Backpacking Part of the Ozark Highlands Trail

This past weekend, the Oklahoma City area Girl Scout High Adventure Team (HAT) did a backpacking trip along the Ozark Highlands Trail (OHT) in western Arkansas. It was a great trip, with perfect weather.

The HATs are a newish idea that are meant to keep the girls interest in Scouts as they start to get older (11+). The HAT for the OKC area is a great group, and they have already had three adventures that Erin has been able to attend; all three were outstanding.

This time, the trip started with a rendezvous at the KOA Kampground in Alma, AR. I have never camped at a KOA. We pitched out tents out next to a nice pond, and had a great nights sleep. The next morning we got up and had breakfast. One interesting thing: a group showed up as we were setting up camp (around 2330), and set up a couple tents the next campsite over. The next morning when we woke up at 0730, they were gone. The camp manager came around looking for them, and it seems they gave a false name and phone number, and so skipped paying for the camping. Kind of crappy, I think.

We divided into two groups (beginner backpackers, and those with some experience), and headed to the trail heads. We went out a a trail crossing at mile 10.5, and the experienced group went to Lake Fort Smith State Park, the OHT trailhead, and started from there.

We got to the trailhead around 1015, got squared away, and headed out at 1030. We had a pretty happy group:

Erin was raring to go (at least that’s my interpretation):

My apologies for the smearing on a lot of these pictures. I had some crud on the lens, and I finally noticed and cleaned it much later, on the trail.

The parking area for the trailhead is right in front of the eastern departure for the OHT. The western departure is about 50 meters back along the road to the south.

The trail up here is largely dirt and occasional roots. There is quite a bit of brush along the trail. The trail is marked with white blazes, and it’s easy to follow.

We walked a quarter mile or so, and then stopped and had an equipment check.

The trail is really nice. It meanders around a lot of native rocks.

We took a break after about a half mile. These girls being beginner backpackers, we let them set the pace, so we were not blazing along the trail. That’s OK, though, since we didn’t want them to get burned out.

We crossed a large number of dry watercourses along the trail. Many of them are filled with rocks.

At about 1.3 miles into the trip (so this would be about OHT mile 9.2), we crossed the first water we saw. At the crossing, the water was quite brackish, but as we walked along, we climbed a bit above the water, and saw clean water flowing below us.

We stopped for lunch after about 1.4 miles. We found some nice rocks piled up, and they made good tables. We had peanut butter and jam, on pita bread. Some of the girls got to experience in-the-woods potty for the first time here. Erin climbed up on a big rock, and found a partial deer skull with small partial antlers.

The trail was getting a bit more crowded with brush along here. A couple of the hikers (including me) got scratched by brambles on the trail.

We ran across this tree that had an odd growth around it.

The trail goes up and down, but overall down, as it travels towards Lake Fort Smith. The highest altitude gain isn’t very much, but the trail is occasionally steep. You are looking down about 40 feet here.

This was a really neat watercourse that had a stone bottom, like a natural flume.

At one point along the trail, our leader, one of the Scouts, did a very heads-up observation of a three-foot rattlesnake in the dead center of the trail. I think it’s a timber rattlesnake; the rust-colored stripe along the back is diagnostic. There is a good article on them at Wikipedia.

After about 3.8 miles (OHT mile 6.7), we found a nice water source, and stopped to pump filter some water.

We continued along the same stream, which got wider and was flowing faster. We found a nice camp spot. This was 4.1 miles into the walk, or about OHT mile 6.4. The water here was really nice! There were two places just downstream of the camp that would make fine summertime swimming holes. There were some flat rocks that made for perfect cooking and sitting places.

Dinner that night was all dehydrated. We had beef stew, potatoes, and mac and cheese, and fried bread dough with cinnamon and sugar for dessert. It was excellent, we were all pretty hungry. Most of the kids had never had dehydrated food before, so it was quite the experience for them.

A couple words on food. Our trip leaders had put the menus together, and they were pretty much perfect. Great quantity, taste, and ease of cooking and cleanup.

The kids played along the river for a bit, and there was some talking, but not much.

