

Only the finest of dining companions will do.

Only the finest of dining companions will do.

Fusion fare

First, we went up 1,000 feet. Then down 1,000 feet. Then up 4,000 feet.

And it was then that we were only half done, atop the summit of Mount of the Holy Cross last fall. The next half of the journey would be retracing all those steps back to camp. Twelve miles round-trip, and 6,000 feet of total elevation gain.

A simple breakfast and high-calorie snacks helped power me through that ascent, but there is only so much sweet-tasting stuff you can handle before something more savory is required.

That’s not just a preference. It’s fact. When you’re burning through thousands of calories on such an endeavor, your body needs its salts. That’s why you see pretzels and salted potatoes sometimes offered during long races for runners’ consumption.

I was too tired and lazy to do much cooking myself. So I resigned myself to eating whatever edibles I had left at camp before retiring for the night.

But being among a group of mountain people, and mountain people being generally awesome, generosity abounded.

A couple of dudes grilled up some bratwursts over the campfire. They then hurried those tubes of meaty, fatty goodness away, sliced them up, then plopped them into a pot filled with mac and cheese and a sprinkling of diced peppers.

Best mac and cheese ever. A got a sampling of it just as it came off a two-burner Coleman stove. They need to serve that mess in restaurants.

Just then, another couple confessed to over-buying on food and had a box of convenience store White Castle burgers they didn’t want. They offered it to me, which I gladly accepted. Wrapped in foil, these little grease bombs cooked nicely over the fire and filled that salty/savory urge my body craved. Such nice people! I shared what beer I had, knowing my offering was an inadequate trade.

As the night went on, more goodies were passed around, usually in the form of cookies, potato chips and fine scotch. A warm, low glow of the fire brightened the faces underneath knit caps pulled tight over folks’ heads. Hours drifted on and a whole bunch of stories were swapped between people who all seemed to know each other well from past ascents, and yet included me just the same. I wasn’t an equal to any of them, but felt a part of the gang nonetheless, even if temporarily. This was their world, and I was just a guest.

And one of the best things about being an outsider invited in is feeling the gratitude toward people’s hospitality. The best meal isn’t always about atmospherics, mood-setting or even the quality of the cuisine. Sometimes it’s the company you keep.

The right setting can make all the difference.

The right setting can make all the difference.

Breakfast for three

So I noted earlier that great meals aren’t always about the setting in which you dine. But let me tell you something: Sometimes they are.

About seven years ago, I was on a little backpacking trip in northern New Mexico. We’d hiked about five miles into the Wheeler Peak Wilderness Area near a small alpine lake somewhere around 11,000 feet.

The previous night was a little rough in terms of sleep. No one at camp had done a whole lot of sleeping in a tent lately, and certainly not at that elevation. I got up first, fired up the stove and began to boil water for the morning’s breakfast.

It was going to be simple for me: instant oatmeal. I got the water boiling, mixed it with the oats and munched on this modest meal alone just before everyone else finally roused.

The woods where we camped were gorgeous. The smell of pine was amazing. The only sounds (aside from the stirrings inside the tents) were birds greeting the morning.

And then my solitude was interrupted.

Uphill from me, a female bighorn sheep slowly ambled its way into camp, its lamb in tow. They weren’t skittish. They paused to take a look at me, and their curiosity satisfied, continued their leisurely walk downslope.

I wished everyone else there could have seen them, but then again, we had a big day of hiking ahead and they’d need all the rest they could get. And selfishly, that was a moment I kind of liked having to myself. A brief one, but very memorable. Sort of like a gift, and it was all mine.

Best breakfast ever? I won’t go that far. But certainly the most memorable. And definitely a backcountry dining experience that trumps just about anything I can think of at any restaurant to which I’ve ever been.

I think I will excuse myself from ever being a full-time food critic or foodie television rock star. But I know good eats. And I know a little something about great dining experiences, even if they don’t quite fit within the norm.

Bob Doucette

On Twitter @RMHigh7088

My great outdoor conversation: Learning the art of trout fishing

This is my idea of an outdoor paradise. It literally speaks to me, as it does my friend Jeff Goss, who is pictured here.

Some of the greatest memories of childhood, particularly for boys, come from fishing. How it usually plays out is father and son heading down to the lake or a nearby farm pond, spearing a worm at the end of a hook and then casting into the water, waiting for the bobber to plunge under the surface or for the tell-tale jerk of the pole tip saying, “fish on!”

Cherished memories, to say the least. But then there are other memories of fishing, those that don’t just stick with you, but affect you deeply. If you’re an angler of any sort, you know what I’m talking about: times when fishing went from being a passive outdoor activity to some more akin to a passion.

I’ve fished since I was a kid, but it wasn’t until I was a teen that fishing went from something fun to do to something with much greater resonance.

I think I was about 14 years old, and I was hiking around a river upstream of Taylor Park Reservoir in central Colorado. I was with my brother-in-law, Mark, who had long ago learned a thing or two plying Rocky Mountain streams for trout.

By then, I’d been plopping bait and lures into rivers and streams for some time, but probably in an uneducated, random fashion. Then something clicked.

Suddenly, I looked at the water a little differently. I examined the surface, the bend in the stream, the current. I began to understand how the manner in which the water flowed, and what it flowed past, would have a direct impact on where a fish’s food might be, and how it would get there.

It was as if the river were speaking to me.

Thinking along those lines, I directed my casts accordingly.

