For my second day hike of autumn 2010, I decided to return to southeast Missouri. A Silver Dollar Special at Eggbert’s launched me back down US 60, this time to the Piney Creek Wilderness a few miles north of Shell Knob. I’d never been there before, although it was established in 1980 and is only fourteen miles as the crow flies from the vacation home my parents had on Table Rock throughout my childhood.
My trail books warned me that this 6.2 mile trail was also used by horses and was steep in places, required repeated fording of Piney Creek, and could be overgrown. So I was careful to wear long pants and take along a good trail map and both of my trekking poles. I pulled into the parking area at the Piney Creek fire tower at 10:30 a.m., joining a couple of empty horse trailers.
The Piney Creek tower is just like the Sugar Camp fire tower I’ve climbed many times and other towers dotting the Mark Twain National Forest. The Forest Service has discouraged climbers of this tower by removing all of the wooden stairs from the first flight. I wasn’t about to let that stop me, so I widened my stance and used the metal stair supports they’d left behind to ascend that flight. All but one of the wooden steps were in place for the rest of the way up, and while the tower room had no windows left and a dodgy floor in one spot, I was able to get a sweeping panorama of the area I would soon be hiking through. I could see my car down below next to the imposing shadow of my aerie.
I took the trail south along a narrow ridgeline through a forest of pine, oak, hickory, and cedar. This first part of the trail had several steep sections which had been heavily churned by horses but thankfully the mud had almost fully dried out and I could tread lightly across the mess. Eventually I descended some limestone outcrops and then the trail ran along the side of a steep hill on a limestone ledge above a side creek hidden in a deep valley to my right. Finally I reached Piney Creek itself and began following it eastward towards Table Rock Lake. I celebrated reaching the namesake creek by posing atop a tree which had toppled across it. Gravel bars throughout the creekbed made it easy to ford and I was struck by the clarity of the water pooled along it – what a contrast to the brown mud of the Caney and Elk Rivers near my home.
Near a later ford of Piney Creek, two large black Labrador Retrievers came bounding along the trail towards me. One wore a wire muzzle and both had radio tracking collars. They did not challenge or bark, but pranced around, sniffing me for a bit, before heading back the way they had come. They bounded across the creek and I did not see them again – either they took off amidst the brush or down one of the side equestrian trails.
Eventually I reached the first of two trails leading back up to the fire tower. I glimpsed a couple of men on horseback disappearing up the trail that way – I guessed those horse trailers would be gone by the time I returned to the trail head, a prediction borne out a few hours later.
The trail grew more overgrown as I proceeded eastward along the creek bottom. Eventually I found the junction to the trail I would later take northwest back to the fire tower. But I was determined to follow Piney Creek on eastward until it spilled into Table Rock Lake. This portion of the trail was far less used and heavily overgrown. I used my trekking poles to swish back the overgrowth so I could make out the trail beneath, grateful for my long pants. Normally I would not bother with such a trail, but I wanted to lunch beside the lake.
Finally I caught a glimpse of the Piney Creek embayment ahead. The trail ended in a clearing with a fire ring and a convenient table rock (ha!) where I could set down my pack and poles and sit down for lunch at 12:45 p.m., enjoying the peaceful view. After my meal, I tried following a faint trail leading off parallel to the lake shore, but it quickly disappeared amongst the growth. I wheeled around and headed back up the creek.
After turning northwest on the return trail, I began a long ascent. Along the way I spotted a walking stick which was about five inches long. His camouflage was quite good – I only spotted him because of his movement across my path, and had to get very close and enhance the contrast in my photo to make him apparent.
I came across a family of backpackers during my ascent up the trail, which followed a nice dry creek bed. Eventually the trail popped out onto the asphalt forest road and I followed it back to the gravel road leading to the fire tower. It was about two o’clock and I had not had my fill of hiking for the day, so I drove over to Roaring River State Park, where I decided I would take the Devil’s Kitchen Trail.
