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There’s a chilly wind blowing, but Al and Sharmane Arnold don’t mind.
They’ve just worked up a sweat riding their mountain bikes on Springfield’s newest outdoor playground — the Dirt 66 mountain bike and hiking trails at Fellows Lake.
“We used to drive to northwest Arkansas to ride, but now we have this so close to where we live in Fair Grove,” Sharmane Arnold said.
Her husband agreed.
“We come out here all the time since we live just four miles north of these trails,” Al Arnold said. “These are a wonderful resource and we’re glad to see people already coming out and giving them a try.”
Dirt 66 details:
Hours: The trails, like Fellows Lake, are open from sunrise to sunset.
Cost: There is no fee or permit needed to ride or walk the trails.
Location: The main trailhead is located at 4208 East Farm Road 66, Springfield, 65803.
The $1.8 million Dirt 66 trail system — optimized for bikes but open to runners, dog walkers and hikers — is on track to be completed in May. Approximately 22 miles are already finished, with construction of the last 8 miles well underway on the south side of the lake.
If funding can be found, trail planners hope to build a 1,000-foot-long bike-pedestrian suspension bridge across the lake’s south arm to connect the southside trails.
It would be the longest pedestrian suspension bridge in the United States and another reason for visitors to check out Dirt 66, named as a nod to historic Route 66 that passes through Springfield.
Springfield mountain biker Louie Layton is stoked to see the progress.
On a late January day, Layton was giving the “fast and flowy” Valhalla Trail a go, including its daunting wooden boardwalk that takes riders above and across a long-abandoned farmhouse foundation.
“This is my second time crossing it,” Layton said, pleased with his accomplishment. “Yesterday I walked my bike across but today I rode across. I’ve had some injuries before so I ride a little more carefully.”
The single-track, dirt-and-rock trails take mountain bikers through forested hills and hollers and a few open fields They loop around Fellows Lake, located about 6 miles north of Springfield, and are entirely on property owned by Springfield City Utilities, one of the project partners.
The nonprofit TrailSpring bicycle organization initiated and paid for the project. TrailSpring is the brainchild of Matt O’Reilly of the O’Reilly Auto Parts family, and TrailSpring also built the popular Two Rivers Bike Park near Highlandville.
Once Dirt 66 is finished, TrailSpring will hand over yearly maintenance of it to Ozark Greenways, which already manages more than 77 miles of recreation trails in the Springfield area.
Putting Springfield on the map for mountain biking
Though not yet completed, Dirt 66 is putting Springfield on the map as a go-to spot for mountain bikers and anyone who loves nature and the outdoors, according to Jessica Pearson, executive director of TrailSpring.
Word about it has spread fast through the region’s bicycling communities and bicycle shops, which report an increase in business because of the 30 miles of new riding opportunities so close to town.
With the addition of those 30 miles of Dirt 66 trail, Ozark Greenways has found the need to hire a soft-surface trail coordinator to help keep all of the unpaved Greenway trails in good shape.
Volunteers, too, already are pitching in.
In late January, 60 members of Missouri Off-Road Cyclists showed up with chainsaws and rakes to clear and smooth the bike trails and haul away what small amount of litter they might find. TrailSpring also invites bikers to help out during volunteer “Earn Your Dirt-66” days.
The lake and its trails are a community asset that’s helping make Springfield known for its outdoor amenities.
“You can come out here on any weekend or sunny fair-weather day and most of the trailhead parking areas are full,” Pearson said. “It’s been predominantly word of mouth. People travel through Springfield to get to Arkansas, but now they have a place to stop in and ride for a full day or more.”
What are the trails like?
Pearson said most of the trails are suitable for all ages and experience levels, though there are a few intermediate-level trails with some technical features like jumps or elevated paths that are best for riders with more developed skills.
At several spots, trail designers incorporated long-forgotten house and barn foundations and even an old concrete porch into the trail experience. All the trails are named and marked, especially where they intersect the 2.5-mile Ozark Greenway Nature Trail, a wider path more suited to walkers than bikes.
