Journal: Three days on the North Fork Loop trail, Mark Twain National Forest, May 2021
I’ve been considering and planning this trip — the North Fork Loop in the Mark Twain National Forest — for a long time. Information on the trail is pretty sparse, except all the posts I can find say that there is no water. It’s time to find out what it is really like.
Another year, another empty trailhead, and my plans for the weekend
I’ve been considering and planning this trip — the North Fork Loop in the Mark Twain National Forest — for a long time. Information on the trail is pretty sparse, except all the posts I can find say that there is no water. The best resource I found was over ten years old.
The loop is twelve-ish miles and shares its route in part with the Ridge Runner and Ozark Trails. It is located directly (as in across the road — Highway CC) to the north of the Devil’s Backbone Wilderness. As the Ridge Runner name implies most of the trail runs along ridges, which explains the lack of water. For that, you need to dip into the hollows.
It was early evening on Friday, I’d managed to get off work early so I could be here in time to get a mile or two of hiking and set up camp before it got dark. It was hot (79°F) and I was ready to get on my way.
My preparation for this trip mainly involved checking and making routes on Gaia.com (my GPS App). That, and hunting for where I might find water. There’s the North Fork River to the west, but my experience is that getting access to the river can be difficult, to say the least. I spotted a spring marked in a hollow off of Steam Mill Hollow, on what I read was a little-used trail. Based on this scant information, I made my plans.
Some unpacking and investigating unearthed a microscopic hole in a brand new Sawyer 64oz water bladder. I’m not impressed.
Time for my hike was short, but I reckoned I could get 12 to 18 miles under my belt. A possible problem was that one of the trails marked on the map didn’t seem to exist anymore. That particular trail crosses Highway CC near the recreation area. Checking on Google Street View, I couldn’t see any sign of it. Driving slowly up the road, I couldn’t see any sign of the trail either. Hmmm.
Hindsight being what it is, I now realize I should have called the local Ranger’s office and asked what the status of the trail was. I didn’t.
My departure from home was delayed at the last minute. As I grabbed my backpack off of my office sofa, I noticed a wet patch. Some unpacking and investigating unearthed a microscopic hole in a brand new Sawyer 64oz water bladder. I’m not impressed. I quickly filled a 2.5ltr Platypus bladder and re-packed my gear.
- Day One (Friday Evening). Drive to the HWY-CC Trailhead (labeled the McGarr Ridge Trailhead on the above map) and hike in a mile or so north along the Ridge Runner/Ozark trails (red) and set up camp. As there would be no water I planned to carry in over a gallon, enough to last me through the night and the next day in what were predicted to be 80-degree temperatures. I hoped I’d find some water in the creeks marked on the east side as there’s been a lot of rain recently, but I wasn’t going to rely on finding any.
- Day Two. Hike around the North Fork Loop, taking the long route that drops down into Steam Mill Hollow, where I’d spotted a spring during my research. I’d either stop there for the night or carry on and camp near the North Fork River.
- Day Three. Depending on how I felt, either complete the North Fork Loop via the Ridge Runner Trail (Orange) or carry on down to the Devil’s Backbone Wilderness, top up my water at Blue Spring and hike back to the trailhead via the McGarr Ridge trail. That would up my mileage, but also included a punishing climb that I still remember from my last visit in 2011. Punishing for me, that is. It’s only 300 feet.
The weather outlook for the weekend was hot and breezy, with a small chance of rain overnight on Day One (Friday).
These are the main changes to my gear for this trip:
- 20,000 mAh Battery pack with “trickle charge.” This is a replacement for my 10,000 mAh battery pack which mysteriously stopped working part way through my last trip.
- 30-foot LED light string 🙂 which plugs directly into the battery pack, and is powered by its “trickle charge” feature.
- 2.5ltr Platypus water bladder, a late replacement for the leaking Sawyer 64oz bladder.
- 16oz Sawyer water bladder to replace my 7oz washing bottle.
- Extra small and small Dyneema ditty bags to keep all the loose gear that resides in the back pocket of my pack organized.
- 35mm lens on my camera, replacing my usual 18mm (wide angle) lens.
