Why it’s Great: Just as Arizona has the Grand Canyon and Utah has Arches National Park, Missouri is home to a few of its very own geological wonders. And while we marvel over the massive rocks at Elephant Rocks and the rushing waters at Johnson’s Shut-Ins along with everyone else around here, our absolute favorite is the lesser-known Devil’s Honeycomb, an outcrop of polygonal columns of rhyolite (really awesome looking rocks) located at Hughes Mountain. Located on the mountain’s high point, these rocks were once liquefied by ancient volcanoes associated with the St. Francois Mountains. Some of the molten rock contracted and cracked, and as it cooled, it created this breathtaking geological masterpiece unlike anything you’ve ever seen. A quick 1.5-mile out-and-back hiking trail leads hikers up to the area, and there are glades, wooded forest and a variety of wild flowers to enjoy along the way. When you do make it to the top, take a second to look up and around, too–Hughes Mountain also offers a pretty magnificent view.
Why it’s Great: Missouri’s Irish Wilderness was settled by a Catholic priest and some 40 Irish families in 1858, but it was wiped out during the Civil War and has remained a secluded wilderness area ever since. Today its some 16,000 acres are particularly alluring to hikers, with the 18.6-mile White’s Creek Trail being the main form of travel across the lands. You’ll traverse through a variety of Missouri landscapes in this area of the Mark Twain National Forest, including dried creek beds, grasslands, glades and bluffs, and they’ll take in many jaw-dropping views of the rushing Eleven Point River. They’ll also find water at Whites Creek, the principal stream in the Irish Wilderness, and numerous other small streams that flow along the surface and then disappear underground. (Don’t forget your waterproof boots!) Camping and a two-day hike is recommended to see all of the sights here, which include Fiddler Springs, Bliss Springs, Whites Creek Cave and other caves along the trail near Whites Creek. There are a few good spots for backcountry camping, including spots near each of the springs and even an old homestead near Bliss Spring.
Twin Falls at Richland Creek Wilderness
Why it’s Great: Located deep in the Ozark National Forest and miles from any form of civilization, the Richland Creek Wilderness Area is often referred to as one of the most scenic areas in all of the Ozarks. The nearly 12,000-acre spot among the Boston Mountains is brought to life with swimming holes, cascades, bluffs, wildflowers, rock formations and much more, providing adventure seekers plenty to see and do on a two-day trip. And while there are no designated trails mapping their way through the entire wilderness, there is a system of old logging roads that runs throughout and provides an informal network of trails for hiking. There’s also an out-and-back Twin Falls “trail” that takes hikers from the Richland Creek Wilderness Campground to Twin Falls, and it’s one of our favorites. But be warned: This trail requires a bit of bushwhacking and includes two river crossings and a bit of traversing on bluffs, so it’s not for the novice hiker. Once you arrive at the falls, your hard work will be rewarded with views of the gorgeous 17- and 19-foot waterfalls where Long Devils Creek and Big Devils Forks Creek merge into one. Since the falls are fed by wet weather creeks, they’re best seen during the rainy spring season.
Devil’s Backbone Wilderness
Why it’s Great: Towering oaks, hickories and shortleaf pine trees shadow over the dusty trails that cut their way through Devils Backbone Wilderness. Part of the Mark Twain National Forest, this remote area is located roughly 20 minutes west of West Plains and takes its name from a centrally located long, narrow ridge known as Devil’s Backbone. Thirteen miles of trails wind their way across the backbone and four other ridges, then drop off into neighboring hollows and a dense forest that welcomes adventurous hikers with a blend of Missouri Ozarks flora and fauna. The woodlands come to life during the spring when the dogwoods, redbuds and wild azaleas are in full bloom, and fall is alive and thriving when the oaks, sweet gums and sugar maples transform the rugged topography into vibrant shades of gold, orange and red. In addition to the all-natural, growing landscape, hikers enjoy views of scattered limestone glades, three springs and the North Fork of the White River. Four trailheads provide entry to the Wilderness: Blue Spring Trailhead, Raccoon Hollow Trailhead, McGarr Ridge Trailhead and Collin’s Ridge Trailhead.
