Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Occasional Trails: Where Even The Snakes Are Good

  • Name: Ozark Highlands National Recreation Trail
  • Location: Northwest Arkansas
  • Length: 165 miles
  • Attractions: Broad vistas, plentiful streams, rich forests, hundreds of waterfalls
  • Best seasons: October to early June
  • Permits: None required, but registration is encouraged
  • Info: Ozark Highlands Trail Association
"Most snakes are good snakes," says the Ozark Highlands Trail Association. "We have an abundant supply of snakes in the forest, including rattlesnakes, copperheads and water moccasins. Generally speaking, unless you are playing with a snake, or happen to sit down right on top of one, you will never have any problems with snakes."

Which is nice. Nothing like snakebutt to mess up your day.

How about bears? Eh? "Most of the black bears are quite small - less than a hundred pounds - and are afraid of humans." So the bears are easy too. OK, we get it.

Sounds pretty good: "One of the nicest things about the OHT, is the fact that it is still relatively undiscovered - even on a prime spring weekend you will seldom see other hikers." The Ozark Highlands Trail Association says a lot of things like that about their trail.

If you're wondering what there is to do besides chilling with snakes and scaring bears, well, you can do lots of other things. Like counting stream crossings. There should be 60 of these.

Eyeballing waterfalls. Too many to count though. Up in the hundreds. Check.

Rocks. They have rocks. Sandstone bluffs, giant boulders, all kinds of fun rocks. Plus vistas, scenic ones, scenic because the mountains don't get in the way.

See these "mountain" things are really the eroded remains of a vast ancient plateau that's been weathering for 300 million years or so. What that means for you, the backpacker, is that when you get to a lookout and want to see something, you can see it. The tops are all the same height, and flat. Handy. You can see 40 miles.

The bad part is that geography runs north and south and the trail goes east and west. Lots of ups and downs, so you pay attention, but then you notice all kinds of things.

Like, in the spring, flowering dogwoods, redbuds, and wildflowers. Upland oak and hickory forests all the time. Fall colors (in the fall, of course). Critters: white-tailed deer, black bear, elk, coyotes, bobcats, wild turkey, grouse, squirrels, chipmunks, birds, birds, birds, and armadillos.

Right. Armadillos.

Did you notice that the preferred hiking season excludes July, August, and September? When water is scarce, the bugs are revved up, and the snakes get a bit edgy too, in the heat, you know.

So, while winter could squeeze out some snow, and dip below zero on the odd January day, it isn't normally bad for backpacking, with days at 40 to 60 degrees and freezing but not deadly nights. No bugs then, either.

Sounds great. Where did this trail come from?

The Ozark National Forest started work in the 1970s, but budget issues soon developed. Work stopped. Then up stepped volunteer Tim Ernst of Fayetteville, Arkansas. He founded the Ozark Highlands Trail Association, and they finished the trail in 1984. So far their members have put in more than 350,000 volunteer hours on building and maintenance.

Ernst: "The layout of the trail is good because hikers did it. That's why I say this is a handcrafted trail. We built the trail that we wanted, the way we wanted it."

In keeping with the trail's low profile, it "has a lot of wilderness character. 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," Ernst says.

The regular USGS maps don't show this trail. The Forest Service, barely. Ernst, besides his other work, wrote the "Ozark Highlands Trail Guide" (see the web site), rich with all kinds of information.

Despite obscurity, the area is not isolated. There are many side trails, over 50 road crossings, and nine public campgrounds. Two post offices, but no close towns so resupply is limited.

The future? What about that?

Several attached loop trails up to 20 miles each, and joining with Missouri's Ozark Trail. This will create the longest hiking trail in the central United States, the thousand mile Trans-Ozarks Trail.

Want to hike yet? Go for the record and beat Steve Kirk and Greg Eason? In March 2004 they hiked all 165 miles of the Ozark Highlands Trail in 65 hours, 35 minutes, and 35 seconds. All you have to do is beat them by one second. Just one second. Think about that.

But you might miss some scenery on the way, so maybe not, then. Up to you. Nice place either way.