Eager to find a new sort of ground to cover, we turned our attention to the St. Francois Mountain area for our Spring Break trip. The St. Francois Mountains are an ancient granite mountain range that stands, literally, as an island in the limestone and dolomite former sea beds that are the Ozarks Plateau. Instead of the usual tan and white Ozarks rocks, this region is strewn with boulders and rocks of maroon rhyolite and pink granite.
Day 1, Getting to Bell Mountain Wilderness
The children typically spend Spring Break with their father so that means we need to get them to the train station in St. Louis and then pick them back up a week later. With the price of gas being what it is and with the itch for the outdoors being what it is, we like to turn Spring Break into a backpacking trip. Last year we hiked the Berryman Trail.
The original plan was to car camp at Meramec State Park the first night so we could take our time in St. Louis (REI was calling) and not have to pitch the tent in the dark. But the forecast for later in the week was looking grim
It was a pretty drive with the late afternoon sun lighting up the newly green pastures. We found the north trailhead of Bell Mountain Wilderness without incident. The gravel road to the trailhead was well maintained and easy going. However, there was only a small parking area and no place to camp. We had another hour until sundown so we decided to load up the packs with two days’ supplies and head out onto the trail. We figured we’d find a flat spot soon enough and set up camp for the night.
We didn’t get rained on and we didn’t find a site until nearly three miles in when we started down the main loop in the center of the Wilderness. It wasn’t perfect but it was good enough.
Day 2 Bell Mountain Wilderness
The day started warm and breaking camp worked up a sweat. In all our wandering around in the dark trying to find a flat spot for the tent the night before, we had inadvertently finished up a bit closer to the trail than we typically like. As I was taking down the tent we saw hikers going down the trail which was a mere 50 feet away. Oops.
We continued down the hill and for some reason my feet were killing me. I staggered and stumbled as the trail descended into Joe’s Creek. It was a wide, forested creek drainage and that meant lots of wildflowers that I had to stop to take pictures of. Just before the trail rounded a corner and went up another creek, we found an area that looked to be a former homestead. Others have obviously found this area to be nice as there were two fire rings where people pitch camps.
Before we left the creek, we stopped to fill up with water. Then we started the 400 ft climb to the ridge of Bell Mountain itself.
Near the top of the ridge we found our first exposure to the granite boulders that the St. Francois mountains are known for. I was surprised to find them to be a dark maroon color, not at all like the gray granite I was expecting. The rocks, however, appear gray because they’re covered with lichens of all sorts.
Once on the ridge, the trail became smooth and flat and easy. We saw evidence of recent horse traffic but the trails didn’t show as much horse wear and tear as we’re used to in southern Missouri. The view on either side of the ridge was great. Soon we began the last climb to the top of Bell Mountain at 1702 feet. There was a large and bare fire ring and camp site at the summit but it looked a bit too dirty for my taste. We checked with the weather radio for the forecast and decided to carry on and go down the mountain.
Before that, though,
We continued down the hill, marveling at the 25 foot boulders strewn on the hill. The trees were short and stunted, the bark was gray, the boulders were gray, it had a surreal and otherworldly feel. Gary asked me, jokingly, if I had the change in scenery that I had been seeking. I had. It was wonderful. At some point going down the hill, though, I got myself turned around (which never happens) and was convinced we were going in a direction that the sun, the map, and the GPS all told me was incorrect. Oh well. I accepted that I sometimes make mistakes. But even now, that part of the trail feels turned around in my head.
We could see on the topo map that there was a good flat area to camp ahead so we headed there. We had a nice evening sitting in our chairs on the flat rocks of a glade. I was shocked to see evidence of a campfire on these rocks. You should never, ever camp on a glade as it’s a fragile environment that doesn’t recover quickly from human damage. We saw some wild turkeys and heard some owls. And just as the sun was setting I could see a bright light in the western sky. I assumed it was sunlight reflecting on an airplane. No, it was Venus. And the sun was not yet down. How odd.
Day 3 Hiking out of the wilderness and where to go next?
We woke to another perfect and unseasonably warm sunny day. The trip back to trailhead was uneventful. The trail surface is very easy going throughout this wilderness with none of the large rocks and difficult footing that we often see in the western part of the Ozarks. On the way out we passed what appeared to be a very old pile of trash. Later we checked the cans online and reckon they are from the seventies,
We were out of water and thinking of how good a swim in a creek would feel. The map told me that the western trailhead of Bell Mountain Wilderness was near a creek. And sure enough it was. So we sneaked off down behind the bushes to the creek and dove in.
The weather story underlying all our decisions on this trip was a cut-off low pressure system sitting over Kansas and western Missouri. Each day the forecast would call for the system to come eastward and put an end to our good weather with heavy rains. While we don’t mind camping in the rain, we don’t want to be in a situation where we’re behind creeks in heavy rain. At first we expected we’d stay at Johnson’s Shut-Ins State Park for a couple of nights but now we found the forecast had put off the storm system another day and we could still make another day backpacking. But where? The day was getting late.
We had a few limited maps I’d printed off and a couple of jpegs saved on our netbook but really no idea about what the area held except for the Wildernesses and State Parks. Signs for camping almost always mean commercial RV sites.