Bell Mountain Wilderness provides a challenging (or beginner) Midwestern backpacking experience and beautiful views in an ancient mountain range. It’s well worth the six-hour drive from Chicago (don’t tell the fuzz that I made it in less than 5.5), five from Indianapolis, and an even shorter drive from Kansas City. The lucky residents of St. Louis have a big beautiful backyard in the Mark Twain National Forest. Camping at Bell Mountain Wilderness is free and undesignated. Parking is free, but designated.
Local destinations always seem most reasonable for a one night trip. It feels ridiculous to spend more time driving to and from my hiking destination than I actually spend hiking when I arrive. But staring down the barrel of another long Chicago winter made me desperate for something exotic, and I made the trip down to Ozark Country for what might be my last fair weather trip of the season.
My cousin Matt and I arrived at the Ozark Trail trailhead on State Highway A (all maps linked above provide directions to this trailhead) early on Saturday afternoon, on the first weekend in November. The rural highways on the final leg of the drive snaked through hills and pastures, through quaint little towns and over clear brooks. It set the mood for a wilderness experience.
The entrance to the parking area was easy to find, sitting directly across the street from the National Forest sign that welcomes visitors to the Bell Mountain Wilderness. The parking area itself is a shaded gravel loop on the west side of Highway A. It was packed with vehicles – mostly from Missouri, but we spotted an Indiana license plate and a couple of fellow Illinoisans. I was surprised to see it so heavily visited so late in the season, and maybe a little concerned that I wouldn’t find the solitude that I was hoping to experience on this trip.
The trail is marked by a sign listing the mileage to various destinations of interest to Ozark Trail section-hikers. It didn’t mention anything about Bell Mountain, and the detail of the topographic map that we were using wasn’t helpful at this scale, so we wasted a couple of minutes looking around the parking area for any other trailheads. We finally headed north out of the parking area on the only trail that we found. After a few dozen yards the trail split. The Ozark Trail headed either north or east from this point, and we followed the Ozark Trail east across Highway A into Bell Mountain Wilderness.
The climbing began as soon as the trail picked up on the east side of the highway. Within minutes of following switchbacks through the hardwood forest we were hundreds of feet above our vehicle, and noise from the road was fading quickly. I was happy to notice a burning in my leg muscles, something that I don’t experience very frequently on Midwestern hikes. The limited view through the dense forest would have been completely obscured in summer foliage, but since we had arrived after a majority of the deciduous trees had shed their leaves we were able to catch previews of the coming vistas.
The well-worn trail continued to ascend the mountain on its western slope, wrapping around the south to traverse a large ravine. The trail was easy enough to follow, and regularly posted white and green Ozark Trail blazes made it nearly impossible to go off track. We stopped at a granite outcropping to catch our breath and to enjoy the southern view of the valley that we had just left. Numerous ridges could be seen in the distance, each successive ridge taking on a lighter shade of gray than the one before it. Junipers, small cedars, and scrub oak seemed to be the only trees that found any success growing among the granite.
We resumed our uphill hike on the Ozark Trail to a saddle a couple hundred feet above the granite outcropping. Here the southern access trail to the Bell Mountain Loop split off of the Ozark Trail and headed north. The total hike from the car to this junction was around
two miles, and our shaking legs confirmed that we had gained considerable elevation in a short period of time. The Bell Mountain Loop was still a mile away and at least another 200 feet uphill, but the trail was easy and even-footed. Lizards, grasshoppers, and winter birds were common sights along the southern facing slopes of Bell Mountain. The only humans that we encountered during our ascent were three women, most likely in their sixties, who were on their return trip after their summit of Bell Mountain earlier that morning, and one solitary backpacker who appeared to be geared up for a section hike or a thru-hike of the Ozark Trail.
We arrived at a cairn marking the point where the Bell Mountain loop forks: to the east the trail follows a ridge for a mile or so before climbing to the high point of Bell Mountain, and to the northwest the trail descends quickly into a small valley, losing 400 feet of hard-earned elevation, and ascending more than 600 feet once again to the summit of Bell Mountain. I left it up to Matt to decide which route we would take, while secretly hoping that he would choose the more challenging western half of the loop. I was pleased to find out that he was up for the challenge as well.
