Ozark Highlands Trail
Length: 187 miles
Terrain: Wooded valleys, lakes
Highlights: Waterfalls, spring and fall colors, the pride of Arkansas.
For more information: Ozark Highlands Trail Association, Box 10979, Fayetteville, Arkansas 72703, www.OzarkHighlandsTrail.com, (501) 442-2799

Arkansas is one of America’s most outdoorsy states, and it works hard to promote itself as a destination for canoeing, camping, fishing and hiking. “The Natural State,” as it calls itself, has varied topography: hardwood forests, cypress-draped bayous, prairies, misty lakes, a thousand and one named and unnamed creeks.

But for all of Arkansas’ splendid diversity, it’s the Ozarks that may be the most fascinating destination to travelers. Visitors can listen to Ozark music and observe the fashioning of rag rugs, oak rockers or other Ozark crafts.

For the hiker, a great way to explore the Ozarks is on the Ozark Highland Trail, often rated one of the top 10 trails in America by hiking experts. White Rock Mountain, Little Mulberry Creek, Haw Creek Falls, Ozone Camp, Salt Fork and Potato Knob are some of the intriguing places on the route. Most of the trail meanders through the one-million-acre Ozark National Forest, created by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1908.

“The Ozarks are largely undiscovered by tourists, and the Ozark Highland Trail is virtually unknown to hikers,” says Tim Ernst, a past president of the Ozark Highland Trail Association and author of a guidebook to the trail.

The trail has been a longtime labor of love for the Fayetteville-based nature photographer. During the 1970s, while employed by the National Forest Service, Ernst championed the cause of a trans-Ozarks trail. The Forest Service began cutting the trail, but when it faltered in 1981, Ernst founded the Ozark Highland Trail Association to oversee the trail’s completion. He has organized trail-building crews, lobbied in Washington D.C., and rallied conservationists in his native state.

The Ozarks Highlands Trail is very well-marked. Thanks to the trail association, there is a milepost for every mile of trail. Innumerable two-by-six-inch paint blazes mark the way: white for the main trail, blue for all side and spur trails.

Not every step of the way is pretty. Ozark National Forest is very much a working forest–that is to say, hikers may hear the sounds of bulldozers cutting roads and chain saws cutting trees. And one more sound, too: gunfire. Hikers beware: Arkansas has a huge population of hunters–and one animal or another, it seems, is “in season” from September to June.

For most of America’s long-distance trails–the Appalachian, Continental Divide, Pacific Crest, etc.–summer is the season to sojourn. Not so, however, on the Ozark Highlands Trail, when summer brings intense heat and humidity, dangerous lightning storms and more ticks, chiggers and blood-thirsty bugs than you can shake a walking stick at.

Winter months are good hiking months. The woods are in a state of what Arkansans call “leaf out”; that is to say, they are barren of foliage, allowing good views. Daytime temperatures are in the 30s to 50s–good hiking weather if you’re warmly attired. Nights are long and cold, with temperatures in the teens or lower.

Springtime, when the azaleas and dogwood bloom, is a terrific time to be on the time.

October is a grand month to gambol through the Ozarks. Daytime temperatures are in the 70s, with nighttime lows in the 40s and 50s. The fall color display (one of the state’s best-kept secrets) rivals that of Colorado and New England.

A great place to begin exploring the Ozarks is at the beginning of the Ozark Highlands Trail in Lake Fort Smith State Park. Tucked away in an Ozark Mountain valley, this park offers a splendid sampling of the Ozarks and a taste of the trail that might just whet your appetite for hiking the entire 187 miles to its end at the Buffalo River, near the Missouri border.