After last year, I wasn’t sure Meg would want to try backpacking again for awhile, but late last summer, it came up again and she seemed interested. Since then, every once and awhile, she framed it as “when we go back to Bell Mountain next year,” so it appeared that she had forgotten the serious amount of crying she did a year ago…
We had a limited window to pull this off, as I’m doing summer classes again starting in early June, and importantly, Calvin will be home for most of the summer, making it difficult to make a trip like this. Combine this with the fact that the high temp is in the low-90s for the next week, we opted to do a one-night trip down on a Tuesday when the high was 83 F and the low was 60 F.
It rained the day before, so by the time we got down there (four hour drive…), it was pretty moist along the trail.
Taking a step back, I should also note that we learned a fair bit about the trail and opted to start from a different location. Last year when we did this, we parked at the southwestern end of the loop and had to hike uphill along a rocky creek bed…and infamously, we missed the turn and went the wrong way. This time, we parked at the northeastern lot and had a much easier time. The trail in was mostly flat, though, again, somewhat muddy from the rain the day before.
We took a left first to head up to the Bell Mountain peak to get some pictures, then turned around and headed down to the creek we never found last year. When we got there, we found plenty of water to make our evening run far more smoothly than last year! We did about 5.4 mi that first day.
It was pretty easy to entertain Meg at this site. She waded across the creek with her sandals on a few times, threw some rocks, drew some sketches in her notebook, and filtered some water for me. That latter part was of particular interest, so she made us keep hydrated so she could filter more water.
The site was perfect, of course. The creek was next to a permanent fire pit and in a semi-open area that was flat and cleared for tents. Again, this is where we wanted to go last year, but never made it. I’m pretty sure Meg would have enjoyed last year quite a bit more had we actually found it…
We had macaroni and cheese (again) that night and, having the water source nearby, it was easy to do dishes with plenty of water, making the cooking experience more efficient than last year. I couldn’t get a fire going because the wood was so wet, so we ended up playing card games in the tents. Crazy Eights, Go Fish and Memory were the choices, and I’m pretty sure Meg won them all. It was pretty hot still, as it didn’t cool off into the 60s until after midnight. We stayed up until 9:00ish and fell asleep quickly after that.
The next day, we packed up quickly and made it back to the car around 10:00. It was about 3.5 mi or so and Meg didn’t start flagging until toward the end of it. The drive back was mostly uneventful and we made it back to Marshall by mid-afternoon, plenty of time to air things out and grab showers.
It was a great trip! Two nights may have been better, but one night was plenty. Perhaps next year we’ll try somewhere else!
We own quite a bit of backpacking gear, much of which I’ve had since before Brooke and I were married when I’d go on trips over Spring Break in high school and college. After we had kids, obviously, it got a little more difficult to be gone for multiple days on trips without the family. Thus, now that I’ve got a 7-year-old to indoctrinate in my interests, I thought this summer would yield an opportunity for a little daddy-daughter time out in the wilderness.
I hadn’t done much backpacking in Missouri, as most of my trips were to Tennessee and Arkansas (with a single trip to Colorado back in 8th grade). The trails I’d done in Missouri were relatively far south and didn’t have much access to water. In searching for “beginner backpacking trails” that would be suitable for a 7-year-old first-timer, I came across the Bell Mountain Loop Trail near Salem, MO, as part of Mark Twain National Forest. The trail represented a 10 mile loop that had good overlooks, had access to water at least at one point, and was rated as relatively easy for beginners.
Things started out pretty good, really. In many ways, this is the most “in shape” I’ve ever been for backpacking, as the last time I did this, I was a good 30 pounds heavier. Meg, of course, had gone hiking with us in limited settings, but never with this length of time, or overnight in the wilderness.
We got started on an Ozark Trail spur that would lead us to the Bell Mountain Trail Loop. The OT section was mostly a dry creek bed, which isn’t great to hike on if you’re an adult, let alone a 7-year-old. Meg and I had good hiking shoes on, so we were relatively fine, but it did get tedious, and we had to go slower than we otherwise would. Still, we continue onward and upward until we hit the Bell Mountain Trail (or so we thought…).
