Many years ago, I read about hammock camping on Bell Mountain and the beautiful dawn vistas to be had looking out over Shut-in Creek. Ever since I read that article, I’ve wanted to camp on the summit and watch the sunrise.
However, Bell Mountain is a busy trail, and the area near the peak is a very popular camping spot. I needed to arrange my trip so that there would be more chance of my having the place to myself. A late February forecast of bad weather on a Friday, followed by a couple of days of warm sunny weather decided me on a two-night stay and a lazy three-day hike of the eleven mile Bell Mountain Trail loop. Hopefully, the bad weather would put people off hiking to the top of Bell Mountain and staying there Friday Night. For my second night, I planned to bushwhack way off-trail down Joe’s Creek, so even if there were a lot of people around, they shouldn’t be near me.
I had another couple of reasons for wanting to fit this trip in now. I was a few miles short of my monthly 20-mile backpacking target, and Monday I would be starting working full-time again, so three-day trips might be more challenging to organize going forward.
Bell Mountain Wilderness – Day One
It’s a three-hour, 172 mile, drive from Springfield to the North Trailhead of Bell Mountain Wilderness. Following the example of all my recent trips, it rained most of the way. A short downpour welcomed my arrival at the small, but thankfully empty, North Trailhead road-side parking lot shortly before 1:00 p.m. I sat in the car waiting for the rain to ease off and cleared up a couple of work-related questions while I waited (one of the ‘joys’ of smartphones). The rain stopped, the skies brightened, and it was time to get on my way. There’s no water on Bell Mountain, which meant my pack was weighed down with a gallon of water (8lbs).
This wasn’t my first hike of the Bell Mountain Trail. We backpacked here during Spring Break 2012, again staying two nights. Then we’d gone around the loop counter-clockwise. This time I’d be going the opposite way around.
Starting at the North Trailhead, the trail begins with a spur trail that goes southwest to meet the main loop. You are immediately made aware of the difference in the geology here on the central and east side of the state. Gone is the karst geology of the western Ozarks, which is replaced by predominantly volcanic geology. Near the trailhead that manifests itself as a lot of large lichen-covered boulders spread across the hillsides on either side of the trail. The good news is that the Bell Mountain Trail isn’t quite as rugged and hard to hike on.
One thing I’d forgotten from my last visit, or hadn’t noticed, was how wet and muddy the spur trail was.
About fifteen minutes into the hike it started to rain. I stopped and put on my rain gear and within a few minutes, it began to hail. Hard. There was a very short partial white-out, and I was enjoying myself. I resisted the temptation to try and get a picture while the hail was at it’s worst, but I did grab a picture as it eased off. Once it cleared and the sun came out, it was magic, with all the light glinting off the ice and hail.
The temperature had dropped, and I decided that rather than wrestle with my poncho again, I’d keep it on. The wind was picking up, and the poncho kept the wind at bay, and I was only wearing a shirt. I did think that I might overheat with the poncho on but that wasn’t the case.
It took me around three hours to get to the top of Bell Mountain. I should make it clear that ‘mountain’ is a bit of a misnomer. At 1702 ft and just a little over 500 ft above Shut-in Creek, it’s just a big hill. But ‘mountain’ sounds a whole lot more impressive. I’ve never been able to claim that I’ve slept on the top of a mountain before 🙂
I’d not explored much around the summit on our previous visit. What I found as I looked around was more camping spots and minor trails than you could shake a fully extended hiking pole at. As I’d expected, the area had been picked clean of wood, and there were lots of signs of people hacking things down to create their own deadfalls. On the plus side, I had the entire summit to myself, and the view was spectacular.
The threat of rain had me hastily setting up my tarp to provide somewhere to keep myself and my stuff dry. The rain soon cleared, and I got on with setting up camp and attending to camp chores.
There were plenty of small twigs and branches around, which I collected for my wood burning stove. Earlier, due to the rain, I had decided not to make lunch on the trail. I had a combined lunch and dinner after I’d set up camp. I used the wood burner to heat the water for my meals and it worked well. This is an experiment that appears to be working very well.
Day One Stats
Bell Mountain Wilderness – Day Two
The night was exceptionally clear, with vast swaths of brilliantly twinkling stars, that even my poor eyesight could make out. Once again, it was a lot colder than forecast with a low of 26°F (-3.3°C).
My alarm woke me at 6:00 a.m. in plenty of time for dawn, which was due around 6:30 a.m. However, the colder than forecast temperatures threw a spanner in my pre-dawn photography plans. I foolishly hadn’t kept my camera warm overnight, and it is prone to fogging until it has had a chance to warm up thoroughly. I stuffed it next to my body and tried to warm it up as quickly as possible. I tried grabbing a few shots, but they were all fogged up. I managed to almost warm it up by the time dawn arrived, but venturing out of the hammock wasn’t going to work as it fogged up again once it was outside. The only solution was to take all my pictures from the hammock.
