Fast Packing the Ozark Highland Trail

By Clay Shapiro & John Meaney


I got my first taste of backpacking and back country over 20 years ago.  Many of my first experiences were in North Georgia where the Appalachian Trail starts near Amicalola Falls.  I’ve hiked Blood Mountain, the Tallulah River Gorge, the Taccoa wilderness and numerous other wild and scenic areas in those mountains.  What appealed to me?  I enjoyed the simplicity and purity of minimalist camping, going out with everything on my back.  I found the lack of comforts created a challenge that focused my thoughts, gave me a puzzle to solve so-to-speak.  Even today ‘fast-packing’, a merger of trail running & backpacking, is still a nascent sport and experienced trekkers have to figure out their own gear and survival needs unique to the adventure and goals of the trip.  

Ozark Highlands Trail

With my love of fast-packing as an ambition, my next task was to line up similar aspiring trekkers. I found a group of such adventurers about 3 years ago when John Meaney, Rhett Smith and Drew Sams, and I did a short fast pack through a portion of the Ozark Highlands Trail (OHT) .  I was surprised at the elevation gains in those mountains, still a short 4 hour drive from North Texas.  The Ozarks offered just the right amount of convenience and challenge.  The trail roams over 200 miles through parts of seven counties in northwest Arkansas. It stretches from Lake Fort Smith State Park in the west, across the Ozark National Forest, to the Buffalo National River on the eastern boundary. The trail passes through some of the most remote and scenic portions of the Ozark Mountains, like the Hurricane Creek Wilderness Area. It also crosses White Rock Mountain, Hare Mountain, the Marinoni Scenic Area, and many other scenic spots.

October 2021

John Meaney is a fellow ultrarunner and reliable trip leader.  John has completed 100 mile trail races on wild and scenic courses out in Colorado and Virginia.  After years of considering how to return to the Ozarks for an extended trip, it finally all came together this fall.  John and I planned to hike from Lake Fort Smith to Willham Ford at the Buffalo River.  We did some research and made some calls to find a guide, Ron Ferguson, who provides shuttle services to hikers in the area.  Ron’s family literally wrote the guidebook on the Ozark Highlands and as a retiree, Ron enjoys running his services to meet new people and to enjoy the area.  Ron met us at the Tyler Bend camping area on the eastern end of the Ozark Highlands and offered us a shuttle all the way back to the start at Lake Fort Smith.  It was a mini road trip and the hours gave us time to swap stories of the trail and to learn more from Ron.  He had one concerning story about a pair who left their car at the wrong place near the Buffalo River only to find it washed away by heavy runs and unexpected flooding.  It was Saturday Oct 23rd, John checked his iPhone weather app, and the forecast was for storms, wind and heavy rain; it was already paying off to have Ron’s expertise and advice, even before we had the first step on the trail.

Day 1 – Saturday

After setting the long shuttle, John & I bid farewell to Ron, agreeing to be in touch again in five days to confirm that we had arrived at the other end of the trail to our vehicle.  Ron had some business up in Rogers and the recent forecast had washed out his plans to go fishing.  “I may just get a start on clearing some of my property and splitting firewood for the winter”, Ron offered.  “Y’all have a safe hike”, he beckoned as he pulled up the road in his late model Chevy Tahoe.  

John and I knocked out 18 miles and arrived at our first camp at White Rock Mountain.  The camp is at elevation, appropriate if we were truly to be ‘highland’ hikers.  John noticed that the stone construction of the cabins dated back to the days of the Civilian Conservation Corps of a century ago.  Their rustic architecture added to the experience and we used our jet boil stoves to turn our light and dehydrated meal into some soul-satisfying chili and cheese.  A beer would have been welcome but there’s nothing fast about running with canned beers so that would have to wait for the finish.  

