Ozark Mountain Primitive Camping

Hiking is one of my favorite ways to exercise and my goal has always been to do more.  Facing a 10 day vacation I decided, in a moment of complete insanity, to ask my son to take me on one of his primitive overnight hiking/camping trips.  Let me tell you, I have not worked out that hard in quite a while.

Taum Sauk Lookout point

Close to the highest point in Missouri 1700+ miles above sea level.

Our first stop was the Mina Sauk Falls Trail at Missouri’s highest point, Taum Sauk which is 1700+ feet above sea level.  Located in Madison County, northeast of Mountain Grove and off Hwy 21 and CC, this picturesque spot was Cole’s first choice for overnight camping.  One thing about hiking in Missouri is that some trails are smooth and easy to navigate and some trails take so much concentration to keep from rolling your ankles, you never have a chance to look up.  Mina Sauk Falls Trail was in the latter category, though the scenery and falls (only running in wet conditions) were worth it.  I had to remind myself to deliberately stop occasionally to take a look around due to the minefield of rocks on the trail.  Big rocks, little rocks, mossy rocks, wet rocks-you get the idea.  Depending on your goal and the state of your ankles, you may want to limit your time on this particular trail.  It is partially paved for wheelchair access to the spot proclaiming Missouri’s highest point.  It took 3 hours to trek 3 miles with occasional stops for photo ops.  Check out the Scarlet Tanager Cole captured:

Scarlet Tanager

This cute little guy was worth stopping and looking for! Scarlet Tanager

Due to the restrictions and cost for primitive camping at this particular site, Cole decided to camp a few miles up the road at Johnson’s Shut In’s State Park in Reynolds County.  We parked at the Scour Trail trail head, strapped on our gear (mine must have weighed 35 lbs., at least) and headed in.  The time: 5:00 p.m.  That’s right, not very much time to hike in 2 miles over fairly rugged terrain and set up camp before darkness fell.  In the woods, dark comes early.  Of course, the trail gradually elevated, challenging my jiggly thigh muscles especially with the weight of gear, food and water on my back.  We had walked up a ridge and were about a quarter of a mile from our destination when I told Cole, “I can’t make it up another ridge like that one!”  He gamely took my pack from me, slid his arms into the straps and carried one backpack on his chest and one on his back while leading the way up an even more difficult ridge than the one I’d complained about!  Talk about service!

Once in the clearing of one of his favorite primitive campsites, Cole started looking for firewood while I caught my breath and chugged water.  Dry wood was plentiful on the ground so we didn’t have to look far to find enough to get a good campfire going, big enough to cook dinner and small enough to control with the water we had carried in if necessary.  Using dirt instead of our precious water supply is always preferable. Keeping the primitive in primitive camping, Cole used his flint and steel knife (pictured below) to start our campfire.  It took quite a bit of work and I did offer my lighter which would have taken less energy and been faster as well.  Note to self:  The drier the grass you start with, the better.

Flint and Steel

Flint and steel for primitive camp fires. I did offer my lighter which is much faster!

We had decided on hammock camping as they are light, easy to carry, set up in a trice and leave no trace.  We set up my 2 person hammock and Cole’s one person hammock close enough to each other to assist one another if needed-and it was needed.  On our hike through the deeper woods we had seen evidence of recent feral hog activity, putting the hammocks up fairly high seemed prudent, though we had brought a sidearm and 33 rounds along for the trip.  This area of Missouri is known for bears and feral hogs, so we were prepared for anything.

A few things about primitive camping that were challenging to me:

  1. I was cold, especially my back and butt, swinging in the breeze on a 64 degree night. I had not brought a sleeping bag.
  2. I do not like sleeping with my face open to nature. The two person hammock allowed me to cover my face and torso, but not my lower legs.  I had not expected this to be an issue, but the thought of any spider or insect being able to land on my nose kept me awake.
  3. Hiking 5 rugged miles did a number on those jiggly thighs and I was unable to get comfortable in the hammock without serious cramps-luckily Cole was close by to yank me out of the hammock when both thighs got Charlie horse cramps at the same time. I did manage to get into my hammock on the first try without flipping over and breaking something.

