Those of you who read my blog know that I'm a fan of Allison Vaughn's blog, Ozark Highlands of Missouri. There's a lot to learn about Missouri ecosystems on her blog. But she also talks a lot about how much she enjoys burning forests. That's her job. Sounds like a funny job for a conservationist but it turns out that occasional, limited burning is one of the best tools for keeping a forest healthy.
At least that's what Allison says. I had no first hand knowledge until Easter weekend when I got to hike through some of her handiwork.
My Father came from New Mexico to go hiking with me and see the Ozarks first-hand. I decided I wanted to take him to the area that I had heard was one the most beautiful areas of the Ozarks, the Current River section of the Ozark Trail between Stegall Mountain and Rocky Falls. Below I have embedded a Google map of the path we took with a few notes about the hike. You can zoom in to see the terrain better and look at the annotations I have made at various points. The trail was about 5 miles each way with some significant ups and downs.
View Stegall Mountain Trip in a larger map
Stegall Mountain is in the southeast part of Missouri. It's not the highest peak in the Ozarks but it's bald on top so it provides some great views of the surrounding area. I had heard shortly before the trip that there had been a burn in the area some weeks before. I was both a little concerned and a little curious to see what it would be like to hike and camp so shortly after a fire. What I found delighted me and made me grateful for people like Allison who spend their time to make our forests healthy.
The forest near Stegall, like all forest in the Ozarks, is primarily Oak and Hickory with some Pine. There seem to be more pines than where I have hiked before. The pines are truly amazing. We hiked through stands of pine where each tree was at least 40 feet high and straight as an arrow. I can imagine that the early settlers must have been really excited to see such stands of perfect timber. In fact I think the area was over-logged back then. The fire cleared away all the brush down low but didn't really hurt the trees. Here's Hyrum next to one of those pines. You can see a little charring on the bark but the tree appeared completely unharmed. But notice behind Hyrum how open and free of brush the forest was.
As we ascended Stegall the terrain turned very rocky. I had expected to see mostly Dolomite (which is very common in southern Missouri) but it appears that the "bones" of Stegall are Rhyolite just like the St Francios mountains like Bell and Taum Sauk. This rocky climb was quite steep and at the top the trees ended and we could turn around and see this view of the area we had just hiked through and quite a ways south. Notice that low down on all the trees you can see the a little bit of charring from the fire but that the trees are all healthy.
There were places where we could see that on one side of the trail there had been burning but not on the other side. The burned side was open and inviting. The unburned side was choked with brush. Obviously this is nice from a aesthetic perspective but Allison tells me that there is something more important going on. The types of bushes and small trees that can't handle fire tend to be the invasive species while the survivors are native species. So the fire preserves the natural beauty of the Ozarks.
There seems to be an unusual concentration of Hickory in the area. The forest floor was covered with Hickory nuts: hundreds and thousands of them everywhere. The kids collected some of these nuts and later we cracked them found that Hickory nuts taste great. The smell of Hickory was in the air everywhere (a heavenly smell if you aren't familiar with it). The smell permeated all my gear and clothes and now, a week later I can pick up my coat and smell it and the whole experience comes rushing back to me.
Our destination was Rocky Falls. A small river named Rocky Creek falls over a massive rock formation in a very picturesque way. Here's the falls...
...and here's my dad posing with his grandkids in front of the falls.
The pool at the base of the falls looks like it would make a great swimming hole in summer!
We set up our hammocks near the falls so that we could go to sleep listening to the sound of the rushing water. The next morning we took a short hike to the top of the falls.
We wanted to hike down the other side so I took off my shoes and socks and ferried the kids across while wading. My dad went upstream and found a fallen log to cross over.
The first day had been misty and windy and we were quite cold (I wished I had brought gloves). But Saturday the weather turned very warm and the kids found the hike out a lot more challenging. Then we rushed home in time for the kids to have an Easter egg hunt with some friends.