School’s out for the summer, so there’s no school run to worry about. Lanie’s staying with her grandparents for a few days. The big kids are old enough to be left home alone. What better opportunity to get in a few days backpacking?
Our plan – to spend three days backpacking in Piney Creek Wilderness, exploring and mapping the trails on the south side of the wilderness.
Day one: Tower Trail, Siloam Spring Trail & Tar Kiln Trail
One thing was obvious from the start. Water was going to be fairly scarce on this trip. Which meant I had to carry 15lbs (6 liters) of water for a large portion of the hike.
Hoping to find water either in the creek or at the spring, we started off with just the water in our bottles. The hike down the Tower Trail went without incident – we stopped to take some pictures to try and show how steep and rough the trail is, I’m not sure the pictures really capture it, but in places it is very steep with large rock steps to descend/ascend.
At the bottom of the first descent we decided to take an unmarked trail down the hollow rather than climbing the 80ft. up to the ridge. There was some water in the creek here which gave us hope for finding water in Piney creek. The unmarked trail, which we named the ‘Lower Tower Trail’, was overgrown in places, but fairly even going. It has a lot of creek crossings which were completely dry but quite wide and obviously run well at times. This trail will be wet when the creeks have water.
Crossing the creek a final time we found a large snapping turtle, around 18 inches across, obviously stranded by the receding waters. There was nothing we could do but let nature take its course.
As we expected the trail re-joined the main Tower Trail at the campsite near the Piney Creek crossing, which when we got to it was dry. We thought it might be pooled, but not completely dry. That fixed our plan. We’d go to Siloam spring, hopefully there was water there. We’ve not visited Siloam spring before, so we had no idea what to expect. If there was no water there, we’d have to retrace our steps and then take the Piney Creek Trail down to Table Rock Lake where there would definitely be water.
Taking Piney Creek Trail to the junction with Siloam Spring Trail, we noticed a pool of water in the creek bed. At first we decided to carry on up to Siloam Spring, then we decided that it’d be better to carry the the extra weight and filter a full 6 liters now.
Fully loaded with water we headed South up Siloam Spring Trail. The trail is fairly easy going but it follows the creek bed in a lot of places, which means some wet hiking when the Siloam Spring creek is running.
Despite its name, Siloam Spring Trail doesn’t go to Siloam Spring. After just under a mile the trail heads up the ridge to the east to meet up with the Tar Kiln Trail at the Tar Kiln Trail traihead. Despite having plenty of water we decided to see if we could find the spring, the trail very clearly split, so we had little doubt about carrying straight on.
After about 300 yards the trail turned west across the creek and started to climb. The trail was very steep and very loose, requiring quite a scramble. The total ascent to the spring is around 250 ft. and it felt like it was all in this one spot. Once we’d got up the trail leveled off and headed south along the contour line. There were a couple of small rough climbs, but in general the going was fairly easy. We passed the remains of an old building built into the side of the hill.
Shortly after we came upon Siloam spring, which consists of a pipe (barely) dripping into a concrete spring box. We decided to ditch the water we’d filtered earlier and fill up with fresh water filtered from the spring box. We looked around for somewhere to camp for the night, before deciding we’d keep going as the trail, obviously well travelled, led on to the south west. We guessed it was going to the wilderness boundary on Farm Road 2185.
The trail south from the spring soon turned into a very gentle climb westward up a hollow, before turning south and stopping at the road. We decided to walk the road to the South trailhead, and then venture along Tar Kiln Trail and camp somewhere off the trail on the top of the ridge. From the map we could see a stock pond near the trail, and that was the area we decided to aim for.
The walk along the road was straightforward but hard on the feet. We spotted some shell casings, but the roadside wasn’t overly littered with beer cans – which we take as a sign of locals partying, and areas to avoid.
The guides we’ve read suggest that Farm Road 2185 is very rough, and should only be tackled by an off road vehicle. From what we could see it has been recently graded, and is a typical graveled forest road. An average sedan with good ground clearance ought to be able to get along okay. The South trailhead was just a wide spot on the road, but offered a welcome relief from hiking on the road.
