Backpacking Part of the Ozark Highlands Trail (OHT)

Trip summary: 14.6 miles of backpacking through some amazingly beautiful Ozark terrain.

Girl Scouts of Western Oklahoma (GS-WestOK) have a High Adventure Team (HAT) that is a most excellent organization. Their latest adventure was to hike part of the Ozark Highlands Trail (OHT), which is a backpacking trail that runs from west central Arkansas ENE to near Missouri.

The photos from this adventure are here on Google Plus.

We headed out from OKC Thursday morning. Our plan was to get to the trailhead Thursday afternoon, hike a couple miles in, then walk a bit both Friday and Saturday, and come off the trail Sunday and head back to OKC. All of this ended up pretty flexible. We were starting at the Ozone Camp trailhead in the Ozark National Forest, and exit at the trailhead at Forest Service Road 1003, for a roughly 13 mile hike.

We got to Clarksville (the last city of size) around 1330, and headed towards Ozone. Now, on the way, we were in a constant sleet all the way from the Fort Smith area. As we climbed into the Ozarks, the sleet turned to snow. Then it got heavier, and finally got to the point that visibility was less than a hundred yards. The temperature was also dropping rapidly. We had read of a forecast of thunderstorms overnight as well. After checking the trail conditions, the expedition headed back into Clarksville, and we checked into three rooms at the local Hampton Inn. The girls went bowling, we fed them pizza, and then crashed.

The next day, the weather was scarcely better. We headed out to the entry trailhead, dumped equipment and campers (the Ozone campground had a nice shelter), and headed out to shuttle two cars to our exit trailhead. Final prep was done. It was below freezing, and it was a combination of ice and snow coming down.

We headed out about 1100 down the trail. It kept on sleeting and snowing, and slowly changed over to rain. It rained on us for the next half hour or so, then stopped. We had a short equipment-settle stop, then got to the floor of the valley and started making some time. After a bit, we stopped for lunch, and right after starting out again, had the first of about eight river crossings. I’m not talking about a couple steps across a stream, I’m talking a river 20-50 ft across, like this:

DSC02183

These were fast-moving waterways that would take the unwary hiker down. Some of the crew had water shoes, some of us didn’t, and so we employed a variety of techniques, including stepping stones, logs, combinations, and barefoot. That water was cold, brrr….

The shortest time we were able to cross one of these was 20 minutes, and one took more than an hour, between scouting up and down the shoreline, making the crossing, and then hiking back to the trail.

Camp was in a flat area where a river and a stream came together. It had stopped raining, but we had some damp and wet gear and equipment. We built a fire, had dinner, talked a bit, hung a bear bag, and crashed. Mileage for the day was 5.8 miles.

We had looked at the weather right before we hit the trailhead, and expected thunderstorms overnight Friday into Saturday, with deteriorating weather Saturday into Sunday (snow and high winds). We had made the determination that if we could, we wanted to get off the trail Saturday afternoon.

We had a couple sprinkles that night, but no rain to speak of.

We got up Saturday morning and had breakfast, and a bit of a later start than we wanted, but the real issue was water crossings. The first one? About 1.5 minutes after we started. Not miles, minutes. It cost us 45 minutes.

The hiking was stunning along here. Words just cannot describe the beauty of the landscape in that part of the Ozarks. We had a number of other crossings to contend with, and some stuff and people got wet. We had a lunch stop at a nice campsite, and as we left camp, we had another water crossing that set us back another 45 minutes.

We had been bouncing up and down over shoulders both days. As we neared our exit trailhead, we started going up, and up, and up. It rained on us at this point for an hour or so, but it was not heavy rain.

We got to the exit trailhead about 1815, a couple hours after we had targeted. We did the car shuffle in reverse, and while waiting for the car shuffle, we broke out a stove and heated up all our remaining water and loaded the crew up with hot chocolate, tea, and apple cider.

Our mileage for the day was 8.8 miles, making a total of 14.6 miles over two days. We were doing some decent walking. Our gained altitude was just short of 3,000 ft, and we had a net altitude loss of about 260 feet from the entry to exit trailheads.

We headed back into Clarksville and checked into hotels, getting there about 2200. We had some extra food.

It turns out that the mountains didn’t get any snow the next morning, but the winds up there were howling (30mph gusts to 40mps), and it was very cold. We made good decisions to keep our crew from doing miserable hiking just for the sake of being miserable. The crew were in good spirits. Food was well managed and good to eat.

Lessons learned.

  • Get started earlier. Well, that’s always a lesson learned that I have never learned. But keep on trying, I always say.
  • I should have brought water shoes. If we had all had them, the crossings would have been a bit faster.
  • Water was not an issue, obviously.

    We managed the cold pretty well. It was below freezing for a significant part of our hike.

    This was an amazing hike. It solidified for me that I now have two long-distance life list hikes; the OHT and the Muir Trail.

    I am again super impressed with the hike ethic of the Girl Scout HAT members (and the leadership of the group). The crew did the hike, through rain, snow, sleet, river crossings, and cold, without any beefing! In fact, listening to conversations, the girls were concerned that we might cancel the hike altogether; they wanted it to make! How cool is that, and how impressive of those young people.

    I’m already looking forward to another part of the OHT, hopefully soon.

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