The Ozark Trail: Missouri’s Great Escape

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Along the Ozark Trail at Johnson's Shut-ins State Park.
Credit: Alex Cunningham
Some parts of the trail are open to bikers
Credit: Pat Evenson
Credit: Photo by @trudeauken

Missouri offers a perfect balance between bright city lights and star-filled skies, luxury experiences and rustic adventures. People come from all over the world to visit the Gateway Arch, drive Route 66, dine on Kansas City barbecue and play on our lakes and rivers.

But travelers seeking solitude and a true taste of wilderness come to the Show-Me State to hike the Ozark Trail. More than 390 miles of the trail has been completed. When finished, it will extend more than 500 miles, from St. Louis to Arkansas.

The trail will take you to some of Missouri’s most beautiful places – forested mountains, hills and valleys filled with springs, crystal clear streams and waterfalls.

If you’re new to hiking or to the trail, try an out-and-back day hike. More experienced hikers may want to take a multi-day trip. The trail is available for more than just hiking – much of it is also open for bicycling and horseback riding.

For an overnight stay, the trail passes near campsites on Forest Service, State Parks and Conservation lands – but there are plenty of spots for serious backpackers to set up their own rustic camps.

It’s best to tackle the Ozark Trail with traditional tools: maps and a compass. Although maps are available to load into your phone or GPS, there is no cell signal on most of the trail (but designated GPS still works). That’s part of the appeal. The trail is a true getaway – away from your phone, your email and other distractions.

The trail is open to hiking year-round, but spring and fall are usually the best times to be out in the woods. If you decide to hike it in the summer, Missouri streams are a great way to cool off.

Here are some tips for a trip along the Ozark Trail:

  • Get a good map that shows the features, creeks and rivers (where you may need to wade), campsites, etc. A copy of The Ozark Trail Guidebook is highly recommended.
  • Be sure you have hiking shoes or boots that fit well and are broken in before you go.
  • Take wading shoes – you are likely to cross water.
  • If it’s a day trip, take enough water for the day, snacks or a picnic lunch. Pack a first aid kit – you may not need it, but someone else on the trail might.
  • If you’re backpacking, be sure to carry enough food and a water filter or water purification tablets. The streams you encounter may look crystal clear, but you never know what’s upstream.
  • Spend a little time on the trail website. You’ll find just about everything you need to know, including vendors that will shuttle you back to your car at the end of your hike.

So when you’re ready to trade neon for starlight, traffic noise for the calls of coyotes and barred owls, and the glow of the television for an unforgettable moonrise … explore the rugged beauty and wilderness of Missouri’s Ozark Trail.