Time to get moving
It took me two hours to drive to the trailhead from Springfield, arriving around six p.m. After taking a couple of pictures and signing in I was ready to get on my way.
Back on the Ozark Trail
The last time I hiked a part of the Ozark Trail was in December 2020, when I hiked the Berryman Trail. I have nothing but admiration for the job the Ozark Trail Association does. The trail is in good condition and, it seemed, a lot less rocky than the trails further west.
Camped off the Ridge Runner/Ozark Trail (and some minor irritations)
I ended up hiking one and three-quarter miles. I finished my hike shortly before 8 p.m. having spent around 20 minutes looking for a couple of trees that were “just right.” There was a lot of thunder rolling around, so I was also looking for shorter trees that would be less inviting for a lightning strike. Despite the rumbles, there was no rain until the morning when there was a very brief shower before I got up.
The evening was serenaded by the croaks and calls of the local amphibians. More on that later. It was good to be sitting out in the woods again, just breathing in the air and watching the trees as the dark advanced. I can lose myself for hours sitting still, watching and listening. Somehow, I never find the mental space for some of the deep navel-gazing I promise myself I’ll do when I’m relaxing in the woods or hiking the trails. But then, I get to enjoy being out, recharging my mental batteries, and that’s priceless.
Some minor irritations (and stupidities)
- When I loaded the GPS app, it announced that it had updated. The app proceeded to crash at regular intervals thereafter.
- Driving down (and on the edge of any cell phone service), I realized that I hadn’t downloaded the maps for this area. So I pulled over and set them downloading. Debating with myself while making my way to the trailhead, I reckoned I would be able to manage the trail with my paper maps, as the route I’d picked had been downloaded, so I could see if I was wildly off track. As it turned out, I had enough cell phone signal for all the maps to download.
- Once camped for the night, I discovered that I’d brought the wrong cables with me to charge my phone, satellite locator, headlamp, and everything else. I had just grabbed the cables that came with my new battery block and didn’t bother to check their connectors. They were all USB C, whereas all my equipment is standardized on Micro USB B. So, my use of the GPS would be very rationed so that my phone (GPS), which will normally only last a day per charge, would last the next two days.
- My idea of replacing my 7oz washing bottle with a 16oz bladder proved to be a minor failure too. Nothing catastrophic though.
Not to worry. I could cope, but I wasn’t impressed at my own stupidity at forgetting the maps and bringing the wrong cables.
I’d just have to keep usage of the electronics to a minimum and get on with the show.
Ribbit, ribbit. Toad, in a hole
Last night when I was staking out my tarp I noticed a small hole near where I put one of my stakes. Apart from inquiring “Anyone at home?” I didn’t think anything of it. This morning when I came to pull up the stakes, I found this chap in-residence. I later saw another hopping around. There might not be any running water about, but it seems the ground stays wet enough for these guys to survive. That also explains all the toady racket after dark yesterday.
Ozark Trail, trailblaze
This picture needs some out-of-focus hikers on the trail to really make it zing. I didn’t meet any hikers, though, in or out of focus on this trip.
From top to bottom: Ozark Trail, Ridge Runner Trail, North Fork Loop Trail.
I think I only saw five or so Ridge Runner trailblazes. The Ozark trail blazes were every few hundred yards and in some places every few yards. The North Forth Loop Blazes were every few hundred yards or so unless they weren’t. And their most notable absences were at places where the potential for confusion seemed to be the greatest. If you are hiking the North Fork Trail, you’ll need a GPS, and if you can find a recent GPS route good for you. I ended up bushwhacking quite a way along the previous route of the trail, not knowing it had been moved, and because there were no blazes at a vital point to set me off in the right direction.
Dry creek bed
So much of my hope for finding water on the eastern side of the loop. There are a couple of stock ponds if you are that way inclined. I prefer running water.
Cairns, cairns, and more cairns
Trail junction, there goes the Ozark Trail
Now I’m off on the lesser-traveled and not well-blazed North Fork Loop Trail. From the trail junction, it’s easy to see that this trail might have some challenges.
