Riding with the Ozarks Gang

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine

Outside magazine, July 1999

Riding with the Ozarks Gang
Hole up in the mountains of Missouri, and you'll find shady singletrack, languid rivers, and the coolest of caverns

Back in the 1870s, Jesse James often avoided capture by bivouacking in caves that pockmarked the limestone slopes of the Ozark Mountains. These days, hiding out in the Ozarksùespecially if you're armed with an arsenal of backcountry tools like a mountain bike, canoe, and waterproof bootsùcan still be a wild if not necessarily lawless adventure.

The rambling Ozarks cut a broad swath through south-central Missouri and northern Arkansas, petering out in the plains of eastern Oklahoma. A strategic entry point for Missouri's share of the range is the college town of Rolla (the University of Missouri has a campus here), about 100 miles southwest of St. Louis. From here you'll be within striking distance of some of the best mountain biking between the Rockies and the Appalachiansùnot to mention hiking, horseback riding, and fishing in 1.5-million-acre Mark Twain National Forest. (Alas, whitewater is generally not an option, since local rivers tend to be lazy.) The best place to bed down is the Painted Lady (doubles, $80Ï$125; 573-265-5008), a Victorian-style B&B just east of Rolla that's set on 60 hikeable woodland acres.

For 24 miles of undulating singletrack, go to the national forest's nearby Pitosi District, and head out on the Berryman Trail. The loop snakes among 100-foot oak and hickory trees and clings to ridge shoulders above deep green hollows. Make your next ride the Kaintuck Trail, located in the forest's Houston District just west of Rolla. Kaintuck is a roller coaster with an eerie attractionùa 175-foot natural tunnel through a limestone ridge. Follow the trail into the virtual darkness, but beware the shallow pools, slimy boulders, and dripping ceilings.

Farther afield, about 70 miles south of Rolla near the town of Winona, you'll find the Blue Ridge Horse Trail section of the Ozark Trail, a multistage ribbon that covers about 500 miles. An 18-mile, mostly singletrack loop, the Blue Ridge crosses several creeks and tiny springs buzzing with hummingbirds. (Call the Missouri Department of Natural Resources at 800-334-6946 for a free map of bike routes.)

While you're in the area, launch a canoe on the Ozark National Scenic Riverways, 15 miles north of Winona. The two rivers involved, the Current and the Jacks Fork, wind between sheer, multicolored limestone bluffs, beneath caverns and stone shelves, and through the spray of miniwaterfalls. Rentals run $35 a day at Akers Ferry Canoe Rental (800-365-2537).

Then there are the Ozarks' famous caves, many of which, unfortunately, have suffered such ignoble modern-day improvements as paved walkways, fluorescent overheads, and souvenir stands. The best place to spelunk in a natural state is 160 miles south of Rolla in Jasper, Arkansas, the home base of Ozark Ecotours (877-622-5901). Guide Kevin Middleton's favorite outing is a four-hour clamber through Whippoorwill Cave. In the year-round 58-degree chill, you'll crawl through 60-foot-long tunnels, chimney up tight canyon passages, and swim across shallow streams. Keep an eye out for the endangered Ozark blind salamander, which has lived underground so long that it has lost all pigment, its skin tinged pink by the blood underneath. When you finally emerge, thoroughly refrigerated, via the cave's drenching exit route, you'll be grateful for the glaring intensity of the summer sun. ùROB STORY

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