Ozarks: Ridge Runner Trail

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

DRIVE TIME: The northern Noblett Lake trailhead is 200 miles (3 1/2 hours) southwest of St. Louis and 270 miles (5 hours) southeast of Kansas City.

THE WAY: From Springfield, drive 80 miles east on US 60 to Willow Springs. Then take MO 76 west to MO 181 and turn left. Drive south for a mile to Rt. AP. Turn left onto AP and look for Noblett Lake signs after 3 miles.

TRAILS: The 22-mile Ridge Runner Trail incorporates parts of two shorter loop routes at Noblett Lake (8 miles) and North Fork Recreation Area (12 miles). For a longer trek, use the Ozark Trail, which branches off at Blue Hole Hollow (midway) and heads east 12 miles to Pomona. Trails also extend into the Devil's Backbone Wilderness (at the southern end). The Ridge Runner Trail is multiple-use, with both mountain bikes and equestrians allowed.

ELEVATION: The Ridge Runner ranges from 800 to 1,100 feet.

CAN'T MISS: The ethereal blue mist that floats through Blue Hole Hollow in the morning.

CROWD CONTROL: Although off-road vehicles sometimes appear on the old logging roads intersecting the trail, you'll likely have the hike to yourself. Call for the dates of hunting season (November).

GUIDES: The Willow Springs Ranger District publishes a very basic map of the Ridge Runner Trail (see Contact below). USGS 7.5-minute quads (Dyestone Mountain, Siloam Springs, and Dora) are available, but out-of-date (888-ASK-USGS; http://ask.usgs.gov; $4 each). One Hundred Nature Walks in the Missouri Ozarks, by Alan McPherson (Cache River Press, 888-862-2243; www.cacheriverpress.com; $17.95).

WALK SOFTLY: Backcountry camping is allowed anywhere, but avoid setting up on wet meadows.

CONTACT: Mark Twain National Forest, Willow Springs Ranger District, (417) 469-3155; http://www.fs.fed.us/r9/marktwain.