Bonus Short Cut: If you’re not up for the multi-mile trek and a possible overnight camp to explore it all, we suggest you park at the North Fork Campground and check out the Blue Spring Trail—a quick, .6-mile jaunt lined with lush vegetation and unique rock formations that parallels the North Fork of the White River and leads to scenic Blue Spring.
Why it’s Great: While this story is chock full of Ozarks hidden gems, The Narrows in Arkansas is perhaps the most hidden on the list. This almost island-like rock outcrop is located on the Buffalo River and overlooks the river as well as a small portion of the Ozarks Highlands Trail and Richland Creek. But if you want to see it, you’re going to have to work for it. No trails lead you to the majestic spot. Instead, most thrill seekers find their way here by starting at the Woolum Ford campground, crossing the river, hopping on the Ozark Highlands Trail for 1.25 miles and then, if they dare, slowly climbing their way up the rocky crop. If you want to give it a shot, be careful—
every step matters while you’re working your way up and down. But it’s definitely worth it. While you’re in the area, keep your eyes peeled: Fellow hikers have spotted herds of elk in the nearby field.
Caney Mountain Conservation Area
Trip Length: Overnight
Trail Length: 8.5 miles total (including both hiking trails and gravel roads)
Payoff: View from the top of High Rock Mountain
Location: Roughly two hours southeast of Springfield, near Gainesville
Why it’s Great: A day of exploring at the Caney Mountain Conservation Area leads adventurous hikers up steep ridges, down deep valleys and across nearly 8,000 acres abundant with gnarled old oaks, expansive glades and a plethora of wildlife. And we’re not just talking turkey and deer—this spot is home to collared lizards, roadrunners and even wild pigs. There are plenty of caves and springs to explore here, including the popular Spout Spring. In addition to a couple of trails throughout the area, the nearby roads are often frequently used for hiking excursions and offer views of numerous prominent peaks including Bear Cave Mountain, High Rock Mountain, Morrison Knob, Long Bald and Tater Cave Mountain. If you have some extra pep in your step, consider hiking to the top of High Rock mountain, where you can look across the scenic, rugged landscape of Caney Creek valley and see other surrounding mountainous knobs. On the south- and west-facing slopes of the mountain, you’ll find large open dolomite glades (known locally as balds) that fill with stunning wildflowers in the spring. For a quick hike, simply check out the cabin that sits close to the nearby area road.
Cedar Gap Conservation Area
Trip Length: Day trip
Trail Length: 1.6 miles total
Payoff: Valley overlook
Location: Roughly one hour east of Springfield, between
Seymour and Mansfield
Why it’s Great: When you’re in the mood for a quick day hike but you’ve grown tired of nearby trails at Busiek and the Springfield Nature Center, hop in the car, crank up the tunes, roll down the windows and head east. Located less than an hour from Springfield on Highway 60, the Cedar Gap Conservation Area is home to the Cedar Gap Plateau and recognized as the second highest point in Missouri. From the parking lot, day trekkers follow a gravel-surfaced trail lined with towering trees down to a gorgeous, secluded valley overlook that feels a million miles from civilization. Sit here a second, and take it all in. Then, if it was just a quick trip you were after, you can turn around and head back home. But we advise a little more exploring on the 1.6-mile loop trail that explores the remnants of an old limestone quarry, limestone glades and the bubbling Bryant Creek. You can find the headwaters here. There’s also a cabin on the property, which provides a fun resting point and fabulous photo op. We bet you had no idea that you could enjoy such a secluded hike after this simple drive.
While hiking on the Centerpoint Trail in northwest Arkansas, you can pick up a spur that leads you to the Goat Trail and Big Bluff, the tallest sheer bluff face between the Rocky and Appalachian Mountains.
Why it’s Great: Did you know that the tallest sheer bluff face between the Rocky and Appalachian Mountains is just a couple of hours away? Hikers hit up the Centerpoint Trail to enjoy a variety of natural landscapes, starting with a long stretch of dusty trail that weaves its way down a large hill through wooded Arkansas forest. After roughly an hour of hiking, you’ll pick up the spur that leads you to the Goat Trail, a narrow, rocky ledge that twists its way onto Big Bluff. Once you walk your way around this beautiful stretch of natural wonder, you’ll want to take a few minutes to rest and take in even more of the sights. When you’re standing on Big Bluff, you’ll look out to surrounding bluffs, dense forest and a couple of gorgeous stretches of the Buffalo River. It’s particularly fun in the late spring and summer when you can see and hear the kayakers and canoers below, and of course, it’s breathtaking during the fall with changing leaves and golden sunsets. Eat a snack before you head back to the car—like many hikes in the mountainous Buffalo River country, the trip out is basically uphill.
