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Ozarks Trail Provides Wilderness Feel

By: Brent Frazee, McClatchy Newspapers

BENNETT SPRING, Mo. (MCT) - When people think of Bennett Spring State Park, most envision crowds of fishermen, full campgrounds and plenty of activity.

They don't picture the world that Dana Hoisington visited.

He was hiking the Natural Tunnel Trail at the state park, where he works as a naturalist. And as usual, he had some of the Ozarks' most striking scenery almost to himself.

"Bennett Spring is a great park for fishermen," Hoisington said. "But it's also a great place for people who just want to get away from it all.

"This trail gives people a chance to get away from the hustle and bustle of the park. It has a wilderness feel to it.

"It can get rugged in spots. And with this trail being 7 ½ miles long, it's not for everybody. We tell people to allow four hours if they want to hike the whole trail.

"But in my opinion, it's worth the work. This trail gives people a true look at Ozarks terrain."

As he spoke, Hoisington enjoyed some of the rewards of a long hike.

He paused to admire minibluffs and rocky outcroppings. He poked around in what he called "pocket caves" - small openings in rock walls that go back only a short way. And he crossed seemingly dry stream beds that he terms "losing streams."

"Some of these streams look dry, but they actually are flowing below the gravel," he said. "There will be a stretch with water, then it will get lost underground.

"We could dig down a foot in some of these places and find water."

Hoisington also stopped to admire bright wildflowers, thick forest that formed a canopy over the path and steep ridges.

But the best didn't come until last. When he climbed down a steep hill, he was greeted by one of Missouri's geological wonders, the Natural Tunnel.

"At one time, this was a cave," Hoisington said. "But over the years, water eroded the rock until it created an opening at the other side.

"Now it's an S-shaped tunnel with a small stream running through it."

Hoisington scrambled down some boulders to the mouth of the tunnel, then began hiking along the gravel banks of the stream. One turn, and he was in darkness.

"Let's stop here and give our eyes a chance to adjust," he said.

A few minutes later, he was picking his way through the rocks until he finally saw a shaft of light cutting through the opening at the far end of the tunnel.

Once he climbed out, he paused under an overhang and admired the beauty of the stream that flowed through the tunnel.

"A couple weeks ago, we had some flooding and the water was 3 feet deep in some of these streams," Hoisington said. "But look at them now. They're almost dry.

"That's the thing about a lot of these Ozarks streams. They'll rise quickly, but they'll fall just as quickly."

That trail is just one of many that hikers can follow to explore the beauty of Bennett Spring country. The state park has seven trails, ranging in length from one-third of a mile to the 7 ½ -mile Natural Tunnel Trail.

Some lead hikers along the popular trout stream. Others go into hickory-oak forests. Still others go to scenic savannahs where bright-colored wildflowers add color to the landscape.

Rocky outcroppings, bluffs and geological formations are common, as are steep, wooded hillsides.

The trails are at their best in the spring, when redbuds and dogwoods are blooming, and fall, when the leaves are turning. But they get year-round use.

Some hikers look forward to winter days, when a fresh layer of snow blankets the woods and icicles hang from the rock formations.

Hoisington is one of many who loves to hike into the middle of that Ozarks beauty.

He was brought up in an outdoors setting and learned at an early age to appreciate the wild world.

"We were always bringing in something as a pet - turtles, frogs, crawdads, minnows," he said with a laugh. "My mom was pretty understanding, unless it was a sna ke.

"I think my parents were just happy that we enjoyed the outdoors."

After college, Hoisington began working at Bennett Spring State Park as a seasonal worker and later became a full-time naturalist. Today, he lives on six acres north of Lebanon, and has a hiking trail and small pond on his land, which gives him ample opportunity to see deer, turkeys, foxes and other wildlife.

But he is equally at home at Bennett Spring State Park, where he is surrounded by the beauty of the Ozarks.

"This state park really has something for everybody," he said. "I just love it here."


© 2008, The Kansas City Star.
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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