Missouri’s Best Backpacking Trails for Beginners

Missouri can be a difficult state in which to backpack. Although there are many hiking options, it seems good backpacking trails can are hard to come by. That can hamper beginners from getting outside and having the kind of backpacking experience that will keep them coming back for more. Beginners often look for shorter trails and try to keep their outings to a single night in the backcountry. Following is a list of nine short Missouri trails that can be used for backpacking. Next time you’re out with a beginner or need a short trip to dial in your gear, check out one of these beginner backpacking trails in Missouri.

Turkey Pen Hollow

The Turkey Pen Hollow trail in Ha Ha Tonka state park.

Wilderness Trail

A trailhead in Meramec State Park for the Wilderness Trail. PC: campingmissouri.org

PC: campingmissouri.org

A nice trail with a rather obvious name, the Wilderness Trail is in Meramec State Park. The park is located not far down Interstate 44 from the St. Louis area. It’s close proximity make it a good choice for those that can’t escape the city until later in the afternoon. The 8.5-mile trail traverses old growth forest in the hills above the Meramec River. Backpackers are required to stay in one of eight designated campsites along the trail, most of which are set back from the trail a bit. Once the camps are full you’ll have to hike out, so check the registration box at the trailhead to see how busy the trail is before you get started. Water may be hard to find along the trail so pack it in. Elevation changes are not dramatic, and as is the case with many state park trails, there is a connector trail which can be used to shorted your hike to about 4 miles if needed. Get started here: Meramec State Park.

Smith Creek Loop

A view of Cedar Creek from the Smith Creek Loop.

A view of Cedar Creek from the Smith Creek Loop.

The Smith Creek Loop is located between Jefferson City and Fulton in the Cedar Creek Ranger District of the Mark Twain National Forest. It is about 5.5 miles, and traverses the hills above Cedar Creek. It crosses it’s namesake, Smith Creek, which flows into Cedar Creek near the trail. One of the more scenic portions of the trail is on the bluffs above Cedar Creek.  This trail can be overgrown in some places, so keep an eye out for orange diamond blazes, which are erratically spaced (bring a map). A short side trip to Rutherford Bridge is worth the extra 100 paces or so. The best campsites are nearest to Smith Creek. There are few established sites along the trail. Get started here: Cedar Creek Informational Brochure.


Whispering Pines Trail

PC: backpacker.com

PC: backpacker.com

This 9.75-mile trail in Hawn State Park offers backpackers a lot of options. Camping is not one of them. As with most state park backpacking trails, camping is limited to three established backpacker’s camps. In the case of the Whispering Pines Trail, two of the campsites are found on the southern loop and a third is on a connector trail for the northern loop. Either loop can be either alone, but when combined it’s called the Whispering Pines Trail. There are two connectors which attach to the neighboring White Oaks Trail. There are two water sources along the trail. Many people consider this one of the best backpacking trails in the state. Hawn State Park is a hour or so south of St. Louis on Interstate 55. Get started here: Hawn State Park.

Bell Mountain Loop

Bell Mountain summit.

The view from the summit of Bell Mountain just keeps going.

Accessible by two trailheads, the Bell Mountain Loop is one of the best trails in the state. It’s located in the Bell Mountain Wilderness area in the Mark Twain National Forest, and is about 11 miles long. This trail is a little more challenging than others on this list. The summit of Bell Mountain is 1,702′ and the lowest point on the trail is just over 900′, so there is a little more gain/loss here than in other areas. The views from Bell Mountain are worth the effort though. Water can be found in numerous places along the Joe’s Creek drainage. There are established campsite on the summit and along water sources. And this trail is a great place for spotting deer and other wildlife. This was my kids’ first backpacking trip. Get started here: Bell Mountain Wilderness.

