Published: October 2008
The Intimate Wild
Ozark Highlands Trail
By Mel White

The view from the bluffs atop White Rock Mountain has changed hardly a whit in thousands of years. The nearly unbroken forest of the Arkansas Ozark Plateau disappears at a horizon that may be 40 miles away, beyond ridges and valleys numberless as ocean waves. If you could speed up a video of past millennia, you would see fires and storm blowdowns and logging by the settlers who came and, mostly, went. But when the clock returned to today, you would see what the Osage Indians saw.

White Rock lies at milepost 18 of the Ozark Highlands National Recreation Trail, a 165-mile-long hiking route that crosses a considerable part of northwestern Arkansas, mostly through the 1.2-million-acre Ozark National Forest. The vista from the top is among the best in the Ozarks, which makes it de facto one of the best between the Appalachians and the Rockies. Nonetheless, people who know and love the trail generally don't talk about its views, fine as they are, when they describe what they find most appealing about it.

They talk about waterfalls and rocky creeks that surge with every rain and retreat in summer to serene, solitary pools that tempt even the most prudish to skinny-dip. They talk about rock formations like chaotic sculpture gardens and hillsides profligate with trillium and trout lilies. They talk about the way most every mile changes with the seasons, from the white explosions of serviceberry and dogwood in spring to the reds and oranges of black gum and maple in fall to winter leaf-off, when sight lines open to landscapes hidden the rest of the year behind relentless greenery.

"It's the intimate scenery that sets this trail apart," Tim Ernst says, relaxing in a spot that demonstrates just what he's talking about. He leans back against a sandstone bluff, under tall beech trees, in a compact valley (a "holler," locally) where the loudest sounds are the companionable twitterings of chickadees and kinglets and the patter of water falling over a two-foot ledge in the creek below. A sycamore leans beside the stream, its white trunk reflected in the water. On the hill above stand pines two people can barely join hands around.

Without the efforts of people like Ernst, this beauty and solitude might be out of reach. The Ozark Highlands Trail ranks among the longer of the country's more than a thousand official National Recreation Trails. Created by the National Trail System Act of 1968, this network of routes has grown to include segments in all 50 states (see pages 138-39). Yet despite the federal designation, Ozark Highlands and many other trails depend largely on volunteers, who often struggle to create, fund, and maintain their adopted pathways.

If Ernst isn't the Ozark Highlands Trail's father, he's undoubtedly its longtime foster parent. The trail was established by the Ozark National Forest in the granola-fed 1970s, when "John Denver was singing about Colorado, and everybody was wearing wafflestompers," as Ernst says—a time when backpacking and canoeing got tens of thousands of Americans out on trails and rivers. By the Reagan-era eighties, though, U.S. Forest Service budgets had shrunk, and the barely begun Ozark Highlands Trail needed help if it was to be completed.

Ernst had grown up hunting in the Ozark National Forest. Later, in college, he took long bushwhacking hikes through the backcountry. "I didn't have a clue what I was doing," he says. "I was wearing plain 100 percent cotton socks, and I had a Wal-Mart pack or something. I had blisters on my feet, and I was miserable the whole time, at least physically." But he fell in love with backpacking and with the sections of the trail that had been completed.

When construction on the trail stalled, Ernst called a meeting in his hometown of Fayetteville, Arkansas. "My goal was to find out if we could have a handful of people who could take over maintenance of what was out here, and then maybe build a little bit every now and then. We had 50 people show up at the first meeting, and that's how the Ozark Highlands Trail Association got started."

Over time the all-volunteer OHTA, almost entirely under Ernst's leadership, grew to more than 400 members in two dozen states. The group completed the trail in 1984 and, with members "adopting" two- to seven-mile segments, has continued to maintain it.

"The layout of the trail is good because hikers did it," Ernst says. "That's why I say this is a handcrafted trail. It was built by people who weren't experts when we started, but got expert in a hurry. We built the trail that we wanted, the way we wanted it. In those early days we simply went out on weekends and bushwhacked. We walked drainages, walked ridgetops. We looked around and asked ourselves, What's down there?"

