Ozark Trail Trace Creek Section

My daughter and I were able to get out on a pleasant backpacking trip this past March during our spring breaks. Joining us were some awesome folks from the Ozark Adventure Group (OAG). I think we ended up with five adults, two kids, and a dog. We had great weather, with plenty of sun during the day and some nice breezes at night. We initially wanted to tackle this 30-mile section in two nights – and three of us managed to do that – but those of us with kids hiked back to the cars before the second night.  The Trace Creek section was the perfect choice for this trip.

We met up on a Friday morning at the highway DD trailhead. There were already a few cars there. We quickly consolidated our group into two vehicles and drove the uneventful 40 minutes to the highway 8 trailhead. Our route covered the southernmost 12 miles of the Courtois section of the OT, and the first 17 miles or so of the Trace Creek section. We started off from highway 8 and immediately had to cross Lost Creek. The creek was running just high enough that I needed to remove my shoes. I ended up crossing in waterproof socks and Tevas. My daughter got a free piggyback ride across.

OT Trace Creek Section

In places where the OT followed a stream, the trail was usually wide and well-maintained.

Once across the creek, the Ozark Trail gains some elevation, then rides the undulating ridges to the northeast of the section’s namesake: the Courtois Creek.  Eventually, it retreats down into Machell Hollow, where we took a nice break and found an old cement cellar built into the hillside. The hollow is a nice, flat area with a somewhat reliable water supply. It would be a pretty good place to set up camp, but we were only three miles from the start. And we needed to twelve before the day was done.

OT Trace Creek Section

An old storm cellar not far off-trail was a neat place to explore in Machell Hollow.

The OT climbs out of Machell Hollow, drops down the other side of the ridge, then climbs back up to the ridge, across the road and drops back into the hollow. It’s an odd little stretch of trail. It would seem building the trail straight up Machell Hollow would’ve been easier than the serpentine way it exists today. It definitely would be shorter (by almost a mile), and easier on hikers. After entering the hollow for the second time, the OT turns southeast and heads straight up the drainage basin of the creek that runs through the valley.

Once out of Machell Hollow, the trail crosses a couple forest service roads, then roughly follows Pigeon Roost Road along the ridge. It follows the ridge for about a mile.

The last five miles of the Courtois section resemble a roller coaster. The first of these miles took us down into Boiling Springs Hollow and back up the other side. The second mile led us down 250 feet to the surprising scenic (and well signed) Snapps Branch. The next mile climbs up and over the bluff overlooking the branch and down the back side of it. It would’ve been easier and shorter to follow the creek bed and skipped the bluff ascent altogether, but we didn’t.

OT Trace Creek Section

There was no mistaking which creek we were at. From here, Snapps Branch flows south into Hazel Creek.

The final mile and a half of trail led us up to a ridge with a forest service road, and then poured us gently downhill to the Hazel Creek campground. This ended the first day and the Courtois section of the trail. We completed 12 miles of trail in about 6 hours, which is a pretty good pace with kids along.

Hazel Creek campground is a Forest Service campground. There was another group of campers there, but we had plenty of room to stretch out. We camped pretty close to Hazel Creek, which afforded us plenty of water. We set up camp, ate dinner, fixed a nice campfire, then slept well knowing we had a 14 or 15 mile day ahead of us.

OT Trace Creek Section

Hazel Creek campground was flat and close to water.

After a good breakfast on Saturday morning, we spent a little time climbing on the ruins of an old lead smelter that is next to the campground. There is also a information kiosk which describes the Trail of Tears, which runs through the area. We got started a little later than I had planned, so I knew that getting 15 miles in before sundown would be tough.

OT Trace Creek Section

The ruins of a 1800s lead smelter is just off the OT near the campground.

The Hazel Creek campground marks the beginning of the Trace Creek section of the trail. The OT leaves the campground and crosses Town Branch at about one-half mile. Town Branch runs into Hazel Creek just downstream from the crossing, which required some dexterous rock-hopping. The trail heads uphill into a pine forest for almost a mile before abruptly dropping down to Hazel Creek. This was more than a rock-hop. Again, I changed into sandals and gave my daughter a well-deserved piggyback ride across the creek.

OT Trace Creek Section

Crossing Hazel Creek required a temporary change of footwear.

The OT follows the bank of Hazel Creek upstream in a general southeast direction. It turns to the south (watch for trail markers here) and climbs up a forested ridge above the creek, before dropping into the Piney Branch drainage. There was good water here, and at 4.5 miles, it was a good time to rest and assess our situation. My kid was very in favor of hiking back to the car rather than camping. We decided to talk about it while hiking. My friend Mike was hiking with his son, so we let him know what we might end up doing.

The next half mile necessitated a climb out of the Piney Branch drainage up to highway C. We crossed this paved roadway and started heading down into the neighboring creek bed. This was a beautiful pine forest. It’s also about the time we started running into a bunch of mountain bikers out enjoying the trail. I think most of them parked at highway C, or used it as a turn-around point. We saw a lot of them for the next five miles.

OT Trace Creek Section

A couple of mountain bikers using the trail. It was a great spring day to be outside.

By the time we got to mile 7, we had decided that we would indeed road walk back to the car when we got to highway DD. That was still six miles ahead of us. Our group was beginning to spread out quite a bit, so we stopped for a break soon after we descended into the Trace Creek valley. We stopped near an old chimney; I always think it’s neat to come across evidence of an old homestead.

OT Trace Creek Section

A two-story chimney is all that is left of the homestead that was here along Trace Creek.

For almost the next two miles, the Trace Creek section follows…Trace Creek…upstream to the springs which supply its water. This portion of trail was very flat. It was easy to hike and was popular with cyclists.

Once we left the Trace Creek drainage, we had about 3.5 miles left before we reached highway DD. There wasn’t a 50-yard stretch of flat trail within these final miles. The trail descended to small creeks twice. We stopped and rested for an hour at one of them while the group consolidated. My daughter hiked feverishly for the last two miles knowing that she’d soon be able to sleep in the car.

OT Trace Creek Section

Following Trace Creek offered flat hiking for a couple miles.

Once we got to highway DD, we walked along the road instead of heading back into the forest on the far side of it. It ended up being a 2.5 mile road walk, and it was fairly grueling. When we got to the car we doubled back and picked up Mike and his son. They were only a mile or so behind us and they appreciated the ride.

OT Trace Creek Section

After hiking out of the Trace Creek, the OT gains and loses elevation a couple of times before reaching highway DD.

When I go back this fall, I will be continuing my hike and the north DD trailhead – where we started or road walk. All in all, the trail was in great shape, was signed properly, and was thoroughly enjoyable. Good job, Ozark Trail Association. Thinking of the OTA reminds me to pester you to support your local trail and conservation efforts.

As always, thanks for reading about our Trace Creek section backpack.  Check out the Ozark Trail’s trip planner if you’re interested in backpacking a piece of this beautiful trail.

OT Trace Creek Section

The GPS tracking of our backpacking trip.


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