Hidden Gem: Roaring River State Park, Fire Tower Trail

Roaring River State Park is located 7 miles south of Cassville, MO at the edge of the Mark Twain National Forest in Southwest Missouri.

There is nothing like nagging injuries to force you to look for options.  I know, my last post was all about options, and it’s still ongoing.  My preferred methods of self torture are still not an option due to my knees.  It’s too cold to get the kayak out and see how it does for me.  So I swim, when I can find a pool… and what else?  My weight loss goals are at a standstill.  Now I’m gaining weight due to inactivity.  I’m starting to panic a little bit.

One thing I can do is walk.  But of course, since this is me we are talking about, I take the extreme form of walking.  Hiking.  I have found my hiking boots and other accessories and in a desperate attempt to keep from having to buy bigger pants (a VERY real possibility if I’m not careful) I have started hitting the trails again.  We don’t have any extreme trails around here in Mid Mo.  Most are well worn and fairly gentle.  No mile long ups or downs.  But some are several miles long and get me back out where I’m happy.  In the woods.

I travel a lot for work.  I go to schools all over the state.  Most of which are WAY out of the way.  Small, rural schools where an associated city may or may not exist.  I used to document these places in this blog when I would find a cool spot to run while I was there.  I may expand that for a while to give me something to do and add hiking trails to the mix.

Such was the case this past week.  I was dispatched to the southwest corner of the state to a small school with no hotels in the town it was in.  I could have stayed 40+ miles away in a modern city and eaten at my favorite places, but in looking around I found a state park with a big lodge and campgrounds less than 10 miles away.  In looking at it on the map, even Google was confused.  Depending on how I looked at it, the lodge was in two different places.  When I finally pegged it down, I noticed that the forest and trees just seemed to “start” about 2 miles from it.  But since I had never been there I had no idea what I was looking at.  The images provided by the hotel website (woefully out of date and “under construction”… I HATE that…) seemed to show a different world than I was seeing.  Huge hills, trees, beautiful scenery.  The lodge was roughly the same price as one of the city hotels, all things considered, so I got a room there.

It’s a 4 hour drive to this town.  By the time I got there my knees were aching pretty bad and I needed to walk around the car a bit to loosen up (read: I’m old).  I found the school, got gas and headed out just south of town to the Roaring River State Park.  And just as the map had shown, it was mostly farmland right up to the edge of the Mark Twain National Forest.  Then the road dove down into a steep walled valley and I was in the Ozarks.  Pretty spectacular.

It has been so long since I have really been in this environment I forgot how different it was… and how much I like it.  The lodge is situated on the side of a hill overlooking the river.  The whole thing is situated at the very bottom of the hills, almost in a bowl, and is centered around a trout hatchery.  The lodge is fairly modern but it ain’t no Hilton.  It caters to outdoor folk and has far more cabins than rooms.  I was the ONLY one there without a fishing pole… 🙂

I used to love this environment.  There were people fishing everywhere.  With very little wind, the entire canyon smelled like wood smoke.  The good kind.  The s’mores and camp coffee kind.  Tents, cabins, RVs, a group lodge with a big fire pit.  Signs warning people to protect food and clean up fish guts to keep the bears out (yes, there are bears here).  It’s simpler.  Different things are important.  I had pretty much abandoned this life 10 years ago when I started using a CPAP machine to help me sleep.  Dragging the old “iron lung” around with me everywhere is no fun and definitely eliminates things like backpacking, so I just had to let it go.  Yes, I could invest in a camper or camp in cabins, but it just seemed kind of a waste.  I may have to re-think that…

I checked in at about 4pm but didn’t even unload or go to my room.  There are trails in the park and I wanted to take advantage of them.  I got a trail map from the front desk, picked a likely route and drove down to the trailhead.  I wanted to hike.

Although the topo helped I still had to do a little digging to find the trail.  I got the stink eye from fishermen as I pulled in right next to them.  The river coming from the hatchery is basically one big parking lot.  I could tell I was encroaching on their honey hole and they weren’t pleased.  Until I got out and didn’t have fishing gear.  Then they just looked confused.  After locating the trailhead for the River trail (which does just exactly what you would think… goes right down the river), I grabbed a sweatshirt and tied it around my waist (it was chilly but not bad, but I knew it would be cold when the sun went down) and wandered off down the trail.

