February 2020, Big Piney Trail, Paddy Creek Wilderness

Looking down at Little Paddy Creek – Looked like more than 110ft to me… Copyright © 2020 Gary Allman, all rights reserved.

Enough of the short shake-down trips in familiar places. It was time for me to get out and clock up the miles somewhere new. We first planned to visit Paddy Creek Wilderness in late December 2011, but with high winds in the forecast, we decided to go to Piney Creek instead. Somehow Paddy Creek Wilderness never featured in our plans after then. Now was a good time to put that right.

Checking out videos on YouTube and studying the topo maps of the trail, I looked for a way to break the trip into three parts so I could spend two nights in the wilderness.

The Plan

The complete Big Piney Trail loop is a tad over sixteen miles. Someone fitter than I am could get around it in a day. I could do it in two days, but I don’t want to push too hard, and anyway, spending a couple of nights out would be more fun, so a three-day trip it would be. The question was where to stop and which way around the loop did I want to go? I decided to go counter-clockwise and find somewhere to camp well off the trail along Big Paddy Creek on night one. For night two and I’d spotted a place where three creeks joined near the North Loop, there ought to be water near there, and it was around four or five miles from the trailhead, making it a good place to find a spot to stop with a reasonable hike out in the (forecast) rain on the last day.

Checking the weather forecast and studying the map:

Day One, threatened to be a warmish but dull, brightening up as the day wore on. The only hard hiking appeared to be a spot where the trail dropped down to Little Paddy Creek and then climbed some 300ft back up again. I planned on stopping by Little Paddy Creek for lunch and refilling my water before the climb back up to the ridge. From there it was fairly even until the trail dropped down to the area near the confluence of Little Paddy and Big Paddy Creeks.

Day Two, was forecast to be sunny and warm. The hike would begin with a couple of hard (for me) climbs of around 200 and 300 ft, respectively.

Day Three, rain was in the forecast. The hike would have a few ups and downs but would end up with a fairly level hike back to the trailhead, and on back to the parking lot.

Winter Pack 2020 – What’s in my pack? Copyright © 2020 Gary Allman, all rights reserved.

Gear, I was sticking pretty much with the set-up from my last trip. As an experiment, I packed a wood-burning stove I made years ago. It’s bulky but only weighs 4ozs. I also decided to give my plastic cup another chance, mainly because with my poor eyesight I struggle to see the fluid level markings on my Toaks Cook pot. With predicted nighttime temps in the low thirties, I went with my winter top quilt and under quilt, though I thought I might be a bit too warm on the second night when the temps were due to stay in the forties. Food-wise I was going to experiment with oats for breakfast and lunch for the first two days.

Day One – Saturday, February 15, 2020

Paddy Creek Wilderness is slightly over eighty miles from Springfield, so I made a determined effort to get out of the door a bit earlier than usual. Much to my surprise, I succeeded, leaving just after nine. The weather was overcast, very grey, and it rained for a good part of the drive. It was starting to look like I’d be having a damp first day’s hike.

Roby Lake Parking Lot – Another remote parking lot equals more backpacking. Three days and two nights in Paddy Creek Wilderness. Copyright © 2020 Gary Allman, all rights reserved.

I arrived at the Roby lake parking lot shortly before eleven. As I was sitting in the car girding my loins ready to get going, another vehicle arrived. A young lad proceeded to go and check out the lake. I waited for him to disappear from view so I could get some pictures of the parking lot.

Inspection of the lake complete, the young man headed off toward the start of the trail. I began gathering my gear, intending to give him a chance to get well ahead of me on the trail. A couple of minutes later he was back. He came over and asked me about a sign saying the wilderness was closed.

Fortunately, I’d read about several of the local wildernesses being shut down for 2-3 days at the end of January. They closed them while a helicopter-based feral hog hunt took place. That seems to run contrary to the no mechanized transportation or tools rule in the wildernesses, but hey, it’s not my show. The hunt had turned into a bit of a farce, with the helicopter developing mechanical problems, and no hogs killed.

Without bothering to check, I told him the wilderness was open, which seemed to satisfy him, and was very trusting (it must be my gray hair). Off he set again. I didn’t see him or anyone else for the remainder of the trip.

