Location: South from Rolla on Hwy 63 to West Plains then 15-miles west on Hwy CC. This trail is adjacent to and north of the Devil's Backbone Wilderness. The North Fork Campground/Recreation Area is a trailhead for both areas.
Distance: The Ridge Runner Trail is 22 miles long and extends from Noblett Lake at the north terminus to the North Fork Recreation Area at the south terminus. There are also two hiking loops besides the 22 mile trail, an 8 mile trail around Noblett Lake, and a 12.1 mile trail in the Steam Mill Hollow area just north of the North Fork Recreation Area. The trail can also be combined with the trails in the Devils Backbone Wilderness for extended trips.
Water: Drinking water is available from April 15 to October 15 at North Fork and Noblett Lake recreations areas. Water from any streams must be treated due to high bacteria levels. Water sources along the trail are limited and scarce in dry weather.
Parking: Overnight parking is available at four locations: Noblett Recreation Area, one-mile west on forest road 857 from Hwy AP; Horton trailhead on Hwy 107 3.3-miles from Noblett trailhead; Blue Hole Trailhead/Picnic area located 1/4 west of Hwy AP (8-miles south, trailwise from Noblett Lake); and North Fork Recreation Area/Campground on Hwy CC.
Comments: This trail will lead you through a part of the Missouri Ozarks known for its beauty and limestone karst topography. The landscape varies from gently rolling to very steep terrain with rock outcrops and bluffs. The trail is open to hiking, horseback riding, and mountian biking. The portion of the trail from Blue Hole Trail Head to North Fork is a dual trail with the Ozark Trail unamed western section that has not been completed as yet.
Comments from Rick Henry 21Jan09:The Ridge Runner Trail is 22 miles point to point; however, there are loops of 12 miles each on either end, making the total miles somewhere around 40 miles +/-. Combine that with the 13 miles of maintained trail of the Devil's Backbone Wilderness, plus the approximately 11 miles of the Ozark Trail which breaks away from the Ridge Runner Trail and heads on to the Pomona Trail Head, and you have over 60 miles of trail in this complex. The Ridge Runner and Devil's Backbone Trail brochures with maps are available from the Houston and Ava Ranger Stations, or online at http://www.fs.fed.us/r9/forests/marktwain/recreation/sites/ridge_runner/ and http://www.fs.fed.us/r9/forests/marktwain/recreation/sites/devils_backbone/. Bear in mind the Devil's Backbone is a wilderness and as such in this region, there are no markers. One should not venture into this wilderness without a good map, compass/GPS and decent navigational skills. The Ozark Trail and North Fork Loop section are well marked.
On January 17-19, I hiked the Devil's Backbone Wilderness and North Fork Loop of the Ridge Runner Trail in Southern Missouri. The trip also took me over Ozark Trail land, as the McGarr Ridge - Collins Ridge segment of the Devil's Backbone Wilderness is also co-opted by the Ozark Trail, as is the east segment of the (Ridge Runner) North Fork Loop.
Saturday, January 17, 2009, I arrived at the Collins Ridge Trail Head around 8:15am on January 17. It took me a while to get going, making sure I had everything together and didn't leave anything behind, as I sometimes do. After assuring myself I hadn't forgotten anything, I signed in at the Trail Head kiosk and embarked on the trail about 8:25am. It was a sunny day, but cool. I had made a choice to leave my Winter gloves behind and take only the liners, and as I walked a ways my fingers were cold, making me wonder if I had made the right choice. I decided to continue on, regardless, and before long my fingers warmed. In a short time, I passed the site of an old homestead. There were several yucca plants that marked the spot, and scattered stones which perhaps marked a one-time foundation or stone fence. I would encounter more stone fences shortly down the trail. The site made me wonder...who lived here? What did they do? Why here? Are there relatives still in the area? It would be nice to know those things, but I suppose not knowing adds to the mystique of the area. Shortly after the old homestead, I reached the trail to the Devil's Backbone, which is the ridge for which the wilderness is named. I turned right onto the trail and headed through a nice pine area on up to the backbone. The Devil's Backbone is a long, narrow ridge which sits above two valleys and provides a view in either direction. It is a great place to take a break and take in the scenery. Even though I hadn't been hiking long, I did indeed break and enjoy the views and make a couple of minor pack adjustments. After a few minutes, I headed on down the ridge to the intersection with the lower loop trail as indicated on the map. To the left, the trail heads along Crooked Branch and will lead to the North Fork River; to the right, the trail heads up Mary Hollow and on to McGarr Ridge. I turned right and headed up Mary Hollow. There are some great rock overhangs along this area, many of which are near the trail intersection. This day, there were several long icicles hanging from these rocks and I took time to walk over and admire them further. Off to the east of the trail lies Amber Spring, which is a beautiful, year around spring. However, it is a sturdy walk to get there and includes ascending