Big Piney Trail Hike: March 15-16, 2013

When searching for the “best trails” in Missouri, I came across a number of blogs and reviews describing the Big Piney Trail, including a write-up in Backpacker Magazine. I was looking for a loop to hike over two days, with one night of back country camping. I wanted to hike a trail with different looks and plenty of spots to explore. The Big Piney Trail (BPT) in the Paddy Creek Wilderness outside of Roby, Missouri did not disappoint. I recently hiked the trail with my friend Ben in preparation for taking some guys from my church to hike the BPT in May. I wanted to have the experience of hiking the trail before leading a small group of others on this hike. And I am glad I did. While the trail is easily recognizable, there are side trails and horse trails that made us stop and check the map and compass. Speaking of maps, do not waste your time on any of the maps on the Internet. Get the Mark Twain National Forest map, a black and white map that has the most details of the trail and terrain. We picked up a copy at the trailhead, but it may be better to call the Forest Service office and order one ahead a time just in case they are out at the trailhead.

Day One: Friday, March 15, 2013
We drove to the Roby Lake parking lot just North of Roby, Missouri. We took Hwy 32 from Lebanon to Roby and then turned North on Hwy 17. We went about a half a mile and then turned right (East) on Lake Dr. (Forestry Road 274). Once we parked facing Roby Lake, we crossed the road and walked up the road a bit and went through a gate into a pasture. We started hiking at about 11:40 AM.

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We continued for about a half a mile until we arrived at a second gate, where we entered the Big Paddy Wilderness. From here it was a short hike to the actual trailhead where we picked up a map and signed the register.

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From where we signed the register we hiked another half mile or so to the first “Y” in the trail. There was a sign at the intersection pointing to the North Loop to the left and the South Loop to the right. I found these titles (“North Loop” & “South Loop”) to be confusing and counter-intuitive. When you look at the map you will see why they are given those titles. If it were me, I would refer to these as the South Trail and the North Trail (which are connected, making both trails a loop. There are two different loop options — a small loop (approximately 8-9 miles) and a large loop (17-18 miles). We choose the large loop and we chose to do it counter clockwise. See the map below. (We started in the lower left-hand corner.)

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We hiked along the South Loop (South “Trail”) pass hardwoods, pines,  and an occasional pond. Parts are the trail were surrounded by pine trees, reminding me of the Pine Mountain Trail in South Georgia. We stopped at the first scenic overlook which looked towards the South. This was a good spot to take a break and take some pictures. It was easy to see down into the valley below, but it was not the best view of the day.

We continued on the trail which has the rocks and roots you would expect on a trail through the Ozarks. The BPT is shared by hikers and horses and in places the trail was muddy and torn up by horses, but because we were hiking mid-March the ground had just begun to thaw and was still in good condition for the most part. We could not have asked for better weather. It reached 78 degrees and was sunny. Ben and I both hiked in shorts and short sleeves. We crossed the Little Paddy Creek at some point on the South Loop before getting to the place where the Little Paddy and the Big Paddy meet.

It took a little navigating to figure out exactly where we were supposed to cross. We saw a “Y” in the trail and choose to go to the left and cross the Little Paddy Creek. Once we crossed, we could see where we thought the trail picked up, but this was NOT the BPT but the Paddy Creek Trail, a short loop for people staying at the Paddy Creek Campground. We went back across the Little Paddy and backtracked to where we turned left at the “Y” in the trail. I laid two sticks in the shape of an “X” on the left trail and built a rock cairn near the V-shaped tree marking the correct way to go.

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The trail that veered off to the right was the correct way to go. A sign at this intersection would have been helpful, but signage and blazes where at a minimum on this trail. If you attempt this hike, I would recommend familiarizing yourself with the map, particularly the NE corner of the trail where you cross the Big Paddy Creek.

I was looking forward to crossing the Big Paddy so I could try out my DIY river shoes. (I did try them out on the Little Paddy Creek crossing (twice!) when we went down the wrong trail.) I made homemade sandals (which I later named “river shoes”) before the trip because I have become fascinated with DIY gear I can make cheap at home. I created these river shoes after learning about “invisible shoes.” I took his idea and fashioned my own shoes out of paracord and $1 flip-flops from Wal-Mart.

 

After we crossed the creek, we followed the trail with a fairly tall bluff to our left. By looking at the map we could see we were walking east to get around to the backside of the bluff to hike up it. The hike up was the most strenuous part of the hike, but it wasn’t too bad. We made it to the top of the ridge and we checked to see if we could get a cell/data signal on our phones. We lucked out! This was the only spot on the trail where we were able to obtain a signal. With At&T I had two bars.

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We also thought this high point was the scenic overlook mentioned on the map, but we were wrong. We hiked on maybe a quarter mile and off to the left I could see a rock jutting out from the bluff. We had to descend down a side trail to get to the rock outcropping, but it was worth it. This was the scenic overlook marked on the map, overlooking the Big Paddy Creek. This was the best view of the hike.

