Smack in the middle of the St. Francois Mountains, the geologic core of the Ozarks, is a landmark that proves there's more to Missouri than arches, Budweiser, and Cardinals baseball-1,740-foot Buford Mountain. While neighboring public lands suffer crowds, noise, and reservation hassles, Buford's absence of developed sites and publicity virtually guarantees solitude for backpackers.
The trail around Buford Mountain Conservation Area isn't long--just 10.5 miles--but those who hike it are treated to outstanding views of surrounding Arcadian and Belleview Valleys. And while the trek to the top of Buford isn't enough to wear you out, the summit is only 32 feet shy of the state's highest point (nearby Taum Sauk) and offers a perfect spot to pitch camp and watch the sun go down. Extend your journey by exploring the handful of wildlife ponds and large rocky glades cattered throughout the quiet oak-hickory forest.
route For a lazy weekend, walk the 10.5-mile loop trail counterclockwise to some of the most scenic overlooks in the state. Extend the mileage by exploring lightly used side paths or combining your hike with other St. Francois Mountain trails in one of the many state parks nearby. Camping is allowed everywhere within the conservation area.
drive time St. Louis: 11/2 hours; Chicago: 7 hours
the way From St. Louis, head south on I-55 for 34 miles to US 67. Take US 67 south for 31 miles to MO 32. Go west on MO 32 for 21 miles to MO 21, then head south on MO 21 for 7 miles to Route U. The forest parking area is 2 miles north on Route U.
dayhike Bag the mountain in a long day, or spend a few hours scrambling on the titanic granite boulders at nearby Elephant Rocks State Park.
guidesOne Hundred Nature Walks in the Missouri Ozarks, by Alan McPherson ($18). USGS map Graniteville (www.backpacker.com/mapstore; $10).
walk softly Ground fires are prohibited, and camping on delicate rock glades is discouraged.
contact Missouri Department of Conservation, (573) 546-6993.