I completed a solo thru-hike of the Ozark Trail earlier this month. It took just under three weeks to traverse 231 miles from the Onondaga trailhead which is just east of Cuba, MO to the end of the Eleven Point section down near Alton. The weather turned out to be unseasonably mild for the entire journey. Average high temperatures for mid-February in this area are normally around 50 degrees with overnight lows in the low 30's, but just about every day during this trip it broke 60 degrees with many topping out at 70+. The coldest night bottomed out at 18 degrees, but most nights were well above average. One night in particular, when I got up for a nature call around 3am it was still 65 degrees! So... although it was considerably warmer than I expected when planning this trip, it was quite a pleasure to be able to hike in shorts and a t-shirt most of the time. I had hoped to avoid the ticks and chiggers by doing this trip in February and that was mostly accomplished in spite of the warm temperatures. Perhaps treating my shoes, socks, and pant legs with permethrin helped; I only picked up three or four of the little buggers along the way. I did see some mosquitoes on several nights, but they weren't a problem at all, even without any bug netting on my hammock.
|Overview of the Ozark Trail|
For most camping trips these days, I use a hammock instead of a tent. For me, I find it far more comfortable than sleeping on the ground. It's also much easier to find a suitable location to camp since it doesn't really matter if the ground beneath the hammock is rocky, lumpy, or even sloped. Naturally, flat dry ground is preferred, but not absolutely necessary as it is with a tent. With proper insulation in the form of quilts, a sleeping bag, and/or foam pad, one can stay toasty warm in a hammock in sub-freezing temperatures with no problem. And on the other end of the temperature spectrum, there is more air circulation in a hammock compared to the average tent, so it's far less likely to get stuffy on summer nights. A hammock typically sets up quicker than a tent. On clear nights you can opt to forgo a tarp and just lie back under the stars. I feel more in touch with my surroundings in a hammock since my view is open in all directions. I could go on and on about all the advantages of hammock camping, but that is not the purpose of this blog post. Suffice to say that I've slept in both tents and hammocks and one is definitely better than the other in most situations.
Since there are no towns along the Ozark Trail, my plan was to carry a full week's worth of food at a time and meet my wife at a road crossing each Saturday to get re-supplied. Although carrying 10 or so pounds of food was a bit much, this ended up working out quite well, and it was nice that my pack weight got progressively lighter during the course of each week. Speaking of pack weight, in case anyone is curious, my base weight was roughly 18 pounds, with an additional 15 or so pounds of consumables. So I'd top out around 33 pounds (including 1L of water) at the beginning of each week and work my way down to the low 20's by Friday night. Keep in mind that I needed to carry winter-weight clothing and zero-degree quilts since I had no way of knowing that it was going to be warm for the entire trip. My summer hiking base weight is considerably lower. If anyone is interested in the gear I used on this trip, you can view a spreadsheet of the list HERE which includes weights for each item and nifty little pie charts.
I figured I'd start out by walking roughly 10 miles a day during the first week to let my legs adapt to the new demands placed on them, and maybe bump that up to 12 or 15 once I felt ready for more. That's pretty much exactly the way it panned out, although I had a few days over 15 miles and one almost 20. Thankfully, I never got a blister the whole trip, even after hiking for three consecutive days in wet shoes and socks.
OK, so here's how the trip went, day-by-day:
Day one: After a burger and fries lunch in Cuba, my wife dropped me off around 2:30pm Saturday afternoon February 18th at the Onondaga trailhead and I began the Courtois section of the trail. A couple of hours later I arrived at my destination for the day which was the Huzzah Campground at mile-marker ~5.0. There were a few car-campers there, but most of the 15 or so sites were unoccupied at this free campground. After setting up and cooking dinner, a group of three older couples (my age) who were camping together a few sites away, came by and invited me to their site for a beer and some company around the campfire, which was very nice of them! Turned out one of the men worked part time at REI in St. Louis so we talked about gear and past adventures for hours.
