In 1977, the US Forest Service began constructing a hiking trail through the Ozarks, but was able to complete only fifty-five miles before federal funding ran out in 1981. However, the woods refused to keep the magic of the Ozarks to itself. At a meeting of the Arkansas Trail Council, Tim Ernst-- Arkansas’ beloved nature photographer-- discovered that the Forest Service had abandoned work on the trail. In the Fall of 1981, as the Ozarks blazed in autumn splendor, Ernst held a meeting to discuss the future of the Ozark Highlands Trail (OHT). He hoped that a dozen people might show up--to his amazement, around fifty people gathered that night in support of the trail. That night, the Ozark Highlands Trail Association (OHTA) was born.
The OHTA has always been 100% volunteer driven. The members of the OHTA have put in over 350,000 hours of labor to build and maintain 197 miles of the trail. The OHT now has 180 miles of contiguous trail, with another 78 miles of trail segments connected by bushwhacks. The trail displays the spectacular beauty of the Ozarks by taking its travelers through Hurricane Creek wilderness area, White Rock Mountain, Hare Mountain, Marinoni Scenic Area, Spy Rock, the Buffalo National River, and much more. The trail is divided into fifty sections that the OHTA’s members adopt and work on a couple of times a year. The volunteers clear fallen limbs and small trees, alert the appropriate authorities of larger trail blockages, and ensure that the trail is cleared to a width of six feet. The OHTA currently has 600 registered member households, and their Facebook page reaches an audience of over 8,000 people. Most of the members live in Arkansas, but the OHTA has members from twenty-one other states as well.
The mission of the OHTA is to build, maintain, and enjoy the Ozark Highlands Trail. The association also publishes OHT maps, provides up-to-date information about the trail, plans group outings and work events on the trail, and raises funds to keep the association (and the trail) going. They keep a website, ozarkhighlandstrail.com, where they provide trail alerts (such as when water is low, when burn bans are in place, etc.), instructions for hiking the trail, a store to buy OHT merchandise, and membership applications.
The OHTA has big plans for the future of the trail. They plan to work with the Buffalo National River staff to potentially create trails through the Lower Buffalo Wilderness to connect the OHT from highway 14 to the Spring Creek trailhead, which is currently connected by bushwhack territory. The long-term vision of the OHTA is to connect the OHT with the Ozark Trail in Missouri, creating 700 miles of trail between Fort Smith, AR and St. Louis, MO. This trail will be known as the Trans-Ozark Trail.
There are many ways to get involved in the OHTA’s amazing work, with the first and most significant way being by joining them! You can find a member application at their website, and select from a variety of donation and involvement levels. You can participate in work days and events, some of them as major as an entire week spent hiking, camping, and working on the trails with other amazing outdoors folks. If you hike a section (or all!) of the OHT, you can help by clearing small brush and dragging larger limbs off of the trail, as well as by practicing Leave No Trace principles at all times. The OHTA also has a store on their website, where you can buy Ozark Highlands Trail water bottles, stickers, maps, hats, patches and pins, and even a hammock, all to support the OHTA. Last but not least, you can support the OHTA by enjoying the amazing trail they’ve helped create--hike it, relax on it, tell your friends about it, and give any volunteers you meet a big high five and a “THANK YOU” for taking such good care of our Ozark beauty.
Words by Emalie Cockrell with support from OHTA President, John Pennington.