This post continues a mini-series on the Ouachitas and Ozarks that I started last Friday. Check out Part I before reading this one.
HOW THE OZARKS CAME TO BE
So let’s continue with the geology of the Ozarks. If you’ve been to other places in the world with a lot of limestone caves, and if you’re observant, you’ll recognize a distinct type of terrain in the Ozarks: karst topography. Karst is made up of steep but not very high mountains. Most all karst lies in lower latitudes, so it tends to be forested. Caves, sinkholes and underground rivers are very common in this kind of terrain. You may at first glance find it hard to recognize karst in the Ozarks. But because of their great age, the karst here is more subtle than that of, for example, the Malay Peninsula or southwestern China.
Still, karst topography anywhere is not easily missed. In the middle Paleozoic Era, some 350 to 450 million years ago, the Ozarks were what geologists call a carbonate platform, a sandy seafloor interrupted occasionally by shallow reefs. But “carbonate platform” is too dry a term for me. It was in fact a warm, tropical sea, filled with marine life and dotted with islands. To put it even more simply, it was one of the many pre-human paradises that have existed on Earth.
Like today, the marine life was dominated by tiny planktonic (free floating) organisms. But there was also a very abundant sessile community (seafloor-dwellers like clams, etc.). Finally there were free swimmers like early fish and many squid-like creatures. Early sharks, which came in a variety of weird forms, patrolled the waters.
Most of the life in that ancient sea made their shells out of calcium carbonate, pulling CO2 out of the seawater and in the process helping to keep the world from warming up too much. When these little critters died they drifted down and accumulated on the sea floor. The limy sediment piled up, later to form limestone rock thousands of feet thick. The world’s largest lead-zinc mines occur in the Ozarks in what’s called the Viburnum Trend. Abundant lead and zinc occurs characteristically in thick stacks of limestone.
While the Ouachita Orogeny buckled and broke the land to the south, thrusting up high mountains, here in the Ozarks it simply lifted the carbonate platform straight up into a shallow dome-like plateau. (It also lifted up the entire southern part of the Great Plains.) When the limestone was lifted, it began to be subjected to the effects of a groundwater.
The water table is always changing with time. In wetter climates the limestone bedrock lay submerged in mildly acidic groundwater, which slowly enlarges fractures, dissolving out cavities. In drier times the rock was above water table. This is when familiar features like stalactites and stalagmites would form. The evolution of caverns only halts when erosion of the land above reaches them and they dry out. But without these often well-hidden openings, the Ozarks wouldn’t be one of the best places to go caving in North America.
As in much of the U.S., renting a car is the only realistic way to see much. A regular two-wheel-drive sedan will do fine in this part of the country. Flying in you can try to get a relatively cheap flight to Fayetteville or Little Rock, Arkansas. Oklahoma City (4-5 hours by car) or Dallas (7 hours to the Ozarks, 4 to the Ouachitas) are also options.
Often when you’re looking at exploring a region, you can save money by flying relatively cheaply to a town that relies on tourism. There’s a good chance you’ll be able to score a cheap rental car too, then you can skip town and drive to your preferred (less touristy) destination. It works well as long as your tourist-town gateway isn’t too far from where you’re going. Las Vegas, only a few hours away from Zion National Park, is a good example.
For the Ozarks, try looking into the town of Branson, Missouri. Lying smack dab in the Missouri Ozarks, Branson has gambling and country music and you either love it or hate it. You might be able to get good flight and rental car deals to and from Branson. A flight to Dallas will still probably be cheaper, but remember to factor in gas and time when making a decision. For the Ouachitas, try Hot Springs, Arkansas. It isn’t as hot a tourist destination, but there’s a National Park.
Once you arrive and have transport, there are numerous potential base-towns that offer anything you may need, plus a great diversity of lodging. A couple larger ones are Hot Springs, Arkansas (home town of former president Bill Clinton) and Fayetteville, AR (home of the Razorbacks – college football is big in this area). Small towns are quite numerous, and fairly cheap motel rooms can be had in most of them.
Camping is possible in the Ouachita National Forest. Simple and basic as always, National Forest campsites here are often located beside lakes stocked with fish. Good state parks can also be found. Magazine Mountain State Park in Arkansas hosts an excellent state park with great hiking trails, camping and a beautiful lodge with outstanding views.
I went to Magazine Mountain because it was the highest peak in the Ouachitas. While you can hike a short trail to the summit, trees prevent much of a view. What you will see up there is an amazingly large map of Arkansas made of stone! Better views are found along the ridge-lines leading from the summit. A few miles south of the turnoff to the lodge, along Hwy. 309, a small scenic overlook beckons you to stop. From here you can walk the trail a hundred yards or more for even better natural stone viewing platforms.
A large picnic area off the east side of the road just uphill from the overlook makes a good place to eat lunch, and is also a good spot from which to go hiking. The lodge at Mt. Magazine is on a side road that takes off west of Hwy. 309. At this intersection there’s a small but nice visitor center. Stop and learn something of the local plant and animal life, get maps and hiking tips, and fill up a water bottle. The lodge is pretty luxurious. I don’t know the prices and they’re not listed on the web, but Google them and call or email. There are cabins, rooms and suites, all with splendid views. A restaurant that serves good basic meals is onsite as well.
The Benefield Loop, Bear Hollow and North Rim trails have the best views at Mt. Magazine. Don’t forget the camera; you’ll have many photo opportunities at both large and small scales. The sandstone here is harder and more resistant to erosion than surrounding shale, so it stands up, forming stunning overlooks (see above). It’s tempting to put a friend/subject/victim out on one of these and photograph them looking heroic.
The rock outcrops also host very interesting lichen and moss, and in summertime beautiful wildflowers spring from its crevices. You may find your macro lens getting a good workout at Mt. Magazine. Keep an eye out for deer on the roads of course, and watch for snakes too, especially as it warms up in spring. There are venomous (but not deadly) copperheads here.
I best leave it there. The next installment will highlight some of the region’s cultural history and describe a few nice spots to visit and photograph in the Ouachitas and Ozarks.