Pilots at Hercules Glades
Why it’s Great: The scenic Hercules Glades Wilderness features more than 12,000 gorgeous and mostly secluded rolling acres of the Mark Twain National Forest. The area is best known for “The Falls,” which you can reach by both the Coy Bald and Blair Ridge trailheads. But lots of people know about these falls, and lots of people hike to these falls. Don’t just be like all of these people. Instead, we recommend taking the road less traveled and starting at the Hercules Tower Trailhead (also known as the Pilot trailhead) on the wilderness’s east side. This will take you to the pilots—twin mountains that offer you breathtaking views to both the north and south. After taking the trail north from the parking lot, weave your way through the rugged landscape for a couple of miles. At roughly 2.25 miles you’ll see the upper pilot to your left. Go off trail, and make your way to the summit on the upper mountain. When you make it up you’ll find stone chairs to sit in and enjoy the views—which you’ll find in all directions—and even a few great spots to set up camp. If you do stay overnight, consider checking out those falls on day No. 2 if you haven’t seen them.
Find a Hiking Buddy
Looking to find a few pals to join you on the trails? These 417-land clubs and organizations are the perfect spot for making new forest-loving friends.
Ozark Mountain Trailblazers
Providing everything from outdoor education and training classes to guided trips, Hiking the Ozarks is a must-know group for all of those who love hitting the trails in southern Missouri and northern Arkansas. The group also organizes the Ozark Mountain Trailblazers Club, which was created to bring local outdoor enthusiasts together. It’s great for both newbs and experienced hikers. Learn more online by visiting hikingtheozarks.com or searching “Hiking the Ozarks” or “Ozark Mountain Trailblazers” on Facebook.
Springfield Conservation Nature Center Hiking Club
Volunteer naturalists of the Springfield Conservation Nature Center offer monthly organized hikes at local conservation areas, state parks and other hot hiking spots. You simply bring a lunch and your hiking gear, and you make friends as you cover the miles. Learn of upcoming hikes at mdc.mo.gov, and when reservations open each month, quickly call 417-888-4237 to snag a spot.
The Wilderness Adventure Group
On the second weekend of every month, The Wilderness Adventure Group gets together and travels to some of the most beautiful spots in the Ozarks to enjoy hiking and other outdoor fun. It’s simply a group of friends—old and new—having fun outdoors. If you’re eager to explore the Buffalo River area, Hercules Glades Wilderness, the Ozark Highlands Trail and much more, call Stephen Hurd at 417-693-6373 and tell him you’re up for an adventure.
Hike Your Best Hike
Tips provided by writer, editor and avid hiker Savannah Waszczuk
1. Stay Hydrated
While water is one of the heaviest things to pack, it’s also the most important. Be sure to plan plenty of water for your hike (roughly half a liter per mile, with more for strenuous hikes or in hot weather). To be safe, also pack a portable filter or purifying tablets just in case.
2. Plan Your Footwear
While sneakers can work for a variety of easy, flat trails, a hiking shoe or hiking boot is recommended, especially for longer hikes or when you’re packing weight. Pack extra socks in case your feet get wet (nothing is worse than hiking in wet socks), and also pack a pair of lightweight flip flops or sandals to change into when you set up camp. Your feet will thank you.
3. Stay Cool
If you’re hiking in the summer, you’ll definitely want a pack towel or other lightweight fabric to wipe your sweat. Also consider a hat to shade your face and a headband to keep your hair off of your neck.
4. Stay Warm
Cold weather hiking is all about layers. Merino wool pieces are a good investment and make great, lightweight base layers. After that, think about things that are less bulky and pack well, like vests, lightweight jackets and convertible pants.
5. Tell a Friend
Always let someone know where you’re going hiking, when you’re leaving and when you plan to return. This safety tip isn’t just for solo hikers–group hikers should also tell someone who isn’t joining them on their adventure. Be sure to provide as much information as possible, including specific starting and stopping trailheads and possible campsites.