Biologists have a handy rule of thumb that backpackers can use to their advantage when looking for wildlife: The widest variety of plants and critters thrives wherever one environment bumps into another. By that standard, southwest Missouri's Hercules Glades Wilderness is a happening spot. Here, desert-like glades punctuate hardwood forest, making strange bedfellows of collared lizards and squirrels, roadrunners and turkeys, cactus and dogwood.
By an accident of geology that left behind thin, porous soil, the namesake grassland took hold on sunbaked south- and west-facing slopes where trees wouldn't grow. So porous is the limestone soil in Hercules Glades that creeks run full and wild after a rain but a day later are as dry as an Arizona martini. Only portions of Long and Cane creeks have water year-round.
The hardy thrive here, and unexpected species abound. The Missouri evening primrose is a big, showy, yellow-blooming ground plant that blossoms at night and closes up in daylight. Tarantulas creep around harmlessly. And the surprisingly colorful and outsized collared lizard, or "mountain boomer" as it's known locally, rises to run on its hind legs when alarmed. Few visitors are lucky enough to see one.
Three trailheads provide the only access into the wilderness, since most of the surrounding land is privately owned. Entering at Hercules Tower trailhead offers the most trail options. From Knobs Trail, you have eight possible loops ranging in length from 4 miles to almost 20. Watch for trail intersections because they aren't marked with signs. And keep track of your location, since most of the deep, narrow hollows look alike.
Most routes head for the area's scenic centerpiece, a 12-foot-high waterfall on Long Creek. Be aware that Long Creek flows intermittently and in dry periods is more like a desert arroyo than an Ozark stream.
Three wilderness high points (Coy Bald, Lower Pilot Knob, and Upper Pilot Knob) provide 600 feet of relief. They'll put the lungs of even an in-shape hiker in his throat.
QUICK TAKE: Hercules Glades Wilderness, Missouri
DRIVE TIME: Hercules Glades is located in southwest Missouri 200 miles (4 hours) southeast of Kansas City and 220 miles (4 hours) southwest of St. Louis.
THE WAY: From Springfield, Missouri, take MO 125 south across Beaver Creek and past the intersection with MO 76. The fire tower on the right side of the road indicates the trailhead.
TRAILS: The Forest Service maintains 38 miles of trail in a series of loops. The Northern Knobs Trail leads past many of the region's unique features. Trails are not named so navigation can be tricky.
ELEVATION: Long Creek lies at 750 feet above sea level; Pilot Knob rises to 1,320 feet.
CAN'T MISS: Missouri's only wild cactus, the prickly pear. It thrives on the dry balds and glades.
CROWD CONTROL: Go midweek to avoid other hikers and almost all horseback riders. The Blair Ridge trailhead to the south sees the least use. Avoid late November's deer season.
MAPS: Contact the ranger district (see "More Information") for the free trail map. The USGS quadrangle Hilda is superior, but be sure to get the version revised in 1993.
PIT STOP: Try Rudy's Village Inn in Ava, northwest of the wilderness, for its all-you-can-eat fish fry.
WALK SOFTLY: Fires are permitted, but the wilderness ranger asks that you not build fire rings. Because the grassy glades get so dry, be especially careful with all fires.
MORE INFORMATION: Ava Ranger District, Mark Twain National Forest, P.O. Box 188, Ava, MO 65608; (417) 683-4428. No permits are required.