Friday, January 17, 2020

Meet The Ozarks

Ozark Mountain Spring

Each year millions of visitors flock to the Ozarks to enjoy miles of scenic hiking trails, floating on crystal-clear streams and rivers, and playing in an outdoor-lovers paradise. Even though the area has been a popular vacation destination for more than a century, many people still hold a lot of misconceptions and misnomers about the region.

Where Are The Ozarks?

Depending on who you ask, the Ozarks can extend from Southern Illinois to the Piney Woods in the South. The terrain in Southern Illinois and the Piney Woods does share some similar characteristics to the Ozarks. However, the Ozarks are mainly contained in parts of the following four states:
  • Missouri
  • Arkansas
  • Kansas
  • Oklahoma
Missouri: The Ozarks make up much of Southern Missouri. If I had to draw a boundary, I would say that the area south of the Missouri and Osage Rivers, and roughly an hour west of the Mississippi River.

Arkansas: The Ozark Mountains cover much of Northern Arkansas - north of the Arkansas River - to about the center of the state. As you get closer to the Mississippi River, the land transitions into the flat Delta.

Kansas: The Ozarks occupy just a few square miles of Southeast Kansas bound by the Spring River. However, much of Southeast Kansas is known as the "Little Ozarks" because the area's terrain has more hills and trees than the rest of the state.

Oklahoma: The Ozarks are generally referred to as "Green Country" in Northeastern Oklahoma.

     History of The Ozark

Ozark Bluffs
The Ozark Mountains were once inhabited by bluff dwellers who lived underneath the cover of bluffs and inside caves. (Bluff Dwellers cave in Noel, Missouri offers visitors a fairly extensive history of the "bluff dwellers" and an awesome cave tour). Later, the Osage arrived in the Ozarks during the 17th Century. 

The French were the first Europeans to reach the area in the early 18th Century. Many French fur trappers crossed the Mississippi River from the Illinois Country. The French also started mining the area after learning about the rich lead deposits in the St. Francois Mountains of present-day Southeastern Missouri. However, most of the Ozarks remained very sparsely populated until after the Civil War. For one thing, the steep hills and valleys, and thick forests made traveling in this region difficult. Therefore, many American settlers opted to use keel boats to travel up the Arkansas River to the White River in Northern Arkansas. Some would then travel up the White to the James River near Springfield, Missouri. Eventually, after the construction of roads and railroads, the Ozarks started attracting more settlers because it became much easier to travel in the region.

In the late 19th Century and Early 20th Century, many people believed that certain spring water found in the Ozarks had medicinal benefits. Several towns like Eureka Springs, Siloam Springs, and Sulphur Springs, Arkansas attracted thousands to the Ozark Mountains seeking the benefits of "healing" spring water. Unfortunately, the water has no medicinal value. However, this left behind a cool heritage for the region.

Ozark Mountain Farm

The Ozark Mountains have never been as big of a farming region as the nearby Great Plains and Mississippi Delta. Many farmers only farm part-time so they have additional sources of income. (The land is just too rocky). In the early 1900s, there was a large strawberry growing industry in Southwest Missouri. Today, poultry production is a huge industry in Southwest Missouri and Northwest Arkansas. In addition to poultry, many farmers raise livestock like cattle, horses, sheep, and hogs. There is some dairy farming as well. Soybeans and corn are (probably) the most common crops grown.

Tourism has been a major industry in the Ozarks for the past 100 years. However, the tourism industry really took off in the second half of the 20th Century after the construction of several lakes along the Osage and White River Valleys. The most popular vacation spots are around Branson and the Lake of the Ozarks in Missouri, and around Eureka Springs and the Buffalo National River in Arkansas. In recent years there has been tremendous population growth in Northwest Arkansas and Southwest Missouri.

Are the Ozark Mountains Really Mountains?

Shoal Creek

The Ozarks are actually one of the oldest geological formations in North America - much older than the Appalachians and Rocky Mountains. According to geologists, at one time the Ozark Mountains were as tall as the Himalayas. However, today they are more like tall hills rather than actual mountains due to years of water and wind exposure that has eroded them. Basically, the Ozarks are a large plateau with steep valleys cut out by rivers and streams.  There are a few mountains in Missouri, and Arkansas has more mountains that are higher in elevation. Most of the hills are still very steep with deep valleys between them. The land is extremely rocky. Many areas contain limestone bluffs above rivers and streams.

What the Ozarks lack in elevation they more than make up for in lush trees (during the spring and summer), beautiful fall foliage, towering bluffs, clear-flowing streams, scenic beauty, and abundant wildlife. All of this make the region a paradise for outdoor enthusiasts and nature lovers.   

Hiking in The Ozarks

Ozark Hiking Trails

Many cities and towns throughout the Ozarks have built miles of paved greenways that are awesome for hiking and biking. In addition to paved trails, there are thousands of miles of marked (and unmarked) dirt and rock trails that take hikers through a scenic wonderland. Here are a few of the more popular hiking trails:
  • Frisco Greenway Trail
  • Frisco Highline Trail
  • Northwest Arkansas Razorback Regional Greenway
  • Ozark Greenways
  • Ozark Highline Trail
  • Ozark Trail 
My favorite hiking trails are the Northwest Arkansas Razorback Regional Greenway and the Ozark Greenways around Springfield. You will want to bring along some insect repellent and watch out for snakes during the warm weather months.

Ozark Springs and Rivers

Wishing Springs in Northwest Arkansas

The Ozarks are home to thousands of springs that bubble up out of the ground from deep aquifers. In fact, the region is home to 20 of the largest springs in the world. I have been to Big Spring in Van Buren, Missouri. It looks like a giant river that gushes out from underneath a bluff and then flows down a hill a short distance to the Current River. However, not all of these large springs flow out of the ground like raging rapids. Some springs seep out of the ground and form deep pools of blue water. I haven't had a chance to visit any "blue" springs yet. Many of these springs are located in or near the Ozark Scenic Riverways National Park which is located east of Springfield in Southern Missouri.

The Ozark Scenic Riverways National Park was created to protect the Current and Jacks Fork Rivers from being turned into lakes like so many other rivers in the Ozarks. The Ozarks have several rivers that offer excellent canoe trips. A few of the more popular "floating" rivers are the Buffalo National River, Current River, Elk River, Jacks Fork, and Meramec River. (Don't be offended if I left out your favorite river).

Ozark Scenic Riverways

Ozark Caves

Lastly, the Ozark Mountains are home to thousands of caves. In fact, one of Missouri's nicknames is the Cave State. If you have ever driven on I-44, you have likely seen the billboards for Meramec Caverns. Many of these caves offer commercial tours - which is a safe way to explore them. My favorites are Fantastic Caverns in Springfield and Marvel Cave in Silver Dollar City. However, if you are an adventurous soul who enjoys spelunking on your own, then you should check out Devil's Den State Park in Northwest Arkansas. Just be careful when exploring any caves on your own. Make sure to bring the proper gear and plenty of light.  

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