By Iris Shepard and Corey Thomas
June 27th - July 6th marks the ten day span that we spent hiking in the Arkansas wilderness. As a team, we chalked up 180 miles, completing the thru hike of the Ozark Highlands Trail. This is our advice, experience, and learnings.
Part One: Preparing for the Hike
Background Information About the Ozark Highlands Trail
Construction on the OHT began in 1977, and it was dedicated as a National Recreation Trail in 1984. The Ozark Highlands Trail extends 165 miles from Lake Fort Smith State Park to Woolum, a canoe launch point on the middle Buffalo.
The trail is difficult. Over the course of one day, the elevation may change several thousand feet as it climbs to the top of a mountain, along a ridge, and back down to a creek. The difficulty of the trail is rewarded with breathtaking views from the summits and numerous creek crossings of refreshingly cold and milky blue streams with names like Spirits Creek, Briar Branch, and Hurricane Creek.
The trail is volunteer maintained, and from the condition of the trail when we hiked it, more volunteers are needed. If taking the trail on in the summer months, be prepared for heavy overgrowth, obscured in several places by fallen trees. However, if hiking in the mid to late fall, the OHT Assoiciation's volunteer work on the trails should be evident. For those interested in helping with the fall season trail maintenance, you can check out the OHT Association's newsletter, here.
Resources that we found very helpful both in preparing for the hike and during the hike were Tim Ernst’s Ozark HighlandsTrail Guide, the newly released topographical map (right now only the first half of the map—Fort Smith to Ozone—is completed), and the Ozark Highlands Trail Association.
Over the course of the last several months we have been adding to our gear list, with the goal of decreasing our pack weight in every purchasing decision we made. Hiking in late June to early July, we had to carry a lot of water. At any given time, we knew we’d both have about eight pounds of water, with at least twice that amount in food. It was crucial that we carry the bare minimum, and the lightest available equipment.
We made the decision to hammock camp with a tarp, though ended up opting to exchange the hammocks for a tent at our resupply checkpoint because of the impending weather forecast. The tent we ended up using was not meant for long distance backpacking and added about four extra pounds to our total weight.
As far as food went, we had to get used to the fact that fresh produce would become a thing of the past. Our meals primarily consisted of freeze dried mountain-house dinners and some combination of tortillas with salami or tuna for lunch. With everything else we took, our packs were as close to ultralight as we found possible, with minimal changes of clothes, no fire or wood processing methods, and no extra comforts.
Hike Routing Prep
We were fortunate enough to not have to leave our car at the launch or take out points, as we got dropped off; we would definitely recommend going this route if at all possible. Our plan was to hike from Highway 65, getting dropped off at the bridge, and make it to Fort Smith State Park by July 8th. This would allow us 12 days total to do the hike. We originally planned to start out really strong with heavy mileage for the first few days, and then taper off by day six and lessen our average mileage. We ended up not tapering by much, and instead finishing the hike early by a couple of days.
A Little About Us
We are both outdoor enthusiasts with a love of camping, kayaking, hiking and backpacking. As we are both grade-school teachers, the summer is our only opportunity to take extended trips (even though it’s certainly not the best time to be out in the Arkansas woods). Luckily, this year’s early summer was relatively wet and mild, so we didn’t have to worry about the availability of water.
When we first considering thru hiking the Ozark Highlands Trail back in January, we weren’t sure we’d even enjoy being in the woods for consecutive days, as we had never done more than a few fifteen mile overnight backpacking trips. To prepare during the winter and spring, we hiked the Butterfield Trail (15 miles) a few times and the Buffalo River Trail (36 miles). We started trail running, weight training, doing yoga several times a week, and going on a weekly twelve mile road run. By the end of June, we were both in good physical shape.
Part 2: The Hike
Planning The Route
We thru hiked the Ozark Highlands Trail this summer from June 27 - July 6. Because the trail starts across the Buffalo River from the parking area, we immediately had to add fifteen miles in hiking the Buffalo River Trail from Highway 65 to Woolum to avoid fording the Bufffalo with all of our gear. The trail is divided into eight sections of about twenty miles each. We chose to thru hike, meaning hike a long distance trail end-to-end, though many people choose to section hike the OHT. Initially we planned to hike the 180 miles (the 165 miles of the OHT plus 15 miles of the Buffalo River Trail) in twelve days, but we ended up finishing the trail in ten days, averaging 18 miles a day. Our longest day was 22 miles, and our shortest was 14 miles.
The Ozark Highlands Trail is absolutely gorgeous. It climbs to some of the highest peaks in the Ozarks and descends to lovely valleys. In one day hiking you can experience rocky peaks, numerous waterfalls, pine and hardwood forests, and stream crossings. There are amazing overlooks of rolling hills and countless refreshing creeks.
One of the best parts of the trip was getting to wake up in the woods for nine consecutive days. We quickly established morning and evening rituals: scouring the maps and Tim Ernst books, drinking scalding black coffee before the sun was up, hanging the hammocks, pumping (purifying) the water (water was plentiful), cooking delicious food (everything tastes better in the woods), and just putting one foot in front of the other for miles and miles and miles...
