Devils_Tollgate_Ozark_Trail.jpg
Beyond Castlewood - March 27, 2015
Ozark Trail hikers pause to pose for a photo at the Devil's Tollgate, which is on the section that runs from Taum Sauk to Johnson's Shut-Ins state parks. By Paul Corley.
Hikers_Ozark_Trail.jpg
Beyond Castlewood - March 27, 2015
Hikers on the Ozark Trail negotiate a rocky hillside. By Adam Rothermich.

Hiking the Ozark Trail

By Tom Uhlenbrock
Missouri State Parks

California has the PCT. Missouri has the OT.



Hikers on the Ozark Trail negotiate a rocky hillside. By Adam Rothermich.
The Pacific Crest Trail, which spans 2,650 miles from Mexico to Canada through California, Oregon and Washington, was featured in the movie “Wild,” which earned actress Reese Witherspoon an Oscar nomination.

The movie told the story of Cheryl Strayed, who hiked 1,100 miles of the trail as a rookie “through-hiker”, the term for those on long-distance walks. The movie, based on her book, described the lessons she learned, some in agonizing detail.

Missouri’s Ozark Trail is shorter at some 390 miles, but its route through the forested Ozarks is just as scenic, and secluded, as its West Coast cousin. You also can run into your share of problems without proper preparation.

The OT is divided into sections, many of them linked, which go over mountains of hardwoods and pines that are splendid in autumn, through valleys filled with sparkling springs, streams and waterfalls, and across glades dotted with wildflowers and grasses spring through fall.

The website ozarktrail.com has descriptions, maps and mileages of each section. It also offers trip planning and trail conditions. The Ozark Trail runs from St. Louis to Arkansas, where it eventually will join the Ozark Highlands Trail for an end-to-end hike of 700 miles.

Currently, the longest contiguous stretch of the OT is 230 miles, running from Onondaga State Park to the western terminus of the Eleven Point section in Oregon County.


Ozark Trail hikers pause to pose for a photo at the Devil's Tollgate, which is on the section that runs from Taum Sauk to Johnson's Shut-Ins state parks. By Paul Corley.
The Taum Sauk section is one of the most popular, especially the part of it that goes from Taum Sauk to Johnson’s Shut-Ins state parks. It starts at Missouri’s highest point, passes the state’s tallest waterfall and ends at the most popular swimming hole. The route has gorgeous scenery through rugged backcountry.

The website descriptions say this of the hike between the state parks: “If this author could only hike one trail in Missouri this would be his choice.”

Bill Bryan, director of state parks, hiked the section and said: “The hike is epic. The scenery is awesome. The terrain is formidable. Not to be overlooked, or taken lightly.”

Here are a couple of tips that Witherspoon, in the movie, learned the hard way. Also included are some day hikes in Missouri parks that would serve as warm-ups for longer overnight treks.

Practice with New Gear


The most grisly scene in the movie shows a grimacing Witherspoon removing a too-small hiking boot, revealing a bloody toenail. Both boots, and the nail, end up at the bottom of a cliff on the PCT.

The actress is wearing ankle-high heavy boots that are favored by long-distance backpackers who fear turning an ankle in the backcountry. Gaining in popularity is the next generation of hiking shoes, which are lightweight, flexible and fine for those carrying lesser loads. They key is to try on several kinds, and pick those most comfortable.

Although the newer shoes need less break-in time, you should use them for several weeks before heading out on a long hike. That goes for your other gear, too.

Strayed’s experience was made more difficult because she broke out a brand-new tent and cooking stove, and struggled to use both. Take any new equipment into your backyard prior to an adventure and practice using it.

Take What You Need


A valuable piece of equipment for hikes that include rocky hillsides and slippery stream crossings is a pair of trekking poles. In the movie, Witherspoon inexplicably is using a single pole as she embarks across a snow-covered valley. That’s like hiking with one boot.

Trekking poles, especially when wearing a heavy pack, allow you to use your upper body for balance and stability. Even the best pair of shoes can jam your toes when walking down steep slopes. The poles relieve some of that impact.

Finally, take only what you need. Witherspoon ends up like a turtle on its back when she first straps on her ungainly pack. She meets a friendly adviser on the trail who sorts through her baggage and takes out books, binoculars, a hand saw and other unnecessary items.

Here are the essentials: Map and compass, sunglasses and sunscreen, extra clothing, flashlight or headlamp, first aid supplies, waterproof matches or lighter, repair items like a knife and duct tape, extra food, extra water and a tent and tarp for shelter (a large garbage bag is better than nothing.)

Finally, if possible, hike with a companion. If heading out solo, make sure somebody knows where you’re going, and when you expect to be back. Take a cell phone, but don’t depend on it.

Three Terrific Tune-Ups


Here are three great hikes for getting in shape and checking out gear. They all are about 10 miles, and can be done in a long day. Get an early start in winter when daylight hours are shorter. Better yet, take your time exploring and spend a night in the woods.

Whispering Pines Trail, Hawn State Park: This may be the state’s prettiest hike in its prettiest park. The trail is 9.75 miles, in two loops. Stands of shortleaf pine grow on sandstone bluffs that border River aux Vases, which meanders through the forest, and Pickle Creek, which splashes along chutes and pools between granite boulders sculpt by the water. At times, the scenery looks more like Colorado than southeast Missouri.

Mudlick Trail, Sam A. Baker State Park: The trail climbs nearly 1,000 feet from Big Creek, a perfect Ozark stream, to the top of Mudlick Mountain. It goes 11 miles through one of the most significant, undisturbed natural landscapes in Missouri, with stately forests of old growth timber. You’ll need those trekking poles for crossing hillsides of loose talus, which are real ankle-twisters.

Wilderness Trail, Meramec State Park: The two loops, with a connector in between, total nearly 10 miles. The trail is a favorite with backpackers who spend a night at one of eight primitive campsites – and spend the days exploring springs, caves, sinkholes, woodlands, glades and river bluffs. The only dependable water is at Copper Hollow, a valley of majestic trees with a spring flowing from a cave at the base of a bluff. Still needs to be treated, though.

For more information, visit MOStateParks.com
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