Mudlick Trail

PC: mostateparks.com

PC: mostateparks.com

The Mudlick Trail is actually a system of trails that run though Sam A. Baker state park in southeast Missouri. The section reserved for hikers is 5.5 miles long. The remainder of the system is shared trail with equestrian users. Backpackers will have to hike some distance on the shared trail if they want to create a loop. Many different loop options are available, and there are a few connector trails to make the loops even shorter. This trail provides more elevation gain than many others. The change from the equestrian trailhead to the top of Mudlick Mountain is 900′, so be prepared to climb a little. There are two established backpacking camps, plus three stone shelters which can be used for shelter. If it’s warm enough, stop for a swim at the Big Creek shut-ins. Get started here: Sam A. Baker State Park.

Council Bluff Trail

PC: visitmo.com

PC: visitmo.com

This is a 12-mile loop around Council Bluff Lake in the Mark Twain National Forest. It’s the longest hike on this list. Although there are some steep areas, it’s probably also the flattest overall, as it follows the lakeshore. The trail connects the various campgrounds and access points around the lake. This is a shared trail with bikes, but no horses are allowed. Water is available at the trailheads and campground. There are a lot of nice places just off the trail to set up your shelter for the night. The Trace Creek section of the Ozark Trail runs just to the west of the lake, and you can hike a four mile section of it to the highway 32 trailhead for a slightly more challenging hike. Watch for wildlife near the water in the early morning and at dusk. Get started here: Council Bluff Trail.

PC: geocaching.com

PC: geocaching.com

Turkey Pen Hollow Trail

This relatively flat trail (changes in elevation around 100′) is located in central Missouri’s Ha Ha Tonka State Park. Backpackers are close enough to the hubbub at Lake of the Ozarks, but this trail still has a decent wilderness feel. At 6.5 miles, the trail is of moderate distance. It proceeds through forest and across hillside glades that are common in the area. As with most state park trails of any appreciable distance, there is a short connector trail that can be used to shorten it to about 4.5 miles. A large group backpack camp is available on a first-come, first-served basis. Smaller groups will have to stealth camp a distance from the trail. Water is sketchy along the trail so bring your own. Get started here: Ha Ha Tonka State Park.

Marble Creek Section of the Ozark Trail

Marble Creek Shut-InsThis is a 9-mile point-to-point hike on the shortest section of the Ozark Trail, so you’ll either need a shuttle car or have to hike back to your start. This section hasn’t been connected to any other sections of the O.T. as of yet, so it’s kind of out there all by itself. It is located in the Mark Twain National Forest just south of Ironton, Missouri. As is the case with most of the Ozark Trail, the Marble Creek section is well-signed. It’s also not used as much as other sections, so beware of some overgrowth. Generally speaking, the O.T. sections on National Forest lands are maintained pretty well. Water shouldn’t be a problem on this trail as there are quite a few places to refill if needed. The western terminus of this trail ends at Crane Lake, which has its own 5-mile loop trail, in case you only have one car or are looking for something shorter. Get started here: Ozark Trail Marble Creek Section.

The trailhead for the Rockywood Trail.

The trailhead for the Rockywood Trail.

Rockywood Trail

The Rockywood Trail is located in Washington State Park. This trail is six miles long and passes through a nice stretch of a state natural hardwood area, which has been set aside for its natural beauty. The trail crosses a few creeks and a number of glades. The elevation change along the trail is minimal – about 100′ gain or loss at any one time. There is a single backpacker camp along the trail. If needed, it can be shortened by roadwalking highway 104, which passes through the park. Keep an eye out for the stone shelters built by the CCC back in the 1930s. Get started here: Washington State Park.



3 Responses to “Missouri’s Best Backpacking Trails for Beginners

  • Joe Kolodziej
    2 years ago

    Small world, just searching over the lunch hour for “St. Louis backpacking trails for beginners” and your blog article popped up. Want to get my daughters out backpacking and you’ve already given me several great ideas with this article. Just saved your blog to my favorites. Very relevant and current topics and discussions.



    • MissouriHowell
      2 years ago

      Thanks for the kind words. I’m glad you enjoy it. I’m even more glad that you’re introducing your kids to backpacking. Have a great trip and let me know if I can help out.

  • Rene Wynn
    2 years ago

    I like how you did a detailed run down on these trails. I’ve been hiking almost one year now and I’m totally addicted to it. I’m excited to get on some of these trails in the near future. Thanks for your hard work and dedication 🙂

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