Thanks to Reese Witherspoon and Robert Redford bringing “Wild” and “A Walk in the Woods” to the big screen, “thru-hiking,” or hiking a long-distance trail continuously in one season, has blossomed into a national fascination.
The U.S. is a treasure trove of opportunities for this unique and extreme challenge. There’s the coveted “Triple Crown of Hiking,” reserved for those who complete the Appalachian Trail, Pacific Crest Trail and Continental Divide Trail, plus routes like the wet and muddy Long Trail in Vermont and the Southwest’s rugged Hayduke Trail.
And Missouri is working on own claim to fame: the Ozark Trail. Conceived in 1975 by the Ozark Trail Council — made up of state and federal government agencies, private landowners and managers, and trail user groups — the Ozark Trail today offers nearly 400 miles of backcountry singletrack for anyone to hike, bike and, in most parts, ride horses.
Engaging the Public
Last year, the Ozark Trail Association (OTA), the volunteer organization that does the heavy lifting to build and maintain the route on behalf of the Ozark Trail Council, realized it needed to raise awareness of the trail’s existence. So, it created two new workshops: Trail Adventure Day for the general public and Trail Town Day for businesses that are close to the trail and could benefit from providing services to its users.
“We want to help people feel comfortable getting out on the trails,” said Ken Kurtz, outreach coordinator for the OTA. “Trails are important to everybody. It exposes them to the outdoors, the environment.”
The inaugural Trail Adventure Day, held earlier this year on February 6, was enthusiastically attended by more than 140 people at the Powder Valley Nature Conservancy in Kirkwood. “It was outstanding! Everyone was enthralled, interested and engaged — asking great questions,” said Kurtz.
Participants chose between eight informational programs; the most popular were plants and animals, the backpacking experience and backpacking equipment. There was also horse riding and cycling how-to sessions, as well as a Trail Building 101 course.
“The Ozarks are a Missouri jewel. There are features all along the trail to learn about,” said Kurtz. “The history of the Ozarks is fascinating: from all of the destruction by the timber and mining industry to how it has recovered.”
A Vision for the Future
The ultimate vision is for the Ozark Trail to begin in St. Louis, follow the Meramec River Greenway to the current northernmost trailhead at Onondaga State Park and then connect with Arkansas’ Ozark Highland Trail, thus creating a 700-mile thru-hike opportunity.
Currently, backpackers can thru-hike about 230 miles; the rest of the current 400 miles of Ozark Trail includes spur trails and loops. The association hopes to be able to add another 50 miles in the next few years.
Creating a walking path in the woods may seem easy enough, but the man-hours to build just one mile are significant: negotiations with public and private landowners; planning, routing and designing new trail; and organizing volunteers are just a few of the behind-the-scenes tasks required.
“Do we need more volunteers? More money? Permission? All of the above,” said Kurtz.
The association has benefitted from a surge of volunteers in recent years, especially at the twice-a-year volunteer opportunities called “mega events.” At the last one, about 180 people pitched in to clear brush, haul logs or just carry a hoe.
“We’ve got guys with white hair and even little kids coming out to help,” said Kurtz. “It’s a great time. At the end of the day, the volunteers go back to the campsite and we fix a nice dinner for them. Everyone sits around a huge fire and enjoys some live bluegrass music. That’s actually our secret sauce to keep everyone coming back. It’s how my son and I got hooked about four years ago.”
Inspired to Walk
“What’s your favorite section of the Ozark Trail?” I informally polled people at the Trail Adventure Day. Blair Creek, Between the Rivers, Current River and the Eleven Point sections came out on top.
With promises of wildflowers, springs and spectacular views of the Eleven Point River, I set off south on my first Ozark Trail adventure. Over the course of two days, my hiking partner and I enjoyed the unseasonably warm weather by trekking up and down hills, navigating river crossings and, once, kicking our shoes off for a much-deserved break in a grassy field while we filled our water bottles at Bockman Spring.
With burning calves and soaked sneakers, we headed home Sunday evening, exhausted but eager to explore other sections this underrated Missouri treasure.
Visit ozarktrail.com to download free maps, plan your trip, ask questions and more. Like the Ozark Trail Association on Facebook to find out about future volunteering and Trail Adventure Day events. Or, experience the trail yourself:
Fall Xtreme Hike for Cystic Fibrosis
Ozark Trail 100/50 Mountain Bike Race
Ozark Trail 100-Mile Endurance Run
Author: Kimberley Donoghue is a regular contributor to Terrain magazine