The Ozark Highlands Trail

The Ozark Highlands Trail

The OHT was my first and no it’s not what you’re thinking. I had never before been alone with nature and the elements for any longer than an afternoon. I had no idea just how much my wits would be tested in the week to come.

It was 5 a.m. on a brisk April morning. A blanket of snow covered the ground, fresh from the night before. The birds were chirping, and my mind was filled with doubt. Little did I know that the weather would take a drastic turn for the better, just about the time I arrived at the trailhead. The sun peaking its head over the low rolling hills set to ease my worries of long wintry nights.

Ozark National Forest

Ozark National Forest

The Ozark Highlands Trail (OHT)

The trail is 218 miles long and stretches the length of Northwest Arkansas. It starts at Lake Fort Smith State Park and winds through Ozark National Forest to the Buffalo River. Arkansas has long been known as the Natural state and for a good reason. This trail is made up of many landscapes, be it deep valleys, mountains, roaring rivers or lush forests.

The trail provides a mixture of difficulty levels with some stretches being easy for the whole family and other sections very remote and treacherous. You don’t have to start at Lake Fort Smith or trek the entire distance. There are multiple entries and exit points along the trail perfect for a day hike or just an overnight trip.

Check out the OHT organization’s site to view maps and routes if you are interested in hiking this gorgeous trail.

Skill Level - Easy

Skill level – Easy

The Fresh Start

Donned with all of my new gear, I set out on my first solo adventure. I was enjoying the peacefulness of a light breeze through the trees and the sounds of the forest waking up to a new day. The terrain around Lake Fort Smith is very forgiving and not a bad way to get a warm-up for the long journey ahead. Just about the time I started building some warmth from hiking around the lake the hair on the back of my neck suddenly stood up as I felt a few drops of water and then a few more. I had been told that the weather that time of year can be very unpredictable and often it would rain for days without letting up. It proceeded to drizzle on and off the entire day.

While doing my research on the trail and looking at maps, I noticed a few bridgeless water crossings that were unavoidable. I had been hiking for about an hour and knew I was getting close. That’s right about the time I saw the first one.

Roaring River Crossing

Roaring River

Nervous and excited, I stashed all of my gear in my Sea to Summit dry bag, strapped on my trusty flip-flops and started out on my first ever water crossing. The water was freezing. The recent spring rain had the water roaring by. Step by step I slowly made my way, the water getting higher and higher until I was waist deep which was not a fun feeling (guys will know what I’m talking about). I was about 6 feet away from the opposite bank when I felt the round slippery rocks below my feet start to sink.

I knew I had to make a split decision, either walk across with my head under water or throw my pack to the other side and swim. Well…none of those options happened for me. As I reared back to throw my pack, the rocks finally gave way, and I dropped my pack into the fast-moving water. I proceeded to float down the river in pursuit of my gear knowing that if it were lost my whole trip would be over. The water was so cold my muscles started to bog down, and my brain was at half mast. I finally caught up to my pack and luckily was able to grab hold of a low-hanging branch. Slowly I worked my way back ashore and laid on the bank soaking wet and freezing.

As I lie there, I start to laugh uncontrollably not because I was hypothermic or something in my brain had finally snapped. I was laughing because I was overcome with joy.

For the first time in my life, I was living in that moment and only in that moment, nothing more. 

Natural Abode

My Natural Abode

The Overnight

It was my first time camping in the middle of nowhere. I was used to having everything you could ever want in the car parked right behind the tent. So when I found out the new cooking equipment I’d just bought didn’t work I was less than pleased. For hours, I tried to get the damn thing to work, but the ignitor just ticked away to no avail. I luckily brought an abundant supply of trail mix but little did I know, that’s all I was going to eat for the next week.

The forest comes alive at night. You can hear what sounds like rain or white noise which turned out to be millions of creepy crawlies underneath last autumn’s’ rotting leaves. Every few moments there was the sharp snap of a stick followed by what sounded like footsteps, which lead to very little rest the first few nights.

