Trip report: Backpacking at Piney Creek Wilderness – April 2012

One of the more problematic aspects of an outdoor-loving lifestyle is that you have to either find someone to take your kids while you go play or you have to bring your kids with you. We finally have two kids old enough to leave at home. But our youngest is still a bit young so we’ve been working on getting her interested in the idea of going on backpacking trips with us.

Teen girl being silly alongside Piney Creek near Table Rock Lake during a spring backpacking trip.

Lanie being Lanie by Piney Creek. We’re teaching her to love being outdoors as much as we do.

As she doesn’t have a winter sleeping bag, we had to wait for the weather to warm up. Finally the forecast was good, it was a weekend without other commitments, and we had a willing twelve year old. For the day, at least. As it turns out, she was turning thirteen on this trip.

Saturday we arrived at the Piney Creek Tower Trailhead around noon. As usual there were a couple horse trailers and a car parked there so we knew people were on the trails. We strapped on our packs, applied sunscreen and bug spray, and headed east down the paved road to catch the Lake Trail where it joins the road and heads south. We figured since this was Lanie’s first backpacking trip we didn’t want any surprises and opted to stick with a route we knew. We’ve still not figured out how to take the Lake Trail direct from the Tower trailhead. Usually we are coming up the lake trail from the south and miss the trail ending up back at the road.

Woodland trails converge on a ridgetop at Piney Creek Wilderness in Barry county Missouri.

Dappled shade on the ridge was welcome on this hot day. Soon we’d descend into the valley and cross the harsh sun on the glades.

The day was hot. Already over 80 degrees in March. Lanie had hiked this trail before so she was excited to get down the hill and to the lake. She wanted to set up camp. We passed some hikers coming up the hill and they were drenched from sweat. I enjoyed strolling in the shade of the ridge because I knew that the descent ahead was rough and in full sun.

The footing was worse than I had remembered. It reminded me of scree on a mountain with slidey little rocks that roll out from under your feet even when standing still.  I was awfully glad to have my hiking pole. We kept having to remind Lanie to slow down but of course kids think they’re invincible. Sure enough, her foot rolled on a rock, she fell down onto her knees, gashing them up a bit. By this time we were near the bottom of a draw and she was able to wash the blood off her knee in the water. To her credit she sucked up and laughed about it. At this age you’re never sure if it’s going to be tears or toughness. I was glad she wasn’t hurt badly but also secretly pleased she’d had a reality check so early into the trip.

Teen girl wearing backpack and leaning on hiking pole is pictured seated on a rock in Piney Creek Wilderness as she rests during a hike during a backpacking trip.

Lanie takes a moment’s rest while on her first backpacking trip.

We took a good long time going down the hill mostly because I kept finding interesting flowers to take pictures of. Lanie found a lovely striped violet that I was pleased to capture. I was stunned at how quickly spring had advanced from the previous weekend  when we’d been in the St. Francois Mountains area.

Once we got down the hill to the valley and Piney Creek itself, we easily found the trail and headed east toward the lake. We found a few ticks crawling on us and the plants had grown up a bit, tickling our legs. We had to cross the creek four or five times. I was so hot the cold water on my feet felt wonderful. The trek to the lake was pretty uneventful. Just one foot in front of the other and soon we were there. We did get tangled in the catbriars a few times and we all had bloody scratches on our legs. Having long pants would be a plus on this trail.

Trees standing in the water of Table Rock Lake at the point where Piney Creek empties into the lake. In Piney Creek Wilderness in Barry and Stone County, Missouri.

Because the water level of Table Rock Lake varies, the trees at the mouth of Piney Creek are often standing in water.

We passed another couple of campers setting up camp along Piney Creek. A bit further on we were thrilled to have a Bald Eagle circle over us several times, making a delightful sound that Lanie said was laughing. The lake level was a few feet higher than when we were here over New Year’s weekend.

Two tents at a wild campsite in Piney Creek Wilderness on the shores of Table Rock Lake.

Our chosen campsite had room for both tents. No one had used this site since our last visit and firewood we’d previously prepared was still waiting for us.

We went to the same site we’d used that weekend and found it untouched. Good, the same pile of firewood was already there waiting for us. We took a few moments to set up the tents (without incident I might add) and soon we were sitting by the lake in the sun watching the butterflies dance. What a pretty day it was!

After a while Lanie and Gary went upstream to the clear creek water and filled the Dromedary. We gathered firewood, ate a dinner of Colcannon Mashers with Chicken and had a dessert of Carrot Cake in a Bowl. Lanie roasted marshmallows in celebration of her last night of being twelve. We heard whippoorwills, spring peepers and other frogs, but no coyotes or owls.

In spite of wanting to stay up and watch the fire, Lanie started to fade out by 9:30 or so and headed off to her tent at 10pm. We didn’t make it a whole long longer. We got into the habit of early nights on our backpacking trip to the St. Francois Mountains the week before and hadn’t fully acclimated back to our normal night owl status.

The night was cool, it got to 52 degrees in our tent. As always we were completely cozy in our down sleeping bags. I am a huge believer in buying nice sleeping gear. I’ll scrimp on a lot of things in my life to be able to afford that.

Smiling teen girl sitting in a Sierra Designs Lightning XT1 Tent during her first backpacking trip. At Piney Creek Wilderness in Barry County.

