Photograph by Peter Essick National Geographic October 2008
The Ozark Highlands National Recreation Trail is a 165-mile hiking route in northwestern Arkansas. Motor vehicles, bicycles, and horses are banned, but if you lace on a pair of hiking boots, you'll have access to some of the most remote parts of the Ozark Mountains. Established by a crew of dedicated volunteers in the 1970s, the trail is intended for casual day hikers and hard-core backpackers alike. It meanders past hundreds of seasonal waterfalls and through thick forests filled with plant species as beautiful as their names, including Euonymus americanus, also known as strawberry bush or hearts a-bustin' with love.
The trail passes over the top of several peaks that offer expansive views of forests of sycamore, black gum, red oak, pine, dogwood, maple, and more. The highest point along the trail is Hare Mountain, which measures 2,380 feet.
Ozark Highlands is one of more than a thousand national recreation trails that are part of the National Trails System. Created by Congress in 1968, the system includes national recreation, scenic, and historic trails. There are national recreation trails in all 50 states, as well as in Puerto Rico and Washington, D.C., and some 30 new trails are added to the list each year.
Trail advocates hope to connect the Ozark Highlands National Recreation Trail and the newly dedicated Ozark National Recreation Trail, which starts at the southern Missouri state line. If they're connected, the two would form a 700-mile hiking trail, which would be one of the longest national recreation trails in the country.
White, Mel. "The Intimate Wild: Ozark Highlands Trail." National Geographic (October 2008), 122-139.
Hunter, Carl G. Wildflowers of Arkansas. Ozark Society Foundation, 2000.
In the winter months many trails lose their characteristic charm: Trees are bare, streams slow to a trickle or even freeze, and wildlife retreats to find food elsewhere or hibernates. But Tim Ernst, who started the all-volunteer Ozark Highlands Trail Association, says winter may be the best time to go trekking in the northwest region of Arkansas.
"Right in the middle of the winter—on frigid January or February days—we will often get witch hazel trees in bloom," says Ernst. "They smell terrific and are a great break in the often bleak and monotone winter landscape." Ernst says summer is actually the least desirable time of year to explore the trail, because of the insects, snakes, and overgrown vegetation. In many other parts of the country, waterfalls hit their high-water peak in the spring, but along the Ozark Highlands Trail, winter is when the hundreds of seasonal falls run at their highest. Says
Ernst, "That's why it's considered one of the very best backpacking trails in the United States in the winter."
Ernst, Tim. Ozark Highlands Trail Guide. Cloudland.Net Publishing, 2007.
Ernst, Tim. Arkansas Waterfalls Guidebook. Cloudland.Net Publishing, 2003.
While the word "trail" may conjure up images of a dirt path, water trails are a growing part of the National Trails System, allowing paddlers access to new areas and even offering high-tech interpretive information along the way.
The Florida Circumnavigational Saltwater Paddling National Recreation Trail is considered the saltwater version of the Appalachian Trail, because of its length and the varied habitats it crosses. Beginning near Pensacola and continuing around the Keys and north to the Georgia state line, the trail covers 1,600 miles and is the longest water trail in the U.S.
The Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail is a water trail that follows the routes explored from1607 to 1609 by Smith, the famous early English settler. The first national historic trail entirely on water, it was designated because of its historic significance: It follows the route taken by Smith as he mapped the Chesapeake and established relationships with Native Americans in the region.
Paddlers may be following a historic course, but what they'll find along the way is pure 21st century. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) developed a system of interpretive buoys that provide information on the historical significance of the area around each buoy. The buoys also serve as weather and water-quality monitors, and you can get information they relay on wind speed, wave height, and other current conditions on your cell phone while you're out paddling or online before you head out.
Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail. National Park Service.
Last updated: August 27, 2008