I hadn’t realized how cold it had been until I noticed that there was still frost on the tarp three hours later.
I spent a lazy morning admiring the view, taking pictures, and relaxing. There was no real rush as the hike today was going to be relatively short, and most unusually, all downhill. The implication being that my hike the next day would be all uphill hadn’t wholly escaped me.
As I’ve already stated, Bell Mountain Trail is popular. Which is good, as the trail is easy to follow, I can’t remember anywhere where I had difficulty keeping to the trail. The downside is that a lot of people use it. I met three guys hiking up the trail shortly after I’d left the summit.
I stopped briefly at the trail junction where the spur trail from the Ottery Creek Trailhead joins the trail. A troop of five scouts and three adults arrived shortly afterward. They were also heading clockwise around the trail and planned to hike round to the summit, where they would camp overnight. It seems I picked the right night to camp on the top of the mountain. Not wanting to get in their way, I cut short my stop and hiked down the ridge towards Joe’s Creek. I stopped only to grab a picture of a rock that I remembered photographing on our last visit.
I stopped at a fire ring at the bottom of the ridge to eat some lunch and check the map. I was checking at what point I should leave the trail and start bushwhacking to my planned camping area. A guy collecting water from the creek joined me for a chat. He was camped with his wife further up the ridge and was pleased I hadn’t spotted their tent as I came down the trail (I, on the other hand, was none too happy that I’d missed it!) Their hike was in preparation for their fifth hike of the Camino de Santiago. I know a couple of people who have completed the Camino, enabling me to engage in some semi-intelligent conversation on the topic.
The troop of scouts came past while we were busy chatting. I think they were hoping to stop at the fire ring where we were, but they carried on a hundred yards or so and went off-trail to take a rest.
Rested and some lunch eaten, I headed off, passing the scouts again, I then upped my pace so I could be off the trail before we had a third encounter. I was so intent on getting ahead that I overshot the point where I intended to start bushwhacking. I decided to backtrack (quickly) and while doing so ran into another couple. The guy said they’d seen a hog. My conversational reserves were expired, and I replied, “And the trail is overrun with scouts too.” They must have thought I was mad.
There were lots of signs of hogs around, and as I started bushwhacking along the creek I saw a lot more. I found a spot to my liking just before 2:00 p.m. and set up my hammock. It wasn’t long after that I heard a lot of noise in the underbrush and watched as a hog come running into view. It spotted me, turned around and crashed back into the brush not to be seen again. It was 50-100 yards away, and moving fast, so I couldn’t be sure of its sex, but I got a good enough view to be sure it was a feral hog.
Okay, that’s black bears, rattle snakes, copperheads, and feral hogs crossed off of my list of potentially aggressive critters to be encountered while on the trail.
I spent a lazy afternoon and evening just enjoying being out in the woods. I didn’t bother with a fire, but I did use my wood burner to cook my dinner.
Day Two Stats
Bell Mountain Wilderness – Day Three
It was a warm (44°F) night. I used the wood burner again to heat water for breakfast and hot chocolate before breaking camp. Originally I had planned on having a very lazy start to the day, but I got a message from Ginger (thank you Garmin In-Reach and satellite technology). The kids were coming round late afternoon for our monthly family dinner. So I hurried to pack up and get underway so I could be home before 5:00 p.m.
I’d just got everything packed away when I heard and then saw someone 100 yards away bushwhacking down the creek — this wilderness was turning out to be far too busy for my liking — he saw me and came over. He was looking for an old trail and was in luck. Earlier I had come across the trail just 50′ to the north of my camp. He went on his way west down the old trail, and I headed east. Before long the trail petered out and I bushwhacked my way back to the Bell Mountain Trail.
Once on the trail, and at the start of the ridge, I discovered that I was right, and it was going to be an uphill hike. Pretty much all the way.
It took me an hour and a half to get to the spur trail leading to the trailhead and another hour to get to the trailhead. The spur trail was noticeably drier than it had been on Friday. I saw another eight people on the hike out, including one young gentleman who told me I looked splendid. I’m sure this is some modern form of verbal abuse, but I took it at face value and thanked him.
Back at the trailhead, the previously empty parking lot was full.
My speedy exit paid off, and I was back in Springfield just after 4:00 p.m.
Day Three Stats
- Keep my camera warm if I am going to use it when it is cold.
- The wood burner is a suitable replacement for the alcohol stove when I have time to collect and process wood and wait the extended boil time.
- I am going to have to accept that I’ll meet people on the trail if I am going to keep hiking in the warmer weather.
- The poncho worked well at keeping the wind off of me. I was only wearing a shirt, and it kept me warm.
It was a great hike only marred by the number of people on the trail — and that’s my problem not theirs. I managed to close out February with 24.9 miles hiked (some people do that in a day), and four nights in my hammock. So I’m on target so far. I’d love to see the dawn again with a fully functioning camera, given how popular the trail is I’ll need to judge the weather just right again to have the top of Bell Mountain to myself.