|The trail approaching Huzzah Campground|
|tight squeeze with a pack on|
|camp 1 at Huzzah CG|
Day two: The next morning I broke camp around 9:30, said goodbye to my new-found friends, and headed off down the trail to my first “wet crossing” at Courtois Creek. For any who might not know, a wet crossing is any stream that is too deep to simply rock-hop across. Some folks don’t mind getting their shoes soaked on such crossings. Others, myself included, prefer to take a separate pair of stream crossing shoes with them for such events. Mine weigh 3.3 ounces for the pair and have earned a permanent place in my pack. A few miles later I came upon an awesome overlook from atop a bluff. I noted this excellent campsite location for future reference, snapped a few pics, and moved along. At around mile-marker 12.5 the trail passes through the property of Bass Resort. I had never heard of it but they have a pretty big business going there. Which leads me to a funny story. The previous night when I went to make dinner, I realized that even with all my meticulous planning for this trip, I had neglected to replace my nearly-empty 4 ounce butane canister with a full 8 ouncer before departure. Big mistake! My pre-loaded re-supply boxes back at home all contained new 8 ounce canisters, but I never thought to swap the initial canister out for a fresh one. This meant I'd have to cook most if not all of my meals on a wood fire instead of a gas stove for the first week. Unless..... maybe this resort had a camp store that's open in the off-season and maybe they'd have butane? Turned out they DID have a rather large camp store that WAS open, and even though I could have purchased all manner of food, drink, toys, and camp supplies from them, they did not have even one canister of butane, DESPITE the fact that they sold butane canister stoves! What luck, right? Oh, well... I'd have to manage without. Which I did. I built a fire every night and even revived a few of them the following morning to boil water for oatmeal. That second night I camped high on a ridge with a pretty view at around MM15.0.
|view of Huzzah Valley|
|stunning view from the blufftop|
|perfect hiking weather|
Day three: I broke camp at 9am, hiked all day, and ended up camping at Beecher Spring near MM27.7. There is also an artesian well at this spot so it was a good place to spend the night. Rigged up the tarp for the first time since it felt like it might rain. Most nights I didn't even bother removing the tarp from my pack because I enjoy stargazing and the open-air feeling of sleeping in a hammock with nothing blocking my view. But it was overcast at dusk so better safe than sorry. Woke up during the night when the pitter-patter of rain first began, fell back asleep, and sometime later was startled awake again by a sudden jolt. Grabbed the headlight and quickly discovered that rainwater had pooled on top of my porch-mode tarp setup. A few gallons had accumulated while I slept and the added weight caused the ridgeline tensioner to suddenly slip several inches. That was the jarring that woke me. Good thing too! Donned the rain jacket and went out in the downpour to reset my guylines. I was lucky the ridgeline adjustment slipped rather than the tarp tearing... that woulda been a major issue! Anyway, with disaster averted, I drifted off back to dreamland. The rain continued into the morning so I enjoyed “me pap tarts from da hammick" ala Shug and delayed packing up until it finally quit. During this time I also discovered that my ridgeline seam was leaking in a couple of spots... just a slow one-drip-per-minute rate, but I'd need to address that after my first re-supply.
|camp 3 at Beecher Spring|
Day four: Broke camp just before noon. Got to Berryman Campground around 3:30, which is MM~35.0. Set up, then gathered firewood, kindling, and tinder (everything was still soaked from the earlier rain). It took a bit of persistence, but eventually got a fire going and built it hot enough to burn wet wood. Enjoyed having a picnic table to eat at for the first time. I can't believe this campground is free and that NOBODY was using it, at least on this night. Kept the blaze going til about 11pm, using the flickering light to jot down some trail notes. Fell asleep to the drone of peepers in a nearby pond. A heavy fog rolled in during the wee hours and soaked everything including the underside of the tarp and both my quilts. It was the kind of misty air that makes tree limbs drip. Fortunately the moisture-laden air was also warm (52 was the low), so I never got cold while sleeping.
|camp 4 at Berryman CG|
Day five: Broke camp around 9am, crossed over highway 8, and quickly encountered my second wet stream crossing at Lost Creek. The fog burned off by 9:30 and it was a gorgeous sunny day. Made it to the Hazel Creek Campground at MM 47.7 around 4pm. Again I was the only one using the free campground. Picked a spot right next the creek and aired out my damp equipment. There was a nice breeze so everything dried quickly while I was off gathering firewood and exploring the area. Starry night, low temperature 42. In the morning I took time to do some laundry and take a shower. Felt good to be clean again!
