Eager to find a new sort of ground to cover, we turned our attention to the St. Francois Mountain area for our Spring Break trip. The St. Francois Mountains are an ancient granite mountain range that stands, literally, as an island in the limestone and dolomite former sea beds that are the Ozarks Plateau. Instead of the usual tan and white Ozarks rocks, this region is strewn with boulders and rocks of maroon rhyolite and pink granite. These hard igneous rocks were formed in a completely different manner, and weather differently to the sedimentary rocks found elsewhere giving rise to much different scenery than the rest of the Ozarks.
Day 1, Getting to Bell Mountain Wilderness
The children typically spend Spring Break with their father so that means we need to get them to the train station in St. Louis and then pick them back up a week later. With the price of gas being what it is and with the itch for the outdoors being what it is, we like to turn Spring Break into a backpacking trip. Last year we hiked the Berryman Trail.
The original plan was to car camp at Meramec State Park the first night so we could take our time in St. Louis (REI was calling) and not have to pitch the tent in the dark. But the forecast for later in the week was looking grim with lots of rain expected and we didn’t want to waste half of our second day driving. So we opted to head straight to Bell Mountain Wilderness in Iron County, and camp at the trailhead. We had no idea if there would be a campsite there, but Wildernesses, in our experience, typically do. As we left St. Louis the rain began and it rained heavily until we were quite near Potosi. Then suddenly the clouds parted, the temperature went up 15 degrees, and the ground was dry.
It was a pretty drive with the late afternoon sun lighting up the newly green pastures. We found the north trailhead of Bell Mountain Wilderness without incident. The gravel road to the trailhead was well maintained and easy going. However, there was only a small parking area and no place to camp. We had another hour until sundown so we decided to load up the packs with two days’ supplies and head out onto the trail. We figured we’d find a flat spot soon enough and set up camp for the night. The only problem was there was a storm brewing overhead complete with lightning, and we were on a ridge. I did not like this. We hiked pretty darned fast southward on the trail, hoping at we’d find a site to pitch the tent.
We didn’t get rained on and we didn’t find a site until nearly three miles in when we started down the main loop in the center of the Wilderness. It wasn’t perfect but it was good enough. We pitched the tent by the light of our headlamps and had a lovely dinner. As usual we slept like logs. It always feels so good to get out in our tents after we’ve not camped for a while. (“A while” being three weeks as our last trip was to Truman Reservoir in February.)
Day 2 Bell Mountain Wilderness
The day started warm and breaking camp worked up a sweat. In all our wandering around in the dark trying to find a flat spot for the tent the night before, we had inadvertently finished up a bit closer to the trail than we typically like. As I was taking down the tent we saw hikers going down the trail which was a mere 50 feet away. Oops.
We continued down the hill and for some reason my feet were killing me. I staggered and stumbled as the trail descended into Joe’s Creek. It was a wide, forested creek drainage and that meant lots of wildflowers that I had to stop to take pictures of. Just before the trail rounded a corner and went up another creek, we found an area that looked to be a former homestead. Others have obviously found this area to be nice as there were two fire rings where people pitch camps.
Before we left the creek, we stopped to fill up with water. Then we started the 400 ft climb to the ridge of Bell Mountain itself. As we’d done little hiking or backpacking over the last couple months, we were sorely out of shape and really felt the climb. We had to stop every 50 feet and catch our breath. The view was incredible, though. I do love hiking in the hills when there are no leaves on the trees. We could also see the substantial damage to the trees from the 2010 Derecho wind event. The trails are clear, though, and it gave tired old me lots of good logs to rest on as we went up the hill.
Near the top of the ridge we found our first exposure to the granite boulders that the St. Francois mountains are known for. I was surprised to find them to be a dark maroon color, not at all like the gray granite I was expecting. The rocks, however, appear gray because they’re covered with lichens of all sorts.
