Jim Warnock has been hiking the hills for 26 years and has journaled many adventures on his blog, ozarkmoutainhiker.com. He’s also written a book, Five-Star Trails: The Ozarks: 43 Spectacular Hikes in Arkansas and Missouri, offering directions and tips for exploring the Ozark Mountains on foot. Here, we excerpt Jim’s blog post on his thru-hike of the Ozark Highlands Trail in the winter of 2014.
ON A LONG HIKE, the days have a rhythm and flow to them. My “to do” list became very simple and consisted of doing things that related to meeting basic needs while on the trail. On my third night, I wrote what was to be my “to do” list for the next eight days: Walk, eat, sleep, repeat.
That pretty well summed it up, so I put my pencil and notepad away and began focusing on the trail, not on my thoughts about the trail. I let my mind fall into the natural rhythm of walking six to seven hours each day. After making camp, filtering water and preparing the evening meal, I let my mind flow back over the trail and enjoy the scenery once more without any obligation to write about it or learn from it. I began to enjoy the natural silent times around the campfire when no one felt obligated to speak. A story or comment might come out of the silence, but there was the luxury of time to really hear and think about what was said.
By the time you sit around the campfire until 7 p.m., it’s been dark for almost two hours. Your body says, Hey, I’m getting cold. Why don’t you get in that warm sleeping bag and let me rest? I found that my body could use this extra time for repair and maintenance. The trail, combined with rest, added a new type of strength unlike what I had felt from typical daily workouts.
“Wildman” Carl Ownby used to say he would find himself hiking slower as he approached the end of a long hike. He didn’t want it to end. I now understood what he meant. The climb, combined with my wish that the hike wouldn’t come to an end, made for a slow and reflective pace. I found myself wanting to continue on without stopping. I was firmly entrenched in the rhythm of the trail: Walk, eat, sleep, repeat.
Not ready for a thru-hike on the Ozark Highlands Trail? Try these for a warm-up
If You Have a Night
One of the best overnight hikes in the Ozarks is the Marinoni Scenic Area on the Ozark Highlands Trail. Begin at Indian Creek Canoe Landing on Arkansas Highway 215 near Cass and access the OHT via the Dawna Robinson Spur Trail. Follow the OHT for 5 miles to the Lick Branch Trailhead, camping in the center of the Marinoni on Briar Branch.
If You Have a Weekend
The Shores Lake-White Rock Mountain Loop makes a good weekend trip. Start at Shores Lake Campground near Mulberry and camp above the White Rock Cascade, about 2 miles into the the East Loop. Ascend 3.5 miles to White Rock Mountain for your second night, and enjoy a stunning sunset and sunrise from the bluff edge of the mountain. Hike back down about 7 miles to Shores Lake Campground on the East Loop Trail on your final day.
If You Have Four Days
A great four-day hike is found in the Hurricane Creek Wilderness Area. Begin at the Big Piney Trailhead between Hagarville and Pelsor, and take a leisurely pace, camping three nights along the route of the OHT that follows Hurricane Creek before climbing out at the Arkansas Highway 7 Trailhead, some 19.5 miles to the northeast. The never-dry Hurricane Creek is beautiful in all seasons.
If You Have a Week
Begin at Lake Fort Smith, and follow the OHT for 86 miles, ending at the Arkansas Highway 21 trailhead at Ozone Campground. You’ll see some of the iconic scenery such as Spirits Creek and the Rock House that draws backpacking enthusiasts from all over the country. Lynn Hollow and Lewis Prong are beautiful areas that straddle the Arbaugh Trailhead, where you can drive a few dirt-road miles south to the Oark Cafe, a popular back-roads restaurant. Be prepared for wet creek crossings, and carry food and a water filter, along with your other backpacking supplies.