On the lake’s southeast side, the Bullwinkle Trail gets its name from an oddly shaped tree with a growth that looks like a moose’s nose. Pearson said she was inspired to have a metalsmith cut a set of steel moose antlers that are affixed to the tree in a way that no rider or hiker can miss.
For good reason, bike helmets are required for anyone who wants to give the trails a try. Pearson and City Utilities confirmed there was one significant injury accident so far involving a rider who crashed on a steep section of the Dam Trail and who had to be evacuated by medical helicopter.
Pearson said that rider has no memory of the accident but made a full recovery.
CU spokesman Joel Alexander said the utility’s Safety Department has provided first aid and water rescue training to the Watershed Committee of the Ozarks, which runs the marina adjacent to the bike trails and is working closely with the Ebenezer Fire District and Springfield Fire Department on response needs.
Locals react to the trails near their backyard
Although the trails don’t cross any private property, TrailSpring and City Utilities held several informational meetings with people living near them. One property owner was concerned a section of trail would come too close to his private target shooting range, so Pearson said the trail was rerouted away from there.
She noted one issue with a local resident who kept damaging a berm on one of the bike trails because he felt it disrupted his access to his favorite fishing spot on the CU-owned lake. A security camera is now in place to deter such vandalism.
Some local residents voiced concern about bikers parking indiscriminately along the roads to access the trails, but Pearson said CU has allowed TrailSpring to build several designated parking areas that so far have easily handled the growing popularity of Dirt 66.
“We want to be good neighbors to those who live nearby, and we will continue to work closely with them to address concerns and develop workable solutions,” said CU General Manager Gary Gibson.
He said he has received a lot of positive feedback from people using the trails, a testament to the partnerships that CU has in place.
“We’re excited to see such interest and support from the community on the projects at and around Fellows Lake, Gibson said. “Our partnerships with the Watershed Committee of the Ozarks, TrailSpring and Ozarks Greenways have been successful from day one and we couldn’t ask for a better team to help us develop and protect the area.”
Environmental considerations for the trails
Because Fellows Lake is a key water supply source for Springfield, Gibson said recreation uses are weighed against their potential impact on the lake’s water quality. Boating, fishing and water skiing are allowed, but swimming is not.
The Dirt 66 paths were designed in a way that keeps any soil erosion from reaching the water.
Ozark Greenways is also a key partner in the Dirt 66 plan. Executive Director Mary Kromrey said there are future plans to link the Dirt 66 trail with McDaniel Lake a few miles downstream from Fellows Lake. That could eventually tie into Ozark Greenway trails that already serve the northwest portion of Springfield.
“It’s really tremendous to add this sort of resource to our community,” Kromrey said. “I think this will help us become an outdoor destination, not just regionally but in the midwest.”
It already is a regular destination for Andy and Donna Sloan of Willard. They are avid bike riders and have regularly driven the two hours to northwest Arkansas to ride those mountain bike trails.
Now, the Dirt 66 trails are only 15 minutes from their home.
“It’s changed my life, really,” Andy Sloan said while recently hiking the Valhalla Trail with his wife. “We enjoy it so much because it’s just so much nearer. I’m out here almost every day. I hope everyone can get out and ride this, though there are some areas that are a little technical for beginners. It’s just a great place to ride.”
Amenities Andy would like to see?
“I’d love to see a bike shop out here and maybe a microbrewery for after you ride,” he said.
Springfield isn’t the only place seeing a big jump in mountain biking interest.
Conservation areas opened to mountain bike use
Based on requests from the public, the Missouri Conservation Commission voted in December to allow mountain bikes and electric bikes on trails at about 300 conservation areas across the state. Bikes currently are allowed only on conservation area roads that are open to public-vehicle traffic.
That changes on Feb. 28, when bikes will be allowed access to service roads and multi-use trails.
According to the Missouri Department of Conservation, about 30 conservation areas will be closed to bicycle and electric bike use during firearms deer seasons and spring turkey hunting season.