I last camped near here in May 2021 on my first hike of the North Fork loop of the Ridge Runner Trail. Then the leaves were out, it was warm, and I deliberately missed a large section of the trail in order to explore Steam Mill Hollow.
On this trip the views should be unobstructed by foliage, I was going to stick to the official trail and the forecast was chillier, with a predicted low of 31℉. The North Fork Loop of the Ridge Runner Trail is lightly used. This means that with its covering of fallen leaves, the lack of traffic to maintain a clear path will make it challenging to follow in places.
- Day One — Hike in and camp near my previous campsite off the Ozark Trail. There’s no water (there is a stock pond but as a rule I don’t like drinking water from stock ponds) so I’d be carrying a lot of water, around 4 liters – 8.8lbs.
- Day Two — See how far around the trail I could get while taking it easy and probably camp near where I camped on the second day of my Ridge Runner Trail Hike in 2021.
- Day Three — Try and find the elusive trail that leads to the North Fork Recreation Area, and from there into the Devil’s Backbone Wilderness and Bushwhack my way down from the McGarr Ridge Trail to McGarr spring. If I can’t find the trail, hike the Ridge Runner Trail back to the HWY CC Trailhead and on to the Devil’s Backbone Wilderness, and on to McGarr Spring for the night via the unofficial trail to the spring.
- Day Four — Hike out either via the unofficial trail to McGarr Spring or via Mary Hollow.
- Weather — The warmest day was going to be Friday. Saturday was forecast to be cold but clear, and Sunday morning threatened snow or rain. So I decided to take my full winter gear, plus some fleece pants to keep me warm while lounging away the long dark hours.
I arrived at the Highway CC Ridge Runner Trail trailhead at six o’clock yesterday (Thursday). I have a couple of days off work, and my plan is to spend a total of three nights out on the trail.
Sunset is currently around five p.m., so it was already getting dark when I arrived, which is my excuse for not taking any pictures yesterday. I had hoped to arrive at the trailhead around four p.m. but work ran late, and I took a lot longer to pack for the trip than I should have. Not checking my supplies meant that my packing also included a trip to the local Asian store to buy a large pile of noodles. Enough for my lunches on this and many future trips to come.
The result was that we left home a couple of hours late. I say we because Ginger was going with me as far as her parents’ and the Farm Cottage where she spent a few days doing some business planning while I was away playing in the woods.
Red eyes at night, hiker’s fright
(Not really but it reads and rhymes much better than ‘Red eyes at night, hiker’s curiosity’).
The first part of the Ridge Runner Trail shares its route with the Ozark Trail, which means it is in tip-top condition and exceptionally well-blazed. I’ve been doing a lot more night hiking and the trail was easy going in the dark with my headlamp plus a half-moon, with increasing cloud cover. I’d hiked 1½ miles by seven p.m. According to the GPS, I was near where I camped on the first night of my previous trip, so I decided to bushwhack west aways and find a couple of trees to hang my hammock on.
After a while of stumbling around in the dark, I found some well-spaced trees. I could hear something else moving through the leaves, and scanning around caught two red eyes blinking at me. I couldn’t make out what it was in the shadows, but it wasn’t startled when I started moving toward it. After I’d taken a few more paces, it turned away and moved slowly off. My best guess is that it was a coyote. A deer’s eyes would have been higher, in my experience shine more yellow, and once they move off they tend to move quickly. I guess we’ll never know what sort of critter it was.
I decided not to set my tarp, as there was no rain forecast, and I fancied watching the clouds scudding past the stars as I fell asleep. Dinner was quite late — ten-ish, and I was just getting ready to turn in when it started to rain. Well, that wasn’t expected. Oh well, I put the tarp up, and there would be no view of the skies.
Not only did it rain overnight, but the temperature was a lot lower than the forecast at 30℉.
I woke up to a dull, dreary day. I had a good night’s sleep, but I was too hot and I discarded layers to get comfortable. Somehow, despite being up and about by eight a.m., it wasn’t until eleven-thirty that I was back on the trail.
An hour later I was at the Junction of the Ridge Runner North Fork Loop and the Ozark Trail. Sure enough, the trail was covered in loose leaves and was difficult to follow in places. Someone has been through and added new blazes, which made life a little easier, though the placement of the blazes seemed to be a bit erratic at times (three blazes within thirty feet at one point the next day, and at one place two within five feet on a straight section of trail). The apparent absence of blazes at a key point in the trail slowed me down a little until I decided just to bushwhack my way along until I found the trail again.
