The Ozarks

The area in the United States between the Appalachians and the Rockies typically garners a reputation of being flat, low, and bland. Glaciers did a wonderful job of leveling the center of the country, but anyone who’s been to the Arikaree Breaks in Kansas knows it’s not flat like an ice rink. “Low” is a relative word. Nebraska’s average height – 2604 feet – comes in just beneath California and just above Washington, while blowing out everything to the east. Blandness, though, is certainly a personal concept and many people find the rolling contours of the middle portions of the continent to be tedious.

Still, the central zones do contain a few spots known for being high. In fact, the United States Geological Survey designates one physiographic region of the country as the U.S. Interior Highlands. This region spans parts of four states: southern Missouri, northern Arkansas, eastern Oklahoma, and a tiny piece of the southwestern corner of Kansas. Two subsets comprise the Interior Highlands, the Ozarks and the Ouachita Mountains.

The Highlands are some of the only mountainous areas between the famed chains of the Appalachians and the Rockies.

Elevation changes of the U.S. Interior Highlands - graphic by Jason Ronza

The Ozarks run from Arkansas in the south to Missouri in the north. We often refer to the province as the Ozark Mountains, but that moniker is technically incorrect. Most of the land that constitutes the Ozarks is actually a plateau. Specifically, most of it is a dissected plateau.

Geologically, mountains are created by orogenies. These violent events cause uplifts, which also usually fold the rocks. The classic, fractal mountain look comes from orogenies smashing and bashing rocks. Tectonic activity and vulcanism cause most of these mountain-building affairs. The origin of plateaus can sometimes be a bit confusing because they can be caused by orogenies, too. An orogeny uplifted the Ozarks, but it did not create the elevation differences between the apexes and the valleys*. The relief in dissected plateaus arrives thanks to erosion, not mountain building. So, the plateau was lifted by tectonics but then the “mountains” of the region were carved by rivers working downward. Many of the high spots of the Ozarks – as with most dissected plateaus – are close to the same elevation because they were all just part of a relatively flat zone, which was etched over the eons by waters. Note the asterisk in the sentence above; we’ll come back to a special part of the Ozarks in the future!

Geologists break the Ozarks into four regions. The Boston Mountains line the southern portion, traversing Arkansas and Oklahoma; the Springfield Plateau and the Salem Plateau stretch into Missouri; the Salem Plateau completely encircles the Saint Francois Mountains. The highest spot in the Ozarks lies in the Boston Mountains, where the Buffalo Lookout reaches 2,561 feet above sea level.

Overview of physiographic sections of the Ozarks - graphic by Tosborn
Elevation map of the Ozarks - graphic by Tosborn

Like many places in the greater region, the etymology of the word “Ozarks” likely derives from the vast French influence in the days of European exploration. The leading theory originates from the French term aux Arcansas. Literally, this phrase translates to “of Arcansas” or “at Arcansas” or “to Arcansas.” The “Arcansas” part refers to the Arkansas River. In the first half of the 18th century, aux Arcansas denoted a specific trading post near the confluence of the Arkansas and Mississippi Rivers. Locals shortened the term to “aux Arcs”, which became an English toponym for entire area: Ozarks.

Other possibilities float around. One involves cartographers, who called the largest arc, or bend, of the Arkansas River “aux arcs.” Another relates to literal arcs. Natural bridges in the rock could have lent their name to the whole region. Some believe the shortening “aux arcs” comes from aux arcs-en-ciel, which translates to “toward the rainbows.” 

Roark Bluff on the Buffalo National River - photo by OakleyOriginals

The interaction between rock and water defines the Ozarks.

One of Missouri’s nicknames is “The Cave State,” thanks to the extensive karst systems in the Ozarks. Caves, sinkholes, and wonderfully carved stones appear abundantly. Missouri features 7,300 known caves, which is second when it comes to the states, after only Tennessee.

Starting in the early 20th century, the Army Corps of Engineers began to dam many of the larger rivers of the Ozarks, which created a slew of sizable lakes. Lake of the Ozarks, Pomme de Terre Lake, and Truman Lake attract visitors in droves.

Top elevations of the mountains usually remain below the tree line, which means views do not often open at acmes. However, the Ozarks are full of glades, which are rocky areas that do not hold soil. These spots often appear more like deserts than the forests that surround them. Not only do they draw all sorts of lizards and snakes, but they offer humans glorious viewpoints of the Ozarks.

Devil's Tollgate, a rock formation in the Ozarks - photo by Kyle Stout

The region’s natural beauty and its human culture have seeped into a plethora of artistic projects.

The classic 1961 children’s novel Where the Red Fern Grows took place in the Ozarks. The famous 1960s and 70s television show The Beverly Hillbillies chronicles a family from the Ozarks moving to California. Contemporary consumers of media might be more familiar with the equation working in reverse. In the Netflix program Ozark, a family relocates to Missouri from Chicago. The novel Winter’s Bone and its subsequent film adaptation transpire in the highlands.

Human culture in the region has reached a status of ubiquity, along the lines of Appalachian culture. The Ozarks have developed architectures, dialects, music, and religions unique to the territory.

The Ozarks might not be proper mountains, but these highlands pack plenty of resplendence for the nature lover. In our next investigation, we’ll learn how some parts of the Ozarks actually can claim to be bona fide mountains. Really, really, really ancient mountains. Remember the asterisk?

Further Reading and Exploration

Ozark Plateau National Wildlife Refuge – U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Ozark Mountain Region – Official Tourism Website

Ozark Mountains – Encyclopedia of Arkansas

Ozark Plateau – Peakbagger

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