Day 2 – Sunday

While John and I broke camp on Sunday morning, we took note of the landscape and weather.  We could see downed trees and deadfall along the early miles and we encountered a major landslide that whipped out the trail.  We did some off-course navigation and bush-whacking all of which took a big bite out of our planned mileage for the day.  We ended up covering about 18 miles when the plan had been to do twice that number.  Like with ultrarunning, fast packing requires flexibility and adaption to the conditions and problems at hand.  It had also been a rainy day, we were hiking across the ridges and peaks further exposing us to the harsh elements.  And we were having to go on-and-off trail to make our way.  Our journey had taken us through The Narrows and Pilot Knob elevation 2333 feet and the last few miles had brought us out of the higher elevations down into the valley near Arkansas highway 23.  We decided to make camp at Cherry Bend recreational area and we set up for the night and try and stay dry.  We had covered some 37 miles since our start and our fatigue overwhelmed the lack of comforts and we quickly drifted off to sleep to the pitter-patter of steady rain. 

Day 3 – Monday

After sleeping on it and having a logistics discussion over breakfast, John and I made the call to change our goal.  The trail and weather conditions were going to continue as they had the prior day and our ambition to cross the entire trail required near perfect conditions and a near perfect performance from us.  John and I had some healthy debate about whether this change in plans was a failure for our trip.  I’ll admit, it felt a bit that way to me too.  And this is where one of the lessons of the trail came into play… trusting your partner and having good communication.  Out on a fast packing trip, you play with less margins.  Having all the right gear and equipment adds the very real cost of weight and struggle to your backpack.  Being effective requires some trade offs and cutting away at that safety margin.  A good partner is not only there to be your friend on the trail but also to be a source of support and safety.  John & I knew without question that we could not split up and pursue different goals – we had to align on a new plan and we settled to reduce our trip to covering 85 miles.  Thus relieved of the pressure to hit a challenging and dangerous full distance goal, we could drop back and enjoy the trail a bit more and surprisingly we found more opportunity to do some running, dropping into Wolf Pen Hollow Camping area some 20 miles later.  Our route had taken us back up to elevations at Fly Gap and Spy Rock and was one of the best days for photos.  I particularly enjoyed grabbing some shots of the sunset over the western ridges of the Ozark Highlands where many miles beyond the great plains give rise and carry out hundreds of miles until they reach another of my favorite areas, the front range of the Rocky Mountains.

Day 4 – Tuesday

Our last aggressive day, John and I needed to cover a marathon of distance to reach our desired end-of-day way point.  We had called Ron Ferguson to set the shuttle to our car at the Buffalo River for the next day.  Ron acquiesced and was glad to have an excuse to split from his wood splitting endeavors.  John & I met other characters on the trail that day, through-hikers coming from the opposite direction on the trail.  Derek, or ‘Bear Magnet’ as we learned his trail name to be, and Mike were exploring the area and had impressive resumes of hiking large sections of the Appalachian trail.  I shared my own story of running up on a Black Bear during one of my trail runs out at Jackson Hole, WY.  From that one encounter, I had a lifetime of motivation to use Bear bags and stow ‘smellables’ well away from camp.  Bears are like people you may meet, some are cordial, some are ornery.  Fortunately Bear Magnet and Swig, as we learned was Mike’s trail name, were some of the best company you’ll ever find on the trail, good story tellers, purveyors of trail advice and experts who demonstrated that margins of safety and enjoyment also come from good thinking, not just from having the best gear and stuff.  We all camped at what would be the final bivouac for John and me – Ozone Camping and Recreation area in Ozone AR no less.  

Day 5 – Wednesday

Our final day was all logistics and back to civilization.  Ron met us on schedule and we had about a 90 minute ride out to the Buffalo River Scenic area where we rendez-vous’ed with John’s GMC Denali Pick-up truck.  While John and I were winding down and returning to civilization, we still had the stories and the memories fresh on our minds.  It’s a lot like a good road race or trail run….long after the event you can look at your tracker apps, review your data, scan your photos, and return over-and-over again in your mind.  When I go back over those memories, it’s no longer Clay Shapiro and John Meaney out there… it’s our alter ego trail characters on the loose.  And did you catch my trail name or John’s?  Well, the last secret of the trail is that you have to get out on a trail with us before we’ll cough them up!

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