Wendy and I spent part of our Spring Break 2023 in Bella Vista, Arkansas. It is the northernmost of a chain of cities in the Northwest Arkansas metropolitan area, NWA, which has more than tripled in population during my lifetime.
NWA now has over 560,000 residents, with its high growth driven by three Fortune 500 companies which are based there: Walmart, Tyson Foods, and J.B. Hunt Transport Services, Inc. Those companies in turn have attracted over 1,300 suppliers and vendors.
For comparison, the city of Tulsa, Oklahoma is the nearest big city to Bartlesville, where we live. As of 2020 Tulsa had over 400,000 residents in a metropolitan area of just over a million people. Bartlesville is about 45 minutes north of Tulsa and has about 37,000 residents.
In my youth, my parents often took me to their cabin on Table Rock Lake in southwest Missouri. We visited Springdale, Arkansas a few times to eat at the AQ [Arkansas Quality] Chicken House. Springdale’s population has more than quadrupled since then, while Rogers to the north has sextupled, and Bentonville has exploded from 6,000 to almost 55,000 residents.
Wendy and I have been repeatedly drawn to Bentonville since Alice Walton opened her Crystal Bridges art museum there in 2011. The fastest route between Bentonville and Bartlesville flows through or around Bella Vista, which I have always known as a retirement community with a bunch of golf courses. I’m no golfer, but I thought it would be interesting to rent a house there via airbnb for a few days in the woods, exploring if we might be interested in retiring there some day.
We headed out on a Monday morning, driving south from Bartlesville to Tulsa for lunch at an El Chico. Then we headed due east on US 412 to NWA for a brief stop at Crystal Bridges.
We parked in overflow and walked past the ongoing construction of a school of medicine to reach the museum, which is itself under construction for a sizable expansion. As members of the Woolaroc museum near Bartlesville, Wendy and I enjoy free entry to the temporary exhibitions at Crystal Bridges thanks to the North American Reciprocal Museum Association.
So we got a free look at Diego Rivera’s America. Neither Wendy nor I are fond of much of his work, but we do find his murals interesting, in particular the Man at the Crossroads one for Rockefeller Plaza which was destroyed because of his insistence of including in it a portrait of Vladimir Lenin.
The Crystal Bridges show included studies for that and other mural projects. But what Wendy liked best was Rivera’s Symbolic Landscape painting from 1940. I saw a clear influence of Dali in the work. Its description read, “…the stony outcrop resembles an enraged man — his fists emerge from the earth, and his angry face appears upside-down in the lower left. This man seems to attack the fallen tree, which resembles a reclining woman. A bloodied glove and knife lay on the ‘face’ of the earth, and a gold wedding ring encircles the blade. These details may refer to a murder that took place while Rivera was visiting Taxco in 1937.”
After that, we headed north to our cabin in Bella Vista, stopping at a Harp’s grocery along the way for some victuals.
Bella Vista began as a summer recreation resort in 1915. It catered to wealthy urban families who could spend an entire summer on vacation. The resort had declined by the 1950s, and in 1965 it was repurposed as a vacation-retirement community.
Some folks would buy lots to be paid off over time for a retirement home, while others immediately built vacation homes intended to eventually transition into retirement homes. Owners enjoy access to recreational amenities, which over the decades grew to include parks, clubhouses with workout areas, swimming pools, five 18-hole and two 9-hole golf courses, seven lakes, a marina, tennis courts, and an extensive trail system. From 1965 to 2005, about 38,000 home sites were sold, of which 12,600 lots were developed.
Bella Vista’s population grew from 2,589 in 1980 to 9,628 in 1990 and to 16,582 in 2000. It finally incorporated in 2007, growing to 26,461 in 2010 and 30,104 in 2020. Almost half of its residents were 65+ in 1990, but in recent years they account for about 1/3 of its residents as the town has also evolved into a bedroom community for nearby Bentonville.
The median household income in Bella Vista was almost $75,000 in 2021. Bentonville’s is even higher, at almost $90,000. That compares to less than $55,000 in Bartlesville, which is more in line with that of Springdale over in NWA.
Modern OZ Cabin at Summit School Trail
For vacations when we will stay in place for over a day, Wendy and I have grown to prefer renting cabins or homes over hotel lodging. So I booked the Modern OZ Cabin in Bella Vista for three nights, attracted by its isolation from any neighbors, a spacious deck, and close proximity to one of the more primitive trails in Bella Vista.
I was truly grateful for GPS when navigating to and from that cabin. Just a glance at a map tells you that Bella Vista is no ordinary town. It is filled with a maze of twisting, interconnected residential roads which mostly follow the top of Ozark mountain ridges, while Bentonville and Rogers have more conventional street grids on the flatter land to the south.