We bushwhacked north from the trailhead to find the trail to Tar Kiln Trail, which we did, quickly meeting Tar Kiln Trail itself. We backtracked a short way up Tar Kiln Trail, and found a campsite and primitive trailhead, which possible would require an off road vehicle to get to.
Tar Kiln Trail heads north along a ridge, is very obvious and easy going. We kept a look out for the stock pond, and bushwhacked off the trail along a ridge to west once we got to it.
Our camp for the night was on the top of the ridge which gave us a much needed breeze. Given the dry conditions, we weren’t going to have a fire, but the bugs were so thick we cleared a large area and lit one. The smoke drove off the bugs and we could enjoy our evening in peace. There was no chance of rain and it was still hot so we didn’t bother setting the fly on the tent.
Distance: 4.85 miles
Elevation gain: 839 ft.
Elevation loss: 917 ft.
Day Two: Tar Kiln Trail & ‘South Creek’ Trail
There were a few rustles in the night but nothing disturbed us. We spent a fair bit of time making sure the fire was cold, dispersing the ashes and covering up any sign that we’d been there.
The general lack of water in the wilderness set our plan for the day. We decided to hike down Tar Kiln Trail and then Piney Creek Trail to Table Rock lake and camp near the lake shore where we could take advantage of a guaranteed supply of water.
Bushwhacking back to Tar Kiln Trail we managed to loose our sense of direction for a short while, as we stumbled upon what we thought was a new trail. The trail turned out to be Tar Kiln Trail, it just wasn’t where we expected to find it! The northern part of the trail continues along the ridge rising and dipping before dropping steeply down to Piney Creek.
Further along the ridge I noticed a cut off post, and investigating closer we discovered our first Forest Service Location Poster survey marker, there must be hundreds of these around, but this is the first one we’ve seen.
After 1.5 miles we started the descent to Piney Creek. Only the trail, very clear, wasn’t heading in the direction we expected. It was heading north west not north east as the map shows. We decided to retrace our steps and find out where we’d gone wrong. We soon found the original trail, which wasn’t looking very well travelled, but we wanted to map it, so we started following it. It very quickly petered out, and we bushwhacked for a while trying to find traces of where the trail used to go. In the end we re-traced our route (again) and rejoined Tar Kiln Trail which obviously now descends down the western side of the ridge.
Hiking along the Piney Creek Trail in the past, we’ve noticed two trails joining from the south, and from the map we expected to join Piney Creek Trail from the eastern-most one. My guess was that the trail we were on would lead to the western of the two trails. And so it was. The last part of the descent is very steep and in wet weather looks to be very muddy and probably slippery too.
The trail finishes up running along a level overgrown area before joining Piney Creek Trail at one of the creek crossings, which we refer to as the ‘lunch stop’ as we had lunch there on a day hike with the girls back in November 2011. Piney Creek was dry of course. We decided to stop for lunch and take advantage of the shade.
We now headed east along Piney Creek Trail, looking for where the second southern trail joined. I remembered that it looked very well travelled which didn’t match with the assumption that it was the original end of the Tar Kiln Trail. We found the trail after going about 100 yards, and decided to go and see where it went. Ginger was pretty sure it went east alsong the south side of Piney Creek. After a surprisingly steep and slippery climb of over 100 ft. the trail hugged the contours going east. This bit of trail looks to be quite treacherous when the trail is wet, very muddy and soft ground.
The trail was easy to follow, and after .75 miles descended to the lake coming out at a campsite above the south shore. This makes it a much better way of getting to the lake, avoiding the hike along Piney Creek Trail, which gets heavily encroached by vegetation near the lake. The lake was significantly lower than on our previous visits, but there was plenty of water. This was good news as we’d drunk most of the water we were carrying. We left our packs at the campsite, crossed Buck Hollow and had a look at the lake.