 

We wanted to spend more time here, but the sun was setting and we had another half mile or so to get to camp. We could have caught a really good sunset over the western bluff, but it had clouded up, partially covering the setting sun. We hiked on to the “Big Piney Trail Camp” just as it was getting dark. This campground marked on the map was right next to a road and I really wasn’t interested in setting up camp on a Friday night right next to a country road.

So we turned on our headlamps and did a little night hiking. We hiked for another half mile or so and found the closest thing to a flat spot and made camp. It was close to 9 PM and we had hiked about 9.5 miles. I was excited to use my new Coleman Solo Max cookpot and alcohol stove.

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I boiled water and made instant mash potatoes. I sliced up some summer sausage to add to it and dinner was served. The mash potatoes package said it served four, but on that night it served one. We let the fire die down and we got to bed by 11:30 PM. By 11:35 I was fast asleep.

Day Two: Saturday, March 16, 2013
I woke up around 7 AM. It was a good night sleep. We started stirring by 7:30. It was a cool, but not cold morning, somewhere in the upper 40s. I started packing up and I snapped this shot of camp.

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We made the mistake of not collecting enough water while we were at Big Paddy Creek. We were unsure how long it would be until we came across a stream, so we decided to down a couple granola bars and wait for the first stream to pump water and have our oatmeal and coffee. We left camp about 8:30 AM.

We hiked about a mile or so when we came across a fairly large campground. Just on the other side of that campground was a stream where we gathered water and had (second) breakfast. We loaded up on water (more than 2 liters each) and headed down the trail after spending about an hour at the stream.

As we started down the trail, I recorded this video, recapping day one.

 

Here is a gear comment for all you gear geeks. (If you could care less about camping gear then skip to the next paragraph.) I have been working the last 6 months or so to lighten my pack weight. I was so happy to get my base weight (minus food and water) down to 19 lbs. for this two-day trip. I received a lightweight sleeping bag for Christmas (Thanks Kit!), and gave up the Jetboil for an alcohol stove. I also went through and eliminated unneeded gear and swapped out heavier gear for lighter gear. For example I traded out a Nalgene bottle for a Platypus bottle. I also gave up my hydration bladder for two .5 liter bottles I carried on my shoulder straps. I got the idea from Stick on his blog here: http://sticksblog.com/2013/01/20/diy-shoulder-strap-water-bottle-holders.  Stick has a lot of gear reviews and a lot of clever DIY gear tips. He used shock cord and mitten hooks to secure his bottles to his shoulder straps, but I saved even more money by using four of my wife’s ponytail holders. Ok, enough gear talk…back to day two…

We headed on down the trail energized by breakfast. It was cloudy and mild. Perfect hiking weather. We were all set to make it back to the trailhead with plenty of time, but we missed some signs pointing us to stay left on the trail and we went right. We found ourselves on a horse trail thinking we were still on the BPT. We ended up on somebody’s property on Slabtown Road. Apparently the owner of the property offered trail rides and owned a campground. We slowly backtracked trying to figure out where we got off the trail. We chose not to start bushwhacking, opting instead for the backtrack-until-you-know-where-you-are rule of hiking. When we got back on the trail we saw the sign we missed.

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This was one of the few intersections on the trail with signage and we missed it. We ended up hiking 1.5 miles off trail (3 miles round trip) and wasting around three hours. We did come up on four horseman (not those “four horseman”) on the side trail. Besides one rabbit, the horses were the only animals we saw on our trip.

With time running out on us, we double-timed-it down the trail to get back to the parking lot. At this point it was more about the miles than the smiles. We did stop near some rock formations for a quick refueling break and then we stopped at the waterfalls at the end of the loop.

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We really could have spent more time here, but it was nearing 4 PM and we had a 4.5-hour drive home. So we completed the loop, returning to the trailhead. We darted across the pasture and back to the parking lot. Overall it was a great hike. I am returning to the trail the first weekend in May and I am glad I hiked it first before leading a group of others. If you are looking for a two-day adventure in the Ozarks, I highly recommend this trail. It is challenging, but if you are in moderate physical condition, you will find it not too difficult. It makes for a perfect two-day hike, but with plenty of places to camp, you could make it a three-day hike.

Here are some other pictures:

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  • Michael

    Hello – I’m planning a backpacking trip on the Big Piney for my wife and I in the spring. This may seem like an exceptionally early start, but we’re beginners, so a little extra planning can’t hurt. Your account of the trail has been very helpful and we thank you for it. We are planning a similar itinerary, i.e. parking at Roby Lake, camping somewhere near the northeast corner of the trail, and returning the following day. A couple of questions, if you don’t mind. Would you recommend hiking the trail counterclockwise as you did, or do you wish that you had gone the opposite direction? Also, you mentioned the campground near the northeast corner of the trail and that you wished to avoid it on a busy Friday night. Did you find anything specifically wrong or worrisome about the site? We’re still a little skittish about camping in the woods and would prefer to setup camp where others might be if possible. Many thanks for your time.