Show-Me the Ozark Trail

Discover Missouri’s extraordinary balance between urban and rural, bright city lights and star-filled skies, places to have a wild time and places that are just plain wild. People come here from all over the world to visit the Gateway Arch, drive Route 66, dine on Kansas City barbecue, and play on our lakes and rivers.

But for travelers seeking solitude, escape from the noise and pressure of the modern world, a taste of true wilderness, they come to the Show-Me State to hike the Ozark Trail.

Along the Ozark Trail at Johnson’s Shut-ins State Park. Photo by Alex Cunningham.

In the past few years, Rick Thom has been a frequent visitor. “You own everything you see and hear,” said Thom. “By most Missouri standards, the Ozark Trail is rugged, with valleys and rivers … oak, hickory and pine dominated hills … and glades that are an Ozark specialty. It’s always fascinating hiking.”

If you’re new to hiking or to the trail, Thom recommends an out-and-back day hike. You’ll have a chance to judge your trail skills and he says the scenery is different going each way.

It’s best to experience this trail with the traditional tools: map and compass. Although maps are available to load into your phone or GPS, there is no cell signal on most of the trail (but designated GPS still works). And that’s part of the appeal. It’s a true get-away: you get away from your phone, your email, and few airplanes fly over the lower Ozarks.

Some parts of the trail are open to bikers. Photo by Pat Evenson.

The trail is a magnet for more than hikers, with some parts open to both hiking and biking and some parts open to equestrian use. The trail passes near developed campsites on Forest Service, State Parks and Conservation lands – but there are plenty of isolated spots for the serious backpacker to pitch his or her own rustic camp.

Photo taken by @cptfernholz.

The trail is open to hiking year-round, but mid-March through April or May and in the fall are Thom’s favorite times to be out in the woods (cool Missouri streams call his name in the heat of summer). He has a few tips for a successful Ozark Trail adventure:

  • Get a good map that shows the features, water sources, where you may need to wade, campsites, etc. Getting a copy of The Ozark Trail Guidebook is highly recommended.
  • Take wading shoes; you are likely to cross water.
  • Be sure you have hiking shoes or boots that fit well and are broken in before you go.
  • If it’s a day trip, take enough water for the day, snacks or a picnic lunch and a first aid kit. You may not need it, but someone else on the trail might.
  • If you’re backpacking, be sure to carry a water filter or water purification tablets. The water may look crystal clear but you never know what’s upstream.
  • Spend a little time on the trail website. You’ll find pretty much everything you need to know, including vendors that will shuttle you back to your car at the end of your hike.

So when you’re ready to trade neon for starlight, traffic noise for the calls of coyotes and barred owls and the glow of the television for a breathtaking moonrise … choose the rugged beauty and wilderness of Missouri’s Ozark Trail, and take a hike.

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