This is not my preferred way to camp, but, I got to try something I had never done, spend quality time with my youngest son, and learn how not to go about doing something like this again.  I will definitely try to keep down the actual mileage I attempt to hike with a pack next time, maybe just the 3 miles.  I will also be more prepared if I ever have to rough it and have a better idea of what to expect.  We were very prepared as far as food, water, and bug spray were concerned.  We were not prepared for the cooler temperatures even in the middle of June.

Proof of Life

Proof of Life photo taken for hubby after coming down from the overnighter

All that being said, it was absolutely worth it.  The silence of the night deep in the forest with only occasional faint road noise, the three whippoorwills’ calling back and forth throughout the night, the coyotes howling in the distance, the sure knowledge that I had done it.  I was still alive the next morning no worse for wear except for being tired.  I’ll take that any time.

Check out the Facebook page How to do the Ozarks and Instagram htdto2020 for more pictures and places to visit!

Hiking Ha Ha Tonka State Park

316 steps 200 feet down

Spring trail is looking a little wet today-maybe next time

Once a wealthy businessman’s dream getaway, now a ruin surrounded by the karst topography Missouri is famous for, Ha Ha Tonka State Park reminds us that you can’t take it with you.  Sandstone ruins once accessible for photo ops, but now cordoned off for safety sit at the top of a bluff overlooking the southern end of Lake of the Ozarks.  Beautiful any time of year, but especially in the fall, Ha Ha Tonka is worth the drive and the effort to hike one of its many trails.

Those poor mules

Sandstone dream home on the ridge overlooking Lake of the Ozarks

An hour and a half northeast of Springfield, the easiest way I have found is Hwy 65 to Hwy 73 just north of Buffalo and a right on Hwy 54 and down Missouri Hwy D.  The park has a visitor’s center, 13 trails rated from easy to rugged including Spring Trail with 316 wooden steps ascending 200 vertical feet.  I recommend you skip this trail if you are having knee surgery any time in the near future (or have had it in the recent past!)  This is one of my favorite trails, as it takes you right down to the spring which pours more than 48 million gallons of water daily into the lake.  There was once a mill located on the river flowing from the spring and you can still find the old grist millstone on the trail.  Worth a look is the Island trail which is rated rugged and takes about 30 minutes in addition to the Spring Trail.

My son, Cole and I headed up on a Friday around lunch time to find the parking lot of the Castle Trail full of people from as far away as Texas and South Dakota.  We chose the Quarry Trail this time around as it had been raining a lot lately, making the Spring Trail a possible disappointment.  Having never taken this particular trail, I was excited to see something new; the rock formations, wildlife and open meadows we passed through did not disappoint.  We took Cole’s dog, Balto, along for the trip and managed to keep him from pulling us down any cliffs in his enthusiasm to become one with nature.  Not any easy task with a one year old Husky.  A well-mannered dog (as well as children) for some trails is a must.  The trail was wet and I was grateful I had worn hiking shoes as Cole kept slipping in his trainers.  Of course, Balto’s instinctual pulling increased Cole’s odds of falling on his butt or his face.

Water, water everywhere

Springtime in Missouri means extra socks in your backpack

Turkey Pen Hollow Trail is a little over six miles and offers three primitive camping areas for those interested in staying in the park a little longer.  Reservations for this area are required-same day reservations April-October and one week in advance November-March.  I attempted to make reservations for the primitive campsites on the Missouri State Park website (https://mostateparks.com/park/ha-ha-tonka-state-park), but that was unsuccessful so I called the park office at (573) 346-2986 and the employee who returned my phone call stated that they gladly make reservations but require a few days’ notice.  He asked me to leave a voicemail for what date(s) I wanted and they would make sure everything was ready as well as return the phone call to confirm.

Off the trail

Off track-a perfect example of the karst topography Missouri is famous for

I was grateful the trail blazes were visible on this particular trail; there were a few places it would have been easy to get turned around.  I was not worried about becoming lost here as there were quite a few people visiting the park, but I have been on the Devils’ Kitchen Trail with no sign of any other hikers and I did become lost on that particular day.  Again, a good compass, water and some food go a long way to making a day hike an enjoyable experience so get out there!

Let me know where your favorite place to hike is located in the comments section!

Check out the Facebook page How to do the Ozarks and Instagram htdto2020 for more pictures and places to visit!