Not wanting to be disturbed by any early morning equestrians who happened along, we decided to camp on the south side of the lake east of Buck Hollow. There was plenty of loose wood around, so we had an excellent fire on what had been the beach before the lake shrank. We spent the evening watching the sun go down, the stars come out and spotting satellites and shooting stars.
Distance: 3.57 miles
Elevation gain: 538 ft.
Elevation loss: 953 ft.
Day Three: ‘South Creek Trail’ & the Lake Trail
We wern’t disturbed at all in the night, which on inspecting the lake shore was quite surprising. Judging by the various prints, every animal in the area had passed nearby on its way to get a drink, including several deer, raccoons, and a bobcat.We decided we’d go back the way we had come, along what we called the ‘South Creek Trail’. Crossing Buck Hollow I sopped to look at a hollow in the creek bed mud. At first glance I thought a horse had stopped for a wallow. The hollow was far too small, on closer inspection, we could see bristle marks and prints of feral hogs.
It was getting hot, and the climb up away from the lake was hard work. As we paused for one of our many stops to draw breath we saw what we think was a blue racer (snake) which moved with amazing speed, seeming to glide over the leaf litter and fallen boughs far too quickly to be properly identified.
Ginger was on high alert for more snakes and we trod very carefully.
We decided to take the Lake Trail up out of the wilderness, it’s harder going than our recently discovered ‘Farm Track Trail’ but Ginger didn’t fancy that route saying it would be more ‘snakey’.
That meant we had to take the Piney Creek Trail west until it is joined by the Lake Trail. True to form the vegetation along the Piney Creek trail was very thick. So thick that Ginger got a whole lot closer to a very large timber rattlesnake sunning itself on the trail, than she’d have liked to. I wanted a picture, but my camera was in my backpack. By the time I’d got my pack off and camera out the timber rattler, a fantastic specimen, had grown tired of all the noise and attention and was slithering off the trail. Without thinking I went off in pursuit, camera in hand. I didn’t get more than a few feet before the absurdity and foolishness of my actions dawned on me, and I retreated back to trail without a single picture.
After that every stick was a potential snake, and Ginger had several false starts, and some not so false ones. Climbing up the Lake Trail, which by the way is much safer than descending it even if a lot more hard work, we saw a garter snake and a very pretty speckled kingsnake .
After what seemed an age, we got to the top of the ridge and the rest of the hike back to trailhead is fairly flat. At the stock pond, we stopped to look for the ‘official’ trail back to the parking lot – we’ve never been able to find it, always ending up taking Farm Road 2150. Someone has been busy and there was anew trail marker, the trail runs just behind the stock pond. As we’d just climbed the ridge we decided to leave exploring that route for another day and took the easy route back along the road.
And that would be the end of our trip except, just as we turned off the road onto the track to the trailhead a pickup went past, and a few moments later returned. The occupants were a pure Ozarkian couple, looking for Big Bay Recreation Area. As it happens I know exactly where it is and how to get there.
The idea of a Brit in the middle of the Ozarks giving a couple of locals directions amused me. I was immediately quizzed as to where I was from, informed that the guy knew Pete Best (Look up the Beatles), and his lady friend insisted on shaking my hand. The last time something like that happened to me, I was asked for my autograph while walking in the Nandi Hills of Karnataka, India.
Directions given, we finished our hike. The van was where we left it, and the air conditioning very welcome.
Hungry from the trail, on the way back up HWY13 we stopped in Spokane for lunch at Lillee’s Sunrise Grill & Catering where we had some very nice and very welcome burgers. It’s strange how you get to drool for meat after a couple of days of trail rations. We were told that, if you call ahead (417) 443-0005 your food will be ready and waiting. Now that’s service.
Update: Lillee’s has moved even closer to Piney Creek. They’re now at 22221 Main Street, Reeds Spring, MO.
Distance: 3.27 miles
Elevation gain: 882 ft.
Elevation loss: 387 ft.
Distance: 11.69 miles
Elevation gain/Loss: 2289 ft.