A few minutes later, I followed along stopping to read the posted notices. The text stated the wilderness would be closed to the public from January 27-29, on pain of death. Okay, I exaggerate. It set a fine or not more than $5,000 or imprisonment for not more than six months or both!

The access trail leading to the trailhead crossed a field, and the field was a wet and muddy mess where it wasn’t frozen. The frozen part surprised me as I thought the weather had warmed up enough to clear all the recent snow and ice. Okay, this might be a colder hike than I expected.

It only took a few minutes to get to the trailhead. I signed in and started the hike proper.

Paddy Creek Wilderness, Roby Lake sign-in. Copyright © 2020 Gary Allman, all rights reserved.

There were more signs of frozen ground. But then as I’m using a hammock, frozen ground is not an issue I’ll have to deal with when I camp. On the trail though…

Around three-quarters of a mile in, is the junction of the North and South Loops. They aren’t loops though. They are the north and south sections (arcs?) of the loop. But I guess we all know what they mean (yes I am a pedant).

North Loop, South Loop – I’m heading south and expect to be back here in two days time. Copyright © 2020 Gary Allman, all rights reserved.

The south loop started off going through some pine forest, and the ground was very wet where it wasn’t icy. So was the stock pond.

It wasn’t long before I was back in some typical Ozarks landscape of hollows and oak trees. In an attempt to prove that my wide-angle lens made my face look chubby I took a selfie.

Selfie on the trail – Okay so maybe I am sill a bit chubby around the cheeks. Whatever. My arms are too short for the 35mm lens. Copyright © 2020 Gary Allman, all rights reserved.

Okay, I give in. I’ve got chubby chops, and my arms aren’t long enough for the 35mm lens!

The background to my selfie – very Ozarks hollow. Copyright © 2020 Gary Allman, all rights reserved.

It wasn’t long before I was hiking along a narrow ridge with lots of campsites. The views over the creeks on either side were impressive, though not as impressive as those I’d see on Day Two.

Dropping off of the ridge. Copyright © 2020 Gary Allman, all rights reserved.
Looking down at Little Paddy Creek – Looked like more than 110ft to me… Copyright © 2020 Gary Allman, all rights reserved.
‘Scenic Overlook’ – that’s how it’s marked on the map. Copyright © 2020 Gary Allman, all rights reserved.

The only problem with being up on this ridge was that the trail led down to the creek and then back up to the top of the opposite ridge. Not a problem, I could stop as often as I wanted on the way up, and I was going to have lunch and replenish my water before I started the hike up.

At the bottom of the ridge, I crossed a dry feeder creek in the last sunshine of the day.

Dry Creek Crossing. I saw several trail signs, but that’s the only official trail blaze (the silver diamond) I saw in the three days I spent in Paddy Creek Wilderness. Copyright © 2020 Gary Allman, all rights reserved.

I stopped for lunch by Little Paddy Creek and decided to go all woodsman. I didn’t filter my water, I boiled it using the woodstove. It would have been a good idea, except it started to rain, and the wood, which I thought was dry, was damp. After a lot of smoke, I got the water boiling and had oats and a cup of hot chocolate. I did have a picture of the stove in action, but it was out of focus, so there’s no record.

The climb out of the hollow that I had been dreading was easy. in ten minutes and I was almost out. Fifteen minutes and I was back on the ridge heading towards the next milestone, the point where there is a short-cut back to the North Loop.

Trail Junction – Shortcut through to the North Loop on the left and the South Loop continues to the right. Copyright © 2020 Gary Allman, all rights reserved.

What I hadn’t realized is that there used to be a homestead here. The chimney of the house is right by the trail, as is a well.

Nearby I found this circular foundation.

Circular Foundation – Paddy Creek, I’ve no idea, it doesn’t appear to be the base of a grain silo (it would be an odd place for one). Copyright © 2020 Gary Allman, all rights reserved.

There were lots of yucca plants around, which is another sign that you are in an old settled area.