I spent equal parts of my time during the first part of the trail marveling at the topography and stopping occasionally to watch people fish.  Not exactly a spectator sport, but still fun.  The trail rises up along a hill so that you are above and looking down on the river.  Not only could I see the fishermen, I could see their intended targets in the clear water.  I watched several good sized trout rise up to meet a fly, only to back off at the last second.  Ooooh… so close to dinner…

I had forgotten what a fly rod SOUNDS like.  Everything was mostly quiet even though there were quite a few fishermen.  So I could hear it.  The rattle of the reel.  The swish of the line.  I hadn’t heard that in 20 years.  I was taught to fly fish in Yellowstone National Park.  …so many flashbacks.  I watched a few minutes longer and saw one person catch a really nice trout (…mmmm… trout.) on a fly rod.  Neat to hear the reel scream as the fish took off.  It was like watching a fishing show.

After I snapped out of my trance I realized that I had been there way too long so I scooted off down the trail.  There was plenty of sun left up on the ridges, but the shadows were cold and getting colder.  I needed to keep moving.

The river trail was about 3/4 mile long and ended abruptly at a road.  It “kind of” looked like it crossed the road to the nature center and then went back up behind it.  I just stuck to the road and met the next trail, called Fire Tower, a few hundred yards up the road.  Most fire towers are not at the bottoms of the hills… so I knew I was in for some climbing.  I worried about my knees but they seemed happy actually, to be moving about.  Yes, there was a climb.  The trail goes up and then winds around to the tower and back down.  I didn’t have time to take it all so I followed it up to a spur that appeared to drop me back down right on top of my car.  This is a beautiful trail.  Steep in parts, big trees of mixed pine, oak, hickory and maple.  Well maintained and clean, there was very little mud on the main trail.  I did see some old bear tracks in one of the few muddy spots (not sure why he was up so early in the season), as well as deer and bobcat (too big to be a regular cat, too small for mountain lion, but definitely a cat) and some sort of dog (domestic, coyote… who knows), but not many people tracks.  The forest service had been doing quite a bit of cutting.  Some of it looked to be trail clearing, but some of it was just cutting.  After a steep climb of about a quarter of a mile, you hit a flat to gradual up that made it easier to look around.  Great views of the canyon and the Ozarks.  Even in the winter.

I got to the spur trail (yes, I can still read a topo… 🙂 ) and it immediately started heading down.  My knees didn’t like this as much and it was clear that this portion of the trail was not as well loved.  I came to a spot on a forest covered cliff.  The trail split left and right.  Neither side looked great.  I went left and within 50 yards realized I had made a mistake.  The trail pretty much fell apart and then ended at a cliff.  While this may sound terrifying, it was really no big deal.  I could see my car in the parking lot below and the “cliff” was only about 15 feet high.  After wandering about a bit I spotted a way down and started my scramble.  I stopped on several occasions to discover fossils and plants, moss and other fun stuff.  …scrambling.  Something else I hadn’t done in 20 years.  Really?  Had it been that long?  *sigh*

Once off the rocks the trail picked back up again and wandered around some old structures.  I think one was an old concrete tank that used to be part of the hatchery.  An old outbuilding with chairs and a table still set up inside from 30 years ago or more.  Finally I found the jeep trail listed on the topo that lead to the back of the group lodge.  Suddenly I was in the parking lot again and staring at my car… not wanting to go just yet.  I lingered to watch the few remaining fishermen and spy on the occasional trout that passed by.  I’m sure the water was cold but I really wanted to jump in.  Common sense prevailed though and I reluctantly got in the car and headed to the lodge.

I need this.  A lot.  Being inside in a stale gym or overly chlorinated pool are necessary evils when it is rotten outside or dark, but they rot my soul.  I need trees, critters, mud, cold, hot.  It’s reality.  It forces you to plan, to think, to prepare.  It also forces you to adapt and be creative.  Whether to changing conditions or a trail that disappears. I may not be able to do 2 week backpack trips anymore, but I can definitely do this.

Speaking of which, I gotta go eat lunch.  I’m going to Rock Bridge this afternoon.  Yes, it’s 30 degrees outside and it might snow.  That’s why I’m going… 😉  I will eventually run, swim and bike again.  Of  this I’m sure.  What I’m not so sure about anymore is when… Or why?

“Sometimes you find yourself in nature.  Sometimes in nature, you find yourself”

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