|camp 5 at Hazel Creek CG|
|view from the hammock|
Day six: Broke camp around 10:15. Noticed that the bottom sole of one of my trail runners was starting to come loose. Texted my wife to pick up some quick-set epoxy before our rendezvous the following day, and also to grab the sil-net and applicator brush from my gear box. Side note: the spots along the trail where there is cell service are few and far between. I'd usually have enough of a signal at some point during each day to send and receive texts, but in the entire three weeks there were only a handful of times I had a strong enough signal to complete a call. Same with data... rarely available. I got most of my weather reports via text from home or by scanning the built-in FM radio in my phone at night. My phone uses AT&T towers so YMMV. Stopped for the day at around MM55.2 near Trace Creek. Interesting spot with an old chimney standing alone with no remnant of a house around it. There were also some edible mushrooms growing nearby. It was a very warm and windy night (low temp 59) and I ended up reading my book for more than two hours. Glad I opted to bring it along even though it weighed almost a pound. Every couple of days I tore out the read pages and burned them to help lighten my pack.
|edible "Oyster" mushrooms|
|getting ready to cook|
Day seven: Broke camp at 9:00am and continued on my way. Another weather front moved through during the day and although it looked like it might rain for a while, it never did. Cleared up in the afternoon and got VERY windy. Stopped at a pre-existing campsite just off the trail near MM64.7 which was nestled up against a dense grove of cedar trees with water nearby... PERFECT! The sky was clear but with the wind whipping the way it was, I chose to set up the tarp but left it in the skins. Had enough daylight left to take a full shower and do some laundry. After eating and cleaning up, I again read my book for hours until moths started bombarding me, presumably attracted by my headlight. But wait... they weren't moths... they were SNOWFLAKES! Just flurries, but who knew what would happen after I fell asleep so figured I better deploy the tarp. Several hours later... BOOM! Woken out of a deep sleep, I flicked the headlight on to find that two of my tent stakes had been yanked out by the ferocious wind. Even though this site was protected with higher ground in all directions, the wind must have been coming from the one and only direction that would funnel it in to this place. One of the stakes was still attached to the guyline, but the other was nowhere to be found. Fortunately I had a spare, so that was not a problem. I reset the lines as low to the ground as possible and that did the trick. I wouldn't be surprised if some of the gusts that night exceeded 40mph. And as I said, I was camped low in dense trees. So much for careful site selection! The low temp that night was 28 and I found the ejected tent stake in the morning.
|great spot to spend the night|
|is it soup yet?|
Day eight: Broke camp at 8am and headed off to my first re-supply. Noon at county road 72 was the pre-arranged time and place, and I was well ahead of schedule so I stopped for an early break and snack after only walking for a mile or two. I was still a half-hour early to the road crossing, but so was the wife so it worked out perfectly. And bless her heart she had the epoxy AND the sil-net AND a pair of sneakers for me to use while the glue set! I mixed up the gunk and applied it to the shoe and then we drove to the nearby town of Bixby for a leisurely lunch. Four hours later the epoxy had firmly set, my pack was re-loaded, and I was back on the trail. I only hiked for about 30 more minutes before stopping for the day. I camped that night on "one bar ridge", the name I gave to a high spot that had enough cell signal to text home and tell my wife I missed her already. That was near MM~69. The wind had calmed during the afternoon so no worries about camping higher up that night.
Day nine: I was up and out by 7:40am, the earliest departure yet. Did five miles before 10am and stopped at Henderson Creek for a snack. Later, stopped for lunch on the switchbacks at MM79. Got a text that "heavy rain" was supposed to begin at 3-4pm. It started to sprinkle just after 1pm. Was gonna push through the drizzle to Little Creek at MM82.6, but there was a good spot at 80.6 so I quit there. Good thing too because just after I got everything set up, the rain got heavier. Was in the hammock at 2:45 and figured I might as well nap while waiting for the main event. The "heavy rain" never materialized, but it did shower on and off for several hours. Cooked dinner under the tarp and thought about how much I appreciated the butane. I was finally free from the nightly chore of gathering wood, lighting a fire, creating a base of coals, and cooking dinner while trying not to burn my fingers. Don't get me wrong... I enjoy a campfire as much as anybody, but not so much for cooking and definitely not when I'm rolling solo. A camp stove is SO much nicer. I can cook under my tarp if need be without fear of damaging the lightweight fabric. One canister will last an entire week for seven dinners and seven breakfasts, plus heating water for a few hot showers and STILL have fuel left over. Yup, other than a little 5-minute paper fire to burn my trash every few days, the last actual wood fire I built for the remainder of this trip was the night before my first re-supply.
