October in the Ozarks — no better place to be, no better time to be here.
Just when fall colors will peak is anybody’s guess, of course. When I first started backpacking the region’s rhythm of hill and hollow 35 years ago, experts always said to expect peak color around the middle of October, but I think it hits closer to the first of November now.
No matter, grab a hike whenever you can, wherever you can.
You won’t be disappointed.
Fall officially began Monday, and with any luck we’ll have a couple months of good hiking and backpacking weather in the Ozarks. Between now and Thanksgiving, there are a number of organized hikes, but if going on your own terms is your thing, there are places to do that too.
Here are some of the wheres and whens of fall hiking:
• OCT. 5: Take the first of the Fall Hiking Series being offered at Ozark National Scenic Riverways. It’s a 4-mile round-trip hike from Cedar Grove on the upper Current River to the Susie Nichols Cabin and then back. John and Susie Nichols built their cabin in 1910, and Susie lived there until her death in 1959. The National Park Service has stabilized structures at the site to preserve this story of an Ozarks farm.
I’ve always thought one of the coolest things about the national parks in the Ozarks is the way they preserve not just the region’s natural beauty but also our cultural heritage, everything from mills and schoolhouses to cemeteries and pioneer cabins and farms. Wander around even our wildest parts long enough and you’ll stumble upon a story and a past.
The hike begins at 10 a.m. Saturday at Cedar Grove. For details, contact Dave Tobey at 573-323-8093, visit the park’s Facebook page or its website at www.nps.gov/ozar.
If you fancy a solo hike, this might be a good weekend to try Big Sugar Creek State Park, near Pineville. The park is undeveloped except for a 3.1-mile trail. Much of the park is preserved as the Elk River Breaks Natural Area, an example of the type of woodland that was once common across the region.
And it might just be warm enough yet to jump in Big Sugar Creek and cool off afterward.
• OCT. 12: Take an organized hike at the Hulston Mill Historical Park in Dade County. This is part of the monthly hiking series led by the Missouri Department of Conservation’s Springfield Nature Center. They leave the nature center (4601 S. Nature Center Way in Springfield) at 8:15 a.m. and return at 5 p.m., but if you are coming from the Joplin area, they let you make make arrangements to just meet them there. This is a 5-mile hike. To make reservations and arrangements, call 417-888-4237.
Or take a solo hike at Piney Creek Wilderness near Shell Knob in Barry and Stone counties. There are more than a dozen protected wilderness areas in the Ozarks, but the closest to Joplin is Piney Creek. All of the Piney Creek watershed, which drains into Table Rock Lake, is protected by the 8,122-acre wilderness. It is managed by the the U.S. Forest Service. Just a heads up: Trails are steep, and the last time I was in there I was sharing it with hunters, so wear bright orange.
• OCT. 19: Take another in the Fall Series at Ozark National Scenic Riverways. This hike follows the Cave Spring Trail. Meet at the Devils Well trailhead at 10 a.m. to hike 2.2 miles to Cave Spring. Return using the loop trail (2.7 miles) for a total of 5 miles.
If you’ve never been there, you’re missing something amazing. Devil’s Well is an underground lake, and from an opening in the bottom of a sinkhole you can see the lake about 100 feet below. Devil’s Well and the lake are connected underground to Cave Spring along the Current River.
I have paddled my canoe into the cave at Cave Spring and ventured into the sinkhole to see the Devil’s Well but never hiked between the two. This might be the year to go.
Cave Spring, by the way, is also a place Thomas Hart Benton used for one of his more famous Ozark river paintings.
For hike details, contact Dave Tobey at 573-323-8093, visit the park’s Facebook page or go to its website at www.nps.gov/ozar.
Late October is also a great time to visit Lost Valley, on the upper Buffalo River near Ponca, Arkansas. This is a personal favorite and never disappoints, but you won’t have it to yourself. It’s busy in the fall. You’ll know why when you see it. Look for elk in the adjacent Boxley Valley.
Ken Smith, in his “Buffalo River Handbook,” says Lost Valley, with towering sweet gums and beech, is more typical of a Southern Appalachian forest, such as the Great Smokies, than our Ozarks’ oak-hickory forests. The hike is 2.5 miles round trip and requires only a modest amount of work, but don’t let that fool you because there is a lot of see. Lost Valley has waterfalls, a natural tunnel, caves and one of the largest bluff shelters in the Ozarks. Plan on spending some time.
• OCT. 26: Devil’s Den State Park in Northwest Arkansas is another of those places that can overload the senses because there is much to see. It’s a couple of hours from Joplin but worth the drive and offers a number of hikes of varying lengths.
My favorite is the Butterfield Trail. It’s nearly 15 miles long and some hardy folks do it in a day, but there are two campsites about halfway so you can do this as an overnight trip. I have always stayed at Rock Camp, along Blackburn Creek, which has chairs, tables and benches cleverly built from slabs of rock, giving a Fred Flintstone feel to the site.
The hike can be steep in spots, but has some great views and interesting and intimate places, such as Quail Valley.
Devil’s Den, south of Fayetteville, Arkansas, is also busy this time of year, but I’ve never felt crowded on the Butterfield Trail, which leaves the park and enters Ozark National Forest.
Another fall favorite is the Buffalo River Trail, also in Northwest Arkansas. It’s nearly 40 miles from Boxley to Pruitt and takes me three to four days, but you can dayhike shorter sections. This trail takes you past a number of river overlooks as well as old farms, cemeteries and more that have been preserved. This is a good hike for both a natural and historic panorama.
There are few richer experiences than camping under a full moon (Oct. 13 and Nov. 12 this fall), with crisp autumn temperatures and the smell of woodsmoke, surrounded by the night sounds of the Ozark forest.
Canoe outfitters can arrange shuttles for hikers this time of year.
• NOV. 2: Take an organized hike at Prairie State Park. National Bison Day is the first Saturday in November, set aside to honor the bison as the country’s first National Mammal. Events run from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., including a lunch of bison chili (that is free). Because of the event’s popularity, there will be two hikes this year. One will be from 10 a.m. to noon, and another from 1 to 3 p.m. Be prepared for a 2-mile hike over uneven terrain, depending on where the bison are at the time. Preregistration is required. Please call 417-843-6711 for additional information and to register.
Or take a solo hike at Roaring River State Park south of Cassville. Catch-and-keep trout fishing is over for the season and catch-and-release won’t start for a few more days, so you just may have the trails in the usually busy park to yourself. Some areas to see include the 2,075-acre Roaring River Hills Wild Area with woodlands and glades. Take the Fire Tower Trail to the Wild Area. It is nearly 4 miles long and a great hike in the fall. You could combine it with other park trails, such as Devil’s Kitchen and the River Trail, to add a few more miles and make a full day of it. Maybe this fall.
Whenever you go, wherever you go, happy hiking!
Andy Ostmeyer is the managing editor for The Joplin Globe. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.