Ozark Trail Current River Section

Last month, my friend Joe and I decided to backpack the Ozark Trail Current River Section. This section is thirty miles long and runs from Owl’s Bend on the river to just outside Van Buren, Missouri. We hiked in north to south, but it can just as easily be done the opposite direction. From the north, the trail passes through National Park Service, state Conservation Department, and National Forest land. Each of these stretches of trail were uniquely different.

OT Current River Section

Joe at the Powder Mill trailhead.

Joe and I met at the McDonald’s in Van Buren, grabbed some food and used the facilities. We headed to the Van Buren trailhead, which is a few miles west of town on the south side of U.S. 60. In order to get there, you’ll have to drive past it, then make a U-turn. Keep a eye out for the National Forest trailhead parking sign. We loaded everything up and left my car there at the trailhead. It took us close to an hour to drive to the Powder Mill trailhead in the Ozark National Scenic Riverways. Once there, it seemed as though the place was deserted. We quickly found the trailhead, but the building there was locked. So we drove further down towards the river and campground. We saw a few cars, but still not a single person. So back to the trailhead we drove. We decided to leave the car there next to the trailhead. The car we parked next to had left a note on their car. So we did the same and included when they could expect us to return. Around noon, we were ready to hit the Ozark Trail.

Ozark Trail

The trail passes across a lawn before ducking into the woods on the south side of highway 102. We soon emerged on the road and walked across the bridge. We kept our eye peeled on the west side and the trail soon heads back into the woods on the west side of the river. There were some interesting older buildings in this area, which is also criss-crossed with access roads. Hikers wishing to skip the roadwalk can park at a secondary trailhead at the end of one of these roads.

OT Current River Section

A nice view of the Current River from the highway 120 bridge.

OT Current River Section

One of the unique-looking building along the first mile of trail.

This stretch of trail is located in the river’s narrow floodplain. The trail eventually leaves the gravel road and heads to the river bank, but we somehow managed to miss the turn. There is apparently a really nice gravel bar there which is suitable for camping. We never saw it. Because we had hiked a while since we missed the turn, we simply decided to stay on the road until the trail crossed it again in another mile or so. So we never actually backpacked along the river for which the section of trail is named.

OT Current River Section

This open field was easy to navigate but was filled with Beggar’s Lice.

Once we found the alternative trailhead (it shaves a good two miles off the hike), we followed the trail as it gained a little elevation above the river. Despite the heavy leaves, these ended up being our best views of the Current. At some points, the drop to the river was precipitous. Just after the fourth mile, the Ozark Trail turns west and travels through an open field. The trail in this area has faded but the path is still recognizable and it is easy to see where it re-enters the forest in the distance. This is an excellent place to unknowingly collect ticks, beggar’s lice, and other hitchhikers. It was easy to follow but should probably be mowed a little more often.

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One of the three crossings of Indian Creek around mile 5.

Once the trail enters the forest, it follows Indian Creek for a mile or two, crossing the creek in at least three places. The water was shallow as it hadn’t rained there in a number of days. The trail never strays too far from the creek, remaining barely hidden in the trees on either bank. Crossings were dry with the help of strategically placed rocks. After leaving the Indian Creek drainage, the Ozark Trail crosses a low saddle before descending into the Rocky Creek drainage.

Klepzig Mill on Rocky Creek at mile 7. This is a fantastic area to explore.

Klepzig Mill on Rocky Creek at mile 7. This is a fantastic area to explore.

For most of the next two miles, Joe and I followed the trail near Rocky Creek. This was one of the neatest sections of trail we hiked. The creek is full of shut-ins, giants granite slabs which create chutes and waterfalls within the creek. At mile seven the trail passes Klepzig Mill, which was insanely photogenic. I was a little disappointed that we weren’t there in late October, when the leaves would have been at their peak. There was a little differential in leaf coloration in late September, but not much. Klepzig Mill is a fantastic place to stop an explore, which we did. Including hopping from rock to rock across the shut-ins. It is a really neat place and it is accessible by car for those who aren’t hiking. We had the area all to ourselves.

Ozark Trail

Not much water flowing through the Buzzard Mountain shut-ins near mile 8, but still a neat place to chill.