Day ten: Got up at first light, made breakfast, and hit the trail at 8:40am. It dawned clear and was another warm sunny day, topping out around 70 degrees. The previous night's low was 30 and my bear-bag cord froze to the tree limb. Don’t recall ever having that happen before. It was a thick limb so it took some doing to free it. Yes, I strung a bear bag line every night. If a critter got into my food while I'm on a thru-hike, that's a much bigger problem than if it was just an overnight trip. Came upon a spot where someone had set up about thirty buckets to collect tree sap. Also passed an interesting monument built to honor John Roth who was instrumental in getting the Middle Fork area of the Ozark Trail completed. Started a new section today... "Karkaghne". I'd say of all the sections of trail that comprise the continuous OT, this one is the worst-marked and least traveled. There were many times I had to guess the direction of the trail at an intersection, and sometimes I would walk miles (yes, miles!) without seeing a blaze to confirm I was on the right path. And there were times it seemed like I was plowing, calf-deep, through four year's worth of accumulated, undisturbed leaf litter. That's probably more an indication of local wind conditions, but still... I was glad I had a navigation app on my phone that I could fire up if need be to confirm my location relative to the trail. During the day I passed the spot where a father and two young sons froze to death on the trail back in 2013. It was a chilling reminder of how badly things can go wrong when you're in the wilderness. And speaking of things going off the rails, I got a text from my wife informing me that there were some "very strong storms coming later tonight". Lots of rain was predicted for the next 24-48 hours, and also a good chance for tornadoes and hail. I pondered what hail might do to a tarp if it was larger than, say, a nickel? Anyone out there have any experience with this? I stopped for the day at MM91.7 next to the Gunnis Branch. As near as I could determine from the lack of debris along the stream's banks, I didn't think flooding would be an issue here. My campsite was high enough to not get swamped, and low enough to be protected from high winds. It was also next to a jeep road which could be used as an emergency exit if necessary. I had stopped early enough to spend some extra time hunkering down. I rounded up some large rocks and placed them over each of my tarp stakes to help hold them in place. It's one thing to have the tarp come loose in high wind, it's quite another to have it fail in the midst of a downpour. I scouted the area well in all directions. I was as ready as I could be for whatever happened. At 4:30pm it was still above 60 degrees, and with at least 90 minutes of daylight left, I took the opportunity to seam-seal the tarp. By the time I was done eating dinner at 5:30 it was dry to the touch. Read myself to sleep. Rain eventually showed up after midnight and an intense thunderstorm rolled through between 3-4am, but it was no big deal. The seam-sealing was successful... no leaks!
|sap collection along the trail???|
|camp 10 (and 11) in "tornado alley"|
Day eleven: Woke up at 6:45am to a light mist. Ate breakfast and was itching to move on, but with severe weather coming later that day I decided to stay put. I didn't want to get caught in a bad location and this one seemed pretty safe to me. There was no cell signal at camp so around midday I hiked north back up the trail about a mile where I thought it might be high enough to text. Got a message off to my wife and while waiting for her to reply, my phone beeped with a weather alert: “tornado watch in effect until 9pm”. A few minutes later my wife confirmed that indeed, things were looking pretty grim, weather-wise. She asked if I wanted her to come get me. “No, I feel pretty safe where I'm camped.” So I headed back down to my campsite and spent the afternoon exploring the area. Found a spring about a quarter-mile upstream which fed the brook I was camped next to. Found an abandoned homestead. Did a little bushwhacking. Even though I made no forward progress on the trail that day, I probably still walked about 7 or 8 miles. Burned my trash, including over 200 pages of my book. Shampooed my hair. Made dinner and ate. 5:00pm and still no storm! It was driving me crazy, but I kept busy. The good news was that after this system moved through, the next several days were supposed to be perfect weather. The rain finally began around 7pm and the thunderstorm blew for about 2 hours. Yawn. That was it? I woke up to pee around 2 or 3am and thought, "wow, it's still very warm!" Checked the thermometer... yup, 64 degrees! Obviously the cold front had not yet passed through which meant the main event hadn't yet occurred. Sure enough, about an hour later I was awakened by another violent t-storm. It kept me up for a bit, but eventually I zonked out before it was over. Meanwhile, unbeknownst to me, my wife at home was frantic because the tornado watch was now a tornado warning, for the exact area I was in. She kept refreshing the computer screen and watched as the darkest, meanest radar images passed directly over my GPS coordinates. Fearing that I was in mortal danger, she actually hit her knees to pray for my safety. About an hour later she called the sheriff and asked about any storm damage and was told by him that the National Weather Service in Springfield, MO had also just called them asking for a damage report because their data showed a tornado had formed at that location. Nope, no damage. At least not where I was. In the morning there were news reports of cars blowing off of interstate 55 farther east and some structural damage to about 100 homes near Perryville, MO, a town along the same highway. I guess this was a case of “ignorance is bliss” because I got way more sleep than my wife got that night!
