The end-of-the-week forecast advised us to head to the woods. This particular middle-of-nowhere patch of forest is one of, if not the, largest contiguous areas of forest in Missouri. It just might be the most remote area Missouri has to offer. Mollie and I cut our Friday workdays a bit short, arriving at the Himont Campground in the Roger Pryor Pioneer Backcountry by 7 PM. Our sights were set on the Brushy Creek Trail, an ambitious, 16-mile loop (AllTrails says 14 miles) that starts at the Himont Campground. Little did we know, due to the pandemic, we had entered a closed county and all state campgrounds had been temporarily closed. Luckily, no one was out there to inform us, nor did we cross paths with another soul during our visit. From our perspective, a pandemic is a perfect time to get far away from everyone and have some fresh air fun. In this instance, ignorance was bliss.
Setting up Camp
Without a breeze, it was shockingly still and silent at the campground. And I mean the kind of silence that reminds you what quiet really is. The Himont Campground and surrounding woods are flat, at an elevation of 1200 feet, which is pretty high by Missouri standards. As the sun went down and the temperature dipped below 50 degrees, the barred owls began their nightly chatter. Once twilight passed, it was clear we’d found ourselves a light pollution desert. If this article entices you to enjoy this location as we did, and you catch the weather just right, you’ll witness unfamiliar constellations, satellites, and shooting stars. The sky had our attention until we were ready to turn in.
Prepping for the Trek
There was a light drizzle in the morning, but we were still able to get a fire going to cook up some oatmeal before packing everything down into the car for a quick getaway after completing the Brushy Creek Trail Loop; we expected we’d use all of the daylight this time of year offers. By 10 AM, we had our day pack ready to go and started on the trail. Among the items in our pack were almonds, water, buckwheat groat, an orange, a couple of granola bars, a GPS, a knife, our trusty Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Mushrooms, and rain jackets.
Right or Left at the Fork?
The trail starts off relatively flat, making for a relaxing leg warmer. About a mile and a quarter in, the loop portion of the trail starts. We went right at the fork, or counterclockwise, taking the west side of the trail first, following the blue blazes all the way around the loop; however, we advise those planning to complete the loop in a day to go left, or clockwise, beginning with the east side of the loop. This part of the trail seemed significantly less traveled than the rest of the loop, and there were several areas where the trail was indistinguishable from the surrounding forest floor. We even lost the trail a few times and had to retrace our steps to find the blue blaze again. This might be troublesome if you find yourself running behind schedule and are on this portion of the trail as daylight fades. For those planning to only hike a portion of the loop, we likewise recommend taking this portion of the trail first is because it was the more enjoyable and picturesque of the two sides if we had to pick one.
The Beginning of Mushroom Season
We stumbled upon some spring polypores towards the beginning of our trek, which are some of the first mushrooms to pop up in the spring, indicating that mushroom season has officially begun. Devil’s urn mushrooms, which we had never seen before, thrived all along the trail. Less than halfway through the hike, a large, fallen oak, which had rotted enough that the bark was beginning to peel off, invited us to venture off the trail and claim the three beautiful lion’s mane mushrooms growing on the underside of the tree. What an exciting moment! They made for a nice Easter treat the next morning.
Stream Crossing Troubles
You will not be able to complete this trail loop if it is raining heavily or has rained a lot recently. Both sides of the loop cross smaller streams several times toward the beginning, but the closer you get to the center of the loop, the wider and deeper the stream gets. All in all, we crossed the stream about 25 times. At least 10 of those crossings were quite difficult, requiring us to hike up or downstream to find better crossings and use sticks to aid our balance. Mollie even had to climb out on a tree overhanging the water to reach the other bank for the most difficult crossing. Regardless, after about the tenth stream crossing when I soaked my boots, we realized this trail was made mostly for equestrian use. The worst of the crossings are along the southern portion of the loop, so if you are looking for a shorter hike, you can avoid them and still enjoy this trail. There is quite a lot of beaver activity in the southern loop area, though, which was pretty amazing to witness. We even found some artfully crafted hiking sticks that had been smoothed by the beavers which we used for the rest of our hike.
Black Bear Country
The stream crossings finally subsided as we headed north on the east side of the trail, exiting the mushroom and flower-covered lower elevation. The trees here are uniform and pristine, like in the Appalachian Mountains and undisturbed, old-growth forests out west. After hiking for a while longer, at the top of the ridge in one of the less-traveled parts of the loop where the trail was hard to distinguish, Mollie stopped dead in her tracks, looking at the tree next to her. “Please tell me this is a deer rub”, she said. I walked around to her side of the tree and replied, “Uhh, that would be a bear scrape.” Some friendly beaver was kind enough to craft us some hiking sticks, and some kind bear left us a beautiful, deep engraving a few feet off the ground. At least Mr. Bear’s work of art wasn’t above our heads.
Home Just Before Dark
Needless to say, we were glad we had plenty of daylight left but walked with a steady pace from that point on. In one area, we got slightly off track and had to rewind to the last blaze to find where the trail went. We will admit, the last couple of miles felt a lot longer than a couple of miles to our tired legs. With less than an hour of daylight left, we returned to our car at the Himont Campground ready for a hearty meal. This is why we caution others to take the east side (left at the fork) of the loop first, especially inexperienced hikers who aren’t familiar with their long-distance pace. If you run out of daylight, you will more easily stay on the trail on the east side. Overall, this is a beautiful, extremely remote trail. The first five miles or so of both sides of the loop, while more rigorous in altitude change, are great for a novice hiker. Beware, those who venture farther, of the stream crossings!
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