***

When most people talk about fishing for trout, they’re thinking of fly fishing. I don’t fly fish. I just haven’t learned it, and quite frankly, I’ve had enough success with spinners that learning the art of fly fishing hasn’t been real high on my priorities. Not that there’s anything wrong with fly fishing, the people who do it, or the potential enjoyment it might bring me. But for me, it’s somewhat like telemarking. I’ve already learned how to ski, and while telemarking looks artful and interesting, I just don’t see the need.

What I’ve learned, however, is that angling in mountain streams has certain properties that are rather universal, bridging the gap between baitcasting and fly fishing rather nicely. It’s good to know the fish, good to know what they eat, and good to know what they don’t like.

But it’s equally important to understand a trout’s habitat. If you can unlock the secrets of how the environment of the stream works, you can learn more than just what brings a trout to the dinner table. You can also learn just where the table should be set.

***

It wasn’t like I’d never caught trout out of a stream before, it’s just that in times past it was either by dumb luck or, more often, Mark or someone else pointing and saying, “Cast over there.”

At this point, he was somewhere else, looking for his own sweet spot along the riverbank. Here I was, just me and the river, communing silently. No one was pointing anything out, but I felt I was being told things as I looked it over. A bend in the river slowed water in one section, creating a deeper pool. Further downstream, the river straightened, had more riffles and became shallower. And then a boulder in its midst caused its own features: fast moving current to the sides, with a slow-moving, deep eddy in the rock’s downstream side.

It was a quiz. The river was asking me, “So where are you going to cast? Where do you think the fish are?”

Thinking it over, I made my choice.

***

One of the things I’ve learned is that the nature of a waterway will determine the behavior of a fish to a large extent. Like any wild animal, fish are consumed with eating. Every meal is crucial, and every calorie burned finding food is one that has to count.

This means that when picking a place to cast, you want to think, “Where are trout going to find their food?” The answer is that they will lurk in places where they can do as little chasing and as much eating as possible.

This puts trout in deep pools near the riverbank, in deeper pools immediately downstream of faster currents and in eddies caused by bends in the river or behind large objects, such as a boulder or a fallen tree.

Obviously, all bets are off in beaver ponds or other pond- and lake-like bodies of water. Other rules apply in those places. But in streams, the fish have a bounty of places to wait for bugs and smaller fish to stumble into their lairs. Each watery haunt needs a different strategy to reel one in.

***

Rather than casting into a calm-looking pool and hoping the shiny Panther-Martin would attract a fish, I decided to play the currents. I cast directly into a fast portion of the stream, then let the spinner drift quickly downstream, past the boulder, then down to the tail of the eddy formed by the presence of the rock.

A large enough obstacle in the water will force water to move around it very quickly, but the water immediately behind it has a sort of “vacuum” where a lack of pressure (caused by the current) makes it calmer. To me, it seemed like that might be a place where a fish might be waiting for smaller prey to come rushing past on the faster currents to other side of the boulder.

As soon as my lure swept past the eddy to its tail, I began my retrieval, giving it an uneven path through the eddy.

And then it struck.

***

Fishing on the Gunnison a few years ago, I was given ample opportunity to use my imagination. The Gunnison flows through the Black Canyon quickly, with many bends and turns. Being deep in a canyon, it’s also littered with the flotsam of fallen trees and geologic erosion.

Submerged trees and rocks do wonders in terms of creating trout habitat.

I found myself using three casting patterns for the Blue Fox Vibrax I had at the end of my line. On fast straightaways, I’d cast downstream in the middle of the current, let the bait drift toward the bank and then begin a slow retrieve, occasionally giving my rod tip a small pop. Fish pointed upstream will hear the struggle behind them, wait silently to get a side view of what’s coming, then pounce.

When fishing around those boulders, I’d cast straight across the river, then let the bait drift on the current before starting a moderate retrieval as the lure reached the tail of the eddy. The spinner presents itself just as it breaks out of the rapids and into calmer waters where hungry trout congregate. I think I’ve caught more fish this way than in any other manner.

But one of my favorite techniques happens in broader sections of the river where you might find multiple obstacles stuck in the middle of moderate currents. Here, I won’t bother trying to sneak up on the fish. I know they’re pointed upstream, hovering, and waiting for hapless prey to tumble their way either on the surface or just under. I’ll cast upstream, then immediately begin a fast retrieve. This is risky, as any slowdown in the retrieval will fail to activate the spinning action on the bait. Keep it fast enough, though, and all the fish sees is dinner barreling down at them from upstream. Predator instinct takes over, and then…

Boom. Fish on.

***

This is me communing with the river. (Rick Ponder photo)

Somewhere in the depth of the eddy, a pan-sized rainbow trout rose, then took my spinner. It’s not like I hadn’t caught trout in a stream before, but having solved the puzzle of the river and hooked one of its shiny denizens made a real impact on me. I’d fished for years, and all that time the river had been speaking to me but I’d failed to hear.

This time, however,  I listened. The river told me its secrets, and I comprehended the message. I did what it told me to do. And then it gave me a reward.

It’s hard to describe what such a revelation does for you. It’s not unlike the time when you’re a teen and you finally figure out what a woman wants to hear, deliver, and then it’s you, and not some other dude, who finally gets the girl.

I had a good day that day. That one lone rainbow wouldn’t be my last that morning. And the lessons I learned stuck with me. It’s rare that I go fishing in the mountains and not catch something. Some days are better than others, but some days – like that day on the Gunnison – are truly spectacular.

And not because I caught scores of fish or hauled out a trophy. Nope, definitely not that.

It has more to do with the fact that when the river speaks, I listen. And all these years later, I still understand.

Bob Doucette

On Twitter @RMHigh7088