A couple of minutes later I noticed a spur-trail to the right running alongside an intermittent creek. Creeks and trails usually mean there’s something to see, so I followed the trail which ended in the creek plunging off of a sixty-foot Bluff, I suspect it looks spectacular when the creek is in spate.

Intermittent Falls at Paddy Creek Wilderness – These falls look to be around 60ft, I’d love to see them running. Note the stone table. Copyright © 2020 Gary Allman, all rights reserved.

There was even a miniature Paddy Creek version of Norway’s Trolltunga (troll tongue). I would have liked to have taken a picture of myself standing on it, but I judged it was just too far away for me to sensibly get to in the 10-seconds my camera’s timer gives me.

Paddy Creek’s answer to Trolltunga? I wanted to get a picture of myself here, but the distance was too great for me to get to the rock in 10 seconds. Copyright © 2020 Gary Allman, all rights reserved.

The rest of the hike was pretty uneventful. I ventured off the trail once more for another overlook, and then it was time to drop down again to the creek. I explored around a bit and then headed east to Big Paddy Creek, which I crossed (cold and knee-deep) and then headed up the creek looking for somewhere to stop for the night.

The creek had flooded and scoured out a lot of the low lying land making the going difficult. However, I soon found a spot to my liking a few hundred yards south of the main trail. The ground was rough and rocky, but that’s no problem with my hammock.

Here’s a picture from the next morning – looking up the creek hollow, south.

Camped near Big Paddy Creek – the area had been scoured by floods. Copyright © 2020 Gary Allman, all rights reserved.

I heated water for some food and a drink. It was getting cold, so I gathered some of the washed down wood, and got a fire going. The wood was damp, and the wind blowing quite hard, so after an hour of so, I let the fire die down and retreated back into my hammock for the night.

Day One Stats

Day Two – Sunday, February 16, 2020

Camped near Big Paddy Creek – Morning of Day Two. The area had been scoured by floods. Copyright © 2020 Gary Allman, all rights reserved.

The predicted overnight temperature was in the mid-thirties. True to my previous experiences, it dropped lower, at just below freezing at 30°F. Watching the sun shining on the western side of the creek, I regretted my decision to camp on the eastern side, which was in deep in the shade of a ridge. The sun didn’t make it to where I was camped until after 9:00 a.m.

Big Paddy Creek. Copyright © 2020 Gary Allman, all rights reserved.

As usual, I took my time making breakfast of oats and a cup of hot chocolate and getting ready for the day’s hike. I didn’t get on the trail until 11:20 a.m. The first part of the day’s hike took me over the shoulder of a ridge, which involved a 200ft climb and descent to meet up again with Big Big Paddy Creek on the other side of the ridge. It didn’t take long. Half an hour later I was crossing Paddy Creek Road, a gravel road that has some traffic. I didn’t see any vehicles, but I did hear a couple.

Paddy Creek Road marks the north-eastern boundary of Paddy Creek Wilderness, so once on the road, you are back in Mark Twain National Forest. Though if my memory and the GPS is correct the Paddy Creek Campground Trailhead is actually by the Campground access road.

It took me a couple of minutes to find where the trail picked up on the opposite side of the road. I was looking for the trail straight across the road, but the trail restarts a little to the left (north), I was then on the last part of the drop back down to Big Paddy Creek, with just the blacktop road leading to Paddy Creek Campground left to cross.

Paddy Creek Campground Trailhead. Copyright © 2020 Gary Allman, all rights reserved.

Paddy Creek Campground (and the road to it) is closed for the winter season, though you can hike in and camp. I should have explored the campground, but my late start decided me against it.

The road into Paddy Creek Campground was closed for the winter. Copyright © 2020 Gary Allman, all rights reserved.

At least where the trail picked up was easy to spot at this point.

Trail down to Big Paddy Creek. Copyright © 2020 Gary Allman, all rights reserved.

A couple of minutes later I was back by Big Paddy Creek, which was swollen by the addition of the waters of Little Paddy Creek.

Big Paddy Creek – Now I’ve to get to the top of that ridge… Copyright © 2020 Gary Allman, all rights reserved.

