The Ozark Trail Could Make Missouri a Hiking Destination. Why Isn't It Finished?

The beauty of the Ozarks is clear to visitors.
The beauty of the Ozarks is clear to visitors. PHOTO BY KELLY GLUECK

Forty years ago this week, state and federal officials in Missouri issued a dry document to announce a grand ambition.

In a 43-page proposal dated February 7, 1977, they stated their aim to blaze a footpath through the Ozarks, the rugged highlands that roll across southern Missouri. It wouldn't be easy. The native flora, fauna, terrain and certain human occupants made that area, for hiking purposes, hostile territory.

The planners envisioned an "Ozark Trail" that could start near St. Louis and snake its way south over the region's hills and hollers toward Arkansas, using as much public land as possible. An eastern spur would swing across Johnson Shut-Ins and Missouri's highest point, Taum Sauk Mountain.

The state felt pressure to deliver such a corridor. In places like St. Louis, hiking was booming. Folks now enjoyed the requisite free time (thanks to labor reforms) and mobility (thanks to automobiles and interstates) to wheel out to the countryside, tramp around and breathe the forest air.

The only problem? There wasn't enough trail. In 1975, the state's Department of Natural Resources found that Missouri had 655 miles, but needed twice that to meet demand. That same year, the DNR hired Fred Lafser, an avid hiker and map-hoarder in his mid-twenties, to help solve the problem.

Sitting in the Jefferson City office building where he worked as a recreation planner, Lafser began to pore over official maps. He quickly discerned a viable route through the Ozarks.

"It evolved over a few hours," he recalls.

In the year that followed, he pitched his idea to federal and state agencies. They liked it, and collaborated on the February 1977 proposal, an open-ended blueprint for what Lafser called "an immensely complicated coordination project."

"The trail is crystallizing," Lafser wrote in a letter at the time. "Considering how rare it is for two agencies to agree on anything, agreement of eight agencies for a cooperative effort was a landmark achievement!" Private groups such as the Sierra Club allied with the government to form a coalition: the Ozark Trail Council.

Had their momentum continued, the Midwest would now have an answer to the Appalachian Trail or the Pacific Crest Trail, made famous by Cheryl Strayed in the bestselling Wild. Like those "through-trails" — meaning end-to-end paths, not loops — the Ozark version could have served as a magnet for tourists, and their money.

That's not quite what happened, though it looked promising at first. Volunteers started clearing brush and adding miles. In the spring of 1980, Missouri officials met with counterparts from Arkansas, where an Ozark Highlands Trail was already under construction in the state's scenic northern half. Together they dreamed of joining the two paths for an epic 700-mile track.

"There's no question that this trail will draw people from Chicago, from Texas and from all over the Midwest," Al Schneider, the DNR's trail coordinator, told a reporter in 1980.

The DNR held a dedication ceremony in October 1982 at Owl's Bend, a spot on the Current River near a new trailhead. The incipient Ozark Trail, Lafser told attendees, could offer "long vistas atop glade-laced mountains, delicate spring wildflowers, gold and red hillsides during fall's colorful display, placid streams nestled between the hills and winter's fairyland of ice-glazed trees and snow-covered earth."

The "ultimate objective," Lafser continued, was to develop "350 miles of the most beautiful trail in the country." Ninety miles had already been built in only five years. At that rate, the trail should've been finished by 1997.

But the Ozark Trail remains unfinished today.

It's not that demand for hiking trails has flagged. According to the DNR's most recent citizen survey, "trails are the most popular type of outdoor recreation facility in Missouri and the one that residents most want to see increased."

And it's not that nobody's working on it. Distracted by tight budgets and other priorities, the government stepped back, but a core of dedicated volunteers has filled the vacuum. They maintain the thirteen sections built so far, which add up to 338 miles of the roughly 500 now envisioned.

No, the Ozark Trail isn't finished, and perhaps never will be, because the last third is the most daunting: The trail must somehow traverse seven gaps of mostly private property — a combined 162 miles through eight different counties — and in a region that has historically cast a suspicious eye toward government, outsiders and recreation projects.

Not all Ozarkers are hostile. Some small towns are even clamoring to link the trail to their borders. Rather than see it as a threat, these regional leaders see the Ozark Trail as an opportunity.

"It's a gradual process of changing attitudes," says Roger Allison, board member of the Ozark Trail Association, a volunteer group that extols the economic virtues of connecting to the trail. "But it's the Show Me State. You've really got to show people sometimes for them to come around to it."

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