Welcome back to our weekly hike series! Here we like to highlight hiking or backpacking trips that we find incredible. Our goal is to inspire you to get up and go experience the outdoors through these amazing places. For us, articles like these provide the inspiration we need to get outside!
This week's hike is the Ozark Highlands Trail in the Ozark National Forest.
Featured Photo: Boston Mountain (photo by Texas Tongs)
Why this hike?
The Ozark Highlands Trail is one of the longest hikes in the Midwest, extending for about 165 miles. While the trail is long, it is well worth the magical forest setting that you become immersed throughout the trip. Between the beautiful waterfalls and natural springs, this hike offers shady walk at an intermediate level of hiking to be enjoyed over a 10-12 day backpacking trip.
- Total distance of 165 miles
- Great to hike year-round, but best in the spring and fall since the summer months can be hot and humid
- Will satisfy even the biggest forest hiking fix
- Many different camping areas
- Lots of natural water sources
However, keep the following in mind:
- While considered an intermediate hike, the constant elevation changes will be tough on your lungs
- After bad weather, some parts of the trail could be flooded or inaccessible
- Even though there are plenty of fresh water sources, you will still need to purify water
- Black bears can be found in areas along the trail
- Need to arrange transportation between the starting and ending trailheads
How do I get there?
Getting to this northern region of Arkansas is easiest by driving. For non-Midwesterners, flying into Northwest Arkansas Regional Airport in Bentonville is your closest bet. You could also come up from the south and fly into Clinton Airport in Little Rock. Either way, you have a two hour drive to get to the trailhead. Ozark Regional Transit provides busing from Bentonville and Fayetteville or there is always the option of renting a car.
Once you get to one of the trailheads, you can leave your car and then shuttle to the other end. Turner Bend, White Rock Mountain and Buffalo River Outfitters provide many different shuttle options depending on the day and time of the year. We recommend you call one of these services to arrange your exact shuttle needs.
We recommend a 10-12 day trip. Since the Ozark Highlands Trail has been recently developed (and is still being developed in some places), there aren't a lot of great map resources. The above is a good visual of just what the trail entails, but in order to get the low-down on the best places to camp, where the trail boxes are, and the restocking points, we recommend investing in the Ozark Highlands Trail Guide by Tim Ernst. Equipped with mile-by-mile trail descriptions and at least 8 maps, this book is said to be the bible of the Ozark Highlands Trail.
This guide splits the trail into sections, which makes it easier to track your progress and distance as you are hiking. It even links to a few of the trails that branch off of the Ozark Highlands Trail, such as the Buffalo River Trail.
With a 10-12 day trip, you'll need to cover 14-17 miles per day. Tim's guide outlines the best ways to take on this 165-mile marathon so that you get the most out of your time on the trail.
Since this trail is so vast, it is packed full of natural beauty. The dirt and sandstone-scattered path weaves through the Ozark National Forest, keeping you under a tree canopy for miles at a time. Once you reach the peak of some of the small mountains throughout the trail, you are awarded with a breathtaking view of colorful greenery speckled with various other mountain summits. Through the valleys, you will stumble upon waterfall after waterfall, surrounded by wildflowers (depending on the season, of course).
Throughout the trail there are many mid-entry trailheads for other hikers who are not taking on the full 165 miles. Here you can also find certain restocking stations and even a few trail angels, people who deliberately stake out on the trail to meet hikers along the way, chat and share their own trail tales and wisdom.
It is a long foliage-full hike, so be ready to bushwhack a bit. But don’t forget to take in the nature and how it feels to wake up each morning in the middle of the wild forest. The trail is particularly breathtaking during the fall, when the area comes ablaze with golds and reds unlike anywhere else on the planet. Fall colors peak in the Ozark area around mid-October to early November, so if that is your main draw, make sure to plan accordingly.
What will I need?
The most important item you will need for this trail may sound like a no brainer, but a pair of high-quality hiking boots. You might try cheaper boots that you usually hit the trails in, but if there is any trail that will blister the heck out of your feet, it's the Ozark Highlands Trail. Investing in a pair of ultra-comfy and high-ankle hiking boots will be the best move you make in preparation for this trip.
That being said, also having a pair of flip flops in order to give your toes a break is not a bad idea. There are easier, flatter portions of the trail where walking in sandals would be a nice break.
Fresh water sources aren’t difficult to find along the Ozark Highlands Trail, but clean fresh water is. Make sure to have plenty of water storage capacity and be equipped with a good water purifier to keep hydrated.
Lastly, The trail runs through the Ozark National Forest and where there is forest, there are bears. Bear canisters are not required, although they are always a good idea in bear country. Be sure to dispose of food scraps properly at the restocking points, as well.
The benefit of being in the trees is that you can use a lightweight tarp and mesh tent for shelter, since pitching them will be a breeze. Pair them with a lightweight quilt and you can easily shed a few pounds from your pack. Since this is such a long trail, any weight that you can save will make your trip that much more enjoyable.
Beyond this, you should bring the gear you would normally need for a multi-day backpacking trip. As always, check out our Ultimate Backpacker’s Packing List which is full of recommendations for overnight trips in the backcountry. It also includes an easy, printable checklist.
Do I need a permit?
The permit system in the Ozark National Forest is self-serve at the trailheads. Make sure you fill out the hiker registries at the trailheads. Filling them out helps the Ozark Highlands Trail Association know what trails get used the most and assists in providing trail maintenance over the course of the year.
Have you spent any time hiking Ozark Highlands Trail and have any good insights? Do you have other outstanding hikes that you'd like us to write about? Please share your feedback in the comments.