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Ozarks: Ridge Runner Trail

You may have the Ozarks' wildlife-rich Ridge Runner Trail to yourself, but that doesn't mean you're alone.

Coyotes own the hollows lining southern Missouri’s Ridge Runner Trail. I know because I’ve heard their howls at night. Between the midnight coyote calls and the wild turkeys I spooked into flight every few miles along the trail, wildlife seemed to scramble out of every nook and cranny in this wooded wilderness.

The Ridge Runner is a 22-mile point-to-point trail in Mark Twain National Forest. It rambles through rolling Ozark forestland, skirts rugged limestone outcrops, and dips in and out of shady hollows. As its name suggests, the path boasts a number of stunning ridgetop views over the hardwoods and the scenic valley of the North Fork River. The Ridge Runner also slices through some of the most wildlife-friendly country in Missouri. Besides coyotes and turkeys, there are white-tailed deer, foxes, and sharp-shinned hawks. All told, 334 species of mammals, birds, and reptiles inhabit the forest.

My favorite time to see the views-and look for animals-is in winter, after the leaves fall. Naked trees provide good visibility across the hills and hollows, and the temperature is generally mild. Other high points of the hiking year are dogwoods blossoming in spring and white oaks turning amber in the fall (though you’ll have more human company then). As for summer, give this trail a wide berth unless you like courting heat stroke.

Be forewarned that this path is not for the faint-of-heart. By the fifth time I either lost the trail or confused it with an old logging road, I began to feel like one of the hapless French explorers who tried to survey the Ozarks 2 centuries ago. Carry plenty of water, as the trail only crosses streams near its southern and northern ends. For an off-trail water source, look for a southerly spur in Blue Hole Hollow leading toward a year-round natural seep. Lush meadows fill the nearby valley at Dry Creek, making for a pleasant midway camp. Just don’t let the coyotes keep you up all night.

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