Once on the ridge, the trail became smooth and flat and easy. We saw evidence of recent horse traffic but the trails didn’t show as much horse wear and tear as we’re used to in southern Missouri. The view on either side of the ridge was great. Soon we began the last climb to the top of Bell Mountain at 1702 feet. There was a large and bare fire ring and campsite at the summit but it looked a bit too dirty for my taste. We checked with the weather radio for the forecast and decided to carry on and go down the mountain.
Before that, though, we checked out the igneous glades to the east of the summit and the incredible, incredible view. Gary was surprised to see how big the Taum Sauk Reservoir is. We could hear voices and children and found that a couple of families had camped just north of the summit. They had just returned from a bushwhack down the 700 ft mountainside to Shut-In Creek below. On the way back they’d seen a big rattlesnake with 11 segments on its rattle.
We continued down the hill, marveling at the 25 foot boulders strewn on the hill. The trees were short and stunted, the bark was gray, the boulders were gray, it had a surreal and otherworldly feel. Gary asked me, jokingly, if I had the change in scenery that I had been seeking. I had. It was wonderful. At some point going down the hill, though, I got myself turned around (which never happens) and was convinced we were going in a direction that the sun, the map, and the GPS all told me was incorrect. Oh well. I accepted that I sometimes make mistakes. But even now, that part of the trail feels turned around in my head. I guess this just goes to show you that you must always hike with a map and a compass, even if you’re experienced, because you can get mentally turned around.
We could see on the topo map that there was a good flat area to camp ahead so we headed there. We had a nice evening sitting in our chairs on the flat rocks of a glade. I was shocked to see evidence of a campfire on these rocks. You should never, ever camp on a glade as it’s a fragile environment that doesn’t recover quickly from human damage. We saw some wild turkeys and heard some owls. And just as the sun was setting I could see a bright light in the western sky. I assumed it was sunlight reflecting on an airplane. No, it was Venus. And the sun was not yet down. How odd.
Day 3 Hiking out of the wilderness and where to go next?
We woke to another perfect and unseasonably warm sunny day. The trip back to the trailhead was uneventful. The trail surface is very easy going throughout this wilderness with none of the large rocks and difficult footing that we often see in the western part of the Ozarks. On the way out we passed what appeared to be a very old pile of trash. Later we checked the cans online and reckon they are from the seventies, which shows how long discarded trash can stay in the environment. The simple lesson is -Pack it out.
We were out of water and thinking of how good a swim in a creek would feel. The map told me that the western trailhead of Bell Mountain Wilderness was near a creek. And sure enough, it was. So we sneaked off down behind the bushes to the creek and dove in. Nothing feels quite so good as a clean body after a backpacking trip. Even if the water was (insert expletives) freezing. By the way, we never use soap in waterways. Soap has an adverse effect on fish’s gills and the environment in general. We rinsed our clothes in the water and hung them up to dry. We backpack with quick-drying nylon clothes, so this only took a few minutes while we ate our lunch in the parking lot at the trailhead.
The weather story underlying all our decisions on this trip was a cut-off low pressure system sitting over Kansas and western Missouri. Each day the forecast would call for the system to come eastward and put an end to our good weather with heavy rains. While we don’t mind camping in the rain, we don’t want to be in a situation where we’re behind creeks in heavy rain. At first we expected we’d stay at Johnson’s Shut-Ins State Park for a couple of nights but now we found the forecast had put off the storm system another day and we could still make another day backpacking. But where? The day was getting late. We wanted to get somewhere and get camp set up before it was dark. We’re too old and too unsteady to relish climbing over granite boulders in the dark. Some things are just dumb.
We had a few limited maps I’d printed off and a couple of jpegs saved on our netbook but really no idea about what the area held except for the Wildernesses and State Parks. Signs for camping almost always mean commercial RV sites. We threw caution to the wind and drove 50 miles to Rock Pile Mountain Wilderness. We do like our wildernesses, and that’s a story for another day.