The path leading down to the valley passed through young hardwood forests, occasionally passing cedar groves in the flatter, wetter areas along a creek that ran to our right. The water in the creek (nameless on maps that I’ve seen) was trickling through rocks and leaves from pool to crystal-clear pool on its way to meet Joe’s Creek at the valley floor. The cold water of the creek preserved the color of some of the leaves that had fallen during the height of their autumn splendor. This provided a backdrop, offering contrast with which to view the small fish chasing one another under the roots of trees that were clinging to the banks. We stopped here to have a snack and to photograph the scene. Had we been short on water this would have been a perfect place to collect and treat or filter more, since it was the first year-round water source that we had encountered since leaving the trailhead.
A grasshopper landed in the creek several feet from the bank where we were standing. Small fish pecked at him each time he wiggled, but they were too small to cause any harm. We talked about how it might be neat to see a trout large enough to swallow him emerge from a hole in the bank, but we both admitted relief for the grasshopper when he eventually floated to a shallow area downstream where he could climb out onto leaves.
We had wasted enough time watching bugs and fish. We had a tough climb ahead of us, and we wanted to reach the eastern bluffs of Bell Mountain with enough time to enjoy the play of light and shadow of the evening sun on the surrounding hills.
Slightly farther down the trail we crossed the nameless tributary that had been flowing downstream to our right, and we now traveled upstream alongside Joe’s Creek, which flowed to our left. The crossing was easy in the autumn, but is probably much deeper in the spring or right after a heavy summer rain. I imagine in those cases that it may be hard to come away from the crossing with dry feet.
The climb from the valley floor to the top of the northern ridge of Bell Mountain was quick, but challenging. The hiker here faces not only a several hundred foot elevation gain in a short distance without the help of switchbacks, but does so with any fatigue or soreness lingering from the earlier climb from Highway A. Matt and I both required a stop to catch our breath on the way up.
Once on the ridge the loop trail leveled out, passed the trail that led to the north trailhead, then rolled southward over a couple of small hills through hardwoods. Two small man-made ponds are visible off to the east of the trail, reminders of a time when ranchers used the area for grazing their livestock.
When the final ascent began for the summit of Bell Mountain, the trail was a deep single-track groove filled with sharp golf ball to football sized stones of various shapes. Loose and covered by a thick blanket of fallen leaves, these made for treacherous footing. The terrain was even testing the level of comfort and support provided by my very high quality pair of backpacking boots. When the trail leveled out near the top, the ground under foot was mostly dirt or granite slab. We saw much of the same scrub oak, small conifer, and lichen growth that we had seen at other areas dominated by granite. Western views opened up in the rocky areas, and tall trees obscured them when the trail continued onto dirt.
Within a few minutes we heard voices through the trees to the east, and we began to make out the bright, unnatural colors of rain flys. A side trail veered to the left, toward the jewel of this hike — a rocky bluff overlooking a more than 600 foot drop into a valley below, with a 180°, miles-long view of the peaks and ridges of ancient mountains to the east.
After taking time to appreciate the views and snap a few photos of each other, we looked around to assess the camping situation. Every fifty yards or so along the bluff was a well established fire ring, but near each fire ring was a tent. Not only did each campsite appear to be taken, but there were other backpackers with tents and hammocks who had arrived and were looking for a place to set up camp as well. We hiked southward along the bluff and down a slope to a more secluded area that seemed to receive less wear from campers. We found a small fire pit, and a couple of flat grassy patches nearby that would both be suitable for pitching a tent. The views from our campsite were not as dramatic as those from the campsites right off of the trail, but they were still beautiful, and I appreciated the seclusion. From our site we could see the concrete walls of a reservoir built on top of a mountain to the southeast. A quick (and quite possibly erroneous) estimate I made using Google Maps put the reservoir as many as seven miles from our campsite.