Just listing the roads on the fastest route from Bentonville to our rented cabin in Bella Vista illustrates the complexity of Bella Vista’s roads: Take Interstate 49 north to exit north onto North Walton Boulevard, which is also US 71. Then turn right onto West McNelly Road, then left onto Spanker Road, then right onto Dartmoor Road, then left onto Euston Road, then right onto Kingsland Road, then right onto Trafalgar Road, then left onto Berkshire Drive, then left onto Sandhurst Drive, and finally left onto Didcot Lane. Whew!
We enjoyed our stay at the cabin. Despite it being a bit chilly, I liked relaxing in the sun on the deck in a reclining chair. I did try the hammock, but I always find hammocks far more attractive to look at than to actually occupy.
As usual, we ignored the hot tub and the televisions, but Wendy did make use of the kitchen to prepare a hot breakfast for us each morning. We had turkey sandwiches a couple of times and drove into Bentonville for one meal at a Five Guys and a couple of meals at a Beef ‘O’ Brady’s. At the latter we had a combination appetizer platter with fried cheese, onion rings, fried chicken strips, and cheese quesadillas. Wendy liked the spicy boom boom sauce so much that we returned the next day so that she could have it with some chicken strips while I had a bit of chicken with rice and steamed broccoli.
Traffic in Bentonville can become intense, complicated by both road and building construction projects. Trixie, my TomTom GPS app, did a good job of rerouting us around choke points. We were particularly glad during one rush hour when it led us off US 71 onto Punkin Hollow Road for a much more leisurely return to Bella Vista. I couldn’t help but wonder if we were actually travelling down Punkin Hollow or Pumpkin Hollow. I later checked the topographic map; sure enough, it was actually Pumpkin Hollow despite the cute road name.
We took it easy at the cabin on Tuesday, and after dinner in Bentonville I enjoyed the golden hour out on the deck.
A brief hike
We had good weather on Wednesday, making it the best day for a hike. Unfortunately, I had endured a night of gastroesophageal reflux and was under the weather from that and a hypertension headache. So while we did make it onto the nearby trail, our hike was brief.
We simply walked down the short road past a few houses to where the Summit School Trail crossed.
I chose to head left, winding down a small switchback along the side of a ravine to then follow a small creek that eventually feeds little Lake Ann.
I was glad to see that the trail eventually ducked down to cross the stream, as I knew that Wendy would enjoy looking at the streambed rocks in her usual hunt for crystals.
Google Maps misleadingly showed a marker for the Lamberton Cabin just off the trail where we were walking. That is a 1920 cabin from the old resort days which is on the National Register of Historic Places. Even in my weakened state, I could tell there was no such cabin as indicated. Later investigation revealed the cabin’s Universal Transverse Mercator coordinates, and I used Google Earth to determine that the old cabin was actually 2.5 miles southwest of the marker on Google Maps; I submitted a correction.
The Summit School Trail is part of an elaborate system of mountain bike/hiking trails in Bella Vista. The Walton Family Foundation provided $3 million to fund the construction of 40 miles of soft surface trails in 2016 and another $3.9 million for even more trails in 2018. Trailblazers is a nonprofit that has developed over 300 miles on multi-use trails in the NWA region.
There was a time when trail access in Bella Vista was limited to property owners. So I had made sure to obtain Bella Vista guest passes via the airbnb host. But it appears that the entire Back 40 trail system is now open to the public, and there wasn’t anyone around anyway to care whether or not we were properly credentialed for our walk.
Summit School is rated very difficult for bikes, as it is 18-24 inches wide. We had it all to ourselves.
As for its name, there was a Summit School in Bella Vista from 1896 to 1945. It was about 1.25 miles southeast of the eponymous trail. The trail which actually runs close by the former Summit School’s location is the Mulligan Trail. It seems fitting that Bella Vista’s trail system has names as confusing as its maze of streets.
After Wendy had some time to explore the creek bed, we turned around and hiked the half-mile overland and up 120 feet to return to the cabin. I felt better after dinner down in Bentonville with our drive down Pumpkin Hollow for the return to the cabin. There I relaxed again out on the deck, despite the skies closing up.
I had been careful to eat blander food for dinner, and Wendy kindly found some sturdy pillows around the cabin and used them to prop up the head of the mattress, so I had a better night.
We returned to Bartlesville on Thursday morning, amidst gray skies and brief sprinkles of rain. It was nice to arrive home in less than three hours to enjoy the rest of Spring Break back in Bartlesville. All of the growth in NWA means we wouldn’t consider it as a location for our eventual retirement, but we enjoyed our visit.