|gear passed the big test|
Day twelve: Woke, ate and was on the trail by 7:45am, very happy to be moving again. Gorgeous clear blue skies all day. Stopped for lunch at the Black River Crossing near Sutton Bluff Campground. Very Pretty area. Nice views from the bluff looking down on the river valley. Later that afternoon I hit the 100 mile mark. Passed Bee Fork, another wet crossing and eventually camped at MM105.3 next to a creek. Lulled to sleep by cows mooing at a nearby unseen farm.
|the Black River from Sutton Bluff|
|a milestone on the pedometer|
Day thirteen: Pretty uneventful except I hiked about 17 miles starting at 7:45am. Camped at another MYO spot near MM122.0. Low temp was 24. Felt like an idiot because after dark I couldn't find the bear-bag line I had strung earlier so had to hang my food bag directly on a tree branch. Guess I gotta put a little reflective cordage on the line for such situations.
Day fourteen: Still trying to make up for those lost miles. Hit the trail at 8:45. There were many interesting sights along this section. The "raised fen" area was pretty. Some sections of the trail had a thick layer of moss growing which looked (and felt) like a green carpet. There were a few places where flowers were growing in the middle of nowhere. I imagined these were once the site of someone’s homestead in decades past. Laxton Hollow was impressive. I came upon caves nearly every day, but some, like the one this day, begged to be explored. A good reason to come back sometime in the future! Harper Spring was interesting. Had another wet crossing at 135.4. Ended up doing about 16 miles and camped next to Little Blair Creek at MM138.0 which was a very nice spot. Low temp that night was 26.
|who planted these? and when?|
|old root cellar / storm shelter|
|interesting cave entrance|
Day fifteen: Re-supply day! I overslept... which is all too easy in a hammock! Didn't break camp until 9:50am so had to scramble the 5.5 miles to meet my wife at Powder Mill by noon. I made it, but barely. There were several nice views of Owls Bend on the beautiful Current River as the trail skirted the edge of a bluff. We ate lunch in Ellington at a restaurant which had outside tables... another warm sunny afternoon! Unbelievable weather! After re-stocking my pack in the parking lot at Powder Mill, I only hiked another 2.3 miles to a huge gravel bar at MM145.7, a gorgeous spot to hang a hammock. Had the bar completely to myself. It was another no-tarp night under the stars.
|first glimpse of the Current River|
|gorgeous view from the bluff above Owls Bend|
|more moss-covered trail|
|pretty pasture scene|
|a gravel bar with trees... how convenient!|
Day sixteen: By morning it had clouded over and I hit the trail at 7:45. Rain started shortly after and continued until about 2pm. Skipped lunch and hiked nearly 20 miles, stopping at MM165.5 around 4:30pm. This was my first day of actually hiking in the rain, and the first day my shoes and socks got soaked.