We went for about as far as we could, but we were hoping we’d get to the main creek for our first night of camping, as it would provide some entertainment for Meg, and a solid water source to get us going the next morning. We kept going as far as we could, but it was getting darker and we had already gone a good 4 miles with no creek in sight. Meg was pretty tired (we didn’t start hiking until 4:00 pm, and there was a slight rain threat hovering about), and we were on a flat section of the trail that had some good camping spaces for our tent, so we went ahead and parked for the night.
The first night went remarkably well! It dipped down into the low-50s overnight, but we were pretty warm in our tent. We bought a 2-person Kelty backpacking tent, as traditionally, I’d always relied on a hammock and a tarp – something that doesn’t work quite as well for a 7-year-old. The tent worked very well, so I think that purchase was well-founded.
Also, the macaroni and cheese I made for dinner that night went over pretty well with the kid. 🙂
Anyway, we kept hiking the next morning and still never ran across the creek. We did spot a really nice overlook and took a few panoramic pictures with my phone. We did eventually spot a fire pit that we thought we recognized from our map, so we continued onward.
Eventually, we’d gone so far that it was getting late in the morning and we still hadn’t found water. Not that we needed water right then, but we would need it for cooking later in the day, so I was getting a bit worried. I was also very confused by a fork in the trail that shouldn’t have been there, at least according to the map.
Thus, we opted to turn around and start heading back. We figured that there were some ponds we had passed that weren’t ideal for filtration, but could still be used to keep us going until we could get to the car the next morning. We were also hoping to get moving relatively early the next day so we could hit up Heinrichshaus in St. James before getting to Marshall in time to pick up Calvin from school.
Anyway, we kept going for a few miles and, at this point, I was keeping an eye on my LTE signal so I could try and download a Google Earth file that would show us where, exactly, on the trail we actually were.
Basically, we saw that sign early in the trip that’s pictured at the top of this page, and it pointed to the left. We also knew that we needed to take a left to head toward the Fire Ring indicated by the star above, as it would take us down toward Joe’s Creek for water (and there were two creek crossings on the map). Well, we thought that sign was at the trail fork circled in red. Instead, that sign was way before that, at the hairpin turn indicated by the red hexagon.
So, we took a left, but we were still on the OT spur and not actually on the Bell Mountain Loop yet. When we got to the real turnoff, we just kept on heading straight and didn’t notice that there was another trail heading off to the left just over our shoulders. Literally, there was a small orange flag that was practically impossible to see from the direction we were coming from.
So yeah, instead of eventually seeing the fire ring indicated by the star, we instead saw the fire rings that were actually on Bell Mountain, and the scenic views they entailed. Also, based on my step tracker’s GPS, we ended up heading toward an entirely different parking lot before we turned around: the “extra fork in the road” we saw, we should have taken a left instead of a right. Of course, we thought we were heading clockwise on the loop, but instead, we should have been going counter-clockwise.
Anyway, we had turned around, we figured this all out, and we kept trekking back to the car, knowing we wouldn’t cross the creek for water. We pushed it quite a bit and ended up going 10 miles that way.
Meg was not happy about this. There was yelling, there was screaming. There was a lot of “I thought you said we were close!!!” Technically, we were “close,” but considering that Meg had to stop literally every 2 minutes because her feet hurt, it was taking forever.
I even ended up carrying her backpack attached to mine in order to keep us moving. So yeah, my feet hurt, too, but she didn’t really care…
So yeah, we kept on going and eventually made it back to the car, where I had some water packed for our arrival. We also drove to a nearby creek passing so I could filter some more.
It was quite a bit colder the next night, dipping down into the upper-40s, so that was a little less fun, but we still survived the night. Meg hobbled along for awhile and didn’t really want to walk at all after we got to camp, though she was fine by mid-next day.
All in all, if you ask her about it, she’ll tell you she had fun with the camping aspect of the trip, but the hiking part wasn’t her favorite. I think I can convince her to go again someday, but we may want to shake these memories a bit before I try again!
Ultimately, it was good to get backpacking again. If I have to wait until Calvin’s ready, I can live with that.