Each section of the trail is unique. Our favorite sections were sections 3, 6 and 8. Section 3 climbs Hare Mountain, the highest point on the trail at nearly 2,400’, and offers spectacular views. It also contains the scenic Marinoni Area. Section 6 runs through the Hurricane Creek Wilderness area, and section 8 parallels Richland Creek for several miles. Section 7 was by far our least favorite section. Hiking east to west, the last five miles of Section 7 were pretty exposed, and brambles choked the trail. Climbing to Fairview Campground, we had to fight back blackberry bushes every agonizing step as hundreds of ticks swarmed us.
Through Highs and Lows
Taking the OHT thru hike in the middle of the summer, as opposed to during a cooler time of the year, significantly added to the difficulty of the trail. The trail is actively maintained by volunteers from September through May, but traveling in June, maintenance had not happened for over a month, as they stay away for protection from ticks, chiggers, and poison ivy.
There were times when the brambles and ticks and other difficulties made us want to quit. The trail was quite certainly overgrown. Countless trees have fallen across the trail, making the hike even more arduous. We both got blisters from our boots, so were forced to hike over half the trail in flip flops. Our legs and arms and faces were torn by thorns. Ticks and mosquitoes plagued us. At times our maps failed us, and we got lost. But every time we thought about quitting, giving up and heading back to Fayetteville, we met someone who encouraged and helped us.
We had heard stories about “trail angels” on more famous trails like the Pacific Crest and the Appalachian Trail--those people who go out of their way to help out hikers--though we didn’t think we’d encounter many on the OHT in the summer. But several trail angels certainly crossed our path, always at the most perfect times. Our first encounter was at Haw Creek Falls Campground. We had just hiked our longest day on the trail, marking 22 miles, and we were exhausted. This campground has an absolutely breathtaking waterfall and natural pool feature where several people were swimming. Somehow we struck up conversation with a guy who had hiked the OHT last fall. He provided us with sandwiches, cold koolaid, and, best of all, encouragement and kind words about what we were accomplishing. We had several other people help us along the trail, including family members who met us halfway through the hike to walk with us for a day as well as resupply us with food. Corey’s father and brother-in-law added to the team morale, by walking with us from the Ozone campground to Arbaugh.
Trail angels provided us with support and encouragement, but we found that hiking together was the most important source of strength. Backpacking is physically and mentally exhausting. Each person has to stay strong and work through their own personal challenges, but what helped the most about backpacking with a partner was taking turns going in front, leading, cutting a path, and paying attention to the trail tread. The front person allowed the back person an opportunity to rest their mind, more or less. We were able to distribute the weight between both packs and share the work when setting up and taking down camp. Hiking with a partner provides an extra measure of safety and security. We don’t think we could have completed the hike without each other.
Part Three: Reflections
In the weeks since we finished our thru hike of the OHT, we’ve had time to reflect on our experience and process what we gained from the experience, what we’ll do differently on our next long hike, and suggestions we have for anyone planning to hike the OHT.
What we’ll do differently next time:
Shoes. We were hesitant to spend a lot of money on good hiking shoes, and we paid for that with horrendous blisters, lost toenails, and twisted ankles. We hiked over half the trail in flip flops because our boots didn’t fit correctly. Many other pieces of gear can be purchased at discount rates or second hand, but proper hiking shoes are essential. After our experience, I feel that good shoes are the most important piece of gear-- even more vital than a pack.
Our suggestions for hiking the OHT:
Make sure you are adequately prepared for the physical and mental struggle. We went into the hike physically prepared, but we were not mentally ready for the challenge. We were expecting a fun, romantic, bonding experience. We didn’t expect to get lost for hours, to be covered in hundreds of ticks, or to have every inch of exposed skin scraped and cut from brambles. We didn’t expect that the trail would be so overgrown that we’d spend hours bushwhacking and frantically hunting for a glimpse of the white blazes marking the trail. We didn’t expect every single step to hurt. We didn’t expect that every night we’d want to give up and go home.
When we did get home, we both were exhausted, but we assumed that was normal. However, after a few days of feeling lethargic, achy, and running a low grade fever, we started to think something else might be going on. After a trip to the doctor, we both began a two week course of doxycycline, as all the symptoms indicated that we’d contracted a tick borne illness. Our lab reports came back positive for Lyme disease. Luckily we have no lingering side effects because we caught it early and started antibiotics. After being in the woods, if you have fever, chills, loss of energy, and/or achiness, go to the doctor. The consequences of letting a tick borne illness go untreated can last a lifetime.
What we gained:
There are three tremendous benefits that we gained from our experience of hiking the OHT. First, we are much more experienced long distance backpackers! We read and researched and prepared before our hike, but nothing teaches like experience. We learned a lot. The second benefit was an increase in confidence in our physical and mental strength. We’re ready for the next challenge. I (Iris) just registered for my first marathon. The physical strength and mental endurance gained from hiking the OHT will empower me during the race. The last benefit is that we feel so much more connected to our home, the Ozarks. As a teacher I spend my work day inside, so it brings me balance and serenity to remember Spirit Creek running through the quiet valley, the contours of the endless hills lit by the setting sun, and the faint tread of the trail through the quiet woods.
Hiking the Ozark Highlands Trail is an incredible, challenging, life-changing experience. Prepare for it. Go hike it!