It was midday, but I resisted the temptation to stop and have lunch. I had a 300ft. Ridge on the north side of Big Paddy Creek to climb, and another 4-5 miles to go before I reached where I planned to camp for the night. Which meant I’d be setting up camp between 5:00 and 6:00 p.m. as it started getting dark.

I stopped for a few minutes to take some pictures and then filter some water to last me the afternoon. I promised myself a snickers bar when I got to the bottom of the ridge to set me up for the climb, and lunch when I got to the top.

Stopped for water by Big Paddy Creek – Zpacks Arc Haul backpack. Copyright © 2020 Gary Allman, all rights reserved.

Where the trail restarted on the opposite side of the creek was looking uncertain from my vantage point on the south side of the creek. I finally spotted a bit of pink ribbon tied to a tree about 100 yards downstream.

Getting ready to cross Big Paddy Creek – I have one word. Cold. It took me ages to spot the trail marker to pick up the trail on the other side. (It’s a tiny bit of pink tape – there was no official marker). Copyright © 2020 Gary Allman, all rights reserved.

The creek was cold, but not deep. I took is slowly as I didn’t want to take a tumble and get myself all wet.

Big Paddy Creek – Looking back across the creek. The next section was more like bushwhacking than hiking. Copyright © 2020 Gary Allman, all rights reserved.

Flooding had paid havoc with the next section of the trail. It was a lot more like bushwhacking than hiking with no clear trail in several places. As the area between the creek and the ridge narrowed, I was able to find the trail again and the trail turned away from the creek. It took me half an hour to get to the bottom of the ridge and a trail marker for Big Piney Trail. Good, I was in the right place and on the right trail. I ate my promised pre-climb Snickers bar.

Starting up the ridge – it’s not too bad, only 300ft. Copyright © 2020 Gary Allman, all rights reserved.

The climb was steep in places but in under half an hour I was on the first summit of the ridge.

Looking towards the Big Piney River – I couldn’t make out if the light colored area was grass or scoured shingle. Copyright © 2020 Gary Allman, all rights reserved.
Stopping for a picture – and to catch my breath. Copyright © 2020 Gary Allman, all rights reserved.

The map said the trail skirts around the first summit. The reality was that the summit must be far too interesting to most hikers, so the trail actually goes right over the top. There’s not much of a view though, but the sunshine made for a nice picture even if you couldn’t really see the horizon.

First Summit – Paddy Creek Wilderness. It only took me 25 minutes to get here from the bottom. However, there’s still another 100ft. Or so to go. Copyright © 2020 Gary Allman, all rights reserved.

The following section did surprise me. I’m used to the narrow, and high, ridge trail on the Devil’s Backbone. But this was much more impressive. Just as narrower and a lot higher.

The ridge at the top – This really puts the Devil’s Backbone in to context, it’s twice as high and just as narrow. Paddy Creek Wilderness. Copyright © 2020 Gary Allman, all rights reserved.

By 1:30 p.m. I’d got to the overlook at the top of the ridge, and I was ready to stop for lunch. There was a fire ring, complete with a supply of wood, and I was tempted to break out my wood stove and heat up some water for a hot drink and lunch. But I still had a long way to go, so I decided it would be better to have a short rest, eat some nuts and raisins, and my second Snickers bar.

Scenic overlook at the top of the ridge – The tree to the left is most odd, it has three trunks. Copyright © 2020 Gary Allman, all rights reserved.

Shortly after 2:00 p.m., I was at the point where the spur trail from the Big Piney Trail Camp (an equine camping area) joins the trail.

North Loop – Good, I’m still on the trail. Near the spur to the Big Piney Trail camp. Copyright © 2020 Gary Allman, all rights reserved.

Unfortunately, I didn’t do enough research before my trip and I missed an opportunity for a spectacular view. I’ve since discovered that if I’d taken a short(-ish) road hike from here, I could have visited the cave and Slabtown overlook, which, from what I’ve seen so far offers a view to rival that of the Goat Trail on the Buffalo River in Arkansas. Well, that’s another reason to go back and re-hike this trail.

Forty-five minutes later and I was crossing the gravel Paddy Creek road again and heading back into Paddy Creek Wilderness. I still had a fair way to go though!

