Where Are the Ozarks?

View of the Ozarks along the Arkansas-Oklahoma border.

The Ozarks are less a collection of “mountains” than they are a highly eroded plateau located in the south-central United States. They mostly straddle the border between southern Missouri and northern Arkansas, but also extend westward into eastern Oklahoma and parts of Kansas. In fact, the Ozarks, bearing a parallelogram in shape when seen from above, are really more of a western extension of the Appalachian Mountains running along the east coast, despite there being at least 250 miles (400 kilometers) of Mississippi River lowlands and rolling hills separating them. Within the Ozarks are several sub-range systems. These include the Saint Francois Mountains in Missouri, the White River Hills, the Osage Gasconade Hills, the Courtois Hills, and the Boston Mountains in Arkansas, which contain the highest summits in the Ozarks. While some areas of the plateau contain small patches of farmland, most of the landscape remains heavily forested, while several of the rivers are recreational hot-spots. Numerous caves abound beneath the entire system, formed due to the heavy erosion of rock layers directly beneath the top layers.

Origin of the Name

The name “Ozark” is believed to have derived from a warped French abbreviation “aux Arc”, short for “aux Arkansas”, which may have been a reference to the numerous arches found around the plateau. When settlers first arrived to the New World along the present U.S. East Coast, they were told about vast, towering mountains ranges lying to the west, only to be mildly unimpressed with the Appalachians and the Ozarks. Back during the time of the Westward Expansion movement, the Ozarks were ideal in every aspect. They provided plenty of arable land between ridges or along the rivers, as well as timber for homes and firewood, and abundant game to feed the settlers. The Ozarks and Southern Appalachia largely managed to avoid the urbanization that occurred around the Great Lakes due to the Southern Appalachians and Ozarks being largely impassable until cars were invented and paved roads were built through them. Today, because access was limited in the past, the area continues to bear a cultural distinction of its own. 

Habitat and Biodiversity 

Because the Appalachians and Ozarks are more or less the same mountain system, they share the same humid continental climate, with broad-leaf trees dominating each of their respective forests. Animal life in the region includes Fox squirrels, elk, Bald eagles, wild turkeys, Great Horned owls, and Ozark caterpillars (pictured above). The latter is especially distinctive for its yellow and black stripes, and is a larval precursor to the Ozark swallowtail butterfly.

Environmental Threats 

The lack of widespread urbanization in the Ozarks, and land conservation efforts over the last century, has allowed for abundant recreational opportunities. Notable recreations spots include the Buffalo National River in Arkansas, the Ozark National Forest, and Branson, a country music resort town in southern Missouri. However, the Ozarks, being spacious, have recently seen a great increase in human populations, which are increasingly encroaching upon its natural habitats. Lead and zinc occur in high concentrations and have been mined extensively in the region since the early 1800s, which was strongly opposed by the Shawnee indigenous people. 

Environmental Threats and Territorial Disputes


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