Nice Trail (but you may have trouble following it)
The map I was using was slightly under twenty years old (and the best I could find online). I should have cross-checked it against the trail map at the trailhead. If I had, I would have seen that the objective for my day’s hike was no longer on the trail system. I would also have noticed that at least one of the trail’s many loops into hollows had been replaced by a shortcut. Knowing that would have saved me a mile or more of bushwhacking.
The above picture is fairly typical of the trail conditions, though in several places it was completely overgrown by encroaching vegetation. I need to come back in the winter when it will be possible to see the views across the hollows. from what I could make out in the gaps in the leaf cover, it was quite impressive.
A fair way along this section of the trail I was to encounter the only people I met in my two-and-a-half-day trip. It was a group of five people on horseback. I was more than happy for them to overtake me and clear the trail of spiders webs for me.
Lunch break by the creek in Steam Mill Hollow
Not that I knew it was the creek in Steam Mill Hollow at the time. It seems I need to learn several more lessons in checking my compass and map before I assume I know where I am. This was the area I had originally picked as my preferred stopping point for the day. But it was far too overgrown for my liking, and I decided I’d rather fill up with water and carry a gallon-plus of water on the trail up to the top of the ridge and camp among the pines. It was several degrees cooler down in the hollow, but upon the ridge, there would be a breeze to cool things down.
Now would have been a good time to check the map I picked up at the trailhead. There wasn’t any trail leading down to this hollow, I used an old forest road to get here. The area was crisscrossed by horse trails, so I had no concerns about finding a trail back out to the main North Fork Loop, but had I checked, I would have found out that the trail I planned to hike out on no longer exists.
I spent an hour or more enjoying the scenery and eating my lunch of Tuna, noodles, and nuts & raisins, having a cup of tea, and filtering water for the night and the next day.
Knowing I was on a small creek to the east of the ridge I’d just come down, all I needed to do was hike back to where the creek joined and turn right, and I’d be on my way. Perfect, if I had indeed been on that creek. Rationing my GSP batteries meant I didn’t bother to check my location, and no, I didn’t bother to check what direction I was headed in with my compass.
So I did exactly that, and I was bumbling along at a fair clip when I thought things weren’t quite right. Firstly it didn’t feel like I was hiking in the right direction, and secondly I was hiking upstream when I should have been going down stream.
A quick check on the compass showed I was going northeast. Really? I reluctantly go out the GPS and discovered that I was now going up the creek I thought I’d stopped for lunch on. Oh well, time to turn around and find the right way out of here.
Thanks to the compass and map I was soon on the correct trail and heading west — the right direction — the trail was very easy to follow, as it is heavily used by horse traffic. I wasn’t too disappointed when I couldn’t find any sign of trail leading off to the north heading up back to join the main loop. I decided to follow the horse trail, which I guessed would be heading to the North Fork River (it was) and back on to the North Fork Loop Trail there.
Spring on Steam Mill Hollow
It wasn’t a raging torrent, but it was putting out several gallons a minute. The spring is right by the trail, and the outflow runs along the trail for a few yards.
It looked a bit too low and damp to make a good camping spot for anyone with a tent.
Steam Mill Hollow Creek Crossing
I’m back on the main North Fork Loop trail. It took me an hour and a half to hike to where the North Fork Loop trail crosses the creek from the north (left of frame) heading south. This was my second preferred spot to camp. Well, actually, the spot I’d seen on the satellite images was several hundred yards to the northwest (behind me) near the North Fork River.
I tried bushwhacking to my destination, but the area was so overgrown I gave up on that idea. I had my first encounter with American stinging nettles while bushwhacking here. Ginger has previously told me that American nettles were much more painful than UK nettles. From my own experience, they’re the same. They are both ouchy! Though these nettles didn’t bring up the huge white welts that UK ones have. But maybe that was because I washed my legs down in the creek as soon as I got out of the undergrowth.
Now for plan ‘C’ for today’s camp. Follow the trail south, up onto the ridge and find a nice stand of pines well off of the trail and stop there for the night.
As in my recent trip to Irish Wilderness, picturesque views were hard to come by. To have any chance of seeing the North Fork River I am going to have to come back in the winter when there are no leaves on the trees.
It doesn’t look it, but the trail is 60-100 feet above the river.