I left my pocket Sudoku book in the car (poor planning on my part), so when I retired to my tent around 2015, I lay there and thought for a bit, and then just went to sleep.

I woke up the next morning at 0715. I had almost 11 hours of sleep, and really felt well. I do not think I woke up all evening.

I really liked my tent. This was my second use of it. It is a Kings Canyon two-person three season tent from Academy ($60). It weighed about 4.5 lbs. The extra weight was worth it for the space. I made a ground cloth out of heavy black plastic sheet that worked just fine.

While I was packing up my stuff, a really nice buck ran through the part of our camp where my tent was. It passed no more than 20 feet away from me, bounding along through the woods.

I FINALLY realized that my camera lens was all crudded up. Here is a before-and-after.

We got started after breakfast. The trail was a bit more winding, and had a lot of rock on it. This was an example.

A bit farther along the trail, we ran across one of the two campsites that were along the trail. This was nice, in that it had some more flat tent spaces, but I liked our rock ledges better.

The flora also slightly changed as we got a bit farther on. There was less underbrush.

About a half hour into the hike, we ran into the other crew, who were working their way east. We took a group photo, and then headed back out again.

A bit farther and we started seeing Lake Fort Smith.

We crossed a number of ravines and stream beds. Some of them were a bit steep, but the total altitude change was only about 30 feet each time.

We found this tree across the trail, and Erin was kind enough to move it :).

We soon had our second and third snakes on the trail. These were both the common Rough Green Snake. One was climbing up a limb, and the other was right in the middle of the trail, and was lucky to not get tramped by the passing crew.

We had been preparing for the infamous water crossing of the north end of Lake Fort Smith. It turned out that it was down far enough that we were dry the entire way.

There is what would normally be a marshy area between the two parts of the water crossing. It was high and dry.

I carried my GPS for the entire hike. This is an overlay of the track on Google Earth. The total length of the trip was 6.8 miles.

This is the topographic map of the area with the GPS data for the path we hiked overlayed. The topo map shows a trail (dashed line), but the actual path is a little offset for most of the length of the trail. I would look at the GPS every once in a while, and the error calculated was usually in the 16-25 ft range. The flags: OHT TH (Trailhead) is where we started, Lunch is, well, where we ate lunch, and Camp Water is where we overnighted. EOT is End of Trail.

There were some ups and downs on the trail. This is the altitude plot of the hike.

This is interesting in that it generally follows the drainage into the lake.

This was a great weekend. I would not mind hiking more of the OHT. The weather was perfect. I thought it was a tiny bit cool after the first day of hiking, so I wore my sweatshirt, but I didn’t need my sweatpants at all. The amount and type of food was just right. The Scouts were real troopers. There was no complaining or beefing at any point along the trail. We had a couple of the girls be hike leaders.

Our rate of advance was fairly slow, but only if you compare the usual rate of an adult to an 11 year old girl, carrying everything she needs for two+ days on her back! I was really impressed by the girls (and the adults), with their stamina, and their work ethic. The tents went up smoothly, and they went down smoothly. We had no injuries, except a couple scrapes by brambles near the trail.

We had little wildlife, a noticeable lack of birds, but had three snakes and the deer that came through camp. There were a tremendous number of critter holes along the trail.

Over the two days on the trail, we saw about 10 groups, and a couple singles, out backpacking. Most of them were going west to east, and we had two groups pass us east to west.

The water was clear (except that one place it was brackish, but it was clear a few yards upstream).

Since we were hiking to the west, we ended up at Lake Fort Smith State Park. Everything looks pretty new there. The Visitor Center had a couple critters on exhibit, and a small gift shop. They needed showers! The Visitor Center had wifi, but it wasn’t working. We had a couple hours until the other group met up with us, so I hiked the Warren Hollow trail (1.6 miles one way); it ended up at two buildings (again, new) that are the Group Camp area, on top of a hill. Those buildings had open wifi, so I used my Blackberry to connect and get my first email download since Saturday morning, and to call Raegan and give her a quick update.

I don’t know that I would through-hike the OHT (although I might change my mind on that!), but I would like to get some of the other sections over the next couple years. Great fun!

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One Response to “Backpacking Part of the Ozark Highlands Trail”

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