Not only is the drop-off steep but so is the trail. It drops 300ft in three-tenths of a mile. I don’t think I’d like to hike this trail clockwise and have to climb up it.
I got to the bottom at three p.m. and stopped for an hour to have a hot lunch of noodles, plus some string cheese, summer sausage, and a cup of tea. I filled back up with water from the creek. Putting on my backpack I heard an odd ‘boing’ noise but thought nothing of it. I had just an hour before sunset to get to where I wanted to camp, time to ‘Pour on the coal’ on what was going to be an uphill climb.
I took this picture because it seemed to be pretty much where I took a picture the last time I hiked this trail.
It was getting dark as I arrived at the stand of short leaf pines where I wanted to make camp. I didn’t want to mess around looking for the trees I used the last time I was here, and set up at the first pair I found that would work. It was dark by the time I’d got the tarp and hammock set up, and it was then I discovered two things.
- A tree right next to where I’d camped was secretly blazed — there was a nail with a reflective head in the tree — which means that this spot is used for hunting. And if the fact that I’m wearing hunter orange has escaped your notice, I’m doing so because it is deer and turkey Bow Hunting season. I wasn’t going to move my camp in the dark so I decided to pretend I hadn’t seen it.
- I discovered the metal spreader bar that runs across the top of my pack was missing. I immediately thought of the ‘boing’ I heard, and then spent some time considering if I needed to backtrack a mile in the morning to where I stopped for lunch. I managed to do a pretty good job of convincing myself that it would be a wasted effort and made a note to contact Zpacks when I got home and find out how to get a replacement. Fortunately, with the pack quite full it seemed to work pretty well without the bar in place.
Ruminating on my broken backpack in the morning, I decided to pack up camp quickly and backtrack to the point where I stopped for water yesterday and search for the missing backpack spreader bar. On the one hand, a bright shiny black metal bar ought to be easy to spot. On the other hand, it would have probably taken a while to drop out and so could be anywhere.
I was out on the trail early for me, before 10:30 a.m.! Going back added a couple of miles to my day’s hike, and I lost and then had to regain 300 feet of elevation. Despite searching, I didn’t find the bar. Oh well, I’d just have to go online and order a replacement.
Update: Zpacks have sent me two replacements free of charge. That is excellent customer service! When the replacements arrived, I discovered that the bar isn’t metal, but a carbon fiber composite. I’ve fixed my pack and stored the spare.
It was around 11:40 a.m. by the time I got back to where I had started my day, and I could get on with the hike ‘proper.’ The good news was that the day was turning out bright and sunny though fairly chilly. My plans for the day were as follows:
Plan A was to try and find the trail to the North Fork Recreation Area, and from there, hike up to McGarr Ridge Trail, and then bushwhack down to McGarr Spring and camp near the spring. The bushwhacking section looks to be straightforward on the map. However, the last time I hiked the North Fork Loop, I could not find the trail to the recreation area, so in case I had the same problem,
Plan B was to continue on the North Fork Loop back to the Ozark Trail. From there, I’d hike back to the Highway CC Trailhead and then carry on across Highway CC to the Devil’s Backbone Wilderness. I could then hike the McGarr Ridge Trail and the unofficial trail to McGarr Spring and camp for the night.
Remember what I said about the trail blazes on the North Fork Loop being very poor in places? Well, they are useless to non-existent at the point where the trail to the recreation area is supposed to branch off. I thought about bushwhacking my way down towards the recreation area, but with my late start, I wasn’t sure quite where I’d end up when the sun began to set, and according to the map, parts of the route I’d be taking are pretty darned steep. So Plan B it would be, once I could find the trail again, that is!
I Bushwhacked in the general direction of the North Fork Loop/Ridge Runner Trail until I finally blundered back onto the trail proper. I made use of a closed section of trail signed as “Trail not Maintained…” to cut my hike back the trailhead down. It has to be said that the “Not Maintained” trail was far easier to follow and in better condition than the actual trail, and I made excellent time, reaching the Ozark Trail at 1:40 p.m. and about 5 miles into my hike.