At milepost 54, the Forest Service had proposed that the trail run along an old road to save construction costs and effort. Ernst and his team scouted around a bit and discovered a wonderfully picturesque holler now known as the Marinoni Scenic Area. "I told the Forest Service, ‘We have got to bring the trail through here,' " Ernst says. "They said it would be a lot more difficult to build. I said, ‘I don't care how hard it is to build. That's what we're here for, is to see places like that. It's not an interstate.' "

Hikers can easily judge for themselves if the effort was worthwhile. From the Lick Branch trailhead it's only a couple of hours' easy walking west to Marinoni. (There'll be a delay where the trail winds through an amazing maze of sandstone blocks, each the size of a small RV.) After crossing the old road that was to be the trail, the path descends into a sheltered cove under big beeches, their smooth, gray bark mercifully untouched by lovesick teens and other pocketknife-carrying woods vandals.

Then the real scenic area begins, as the trail reaches Briar Branch and passes bluffs dotted with wild hydrangea and the shrub with the wonderfully evocative folk name of "hearts a-bustin' with love." (That's Euonymus americanus to botanical types.) Down by the creek, in April, umbrella magnolias show off white flowers ten inches across. Huge sandstone boulders, shaped by eons of erosion, have the sensuously rounded shape of unfinished Henry Moore sculptures. All in all, it's not a place you'd care to miss if you happen to be in the neighborhood.

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."

If today's hiker finds the roller-coaster trail exhausting at times, there's some comfort in knowing that it's hardly a new experience. A German adventurer named Friedrich Gerstäcker tramped through the Ozarks in the early 1840s and wrote in his journal (probably while soaking his tired feet) that the mountains "do not appear very high, because only the top of the next division is visible; but when one is surmounted, another and another arise, and people maintain that when you come to the highest there is always one more."

Ernst describes the trail as "challenging but not difficult. There are a number of thousand- foot climbs, but they're contoured so it's not steep." Experienced backpackers who cache food or arrange resupply drops can hike it end to end in ten days to two weeks, usually in solitude enough to satisfy any modern-day Thoreau, an advantage of being in a remote part of a mostly rural state. But hundreds of people use the trail for only a few hours or for overnight trips, finding as much pleasure as the fittest long-distance walker. The trail highlights—all the waterfalls, rock formations, deep hollers, and swimming holes—can be reached in day hikes from trailheads.

While beauty and peace generally reign over the trail, it's not immune to problems or controversy. In recent years millions of red oaks in the Ozarks have died from poorly understood factors lumped under the name oak decline. To keep the trail clear, association volunteers carry chain saws, sometimes for miles, to cut fallen trees that can number dozens each year per mile of trail. In addition, a more open tree canopy lets more sunlight hit the forest floor, promoting fast-growing grasses that have to be attacked with handheld weed trimmers.

Almost from the beginning there have been plans to extend the trail northward to the Missouri state line. There it would meet the Ozark National Recreation Trail, a similarly named trail now under construction, making possible a hike from St. Louis nearly to Oklahoma. To do so, though, would require running the trail 14 miles through a wilderness area along the Buffalo National River. Though it originally supported the plan, the National Park Service later vetoed trail construction, backed by local conservation groups who want to minimize human presence in the wilderness. Ernst says he values the wild in wilderness as much as anyone, but thinks the goal of a 700-mile hiking trail across mid-America merits a 14-mile exception to the rules.

Through forest disease, disputes, and budget cuts, though, the essential values of the Ozarks remain. As forest along the trail matures, as ferns and saplings invade old logging roads, the land will look—on the ground, not just from mountaintops—more and more like that of the Osage, of Gerstäcker, of the settlers who tried to make a life in this rocky, up-and-down part of the world. As solitude and quiet become more precious, as mobile phones and Wi-Fi encroach, the trail and hundreds like it will endure to reward those who, at least now and then, prefer to trade skyscrapers for blue sky, iTunes for bird songs, and a seat at a sidewalk café for a sun-warmed rock alongside a mountain stream.

Celebrating 40 Years: A Nation of Trails
A trail, at its most basic, simply connects two places. But Congress had something grander in mind in 1968 when it created the National Trails System, officially recognizing that trails can be more than routes to destinations. Ancient and new, they're living reminders of how our land was discovered and our culture built. Native Americans and, later, settlers wore the first trails into the landscape with moccasins, boots, and bare feet, hiking along rivers and coasts, through forests and over mountains, learning the flora and fauna as they went. Increasing numbers of Americans are following in their footsteps, finding pleasure and enlightenment along the way. Trail advocates—many of them volunteers who build and maintain trails—believe such experiences are worthy of national investment. Forty years ago, Congress agreed.