The last time I’d been at the park was the previous October, when I took the Deer Leap, Fire Tower, Eagle’s Nest, Spring House, and River trails. I had also taken the park’s Pibern Trail with my friend Carrie the previous July. But one great trail I had not been on in some time was the Devil’s Kitchen Trail, which loops about 1.5 miles about the park’s northwest corner, although I took a spur which lengthened the hike to over two miles.
I parked at the trailhead across from the lodge and headed uphill. My first stop was a ledge upslope from the trail which has eroded out into a tiny cave. When the trail reached its northern tip I saw the largest cave on this trail, which is spacious enough to afford some shelter if you are willing to crouch. The trail then looped back southward until it reached a large clearing I remember being confused by in my youth, since it had an unmarked side trail.
Now they’ve marked that trail with a number, which is of little use without an interpretive trail guide, but at least you can figure out which trail is the main one. I took that side spur, faintly recalling that it led northwest to the park boundary. Sure enough, it ran along a wide ridge until I popped out on Highway 112 by the water slide north of the park. I retraced my steps to the Devil’s Kitchen Trail, following it as it curved down the steep hillside. The trail through here has always been very wide and steep, with wooden poles placed crosswise across the trail to control erosion. Whenever I take this path, I think about the nearby steep hill on Highway 112. My grandfather used to drive his car up that hill in reverse in the early twentieth century, since the old cars had far more torque in that gear. Sounds scary, but the only alternative to reaching Roaring River from the north is the old Forest Road 1135 over from Hilltop and then southwest down a creek bed into the Roaring River Spring area. A friend and I took that old road a few years back. It was heavily washed out and at times I was afraid I’d ground my Camry on it. But it was quite scenic and a few brave souls have built homes along it, although I noticed they all had four-wheel drive sports utility vehicles and high-clearance pickup trucks!
As the trail leveled out I came across the old spring which has flowed out from the hillside throughout my lifetime and knew Devil’s Kitchen was close by. It is a room of sorts, created by slabs of rock which slid over a gap in the eroding bluff. The story goes that it was used as a hideout by Civil War guerrillas. Through the 1990s the room was intact and easily accessible through a gap in the rocks. My friends the Falkners posed inside the room for my camera back in 1993, and my friend Wendy posed atop its roof in 1997. But sometime after that half of the roof finally slid down, blocking the old entrance and reducing the kitchen to a fraction of its former size.
Now you have to scramble up the back side of the kitchen, up onto the remains of the old roof to access what’s left of the kitchen. Daredevil that I am, I posed while sitting directly under what remains of the roof. Knowing that similar big slabs of rock finally broke free in the past 13 years, I did not tarry. Passing by the beautifully eroded bluffs, I trotted on down the trail.
Returning to the trailhead, I walked across the river, which was lined with fishermen and fisherboys and visited the old lodge, still saddened that the park store has decamped to a soulless new home. But this trip was not to end on stories of collapse and abandonment. I drove to Cassville, where I happily found The Rib restaurant open for Saturday evening under new ownership. They were kind enough to serve me, even though I’d shown up almost 30 minutes before they officially opened. My French Dip was delicious, although I made the mistake of ordering sweet fries, foolishly not realizing that meant they’d be made from sweet potatoes, which are not my favorite. I compensated with some chocolate cake afterward.
The last few times I’d been in town I was disappointed to find this restaurant closed, as I have always liked its food since it became The Rib in the late 1980s. And in the 1970s it was Crows restaurant, known for its great homemade bread. And whenever I sit in the main dining room with its sloped ceiling I recall how the place looked decades ago when, as a small child, I took the opportunity to lecture a bemused patron of the restaurant about how he shouldn’t be smoking. Now, years later, that particular room is, appropriately enough, the non-smoking section.
It was an uneventful drive back to Bartlesville, with me arriving early enough for a hot shower and a few hours of photo editing and blogging. Next weekend I’ll be attending a performance of Chris and Dave Brubeck’s Ansel Adams: America by the Bartlesville Symphony on Saturday night, with four of my own landscape photos on display in the Community Center’s Lyon Art Gallery. So there won’t be a long day trip to Missouri or Arkansas, although perhaps I can squeeze in a hike nearby in Oklahoma.