Once on the Ozark Trail it took me twenty minutes to hike to the trailhead, where my car was the only vehicle. I dumped my fleece pants and a top underlayer to save pack space and weight and carried on along the Ozark Trail to the Devil’s Backbone Wilderness. I did toy with the idea of driving to the McGarr Ridge Trailhead but decided not to. There was just one vehicle parked at that trailhead, and so far, I’d not seen a soul in three days.
By 2:30 p.m. I was at the start of the unofficial trail to McGarr Spring. I arrived at the spring half an hour later and then spent ages wandering around the west side of the hollow looking for somewhere to set up camp. Some tape blazes told me that horses come up this side of the hollow, which suggests that my idea of bushwhacking down to the spring from the McGarr Ridge trail was practical.
With a clear and not too cold night forecast (31℉), I decided not to set the tarp but enjoy a view of the stars. I did hang the tarp up, though, because the forecast for the morning was snow/rain, and I wanted to have it ready to deploy in case the bad weather came in early.
Despite not setting the tarp and leaving some of my clothing layers back at the car yesterday, I stayed nice and warm overnight in the hammock, and the stars were spectacular. As I’ve mentioned before, 20℉ is the lowest temperature I plan to go out in. Not because I don’t have the gear for lower temperatures, but because doing camp chores and whiling away the hours of darkness when it’s below 20℉ is not a lot of fun.
My plan was for a leisurely start to the day. Idling until after lunch, and then hiking up Mary Hollow, back to the McGarr Ridge Trail, and back to the Hwy CC Trailhead. From there, it is an hour or so drive back to Ginger at her parents’, where the plan was to spend the night in the Farm Cottage.
After three days of solitude, my early morning was interrupted by voices coming down the trail on the opposite side of the hollow. I heard them a good twenty minutes before they arrived. The couple went very quiet when they finally spotted my hammock. They carried on towards Mary Hollow, presumably to complete a loop from the McGarr Ridge Trailhead. So, thus far, I had only seen two people in four days. Not too bad.
While I was getting breakfast ready, it started to snow. You can just see my tarp draped over the hammock in the background of the picture.
Even with the extra air holes, this wood burner is still smoking a fair bit. I think I’ll draw a line under this experiment and go back to the heavier but better Nano Firebox.
I spent the morning idling in my hammock, enjoying the solitude, and slowly breaking down my camp. With no intention of setting off before 2 p.m. I had plenty of time for multiple hot drinks and then to make lunch.
I was settling down to eat some summer sausage and hot noodles when I heard more movement on the trail. This time it was a group of horses. I watched them snake their way down the trail across the hollow from my camp. Instead of heading off toward Mary Hollow, they turned right and headed toward the spring. Remembering the trail blazes I’d seen yesterday, I expected them to climb up my side of the hollow about 50 yards downhill from where I was camped. I sat and watched their progress with interest and then surprise as they headed straight up the hill to where I was camped.
If you’ve read any of my previous trip reports, you’ll know that I’m totally incompetent at trail chit-chat, let alone passing the time of day with a group of eight people on horseback. However, apart from startling the lead horse by waving my arms about a bit too enthusiastically (I’ve spent many hours in the saddle in my time and ought to know better), it seemed to go quite well with questions about my hammock and the weather, and none about where I was from — it is amazing how tiresome those questions become.
After a few minutes, they carried on up the side of the hollow, confirming my suspicion that there was a passable route northwest(-ish) from the spring up to the McGarr Ridge Trail. I forgot to ask where they’d started from, but I presumed either the Hwy CC Trailhead or the Collins Ridge Trailhead, and they were heading back via the McGarr Ridge and Collin’s Ridge Trails.
I finished my lunch, packed everything away, and headed off in the opposite direction towards Mary Hollow and my final hike of the trip.
I had plenty of water for my hike out, so I didn’t need to collect any. The main Spring is located up the hill a ways and it drains down into this pool which is slowly filling with debris. It was a lot more ‘pool-like’ when I first came here a couple of years ago. When the area was inhabited, I’m sure it was regularly cleared out.
From here, I turned right (down the hollow) towards the main trail and Mary Hollow. I reckoned it would take me a couple of hours to hike back to the car and another hour or so to drive to Ginger’s parents’ farm. So I’d be arriving around five, just before dark.
It took me an hour to get to this spot, about two-and-a-half miles from McGarr Spring. I’ve named this hollow ‘Camp Hollow’ because, surprise, surprise, I’ve camped here a couple of times. There is no water anywhere near (that I’ve found) which is a pain, but I do like this spot, even if it is a bit near to the edge of the wilderness, along with the accompanying sound of barking dogs and the occasional truck.
