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Though the Ozark Highlands Trail passes only 13 miles through an officially designated federal wilderness, the trail "has a lot of wilderness character," Ernst says. "There are no bridges, there aren't campsites everywhere. You can hike this trail from end to end and see only a couple of buildings." Here and there, though, the human history of the Ozarks region reveals itself to hikers. On Hare Mountain, at 2,380 feet the highest point on the trail, rock walls offer the first sign of an incongruous, if not outright ghostly, pre-Depression farmstead where a family once raised cotton and corn. Back in the woods, a fireplace is all that remains of their dwelling. The chimney is broken at eight feet, and the rest of its squared-off stones are scattered about, overtopped by oaks and hickories, nearly overcome by tangles of coralberry.

Thirteen miles west, a different sort of history provides the easiest walking on the entire trail. Here the route follows an abandoned railroad tramline for three miles, dead flat except where trestles once crossed creeks and ravines. The narrow-gauge line hauled logs out of the forest in the 1920s. Timber operations—both the old cut-and-run style and modern managed forestry—have covered every square mile of the Ozarks, leaving woodlands of varying ages but almost nothing more ancient than maturing second growth.

Three hundred million years of geologic forces have ensured that flat walking is an anomaly on the Ozark Highlands Trail. Though commonly described as part of the Ozark Mountains, this area of northwestern Arkansas and southwestern Missouri is really a series of eroded plateaus. That is, the high points weren't so much pushed up as the valleys between them were worn away by erosion, a feature apparent from any lookout: The mountains in all directions are flat-topped, and the tallest are mostly the same height, because they all started as deposits on a Paleozoic-era seafloor, transformed by geologic forces into sandstone, limestone, and shale.

Tim Ernst expresses what this means in practical terms: "Because the ridges run north and south, and the trail goes east and west, you go up and down. You see ridgetops, and you see creeks, again and again and again."

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