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A trail traverses 350 miles in Missouri's Ozarks
ALONG THE OZARK TRAIL, Mo. -- The Ozark Trail would not be the ideal destination for say, the pampered among us, whose idea of a fab vacation includes shopping, a noisy amusement park or a spa resort with creature comforts.
But for heartier folks who like to unwind with physical activity against a backdrop of magnificent natural beauty, Missouri's Ozark Trail may be just the tonic.
The trail, not nearly as famous or as long as the Appalachian Trail, nonetheless offers 350 miles of rugged, backwoods country through the biologically diverse Ozarks.
The Ozarks' peaks lie at an altitude of just 1,200-1,800 feet, but they constitute the only significant highlands between the Appalachians and the Rockies.
"For Missouri, it's the closest thing to a Colorado experience you can get," said S. Scott Whitaker, president of Gateway Off-Road Cyclists. "It's very secluded, a true wilderness experience with great big hollows and creek bottoms.
"The fall is definitely my favorite time. With fall colors, the vistas become even more extraordinary."
A hike or bike ride along the trail can make you feel pretty insignificant in the Earth's history. While the Appalachian Trail's dolomite rock is a mere 400 million years old, the Ozark Trail's rhyolite rock, formed when volcanic eruptions of hot ash settled and cooled, is 1.5 billion years old.
The Ozark Trail is divided into 13 sections of about 20 to 30 miles in length, each taking its name from a natural feature, except for the Karkaghne, a mythical creature in forest folklore.
While some trail sections that go through wilderness are off-limits to anyone but hikers and backpackers, other parts are also open to off-road bicyclists and equestrians. The trail's 25-mile Middle Fork section, with its contoured cuts through oak and pine hills, provides some of the best single-track mountain bicycling in Missouri.
The opening of the Middle Fork in April created 200 miles of continuous through-trail along the Ozark. Other trail segments not yet connected bring the total to 350 miles in 13 counties.
The Ozark Trail emerged from a vision in the late 1970s to build a scenic and varied route in the Missouri Ozarks, from just outside St. Louis southwest to the Arkansas border, eventually connecting with the Ozark Highlands Trail -- creating a 700-mile through-trail.
In just under a decade, 170-plus miles of natural-surface trail were constructed through the oversight of the Ozark Trail Council, a collaborative of public land managers, private landowners and trail user groups.
But huge gaps in the trail remained. Few people knew about it. And, public land agencies didn't have money or staff to maintain it. No one was organizing volunteers.
So, when John Roth hiked the trail's Trace Creek section in the summer of 1997, the St. Louis businessman found trees down, weeds overgrown and no trail markers. He called the U.S. Forest Service to complain, but instead, got conscripted.
"I told him to come down and help us do it," said the Forest Service's Paul Nazarenko, who recalled when Roth later showed up for a trail work day.
"Here's this little guy with loafers on, out of shape," Nazarenko said. "John didn't know anything about the outdoors, trails or machinery. He was a computer geek. I told him, 'you don't fit in here.' But he's been with me ever since. He's a good friend. He's taken the Ozark Trail out of the Dark Ages."
Two years later, Roth sold his business and threw his energy and time into the trail. In 2002 he helped launch the nonprofit Ozark Trail Association to design, build and maintain trail with volunteers from Missouri and around the country.
Roth, who's become the trail guru and chief organizer for the group, has contributed an average of 1,500 hours a year to his passion. He regularly updates OTA's Web site with trail-building events, luring volunteers with salmon and barbecue dinners at the work site.
And they come -- empty nesters, college students, families with children and dogs -- for a day or weekend of hard work, shared meals, a feeling of community and sense of accomplishment some describe as a runner's high.
"Whatever you can bring is valued," said Diane Thornton of Memphis, Tenn., who brings along her 11- and 14-year-old sons to Ozark Trail-building events. "Even if you're young or out of shape, their motto is we will teach you."
That wasn't the case in her home state. Thornton said that when she brought her sons to a weeklong trail build in Tennessee, they were eventually asked to leave. She said her son felt humiliated, and "I didn't want him to feel left out again."
Her son, William, who turns 12 in October, said, "I like doing stuff with my hands. It's fun. I see new people's faces. They admire me for what I'm doing for the environment."
For Adam Segel-Moss, it took the life-transforming experience of hiking the Appalachian Trail in 2004 to discover the Ozark Trail in his home state.
"I immediately started hiking on it and began volunteering," he said. "It is a beautiful trail."
Missouri volunteers adopt 2-mile sections of the trail that they commit to maintaining. Twice a year, they cut weeds, lop limbs and clear fallen trees from their section of trail. "The corridor's got to be this wide," Roth said, his arms stretched out as he hiked the Current River section of the trail.
Missouri Department of Natural Resources park planner Dawn Fredrickson said the volunteers have taken sections of trail that were "scary" and transformed them into things of beauty.
"None of it would have happened had not John formed the OTA," she said. "We rely very heavily on their ability to coalesce and organize volunteers. We don't have the staff to do it."
Some parts of the trail are easily traversable and other parts are more challenging. The best times to use the trail are October and April for the fall colors and spring blooms.
Each section offers its own splendor as the trail meanders past glades, cascading short waterfalls, rocky crags and pools, and scenic overlooks.
For swimming opportunities, hike the Karkaghne section. For spring wildflowers, the Current River section. For a nice day hike, try the loop trail at Taum Sauk Mountain State Park. In the winter, hike the Blair Creek section whose glades hold heat-retaining rocks.
For the best river bluff overlook, hike the Eleven Point section where eagles soar up and down the valley.
The popular Taum Sauk section incorporates Missouri's highest point, Taum Sauk Mountain and the state's highest falls, Minasauk Falls.
Six miles of the Taum Sauk trail running through Johnson's Shut-Ins State Park is temporarily closed due to a reservoir breach. But the rest of the 33-mile section is open. On a recent trip to Taum Sauk, a hiker spotted a dozen species of wildflowers, ferns and lichen; two turtles; a pair of snakes in a pool below the falls; several deer, and a friendly Eastern collared lizard sunning himself on a glade in the ancient St. Francois Mountains.
If You Go
GETTING THERE: The nearest metro airport is St. Louis. The section of the trail closest to St. Louis is Courtois; to reach the trailhead, take the Leasburg exit at Highway 44, then Highway H past Onondaga Cave and cross the bridge.
UPCOMING EVENTS: Trail-building outings complete with camping opportunities and barbecues are scheduled from September through November, and posted on the Ozark Trail Association's Web site.
WHEN TO GO: Fall and spring are considered the nicest times of year to visit. Heat and insects in July and August can make hiking unpleasant.
WHAT TO BRING: Water, sunscreen and insect repellent to ward off chiggers and ticks in summer; binoculars; and a copy of "Ozark Wildflowers, A Field Guide" by Don Kurz.