Lanie slept well in her tent and woke with a smile. The Birthday Girl was enjoying her first backpacking trip.

We woke around 8am to a bright and sunshiney 13 year old smiling at our tent door. She had slept like a log and said that all she heard was us snoring. Both Gary and I were sure it had to have been the other one. We lounged around a while then fixed coffee for us and hot chocolate for Lanie.

Even though it was getting hot, we took a walk down to the water to see what was there. More butterflies were fluttering about and we were pleased to see several juvenille Bald Eagles play fighting in the air. Gary and I saw a pair of tree swallows nesting in a dead tree. There were warblers flitting about and the ubiquitous noisy blue jays.

Zebra swallowtail butterflies puddling on the shore of Table Rock Lake at Piney Creek Wilderness.

A group of Zebra Swallowtail butterflies puddling on the shore of Table Rock Lake.

Back to camp for some oatmeal and then we packed up camp. Gary and I have done so much camping in the past two years that we have it down to an art. We showed Lanie how to take down her tent in the right order. How to turn her tent inside out to shake out the dust (a good practice we’ve not seen documented anywhere). How to roll her sleeping pad and load her pack. There is much to learn and we tried to show her in ways that would make her feel invested in this. Soon we were loaded up and ready to go. Not the earliest of starts, but with a forecast of 86 degrees wanted to be able to take it slow.

A teen girl standing in the water helping a man with the camp chore of filtering water from Piney Creek during a spring backpacking trip in the Ozarks.

Lanie and Gary working together to pump cool clean water into our water bottles for the hike out of the wilderness.

Teen girl sitting in cool creek water on a hot day during a spring backpacking trip to Piney Creek Wilderness in Barry Count, Missouri.

It was so hot that Lanie couldn’t resist a wallow in the cold water of Piney Creek.

We decided to take an unmarked trail back to the Tower Trailhead as it’s less steep and mostly in shade. This means we left Piney Creek…and its water…early in the hike. Before leaving the creek we took the opportunity to drop our packs, drink our remaining water, and filtered new cool water for all of our bottles. However, the water was more than inviting. Gary couldn’t resist it and sat in the creek, then Lanie took it one step further and tried lying in the creek. Both Gary and I dunked our shirts so we would be cooler for the hike back to the trailhead. Oh that water felt good!

Soon we were winding up the valley, stopping for pictures now and then and enjoying the incredibly beautiful day. This un-mapped trail looks to have been one of the original farm tracks down into the Piney Creek valley. It doesn’t have any really steep ascents, but it does follow the route of an intermittent creek bed in places – which mean it will probably be impassable when the creek is running fast. Not only is it un-mapped, it’s not maintained so there are plenty of tree falls across the trail. We stopped at one in particular to take a picture to match the picture we took when we hiked here in January.

A girl, woman, and man sitting on a log for a picture during a spring backpacking trip in Piney Creek Wilderness in the southern Missouri Ozarks.

Lanie, Ginger, and Gary rest on a log midway up the hill. We’d posed for a picture here in January, too.

Wildflowers were everywhere, the dogwoods were in full bloom, the mayapples had popped up everywhere. It was just a little piece of heaven.

The un-mapped trail joins the Lake Trail at the top of the ridge, and it was just a matter of following the ridge trail west until it met the paved road. At the stock pond, Gary did a bit of bushwhacking to search for the trail leading directly to the Tower trailhead, but once again we drew a blank even using the GPS to try and find it. The trail runs here somewhere! (Note 6/9/12: We found the trail. Turn west off the Lake Trail, go past the pond, then head south behind the pond. The trail is there, and marked. We just never had seen it before.)

Man and girl wearing backpacks hike on a road in a wooded wilderness in Piney Creek Wilderness in Barry County, Missouri.

Lanie and Gary on the road near the Tower trailhead at Piney Creek Wilderness.

Back on the paved road I will admit it was hot and I was awfully glad to stagger up to the trailhead. As we walked up, some other hikers were just starting their trek and so we talked a bit about the trail and the best path to take. I was glad to see they had a map and hiking poles. They had looked up the trail information online but of course the information on the brochure doesn’t give a very good idea of what it’s really like on the trails. This is partly why we’re building this website. We want to share our experiences for others who might be holding back. If we can help others to enjoy these wonderful trails and wildernesses and forests the way we do, then we will have done a good thing.

We should mention that when we got in the car to go home, Gary joked that the car wasn’t going to start. And….it didn’t. It went click. Out in the middle of the boonies on a Sunday. We weren’t worried, though. My dad got us a jump starter/compressor for Christmas. That thing has saved us twice now. A quick jump start and we were on our way, though no sooner had we started than all the car’s instruments and warnings started flashing – but that’s another story. We drove carefully home and arrived safe.

Family car with hood up and a dead battery, showing the inflator jump starter that we used to start the car. We were able to drive home safely.

This inflator/jump starter has saved us after two backpacking trips now. It’s our most important piece of gear!

If you are planning on leaving your vehicle out at remote trail heads, do think about investing in a Jump starter / compressor, and make sure you get one that has sufficient capacity – they vary from 300 Amps to 600 Amps. You never know when a battery will just die. Deader than a doornail, or you’ll return to find a flat tire. One of these units is cheaper than a tow home from a remote trailhead.

Not the birthday that Lanie was expecting, but hopefully one she’ll remember. I think she liked her first backpacking trip. She’s already asking about when we can go again.

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