Big Piney Trailhead, All Motor Vehicles Prohibited – looking back the way I’ve just come where the trail crosses Paddy Creek Road. Copyright © 2020 Gary Allman, all rights reserved.

Large parts of the trail, thus far and in patches, as I carried on hiking, ran through pine forest. Which is good as the surface is nice and easy to hike on.

At one point I came to a trail junction which from the map looks like it drops down into a small non-wilderness parcel of land. Wherever it goes, some effort had been put into making sure people follow the Big Piney Trail, and not go off-trail at this point.

Not wanting to be looking for water and a place to camp in the dark, I concentrated on hiking over the next section which ran over a few hollows and through oak and pine woods.

Approaching ‘Facerock’. Copyright © 2020 Gary Allman, all rights reserved.
I see a face – I think I’ll call this Facerock. It would have been a good place to stop, but I wanted to get to my planned camping spot long before it got dark. Copyright © 2020 Gary Allman, all rights reserved.

The first of several creeks I crossed. I stopped here to refill my water bottle.

Water stop – My first chance to fill up my water bottle since I’d left Paddy Creek. Copyright © 2020 Gary Allman, all rights reserved.

I arrived at the confluence of the three creeks where I’d planned to camp unexpectedly. That often happens. The last part of a hike flies-by. It was around 4:30 p.m. and I had plenty of time to find somewhere to camp and set up my hammock before it got dark. There was a well-used spur trail crossing the creek, I followed it across the creek and then started bushwhacking back along parallel to the creek to get well away from the trail. After my usual period of hunt the perfect spot to camp, it started threatening to rain as I set up my hammock.

Camped for the Night – Paddy Creek Wilderness, Day Two – It’s great when a plan comes together. The location I’d earmarked for my second night’s camp was at the confluence of three creeks. I was sure there would be water near here, and there was. I toyed with stopping earlier, but I didn’t want to have too far to go on the last day. Copyright © 2020 Gary Allman, all rights reserved.

Hammock up, water gathered, I gathered some wood so I could light the wood burner, but gusting winds decided me against having a fire. Instead, I got out my alcohol stove and heated my water for dinner with that. I was going to have oats for dessert, but somehow I’d miscounted my supply of oats and only packed three and not four. I didn’t worry about it, had my meal and a cup of hot chocolate, and retired to read in my hammock. It had been a good day.

Day Two Stats

Day Three – Monday, February 17, 2020

The sky was clear overnight, but by the morning the cloud had rolled in and it was dreary. The temperature had dropped to a low of 43°F, I was nice and toasty, though the wind kept finding its way between my under quilt and hammock.

While I was heating water for a hot drink and breakfast a brief shower of rain started to pitter-patter on the tarp. With rain in the forecast, I decided to get moving as quickly as possible and try and beat the worst of it. It was only 4.7 miles back to the parking lot, but I had a set of falls to visit on the way.

I did not check the topography in detail before coming out. A close look at the map showed that I’d be crossing quite a few hollows, so there would be more hills to climb than I was expecting. More exercise, not a problem! That’s why I’m out hiking. And if it started to rain heavily, I have wet-weather gear.

I did a wet weather pack up. That involves taking everything down and packing it all away with the tarp set. Much to my surprise, I was ready to hit the trail at ten after nine. That must be a record!

Ten minutes later I was at the trail junction where the short cut from the South Loop joins.

At the North Loop Junction of the shortcut between the North and South Loops. Copyright © 2020 Gary Allman, all rights reserved.
At the North Loop Junction of the shortcut between the North and South Loops. In front of me, the way back to Roby Lake Trailhead. Copyright © 2020 Gary Allman, all rights reserved.

This section of the trail quickly widened out into what must have been a forest road. There were shallow drainage ditches on either side of the ‘road’ which is very unusual.

Partway along the ‘road’ I spotted what looked to my untutored eyes like a very small bunker access hatch a short way off the trail, which I had to investigate.

Did I take a peek inside? Of course. I wasn’t at all surprised by what I found, and it made me chuckle. I didn’t take a picture, and I’m not saying what I found. If you want to find out what’s down there you’ll have to hike out and find out for yourself.