ridges both ways. I would not recommend going there to get water, unless one planned on spending the night back there. It would not be fun to lug water back over the ridges. Oft times, there is water along the branches through Mary Hollow, if one looks closely. I ascended to McGarr Ridge and turned right on the trail and headed on up to the Devil's Backbone Trail Head. I walked on the access road to Highway CC. Across the road and slightly to the right is a spur trail which leads to the CC Trail Head and the Ozark Trail. Look for the Ozark Trail marker on the tree across the road. It is a short walk on to the trail head. I walked through the parking area and entered the Ozark Trail across the lot. The walk along here was leisurely, as the trail is wide and relatively level. I was getting hungry, so I stopped by a wildlife pond just before the North Fork Loop intersection, and had lunch. The sun was shining and I found a nice spot in the sun to lean back against a pine tree and dine in leisure. In fact, I even took time to lie down and rest a bit in the sun before moving on. The rest over, I continued on down the trail. In a few minutes, I was at the North Fork Loop Intersection. The Ozark Trail turns right at this juncture and is the east side of the North Fork Loop. I opted to turn left here and head on over to the river on the South end of the Loop. The South end of the Loop proved to be a nice walk, and save for one lengthy climb, mostly moderate up and downs. About midway through this section, the trail swings right and heads on down to a creek bed. If you look to your left, across the creek bed, you will notice caves in the adjoining hillside. I scouted a bit over there and spotted three cave entrances which appeared big enough for a person to enter. Not being a cave person, I kept a reasonable distance from them, but it was interesting exploring there. I wondered if a bear might be holed up in the biggest entrance, but didn't have any desire to find out. I reached the intersection with the West side of the loop in good time. A left turn at this intersection leads on down to the North Fork Recreation Area and the North Fork River; a right turn, which I took, follows the West loop on down to the river. I made it down to the river around 2:15pm and stopped at the first juncture to fill up with water. This is the closest the trail will come to the river, thus the best place to fill up. From there, the trail climbs, except for one brief descent, and when it climbs, it really climbs! The ascent is very steep and long. It is beautiful, though, especially up on the upper end, toward the area where the trail departs the river and heads east. I stopped for the night just beyond where it departed the river. It was getting windy, so I found a spot just downhill of the ridge, where I thought the wind would not be blocked somewhat. After having supper of ham and black eyed peas (my dehydrated concoction), I hit the sack.
Sunday, January 18, I slept only fairly well last night. I was warm, but I kept waking up, for whatever reason. The morning sun felt good as I made breakfast. It wasn't cold last night; my thermometer read 27 as I got up. I departed camp around 9:05am on Sunday. The trail began on old roads for probably 30 minutes on so, when it departed the road into the woods. There were several moderate ups and downs on the way to the East loop, and several good views along the way. The trail map shows a couple of dips - one south and one north - and I don't believe these exist anymore; I think the trail actually goes straight across and does not "dip" in these areas. At any rate, the trail is well marked and easy enough to follow. I reached the East loop intersection in good order and turned right along the Ozark Trail. If one is looking for a place to camp, there is a very nice trail camp if you continue straight through the intersection and proceed about 75 yards. It is also a great place to take a break. The walk along this segment of the Ozark Trail was pleasant, with nice pine stands. The climbs were moderate and there was a fair amount of ridge walking, which I like. I passed the turn off to the South end of the loop, which I had taken the day before, and proceeded on down the same wildlife pond where I had taken a break the day before. I had planned on getting water here, too, since I don't mind using a wildlife pond for this purpose if need be. Unfortunately, the pond was frozen solid. I smashed a big rock on the ice and it merely stuck in the ice, so I gave up with that notion. I took another break here and soaked up some sun before moving on. I knew I would need to get water at the North Fork River, which I ultimately did. Moving on, I reached the CC Trail Head again and proceeded across the parking lot, which is huge, and on down the spur trail to the Devil's Backbone Wilderness again. I took the trail down to the intersection with the trail through Mary Hollow, but continued on the trail along McGarr Ridge, on my way to the river. The walk here is very nice and level, mostly hardwood trees, mixed with a few pines here and there. Shortly after turning onto the trail, there is a spur trail to McGarr Hollow and McGarr Spring. The spring is moderate, but there is usually a flow, and there will be pooled water there. On this day, there were two rocks piled on top of each other, like a mini cairn, to