|medicinal "Turkey Tail" mushrooms|
Day seventeen: Broke camp at 8:10, put it on cruise control, and was south of highway 60 before noon. Light rain fell the entire time. Stopped for lunch a short time later but decided it was silly to stop to eat in the rain so kept walking and ate as I went. Got word that there was more severe weather on tap for later that night. Planned to stop at "Devil's Run" because it sounded good in the trail guide, but didn't like the area when I got there so kept walking. Ended up on a low ridgetop at MM181.6... not the best spot for high winds and lightning, but not the worst. I was running out of daylight, and low on water too since Devil's Run was dry. Heard some peepers and followed their noise to a small pond that was clear enough to draw from. I generally avoid still water when on the trail, but I've used some pretty sketchy sources in a pinch. As predicted, the wind picked up and blew like crazy from the south for several hours, holding the temperature in the mid 60's after midnight. I figured that wasn't a good sign, so after one of my nature calls I tied some extra cordage around the rocks I had previously placed over my tarp stakes and attached it to the corners so that even if the stakes pulled out in extreme wind, the tarp couldn't go far with 60 pounds of ballast and might survive well enough to use as a poncho. I also wore my rain jacket to bed in case I needed to make a quick "wet exit". When the thunderstorm finally arrived after 2am, there were a few tense moments, but the worst was over quickly and I promptly dozed off. Turned out it was another night that I got more sleep than my spouse at home who stayed up watching the storm's progress as it moved through the area. Dodged another bullet!
Day eighteen: By daybreak it was calm as could be. There was enough signal on the ridge to text my wife at 6:45am and let her know that all was well. The rain was over but I still had another day of walking in wet shoes while they dried. My feet looked like prunes at the end of each rainy day, but surprisingly I never got even one blister! I broke camp at 8:20 and put the hammer down. Came upon a skull... maybe from a feral hog? Saw lots of evidence of hog activity along the trail each day, but never saw any of the beasts themselves. Covered 14.5 miles by 4:30. Ended up stopping at a very pleasant spot next to Gold Mine Hollow Spring at MM196.1.
|camp 18 at Gold Mine Hollow Spring|
Day nineteen: Broke camp at 8:20 am and hit the 200-mile mark about two hours later. Lots of up and down, confusing intersections, and poor signage in this section. But it was a beautiful day to hike! Replenished my water at Hurricane Creek, another wet crossing, in anticipation of a dry stretch ahead. Also took some time to wash up there. Pulled into Greer Campground later that afternoon. Ten bucks to camp?!?!?! On my last night on the trail?? Outrageous! I moseyed another mile down the trail and camped at MM212.4 right next to the Eleven Point River. For free.
Day twenty: Woke up at first light and was on the trail by 7:00am. The final push was on! Nice views from an overlook at MM213.8. Bockman Spring at 221.4 was an interesting spot... would like to camp there someday and explore. Paused briefly for lunch and then sailed through the remaining 9 miles. Met my wife at the trailhead at 4:30pm on March 9th just before another storm moved into the area. Caution: the gravel road leading in to this trailhead is in very poor condition. As we drove out, I was astonished that she had driven in there with our little passenger car!
|beautiful view of the Eleven Point River|
|Bockman Cave and Spring|
|nice place for a lunch break|
In summary, it was a great trip with excellent weather. Even with the temperatures well above average, I only saw one other backpacker on this entire journey. Consequently, I got the impression that many sections of the trail are hardly ever used. I'm not sure why that is since all sections have some appeal. As for wildlife... saw lots of deer and turkey, just about every day. Heard coyotes every night, often very close, but I'm used to that living way out in the country and no longer find it unnerving. Over the years I've actually come to enjoy their yipping. Had no nocturnal visitors that I know of. There were a couple of small snakes sunning themselves right on the trail, seemingly oblivious to my passing. Plenty of lizards doing the same, although they would vanish in the blink of an eye as I approached. Many squirrels, of course. But no bears, and no elk sightings as I passed through the Peck Ranch area. A year ago I hiked the Current River section and walked right up on the wild horses that roam free in Shannon County, but unfortunately they were nowhere around this time through. Overall, I was happy with my gear performance. I learned a few valuable lessons that will affect future hikes. Although I enjoy hiking solo, a companion (or two) would have made this trip more fun. But one thing about the trail remains a mystery to me... maybe someone out there has an answer: How do spiders know precisely how high to place their web strands across the trail so they land right in your face, even though hikers are not all the same height?