Every hiking season has its pluses and minuses. In the spring, green takes on a special beauty, especially after winter's monochromes, but it tends to rain a lot. Summer days go on forever, but Missouri can be beastly hot. If there's a perfect season, it's autumm, but usually it isn't cold enough to shut down the chiggers.

Winter may be the best hiking season of the year in the Ozarks. We usually have long stretches of tolerable temperatures--highs in the 40's and 50's, cool enough to justify a jacket, but not really cold enough for mittens. This winter has been so warm that I have yet to dig out my long johns.

Of course, maybe I like winter hiking so much because I get out so little. Most winter days, I see an hour of sun in the morning on the way to work, and (if it isn't too close to the solstice) another hour on the way home. Maybe it's just cabin fever.

Winter brings a lot of clear, bright days. I seem to spend half my time looking up at the sky, fascinated by the skeletal forms of winter vegetation against a perfectly clear sky. And the winter light seems to have a unique quality. It seems chromatically cooler, perhaps because the sun is lower and the light slants in at an angle, or perhaps because there's so little color to the landscape. The green of pines or moss really seems electric against the grays and tans of the winter forest.

At Young CA, I was especially taken by the tall grass in the old pasture next to the parking lot. In the middle of summer, it's almost surely an uncomfortably hot stretch of trail, and I image that hikers (if there are any in summer) hurry past the field's tall grasses and into the shade of the woods.

But in winter, it's pleasant to look closely at the same field, to linger over the variety of plants and the obvious signs left by deer moving through the tall grass, and to imagine what the field must be like in spring and summer, when it's in bloom.

Ozark weather seems to be a push-pull between the warm, humid Gulf of Mexico to the southeast and the cold, dry plains of Canada to the northwest. The typical pattern is for Gulf air to push up to the Ozarks, bringing warmer temperatures and clouds, and then for Canadian air to push down, bringing colder temperatures and clear, bright days. When the boundary between the two passes overhead, rain or snow results. The cycle goes on, back and forth, all winter, until the sun heats up the Gulf in spring, and hot and humid weather dominates.

It makes for interesting hiking. It's not unusual to catch a day when a front has passed, bringing a bit of snow. On such days, if the cold front isn't all that cold, the sun will warm things up nicely during the afternoon, melting the snow, except on shaded areas and north-facing slopes. I caught such a day when I went to Young CA. It's always novel to be walking around comfortably, wearing jeans and a sweater, and to happen across snow on the ground.

Last February, I made it down to St Francois State Park in similar conditions, except that the preceeding snowfall had been much heavier, and the day was warmer. All of the north-facing slopes were solid, unbroken, crusted snow. South-facing slopes and ridgetops were clear and dry. And it was warm enough that I hiked in a t-shirt, in February!

From the point of view of the hiker, there isn't "one" Ozarks, or even "the" Ozarks. It can be quite different from place to place. Sometimes that's hard to see, especially since we're makers of generalizations and abstractors of experience. Hiking in all seasons breaks down such generalizations pretty quickly, since the winter Ozarks are so very different from the summer Ozarks.