Do you long to get away from the crowds; the hustle of the city; jammed-packed hotels; fast-food restaurants; and Interstate highways teeming with road-hogging 18-wheelers? Want to rediscover your family all over again? All you have to do is get outside and take advantage of designated Missouri wilderness areas—that's right, Missouri.
Wilderness? In Missouri? Absolutely! The U.S. Congress has designated eight Federal Wilderness Areas in Missouri; seven are managed by the National Forest Service, one (Mingo) is managed by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.
Activities within Wilderness Areas and National Forest reserves include, among many other adventures: hiking; backpacking; camping; canoeing; rafting; kayaking; rock climbing; mountaineering; horseback riding; swimming; fishing; hunting; wildlife viewing . . . in short, most types of outdoor recreation is found when you explore the Missouri wilderness areas. However, mechanical transportation, motorboats, cars and trucks, off-road vehicles, bicycles, hang gliders, and the landing of aircraft (including helicopters and drones) are prohibited, unless expressly approve for that specific area. Best to check first before you plan your wilderness activities.
The Eleven Point River marks the western boundary of The Irish Wilderness, a vast area of National Forest. With 16,277 acres of undulating topography, The Irish is largest Missouri Wilderness area. It offers hiking, backpacking and primitive camping opportunities. The Whites Creek Trail meanders from the Camp Five Trailhead, located sixteen miles southwest of Van Buren on Route J, for a distance of 18.6 miles to the Eleven Point River. Allow two days to make the complete round trip. The trail traverses hardwood forests, dried creek beds, springs, grasslands, glades, bluffs with breathtaking views of the river, sinkholes, disappearing streams that reappear downstream, and terrain ranging from flat to rugged. Explore the wilderness along the Eleven Point and find the wild, natural Whites Creek Cave, a spacious walk-in cave with numerous crystalline formations. The U.S. Congress designated the Irish Wilderness in 1984. (Additionally, in 1968, a 44.4-mile portion of the Eleven Point River was one of eight U.S. rivers originally listed in the National Wild and Scenic River System.)
The 9,143-acre Bell Mountain Wilderness is part of the St. Francois Mountains, one of the oldest landforms in North America. The rugged 12-mile Bell Mountain Trail is recommended for experienced hikers only. Elevations on the trail range from 1,702 feet, at the peak of Bell Mountain, to 970 feet at the base, in the area of Joe's Creek. Shut-in Creek, a perennial spring fed stream with several shut-ins along its path, crosses this area. Steep slopes intersect the stream at several locations. The U.S. Congress designated Bell Mountain a Missouri Wilderness in 1980.
An ideal area to explore the wilderness on day-hikes and overnight backpacking trips is the Devils Backbone Wilderness. With 6,687 acres, this Missouri Wilderness is a unique blend of Ozark flora and fauna, characterized by rugged topography, springs and the canoe/kayak floatable North Fork of the White River. Thirteen miles of maintained foot and horse trails follow the Devils Backbone and four other ridges, dropping off into surrounding hollows in the forest. Four trailheads offer good entry points. Congress designated the Devils Backbone Wilderness section of the national forest in 1980.
Some of the most scenic and unique country in the Midwest is found in the 12,413-acre Hercules-Glades Wilderness. There are 32 miles of maintained trails which follow open glades, forested ridge tops and Long Creek; cross country, off-trail hiking is allowed. Key attractions along the trail include Long Creek Falls, panoramic views of the Ozarks countryside, and a variety of open limestone glades and mixed forests. The sparsely marked trails are rated More Difficult to Most Difficult, with steep terrain, stream crossings, and steep elevations. The U.S. Congress designated the Hercules-Glades Wilderness in 1976.
Slightly more than 7,035 acres make up Paddy Creek Wilderness. There are 18 miles of designated trails, with elevation changes of 500 feet between a point near Roby Tower, on the western edge of the area, and Paddy Creek, where it meets the eastern boundary. Signs and trail marking are minimal or non-existent; the use of a map and a compass is highly suggested. The U.S. Congress designated the Paddy Creek Wilderness in 1983.
Piney Creek Wilderness has a total area of 8,178 acres. From Pineview Tower Trailhead, on the north, two paths of approximately 1.5 miles each, lead south to Piney Creek. From there, the major east-west trail follows Piney Creek for about four miles. Two other maintained foot and horse trails leave the main trail to head south, for a grand total of 13 miles. Portions of the trail system utilize old roads. Using maps and a compass is recommended. The U.S. Congress designated the Piney Creek Wilderness in 1980.
An ancient circle of granite rocks, piled atop of the mountain by early man, gives the 4,238-acre Rockpile Mountain Wilderness its name. This Missouri wilderness is primarily a broken ridge with steep rocky slopes running from Little Grass Mountain on the north to the National Forest boundary four miles to the south. From the trailhead there is a two-mile section of maintained trail. To explore the wilderness, the area is accessed by old mining and logging roads and by hiking cross-country. The area is within the St. Francois Mountains. The U.S. Congress designated the Rockpile Mountain Wilderness in 1980.
Let’s talk swamp. Yes, swamp. In Missouri. Eighteen thousand years ago, the Mississippi River flowed through this area on its way to the Gulf of Mexico. Located one mile north of Puxico, on Route 51, you find the 7,730-acre Mingo Wilderness Area, which takes up the western one-third of the vast, 21,592-acre Mingo National Wildlife Refuge. This is a nature lover’s paradise, where more than 245 species of birds have been recorded, including several year-round nesting bald eagles. The Wilderness, with its diverse habitat and abundant wildlife, is an area highlighted by gentle rolling hills, situated beside Monopoly Marsh with intersecting streams and rich swamplands. Meandering underneath a canvas of cypress and mixed hardwoods, the Mingo River flows out of the Mingo Wilderness into the remainder of the Wildlife Refuge, offering many miles of waterways for easy canoe access. The Refuge contains a variety of habitats, flora and fauna. Hunting and fishing, wildlife observation, camping, canoeing and boating, a 25-mile auto tour and more than 50 miles of hiking trails, including a wheelchair accessible one-mile boardwalk, are available in the Wildlife Refuge. Restrictions and regulations differ between the Wilderness Area and the Wildlife Refuge, so check first. The U.S. Congress designated the Mingo Wilderness in 1976.
To insure the quality and values of these Missouri Wilderness areas remains intact, please practice good wilderness manners and comply with all regulations and National Forest restrictions. In most of these areas, travel is by foot and horseback only; no motorized or mechanized vehicles are permitted. Camping, hiking and group-size restrictions may apply.
Two hard and fast rules: 1> Do Not Carry in Your Own Firewood! (Moving firewood around the country spreads forest pests like the Emerald Ash Borer and Gypsy Moth.) 2> By Missouri law, glass bottles and glass containers of any kind and all foam-type food and beverage containers and foam coolers are prohibited on and near any waterway.
For details on these Missouri wilderness areas, common and uncommon wildlife you might encounter, usage regulations, maps and entry points, see the specific area’s webpage. For general information, visit the U.S. Forestry Service's Mark Twain National Forrest website.
The Wilderness Act of 1964 describes wilderness in these terms: A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled (not confined or limited) by man; where man himself is a visitor who does not remain . . . an area of undeveloped Federal land retaining its primeval character and influence, without permanent improvements or human habitation, which is protected and managed so as to preserve its natural conditions . . . generally appears to have been affected primarily by the forces of nature, with the imprint of man's work substantially unnoticeable . . . has outstanding opportunities for solitude or a primitive and unconfined type of recreation . . . shall be devoted to the public purposes of recreation, scenic, scientific, educational, conservation and historic use.