After leaving the mill, the trail continues to follow Rocky Creek and passes a second set of shut-ins known as the Buzzard Mountain shut-ins. We didn’t stop here (for long) but it would have been a neat place to explore as well. The trail eventually leaves the creek for about a half mile as it climbs a hill, then descends the other side to drop right back into the creek. By this point we needed to start looking for a place to make camp, and there was a nice established campsite just across the creek. We took our packs off and I wandered up the trail to see if there was a better spot up ahead. In no time, I came across the spur to Rocky Falls. So I headed back to Joe and we decided to hiked the 3/4 mile to the falls. I had heard the falls were worth it and they certainly did not disappoint. I had no idea Missouri had a set of cascades that tall, so it was an eye-opener for me.

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Rocky Falls on Rocky Creek. It hadn’t rained in a month so the water level was down a bit, but it was still cool to climb out on the falls. There’s a nice established campsite on the spur trail within listening distance.

Ozark Trail

First night’s camp near Rocky Falls.

Across from the falls we found a spectacular previously used campsite. It was a short walk to water and we could hear the falls from the campfire. The group of people who were having dinner at the Rocky Falls picnic area eventually went home. We hiked about ten miles in half a day.

In the morning, we went back to the falls to get water and use the NPS toilets. We knew that Saturday would be our longest day, but we didn’t get out of camp until about 8:30, which was about an hour later than I originally wanted to get going. It was pleasantly chilly when we got started. From the get-go we were hiking up a side drainage of Stegall Mountain, which is the highest point on this section of the trail. The trail was easy to follow and the forest emerged through a creepy fog as we continued on and up the drainage. We finally arrived a a set of long switchbacks, which included crossing a decrepit bridge. These was no water flowing under it so it did not provide much of a hardship.

Ozark Trail

Day 2, Map 1

Ozark Trail

Joe making stead progress up the drainage toward Stegall Mountain.

As we approached the top of Stegall, we were met on the trail by a father-son hiking duo who has slept atop the mountain. Their advice was to stay to the left as we emerged on the summit. They claimed we would see a marker attached to a rock, and maintained that the trail was difficult to follow. One of the first things we noticed at the summit was the heighth of the grasses. They were well over our heads and significantly reduced our visibility.

Ozark Trail

The view from Stegall was pretty nice.

Despite the reduced visibility, we continued toward our left per the gentleman’s instructions. We found a few rock formations among the grasses, but no markers. We finally took our packs of and enjoyed the views of the surrounding countryside. Stegall is the highest point around, so the vistas were spectacular. We also had phone reception, so Joe called his wife and I decided to search for any sign of the trail. After about 20 minutes of searching rock pile to rock pile, I finally found the OT marker attached to the rock. It was facing the way we had came, so it was meant as a marker for hikers headed in the opposite direction.

Ozark Trail

Creepy mist in the forest is sooo cool.

In any event we continued south from that marker without any sign of a trail. We had a general idea of where the trail was supposed to be, but we just couldn’t locate it on top of the mountain in those grasses. Finally, I figured we had mistakenly crossed it, and it would serve us better to bushwhack down the rear of the mountain to a gravel road. So down Stegall we went. It was fairly difficult and very vertical in many sections. We needed to be diligent against twisted ankles since the ground was strewn with softball-sized rocks.

Ozark Trail

We ended up taking an unintentional shortcut down Stegall Mountain. It provided foreshadowing for Peck Ranch.

We ended up in a drainage where the trail should have been, but wasn’t. I continually checked the maps. I knew that as long as we continued following the drainage, we end up near the road, which followed the main creek. But the ridge to my right confused me. It wasn’t on the map. Finally, I remembered that I had a GPS app on my phone that I had just downloaded a week before. I don’t usually keep maps on my phone, but this one showed me exactly where we were – one drainage to the east of the trail. We would have found the trail even if I hadn’t remembered the GPS on my phone, but it was nice to have. It may change my phone usage habits on the trail. As you can see from the map above, we ended up crossing the toe of the “mystery” ridge, before catching the road and walked briefly west to catch the trail.

This brought us to the northern wildlife fence of Peck Ranch Conservation Area. I had anticipated Rogers Creek would be dry, and it was. From this point for six miles, until the southern fence, there is no camping allowed. This restriction is in place mostly to keep backpackers from interfering with recently reintroduced elk in the area. It was mid-morning and we had ten miles until my planned stopping point. So off into the ranch we went.