Eight O’Clock and I’m finally camped for the night
Climbing up away from the North Fork River I finally found an area with lots of short leaf pines (and ticks as it happened). I had to go about a quarter mile off trail before I was satisfied that I was well away from the trails and horse trails in the area.
Yes, the LED light-string is back, at a couple of ounces why not? With the trickle charge feature on my new battery pack I don’t need to carry any batteries for the lights, so packing them was a ‘no-brainer.’
Once more, hammocks for the win. The hillside was very steep, and wouldn’t have worked with a tent.
A cup of tea and Mountain House South West Breakfast Skillet, followed by a cup of coffee, and all enjoyed from the comfort of my camp chair. I did a lot of staring into space, admiring the view, as the trees swayed in the dappled sunlight while the breeze blew. I doubt this spot has seen a human visitor in many years.
I am thankful that I am fortunate enough to be able to get out into the woods to sit quietly and enjoy nature.
Nothing but trees
Camped in Mark Twain National Forest, it was a wonderful morning in a rejuvenating spot.
Day Three – Back on the North Fork Loop Trail
Lunch break, and I’m showing a bit too much thigh
I had a choice of routes to take today. The short route takes the North Fork Loop east back to the Ozark Trail, where I could get back to the trailhead. The longer route goes south, and into the Devil’s Backbone Wilderness, and returns to Highway CC via the McGarr Ridge Trail (and a 300 foot climb up onto McGarr Ridge). This route crosses Highway CC near its bridge across the North Fork River, runs through the recreation area to Blue Spring (it seems nine out of ten springs in the Ozarks are called ‘Blue Spring’). The problem with the southern route is that it is several miles longer, and from what I had seen, there is no trace of a crossing point on Highway CC, so it quite possibly doesn’t even exist anymore. I decided I’d make my mind up when I got to the trail junction.
I never did see the trail junction, and I looked carefully, so I ended up on the North Fork Loop heading east back to the Ozark Trail. As that route was significantly shorter, I decided to stop for an hour (or more) for a cup of tea, some lunch, and to just enjoy the forest in the sunshine.
Trees, trees, and more trees
And very tall trees too
Vertical panorama of five images.
The view from my chair – Stereo image
Ready for the trail
Only two or three miles left to go. Don’t come to me for outdoor fashion guidance. I hike to my own tune!
Back to the start and some notes
From here there is just a short thirty-minute hike, south, down the Ozark Trail to get back to the trailhead. That’s it, trip over, though there’s still the two-hour drive home to complete. The placing of the trail blaze here is a puzzle. I came in on the trial from the right, and the main trail is off to the left, so what is that trail blaze doing center frame? At first, I thought it was just badly placed, but looking more closely at the picture I can see another blaze on a tree in the direction it is pointing. I didn’t notice a worn trail joining here from that direction.
Well, this interesting question, the fact that I missed out on the top northwest corner of the North Fork Loop, and that I’d like to come back when the trees are not in leaf, all mean a return trip is needed. There is also the issue of the missing link trail to the Devil’s Backbone Wilderness to be investigated.
In total I hiked a meager 12.54 miles with 1,400 feet of elevation. Not a big hike at all. I’ve almost done that mileage in a day!
- Thoroughly check new gear before leaving. If I had I wouldn’t have ended up with no way to charge my electronics.
- Remember to download the maps to my phone before leaving.
- Check where I am heading with the compass and map — especially if I am not using the GPS. I know this, I don’t know why I don’t do it. I’ve even changed where I keep the compass and map to try and remind me.
- 2H pencil leads are unreadable. Change back to HB.
- Trails move and they may also be closed. Check my route.
- I can make a gallon of water last a night and most of the next day.
- I took more clothes than I needed. I had my medium fleece that I never wore, I could have carried my light fleece.
- Don’t take the underquilt protector when the forecast doesn’t call for it.
What worked well
- While it didn’t get a proper test the new battery pack seemed to work fine. It powered the lights without shutting down, which is a problem with my old battery pack.
- My food and water planning were good.
- And while I lost the trail (a lot) I got around and visited all (okay most) of the places I planned on visiting.
Breakfast in America
Living happily ever after still means you have to clean house and do the dishes