The weather cooled quickly when the sun went down, so we gathered what dead and downed fuel we could find and started a fire using a magnesium fire starter and some dryer lint for tinder. We talked and ate by the fire (this was the lucky hiking buddy with whom I shared the fruit leather) until the stars came out. There were blinking lights on several towers to the south and east, and a glow from cities to the north. So while better than the city or suburbs for viewing the night sky, this isn’t exactly a stargazing destination.
Eight o’clock felt like midnight due to the shortened days of autumn and the absence of electronic devices, so we put out the fire and turned in early.
I awoke in the morning before the sun rose over the hills to the east, and I had the good fortune of being able to watch the sunlight creep over the topography, casting shadows into ravines and burning the morning fog away from each new place that it touched.
We ate our breakfast, packed up our site, and headed back to the trail before most of our neighbors had left their tents. We wanted to see what the hike would have been like from the north trailhead, so we headed back in the direction from which we had arrived the night before. We turned right at the northern junction, where continuing straight would have taken us back down into the valley carved by Joe’s Creek. The hike to the north trailhead was a relatively easy 3.5 – 4 miles (aside from the section of uneven footing that had given us trouble the previous afternoon), and rolled through mostly hardwoods and tall pines, while occasionally passing through groves of cedar.
The day was warming up, so we stripped some layers at the trailhead and had a snack. A man pulled into the parking area about that time and asked us about our trip. He was down from St. Louis, and thought that like him, we were just getting started for the weekend. We gave him the trail conditions while he changed into his hiking clothes and readied his pack, and he filled us in on all of the great local hikes to consider on future trips into the Ozarks. We headed back into the woods before he finished getting ready so that he could have the quiet wilderness experience that he was likely seeking. On our way back to the junction we ran into two different parties of backpackers who had also camped on Bell Mountain the night before, and were on their way back out to their cars at the north trailhead.
We continued south at the junction and climbed Bell Mountain once again, this time bypassing the side trail to the bluffs and the campsites. It took us just over an hour to get from the trailhead to the summit, even with tired feet. Only 1.5 to 2 of the miles remaining were new to us and, aside from loose footing on the south side of the summit similar to that on the northern side, the hike back through the Bell Mountain Loop to the Ozark Trail was uneventful. Along the way we ran into a group of five or six college-aged kids who were on a day hike, then on the Ozark Trail a middle-aged man with a large, old-fashioned backpack who was on a solo trek.
It felt great to kick the boots off after a 12+ mile morning, but the worst part was yet to come: sitting still in a car for the next six hours, and the havoc it would wreak when it was finally time to stand up and walk when we arrived at home. We stretched well and whispered a prayer to the trail gods asking for mercy before hitting the road.
We made an unplanned stop at an antique/candy/fudge/gift shop in Caledonia that was all decked out in its Christmas decorations, where a friendly clerk brewed gourmet coffee for us while we listened to “Christmas in Dixie.” They had surprisingly great coffee for a town of 130 people.
This was all of the “exotic” that I needed, and a perfect bookend to the fair-weather backpacking season.
Cell Reception: Clear 4GLTE signal on Bell Mountain at any elevation higher than 1,500 feet. Must be those towers that killed the ambiance at night. Zero bars in the valleys and at the trailheads.
Wildlife Spotted: Lizards, fish, crows, hawks, blue jays, woodpeckers, grasshoppers.
What To Bring: In the autumn when leaves can obscure footing, have good, supportive boots and / or trekking poles and / or lightweight pack.
What To Expect: Other people, rocky footing on the steeper portions of the trail, awesome views, and extremely well-marked, easy to follow trails. Expect a bit of a leg workout if you follow the same route that I followed.
Tips: Park at the north trailhead and only do the hike to the bluffs if you’re a total beginner or unsure of your fitness level. Likewise, for an intermediate hike you can start at Highway A and use the Ozark Trail and the eastern half of the loop to go straight to the bluffs. You certainly don’t have to make it hard on yourself by doing the whole loop plus side trails like we did. We’re just gluttons for punishment. Lastly, if you’re looking for solitude, go on weekdays. This seems like a popular place on weekends.
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