mark the spur trail. Midway, there is a spur trail to Blue Spring, which is a beautiful spring used by canoeists during the Summer. Above the spring there is a park bench with a nice overlook of the spring and the river. Be aware, though, the trail down to the spring is steep, and only gets steeper on the way back up. I reached the North Fork River, via the spur trail which leads to it, somewhere around 2pm. I was more than ready for water, since I finished what I had about 5 miles back. So much for water planning. I took water here and took a long break, admiring the scenery. The North Fork River, framed against the rock bluffs on the other side, make a scenic view. There were a few icicles hanging onto the rock bluffs here and there. On an earlier visit, I had spotted a couple of eagles soaring along the river, but no luck this day. After taking in my share of scenery - and a full load of water - I headed on toward Collins Ridge, where I had planned on staying the night. I think I stayed longer because I wasn't looking forward to the long climb up the ridge with a full load of water! The spur trail to the river is easy to spot, but it is also easy to walk right past the point where the trail continues south and on down to the other loop trail along Crooked Branch. I located the trail and turned right along it. In a short while, I crossed Crooked Branch. There were pools of water on each side of the crossing on this day. In another couple of hundred feet, the trail split. A left turn led down Crooked Branch Hollow and then on to Mary Hollow, which I had hiked the previous day. A right turn on the old road bed is the trail currently being used to head up Collins Ridge. I was definitely feeling the extra weight of full water bottles as I climbed up the ridge, but managed to make it with only a couple of stops to catch my breath and rest tired legs. As I reached the top, I headed for the first nice stands of pines I found and located a great place to hang my hammock in no time! The wind was picking up and had been for some time, so I set up my hammock with the new wind shield underneath. I had used it the night before, but I never noticed the wind blowing then, so perhaps tonight would be a good test whether is was effective in blocking wind from underneath. I set up camp and fixed supper, which unbeknownst to me, was also beans and ham! Duh. Maybe I should have been more attentive in my food selection. Anyway, this batch was more flavorable than the previous night's ham and beans, so maybe I am getting the flavoring thing down a little better. I stayed up until dark, and just before that, I noticed a beautiful sunset. I hadn't noticed it earlier, so I hurried with the camera and took a few pictures. I am not sure how good they are going to turn out, but I hope they show how pretty it was. Anyway, I turned in at night for what was to be a good night's sleep.
Monday, January 19, I awoke the next morning before 7am. I like to linger in camp, so I made coffee and had a leisurely breakfast. The wind had not bothered me, though it blew throughout the night, as far as I know. So, the wind shield must have helped. The thermometer never showed lower than 28, so the night was warmer than I anticipated. After having even more coffee, I finally decided to break camp and got on the trail at 9am. Collins Ridge Trail Head awaited me about an hour ahead. It is a very enjoyable walk along the ridge. There are numerous pine stands along here and it all ridge walking. I passed the turn off to the Devil's Backbone Ridge, which I had taken two days ago, then the old homestead and in short order arrived at Collins Ridge Trail Head at 9:53pm. Though I was loathe to end the trip, I must admit it was nice to get back to creature comforts, such as a warm heater in my car. It had been a great trip, though a fabulous slice of the Ozarks. The whole complex of Devils Backbone Wilderness, Ridge Runner and Ozark Trails offers a fantastic array or trails, with several options for trips and side trips. Water planning is important, though, unless you are okay with wildlife ponds. There are several of these ponds interspersed along the trail, especially along the North Fork Loop. Also, the same side trails which offer options can cause confusion, especially in the Devil's Backbone Wilderness. Make sure you study the map and understand it well, or you may be confused at some junctures of the trail. Still in all, a wonderful hiking experience. I estimated I covered about 22 miles. Although I accomplished this over a two night stay - because I wanted - it could easily be done as an overnight. Or, one could add side trips to it, such as to Amber Spring, and make it a lengthier trip for a two night stay.
Maps: An access map can be obtained from the Willow Springs Ranger District, P.O. Box 99, Willow Springs, MO 65793 (417-469-3155) or from the Rolla Supervisor's Office, Mark Twain National Forest by calling 573-364-4621. Quad Sheets: The District Ranger office can give you the 7-1/2 minute quad names.
Cautions: Spring and fall are the best times to use the trail. Mild periods in the winter are also good. Summers tend to be sweltering. The trail crosses south-facing slopes which can be quite hot. This part of Missouri is also subject to tornados and flash flooding. Be careful of high water - the North Fork trailhead has been flooded before.