Give yourself enough time: The Ozark Trail is no joke: it’s incredibly rocky and wild. At 230 miles, it was all I could do in two weeks. I would have had more fun if I’d had more time. There are many opportunities for side-trips that I didn’t have time to take. A mere half-day in the middle of the hike to chill out would have done wonders for my body and mind. Since returning to civilization, many people have asked about the trail. I’ve reported that my time on the Ozark Trail wasn’t fun, but it was really good. Doing 16-17 miles per day, I hurt every day and had to push through the pain. The rocks beat up my feet and ankles. Fewer miles per day would have given me the time to bounce back.
Maps/Guides/Etc: I used the free maps on the OTA website and the mile-by-mile guide — amazing resources. The guidebook available on Amazon wasn’t useful. It was also written for southbounders, which made their directions difficult to follow. It was fun to page through the guidebook prior to the hike, and if I was section-hiking, the directions to trailheads would have been useful, but otherwise I’d stick with the free OTA maps. And if you do use the maps — donate to the organization. Donate to them no matter what, but especially if their resources make your hike possible.
Nobo vs. sobo: Good luck getting picked up at the southern terminus. Unless you are 100% confident in the navigation ability of whoever is picking you up, it’s just not gonna happen. I would never leave a car at the southern terminus either. Getting picked up at the northern terminus isn’t foolproof either (lots of signage, nothing that says “Onondaga” — see above for the sign your chauffeur should look for) but it’s so much better than the southern end. From a beauty standpoint, you’re fine either way. There are nice views on both Courtois Creek and Eleven Point.
Cell reception: Apparently everyone has reception occasionally… other than Verizon. I have Straight Talk on the Verizon network, so that might make a difference. I started getting reception only on the northern half of Courtois Creek. As a northbounder, that was okay because I was at least able to coordinate pick-up. But if you have Straight Talk Verizon, just tell everyone you love that you’ll be completely off-grid for two weeks. I’ve hiked around 7,000 miles and never wished for a SPOT device except on this trip, just to let folks know I was alive.
Other phones: There’s an unreliable payphone at Sutton Bluff Campground. I was able to use the concessionaire’s phone, but that’s not guaranteed. Brushy Creek Lodge also allowed me to use their phone. I encountered no other opportunity, though I probably could have snooped around Bass Resort and found a phone.
Animals: I used scent-proof bags to store my food in each night. I saw bear scat twice in one day and that was it. I saw a wild pig and two elk. I saw three snakes, but one was on a road. One was in the rocks on a very rocky ascent from a highway underpass – an extremely snakey environment. I heard wild dogs two nights — very dramatically. Not a single encounter was scary. You’ll be fine.
Water: I had a couple bizarre water issues due to strange circumstances, but overall water is plentiful. You have to plan ahead, but there was no waterless stretch that felt burdensome. Almost every water source is crystal-clear and cold. I took water from large puddles sometimes, and it was fantastic water. I used a Steripen but carried iodine as a backup in case the Steripen died. I went through 2 sets of batteries during my two weeks.
Consider what you want from your hike: I loved the Courtois Creek section, but I still suspect it’s overall a better hike to turn south where Middle Fork junctions with Trace Creek. The backpacking couple I met, Robert and Allison, were heading to Taum Sauk — that means they not only got to hike all of Trace Creek section, but the Bell Mountain Wilderness Area and Johnson’s Shut-ins. . . so much cool stuff down that way. Yes, a “thru-hike” goes to Onondaga Trailhead, so if adding “OT” to your resume of alphabet soup* is important, do that. But otherwise. . . consider doing what Robert and Allison planned.
*Confused? I highly recommend Mags’ article on “alphabet soup hiking”
Go for it: It’s a great trail that can be completed with a reasonable amount of vacation time. There are places of magic on the trail. It was where I met the Ozarks. I look forward to returning.
THANK YOU OZARK TRAIL VOLUNTEERS!