Ozark-St. Francis National Forest

If you’re traveling through Arkansas, you should definitely have The Ozark-St Francis National Forest on your ‘stops’ list, because it may just climb to the top of your ‘favorites’ list! From the depths of its lighted caverns to the heights of its pond-spotted plateau, this forest dominates the landscape from the Mississippi River all the way through central and northwest Arkansas, making it easily accessible from anywhere in the state. What do you want to do inside the park? Take your pick; there’s almost too much to choose from.

Basic recreation like camping and fishing is available, but these woods also go above and beyond by providing additional, unique recreation you may not find in other parks.

Endless Waterfall in Ozark-St. Francis National Forest
Endless Waterfall in Ozark-St. Francis National Forest

Recreation in Ozark-St. Francis National Forest

Wouldn’t you like to try horseback camping on Huckleberry Mountain? You read that right: horseback camping. Embark on your trusty steed to explore 37.3 miles of pristine forest trails. The paths follow natural streams for thirsty horses to stay hydrated, so there’s no need to pack extra water. Oh, and a glimpse of some rare wildlife along the sandy banks is very likely. In this exceptionally diverse forest, you can spot everything from bald eagles to alligators! Not to mention several rare and endangered species of bird, bat, and mussel.  

The trails have multiple entry points, and range from easy to strenuous as you climb the plateau. Once you reach any one of the 15 family camping units, you and your travel companions can rest, graze, and stargaze till dawn.

Horseback camping in Ozark-St. Francis National Forest
Horseback camping is a popular activity in Ozark-St. Francis National Forest – Photo by Reiseuhu on Unsplash

Hunting and Fishing

If you are coming to the Ozark-St Francis National Forest with hopes of big game hunting, you’re in luck; this untamed territory hosts black bear, boar, turkey, deer, and elk. There’s also no shortage of small game like rabbit, squirrel, quail, and duck. The fishing game in this park is also pretty strong; with 370 miles of fishing streams plus ponds and lakes, you may catch anything from largemouth bass and bluegill to redear sunfish and flathead catfish.

Cove Lake

By the way, are you free this summer? Stop in between Memorial Day and Labor Day for an unforgettable gathering at Cove Lake, one of 11 swimming beaches where you can find food, mini golf, boat rentals, campsites, and a bathhouse. When beating the heat becomes a priority, you can go chill inside Blanchard Springs Caverns, located 15 miles northwest of Mountain View in the park’s Slyamore District. Guided exploration of these fantastic formations include paved trails with safety rails and good lighting. Tours are also wheelchair and stroller accessible. Looking for a more strenuous underground adventure? Ask a guide to take you through the undeveloped areas of the caves. Here you can climb, crawl, and slide through the beautiful crystalline formations of Blanchard Springs.

Camping

If you would rather kick back around a campfire after a day of swimming or lounging on one of the many natural shores in the park, Ozark-St. Francis offers 320 campsites, 23 developed campgrounds, 200 picnic sites, and 395 miles of walking trails. Could you eventually conquer all 395 miles? One step into this magical forest and the serene, natural experience of The Ozarks will envelop you.

For more information on any of these amazing recreational activities, visit the park homepage here.  

History of Ozark-St. Francis National Forest

As you may have noticed, Ozark and St. Francis are actually two different forests, each with their own topographical differences. In a way, they are one property because they are neighboring forests that share the same administrator in Russellville,  Arkansas. All together, the forests have six different ranger districts spread throughout the region.

The Ozark forest is older than St. Francis by 52 years. Established by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1908, the National Ozark Forest claims 1.2 million acres, while it’s younger sister forest, established in 1960 by President Dwight D. Eisenhower, is one of the country’s smallest national forests at 22,600 acres.

The story of their names is actually quite the fun-fact. Ozark is the American version of two french words squished together; “Aux arcs” means “with bows”. This is a reference to the Native Americans who occupied the land when French explorers came through to map the area.

The St. Francis forest is named for the St. Francis river, a tributary of the Mississippi River that drains through Missouri and Arkansas. Unfortunately, no one knows why or when the river was named. However we do know that it was originally called Francois until it was shortened to Francis in the early 1900s. The St. Francis river can be visited on the eastern border of the park.

Ozark-St. Francis National Forest Ecosystem

We can’t discuss these beautiful woods without mentioning, well, the wood! All that water in the park feeds a thriving hardwood habitat, one of the most developed oak-hickory forests in the United States. According to the park’s official homepage, “Diverse flora in the region includes more than 500 species of trees and woody plants. Hardwoods occupy 65 percent of the forests; the oak-hickory types dominate.” Find more information about tree species here in the About Forests section: Ozark Forest 

Speaking of the ecosystem, while you’re in Ozark-St Francis National Forest, you may just have the glimpse of a lifetime at one of the park’s many rare and endangered species.

Least Terns are a "shorebird" that thrives in Ozark-St. Francis National Forest
Least Terns, the “shorebird” that thrives in Ozark-St. Francis National Forest – Greg Lavaty via  American Bird Conservancy

Interior Least Tern

Sterna antillarum athalassos, or, the Interior Least Tern, is the smallest member of the tern species. Although typically regarded as a seabird, the least tern builds its life far from the ocean. These birds rely on the lakes and rivers in and around the Ozarks. Each winter, these sharp-billed shore birds quit their forest homes in exchange for Caribbean beaches, and then return to the park in spring and summer.

The bird was declared endangered in May of 1985 when fewer than 2,000 adults remained in the wild. This aquatic fowl relies entirely on the banks of major rivers like The Mississippi and The Missouri when they are away from South America. It is here that they build their sandy ground nests and raise their well camouflaged, pebble-colored chicks.

Unfortunately, as human activity around the waters increased with no regard to the fragile birds, they gradually lost their habitat. Eventually only a tiny fraction of the population remained.

Now, are you ready for the good news? Thanks to the efforts of over 30 different groups of conservationists, including federal agencies, universities, and The U.S Army Corps of Engineers, the least tern was officially declared recovered in October of 2019 and subsequently removed from the endangered species list. This not only means that their numbers are up from 2,000 to 18,000 today, but it also means that they are projected to continue thriving well into the future.

Ozark Big-Eared Bat

Do you happen to be a night owl or a stargazer? Do you dislike swarms of insects bugging your campsite? Then you may be more interested in learning about a different endangered species: the Ozark Big-Eared Bat. As you might have guessed, this bat’s adorably cupped ears are huge compared to the rest of its tiny, fuzzy brown and tan body; small enough to fit into a teacup! Despite having a body only about 4 inches long, the wingspan of the Ozark Bat is an impressive 13-14 inches, giving this rare mammal plenty of lift in flight as it dives through the air for insects. You may even spot their tiny silhouettes flitting across the sky above your tent around dusk.

Get Involved

These creatures and their environment, unique to our country’s natural history, may or may not still be here for your grandchildren to see, so here’s how you can help get their numbers back up where they ought to be! Be proud to become a park supporter today by donating time, resources, or funds to any of the following conservation causes:

All in all, whether you want to hop on a horse and completely immerse yourself in nature, go glamping at a freshwater beach, or enjoy some casual mini golf on Memorial Day weekend, everyone stands to gain unforgettable memories at this historic American treasure, the Ozark-St Francis National Forest.

– By Heaven Morrow

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