An old trash/swill collector – It’s been used as a firepit, and has a new resident. I didn’t spoil the fun by taking a picture, you’ll have to look for yourself. Copyright © 2020 Gary Allman, all rights reserved.

Back home I did some image searches and found out that these were used as in-ground trash or swill containers. This one had been used as a fire pit, and now had a new resident. And that’s all I’m saying.

Another few minutes and there were branches and a small tree spread across the road. I’ve learned my lesson about closed trails, and looked around. The trail turned left leaving the road, and not much further on there was a healthy-looking stock pond.

Stock Pond – the trail leading here was following a wide forest road, which even had drainage ditches on either side. The trail past the pond is faint, and bears to the left (going counter-clockwise). Copyright © 2020 Gary Allman, all rights reserved.

As I’m finding, sometimes working out where the trail leaves a stock pond site can be difficult. In this case, the trail headed out to left (south-ish) past the pond, and down into the first hollow of the day’s hike.

Trailside Campsite – The wilderness rules say you shouldn’t camp within 100ft of the trail or a water source. I stick to that as well as I can judge the distances, but most of the fire rings I find are almost on top of the trail. When I saw this ravine, I knew there would be a campsite nearby. Copyright © 2020 Gary Allman, all rights reserved.

Down in the hollow I stopped to take a selfie and a picture of the creek. I didn’t need to top up with water, I was planning on doing that when I got to the falls.

Feeder creek in Paddy Creek Wilderness – (to Little Paddy Creek). No need to stop here, I’m planning on getting some water and rewarding myself with a Snickers bar when I get to a set of fall’s that I’ve read about. Copyright © 2020 Gary Allman, all rights reserved.
Gary in Paddy Creek Wilderness (Day Three) – I’d just dropped down into this hollow, which of course means I’ve now got to climb out the otherside! Copyright © 2020 Gary Allman, all rights reserved.

The rain was misting, not enough to warrant wet weather gear, and just enough to get everything damp. As I was going to be finishing the hike in a few hours I decided not to bother with rain gear unless it really started to rain hard. Once again I wished the camera was weather sealed. I put the camera away to keep it dry – so no more pictures for a while.

A little over an hour later and I was looking down on the falls. I toyed with the idea of not stopping, but I was out of water, and decided it might be worth taking some pictures even if it was a dull, gray day. The trail goes right past the falls anyway, so the diversion was minimal.

Small Falls at Paddy Creek Wilderness – I stopped here to fill my water bottle and eat a well earned Snickers bar. Copyright © 2020 Gary Allman, all rights reserved.

I thought I’d try and get a selfie by the falls. I wasn’t quick enough the first time and barely made it into the picture.

Almost made it – Ten seconds isn’t a lot of time to run around the edge of the pool so you can appear in the picture. Copyright © 2020 Gary Allman, all rights reserved.

I did better on my second attempt.

Gary by the falls – I did a lot better with my second attempt. I really must start bringing my wireless shutter release out on my trips. Copyright © 2020 Gary Allman, all rights reserved.

Just the final push back to the trailhead and parking lot to do. That took just an hour to complete.

Paddy Creek Wilderness Trip Over – Three days, two nights, 1720ft ascent and 17.5 miles. I’ll take that. Copyright © 2020 Gary Allman, all rights reserved.

End of Trip Thoughts

  • I prefer the Trangia over the Fancee Feest stove, even if the latter is lighter.
  • I like Paddy Creek Wilderness, I’ll be back. There’s the most impressive Slabtown overlook still to visit.
  • The woodstove worked well, I just have to make sure the wood is dry. I only used it once on this trip so I’m going to have to take it out on another trip to see if it is a viable alternative.
  • I must remember that, if there’s a choice I should always camp where the sun will shine first thing in the morning.
  • The Zpacks Arc Haul backpack is the most comfortable pack I’ve owned to date. I can’t wait to try it out with a lighter load.
  • Anywhere where a trail runs through a flood plain the trail is going to get washed out, so expect to do some bushwhacking.

Day Three Stats

What do you think?

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