It looks (and is) pretty overgrown, but I consider that a good deterrent to stop people from disturbing me when I camp here.
The hike out was uneventful, and I’ve already hiked all these trails. Climbing up the ridge out of Mary Hollow back to the McGarr Ridge Trail, I met the group on horseback again. This time there was an inquiry as to where I was from. I resisted the temptation to give my usual smart-arse response of “Springfield.” Given the time and direction they were headed, they must have started off at the Collins Ridge Trailhead. This makes sense thinking about it, as the spur trail linking the McGarr Ridge Trail to the Collins Ridge Trail is probably impassable on horseback since the flood a few years ago dumped a load of trees down there. I’m guessing when they left me at McGarr Spring, they went down to the North Fork River and then came back along the McGarr Ridge Trail and headed down towards Mary Hollow. Whatevs, after a quick chat, we went our separate ways.
Three nights, four days, 20 miles hiked, and 1500 ft. of elevation climbed. I encountered some rain, snow, and the temps varied from 23℉ to 58℉. I saw a total of 10 people, all of them today (Sunday), and eight of them were on horses.
I have got to dedicate another trip to sorting out the trail that links the North Fork Recreation Area to the North Fork Loop or at least bushwhack it. I also need to bushwhack my way from the McGarr Ridge Trail down to McGarr Spring. That sounds like a plan for a short three-day, two-night winter trip.
- My food. Which comprised Mountain House breakfasts and dinners with hot noodles for lunch with summer sausage, cheese, and my homemade trail mix (almonds, raisins, and M&Ms) for trail snacks.
- Clothing. I kept warm and dry. But I did bring along more than I needed. My Columbia snow pants are great for winter hiking, and the Bass Pro waffle pattern baselayers work really well. In fact, I prefer them to my heavier but not warmer merino wool base layer.
- Buff and shemagh. I cannot recommend these highly enough. Don’t let their ‘tactical’ appearance put you off. They are truly versatile items, and I carry them in winter and summer.
- Outback Hat. Coupled with a buff to keep my ears warm, this hat is great any time of year. In winter, it is particularly handy for keeping the low sun out of my eyes.
- Camp light. With the long dark evenings, my Black Diamond – ReMoji camp light really helped.
- And pretty much everything else!
Lessons & changes to make
- Backpack. With four liters of water, bulky additional winter clothing, winter quilts, food for four days, plus camp shoes, my pack was overloaded. I should have taken my bigger (and heavier) Deuter pack. Or, I’ve got to cut down on what I’m taking (again). Water is a big issue with the current drought. Most creeks and lots of springs are dry or drying up.
- Thinsulate beanie. I have had this beanie for nearly 20 years. It seems like the wool has gotten scratchy, and it makes my scalp itch, so it is time to find a replacement.
- Hammock Gear Titanium wood stove. Even with the extra air holes I added, it was still very smokey. I’m going back to my Firebox Nano stove. It is a bit heavier, but it burns a lot better and is a more useful design, as I can use the case to stand my alcohol stove on.
- Water. For some unknown reason, I carried a huge amount of water around on day two. I’m not sure what I was thinking. I could have ditched all but one liter. That is all I needed.
- Clothing. I could have managed without my camp fleece pants and the extra underlayer top. The fleece pants are quite heavy and bulky. Though it must be said, they are very comfy!
- Camp shoes. I decided to hike in shoes this trip, so I brought along a pair of Luna Sandals huaraches to use as camp shoes. They were too big and bulky and got in the way in my pack. I should have taken the smaller Zero Shoes huaraches.
- Phone/camera. Using my phone as a camera works, but I don’t use it as much as a ‘real’ camera. For this trip, I didn’t want the extra bulk of the camera. Especially as it has to be kept warm when the temperatures are low. I already have to keep my battery pack, cell phone, and water filter warm at night. I ought to add my Garmin InReach to that list too.
Despite breaking my backpack and losing the trail more than once, this was a great trip, and I’m glad I decided to stick to my promise to come back and hike this trail in the winter. Now I am going to have to go back and re-hike the Whites Creek Trail loop in Irish Wilderness and also come back here to clear up the last couple of missing bits of trail jigsaw.