The next morning was my first real sign that I was new at this. I awoke to sunlight seeping in from the small space under my tent’s vestibule, the birds chirping in the still morning air. This true bliss would only last a few moments. As I slowly became aware of my surroundings, a throbbing headache, and cottonmouth. It had rained that night, so everything in my tent was half wet. I neglected to drink water before bed and was extremely dehydrated, so much so that I could hardly stand upright and my urine was pretty much black. I was in a world of hurt. After an hour of recuperation, I was finally able to stand for more than a few minutes and decided it was time to move on.

Let The Fun Begin

The 8th Mile

Let The Fun Begin

About 8 miles in the trail starts to become less and less obvious. The wide-open path turns into no path at all due to the overgrown vegetation in spring. Little blue markers attached to trees are your only real sign that you aren’t lost. It is at this point that the trail goes from an easy day hike to really needing to pay attention to your surroundings as well as the number of miles you are able to do per day on a rougher terrain.

Sea Of Green

A Sea Of Green

Every few miles the dense forest opens up to some spectacular views. It really gives you a feel for just how far away from everything you are. The climate is very sporadic at these points. The forest canopy acts as a barrier to the outside world. Wind is all but non-existent, the humidity is high, and everything is super GREEN. When you finally breach the canopy the sunlight hits you giving a feeling of rebirth and relaxation. I recommend wearing loose fitting clothes as there are ticks everywhere due to abundant humidity and vegetation. I only found a few throughout my trip.

One Mad Mamma

One Mad Mamma

The Outraged Owl

The last picture I took before running as fast as I could away from a momma owl chest puffed out, wings spread to full length and beak snapping like firecrackers. I thought I was just going to get mean mugged as I passed her by, oh was I wrong. I didn’t see her chicks at first, so I didn’t realize just what I was walking into until it was too late.

After about 50 yards of sprinting, she finally let me go, and I redirected my path to give her all the space she needed. After all, there was no way I was going to make getting my ass kicked by an owl be the reason my trip ended short.

Small Ozark Waterfall

Small Waterfall

A Sad End To An Amazing Journey

I was four days and 18 miles in and still going strong. The sun was bright in the sky making the newly bloomed plants sweat their intoxicating aroma. The slightest whisper of a nearby stream could be heard in the background amongst the wind whistling through the trees.

I was making good time hopping over downed branches, ducking under rock formations and scaling waterfalls. I was watching my feet as not to break something and that’s when it happened…

The red oak borer is a huge problem in Arkansas forests as well as many others in the region. They do exactly what it sounds like they do. Bore out trees leaving them fragile and often dead. I was lucky enough to find one while on the trail. There was a massive downed tree lying across my path and me being the climber I am; I decided to go over it. Once on top, it gave way. My ankles got trapped in between the two broken logs. Luckily I had on high top hiking boots.

For about half an hour I chipped away at the tree before I was able to free one foot and then the other. My first step was excruciating. I set up camp a few feet away from the scene of the crime. I licked my wounds and called it a night.

In the morning, my ankles were swollen and I couldn’t even put on my boots. I was panicking a little due to how far out I was, but I pulled myself together popped a few ibuprofen and grabbed the only available footwear I had left.

Poor Man's Hiking Shoe

A poor man’s hiking shoe

That’s right flip-flops. I had 18 miles back to the truck. It was time to pump up the adrenaline and do some trekking. The socks were of little resistance to blisters and raw skin after miles of non-stop walking the rough rocky terrain.

The river crossings, this time, were a godsend to my swollen cut up feet and the water wasn’t nearly as high or raging. Finally, after many arduous miles, in the distance, I saw something beautiful. A trailhead. I was finally back.

I unloaded my bag in my truck, sat down in the driver’s seat and passed out. Waking up 3 hours later with a chill much like the morning that started this whole adventure. My ankle swelling had gone down some but still hurt like hell.

I started laughing again cringing with each chuckle. I wouldn’t have changed a single thing about my trip. Sure I didn’t finish the trail or have healthy looking ankles,  but what I do have are amazing memories of what I did accomplish. I might be back someday to finish the rest!

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