Ozark TrailPeck Ranch is often closed for elk purposes during the year. As a matter of fact, it was scheduled to be closed the following weekend. It is closed for a long stretch in the spring for calving. As you can imagine, the closures don’t do the trail any favors. Not far from crossing the road, the trail become intermittent and very difficult to follow. This was especially true as the trail nears and crosses numerous feed patches in the area. Again, we knew the generally area where the trail was the supposed to be, but finding it proved difficult. In a few cases we briefly separated to find markers (which were sparse). It was slightly easier to route-find on the ridges. When we lost the trail in the drainages, it was hell. Bushwhacks of epic proportions. Tall thickets of scrub oaks, thorn bushes, and weeds covering us in burrs. After four miles or so in the Ranch, I had enough. We decided to climb straight up the drainage, through a couple of final thickets, and onto a gravel road.

Ozark Trail

This sad bachelor had no ladies this year.

Peck Ranch has a solid system of roads so people can come watch the elk. We happily walked those roads for the final two miles to the southern fence. At one point, Joe saw something in an adjacent field. It was brown and raised its head. It was a young buck with the beginnings of a nice rack. But he was so young he had no harem. He looked us over and headed into the woods. By the mid-afternoon, we had finished our bushwhack/roadwalk of Peck Ranch. We had for miles to go in order to get to Mint Spring, our next water source.

Ozark Trail

Map 4

Not to far from the southern fence, we crossed out of Peck Ranch and into the Mark Twain National Forest. The trail was much improved for here until the end (with the exception of Pike Creek). Due the the improved trail conditions and more frequent markers, we were able to get to Mint Spring at mile 24 just before dusk. It started to rain on us during the last couple of miles.

Ozark Trail

Looking back from the southern trailhead.

The trail crosses a small creek, and just upstream about 50 feet is Mint Spring. The water simply flows out of the earth through a series of rocks. The small stream creates by the spring was just deep enough for us to fill our water bottles. It was the first time we had water since we left Rocky Falls that morning. There was a large pond in Peck Ranch, but the water was pretty muddy, so we didn’t collect much there. Joe was pretty sore and tired, so we set up shelters, collected water, and pretty much said goodnight.

Throughout the night, I was woken up repeatedly by an itch. You can read about that mini-adventure here.

Ozark Trail

The three stages of beggar’s lice: Day 1, Day 2, and Day 3.

Because we went to bed so early the night before, we were awake before the sun came up the next morning. I almost had to force myself to wait until there was enough natural daylight for us to continue up the trail. Due to our experience the previous day with irregular trail markers, I didn’t want to have to search for them in the dark if that continued. We only had six miles to the trailhead, and Joe was ready to get there. We packed up camp, ate a cold breakfast (Joe even skipped his coffee), filled the water bottles, and off we went.

The forest was wet and there was still a light mist, so we started with our rain shells on. But after climbing the first drainage to reach an old sunken road, we quickly shed them. The trail was marked very well through the national forest.

Ozark Trail

The creek itself wasn’t so bad, but the trail along Pike Creek needed some serious TLC.

Two miles before the trailhead, we came to the Pike Creek crossing. Labeled by the Ozark Trail Association as the “worst crossing on the entire O.T.,” I had been wondering what it might consist of; a swim, perhaps. I was relieved by the crossing itself – it was easy. It was the only creek crossing in 30 miles where our feet got wet, but the water level was not any higher than our ankles. And at that point in the trip, our feet were all messed up anyway so a little moisture wasn’t going to hurt anything. The real problem with the Pike Creek crossing was the 20 foot approach was an overgrown mess – grasses, thorns, etc., – and no discernible trail to follow. On the opposite bank, we were greeted with a steep climb, followed by a 100 yard bushwhack, through which the trail was difficult to follow, but not impossible. Once we started heading out of the creek’s valley, the condition of the trail corridor was much better.

The last two miles were some of the best trail we hiked, even though I was a little surprised at the elevation changes near the trailhead. We used a culvert to pass under U.S. 60, and reached the car before noon. A great hike, even with the unexpected bushwhacking. I’d do again in a heartbeat.

Ozark Trail

Joe completes the final steps to the trailhead that took us under highway 60.


One Response to “Ozark Trail Current River Section

  • I’ve been in missouri last year with my friends for a great backpacking in some of adventurous places there but we haven’t informed about this Ozark Trail Current River Section. Nice trail though!

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