The “mini-mountains” running through Missouri and Arkansas, known for their unique cultural contributions, picturesque landscapes, and rural identity.
My husband grew up spending summer vacations in the little Arkansas Ozark town of Hardy (population 754), canoeing, listening to folk music, and indulging in all-you-can-eat pancakes. His fond memories of summers spent on the Spring River piqued my interest in the non-televised Ozark community.
While it’s kind of an out of the way destination (you caught the “rural identity” mention, right?), we finally found ourselves in the vicinity of Hardy on a recent road trip and made plans to stretch our traveler’s legs in the hills and springs that surround the quaint mountain town.
Welcome to the Ozarks
The drive into Hardy (either direction) is just lovely.
A note to photographers: have your camera ready. While there aren’t many designated overlooks, U.S. Route 63 provides many spectacular views of the foliage-rich Ozark Plateau.
If you’re prone to motion sickness, be sure to load up on Dramamine before entering the hill country. Surprisingly, I don’t get car sick driving through the Rockies, but the Ozark’s did it for me.
On our drive into Hardy, my husband shared some childhood fishing stories and dulcimer playing experiences from his family Ozark vacations. Right as he reminded me, “The Ozark area is has a pretty distinct culture,” we passed an Antique Barn (it’s a barn turned into an antique shop) that was being raided by the DEA and county sheriff’s department. There had to be at least a dozen marked vehicles, along with a good 15 or 20 armed agents and deputies encircling the historic barn.
This was my introduction to the Ozarks.
Downtown Hardy, Arkansas
Downtown Hardy is just darling.
The wide variety of shops, from homemade candy to one-of-a-kind gift shops are beyond charming. We spent a few hours combing through the antique and variety stores, finding so many cute and handmade things that you just can’t find anywhere else.
The food is fantastic, especially the Corner Booth, offering a $2.99 breakfast (yes, you read that right!). They also offer a $5 lunch special which was equally delicious and basically heaven for tightwad travelers like myself. The Artisan Steakhouse and Grill is also really good, along with the Leaves and Beans Café. If you’re itching for something sweet, consider the Vanilla Cowgirl’s mouthwatering ice cream cookie sandwiches. Hungry yet?
Free parking is readily available, and public restrooms are conveniently located right on Main St, so super easy to get around and spend an hour or two.
Move to the Ozarks, Anyone?
Like many other rural communities, Hardy has experienced some population decline over the past few decades. Many of the storefronts my husband’ remembered as thriving shops during the early 90’s showcased “Closed” and “For Sale” signs.
We stopped briefly at a realty office and viewed a few of the farming properties available in the area. A custom built cabin nestled on a hundred acres outside of Hardy goes for half of what a neighborhood home in Johnson County, Kansas currently sells for – talk about getting a bang for your buck!
As a sold-out convert to rural living, I hate seeing small towns decline as businesses and residents move into more urban areas. I wish states like Arkansas would offer some economic incentives to encourage GenXers and Millennials to relocate and headquarter businesses in the area. My current home state of Kansas has a few of these programs, including student loan forgiveness, small business grants, and even free land to entrepreneurial transplants.
Great Plains, Missouri, another Ozark town located just up the way from Hardy, is home to the new Ozarks Small Business Incubator, providing resources and support for new entrepreneurs. While the incubator is relatively new, it was really encouraging to see how many new businesses, from breweries to medical centers, the program had already brought to Great Plains. Maybe Hardy could implement a similar economic development strategy before it turns into yet another rural ghost town.
Exploring Mammoth Spring
The jewel of this region has to be the beautiful Spring River. Originating at Mammoth Spring, the largest natural spring in Arkansas and seventh-largest in the world, the Spring River runs along U.S. route 63, encircling Hardy and feeding (eventually) into the Mighty Mississippi.
There’s a variety of canoe, kayak, and rafting outfitters located in and around Hardy. The Spring River is relatively calm (can paddle both downstream and upstream with relative ease), and fairly shallow (lots of waist-deep areas). The water is brilliant, and fishing commendable. While it was a little chilly for us to set the kayaks in mid-October, my husband’s spent many a summer floating the scenic Spring and is already making plans for a resurgence of the annual Becker Canoe trip in 2018.
We stopped in Mammoth Spring State Park (they have a great Welcome Center) to get some shots of the world-renowned karst spring that put this area on the map. Mammoth Spring flows over nine million gallons of water per hour (yes, you read that right). The bluish water tint is reportedly due to the high levels of nitrogen concentrated near the spring-formed ten-acre lake with an adjacent walking trail.
In 1925, the Arkansas-Missouri Power Company built a hydroelectric plant on the Mammoth Spring dam. The dam supplied power to the surrounding communities until 1972. Today, you can walk across the dam (great for water photos!) and explore the historic plant which is currently non-operational. Additionally, Mammoth Spring State Park is home to an 1886 Frisco train depot and restored caboose.
Sold on the Ozarks
Hardy, Arkansas was a very hospitable Ozark host.
I can’t wait to go back next summer for a long canoe trip. There are numerous river-access cabins available to rent, along with well-maintained camping sites for the RV enthusiast or tent-pitcher. The Spring River is reputed to offer some awesome trout fishing, and I’m all the ample options for down-home cooking.
As a working professional, I spend a lot of time in and around the hustle and bustle of cities (so many PEOPLE!!!!) so finding quiet, secluded, nature-rich places to recharge during my vacation days is a big priority. While the Ozarks don’t get the mountain glory of their big sister, the Rockies, the rolling landscape, refreshing waters, and charming communities are a must-see for the R&R seeking traveler.
Till next year, Hardy!