Hiking with Mark Twain
I’ve always enjoyed taking photos of fall colors, especially when I lived in New York, with its colorful sugar maples. Although Missouri has fewer maples, in the eight years I’ve lived here I’ve taken the opportunity to hike in a few of the state parks and conservation areas in the fall. This year I decided to try something different. (Click any image for a larger view in a new tab.)
The Mark Twain National Forest covers 3 million acres (1.5 million acres of that is public land), with nine tracts of forests in the southern half of Missouri. On Thursday, I hiked one of the loop trails in the 16,500 acre Cedar Creek Ranger District, which is the one district north of the Missouri River and has 34 miles of trails. Before 1940, private landowners intensively cultivated the land, resulting in depleted and eroded soils. In the 1940s, the Soil Conservation Service began purchasing and rebuilding it, stabilizing gullies and planting trees and grasses. It’s been managed by the U.S. Forest Service since 1953. The Smith Creek Loop covers 5 miles, but I hiked 5.7 miles to cover a couple of side trails for photo opportunities.
It was a sunny day, and the temperature reached 87ºF by late afternoon (a near record). While I could have chosen a cooler day for hiking (Friday’s high was 49º), Thursday was a dry day in the middle of a rainy spell. I started at the southeast corner of the loop, traveling “counterclockwise,” which worked out well as I appreciated the mostly-level stretch of the final mile. This image, with the trail map layered over a Google terrain map, shows how much the elevation changes on the trail.
As I hiked the trail, it was obvious that some of it follows former roads. Any trace of gravel or dirt roadway is long gone, and if it wasn’t overgrown it would look like a lane winding through the forest. The width of the loop trail varies from 15-20 feet down to a mere footpath crowded by trees. This area is known for hills and bluffs, so much of the trail includes slopes that climb and descend the numerous ridges leading to the bluffs. We can get some pretty heavy rain here, and those old paths offer the perfect course for runoff, so the trail often winds around or parallels those sections. In fact, we had a heavy rain the day before, so there were a few spots that had slick areas that were hidden beneath fallen leaves. Even on some of the narrow, steep sections, hoof prints were evident, as the trail is open to horseback.
The trail crosses Smith Creek, which is about 25 feet wide, but there was no water running in the creek. One side trail took me to Cedar Creek, which is 30 feet wide with a very mild current. The trail led to an old iron bridge that served the road that once ran through there.
I never had to actually cross Cedar Creek, but the trail loop approaches it at two other points. The overlooks there gave some nice views looking down and across the water. The first was about 100 feet above the creek. The second, at roughly 150 feet above the creek, had some impressive formations, with cedars clinging to the edge of the bluff.
Cedar Creek, 100 feet below a limestone bluff
This tract of land is primarily oak, hickory and cedar, but I saw a dead tree that could have been an ash, and I did get some maple photos.
I had the trail pretty much to myself, encountering one pair of hikers, and these two that crossed my path.
Western Black Snake – 4 ft. long
Its been about a year since I’ve taken a hike of three or more miles. This one was was a reminder that I’ve had a couple of health issues since then. My back and legs were feeling it before I was done, but I recovered with no problems. Early this year I learned of a heart condition I’ve had all my life, one that now leaves me briefly winded when I climb a flight of stairs. The downhill slopes were a breeze, but let me tell you, my heart knew when I was climbing, even on gentle and moderate inclines.
Occasional stops on the frequent uphill climbs were the order of the day. I’m only 67 and have a few years ahead of me, but I’m learning that I need to modify my activity, something I’ll have to keep in mind on future hikes. My favorite part of this hike was the overlooks, so the next time I walk this trail I’ll start at the bridge near the northwest corner of the loop and hike up to the overlooks. There and back.