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

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.

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.”

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.

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