Much of my field work as a wilderness ranger is completed, yet all too soon this internship will end, after which I shall return to my home state of Connecticut. But on the Columbus Day weekend, I got the chance to have a memorable outing at the Rock Pile Mtn Wilderness southwest of Fredricktown, Missouri.
This is the smallest wilderness area in the state, but it spans 4238 acres of challenging terrain. There are plentiful gorges as well as steep, rocky slopes, the most prominent of which is a broken ridge connecting Little Grass Mtn at the trailhead to Rock Pile Mtn some 3.2 miles to the south. These high points are part of the St. Francois mountains, among the oldest land-forms in North America, rivaling the Appalachians. The maintained trail is about 2.6 miles long, starting on Little Grass Mtn and ending on a slope before Rock Pile Mtn. Per wilderness management protocol, designated trails are not marked or blazed. The path does continue on into the larger and wilder part of the wilderness, but because that section isn’t maintained, it offers its own set of challenges to hikers. Many of the “trails” in this part of the wilderness are in fact remnants of old logging roads, and as such, they can be very difficult to follow and “lead to no-where”.
According to our statistics, Cherokee Pass emergency response personnel (fire dept. and local Sheriff) make an average of 10 search-and-rescue operations into the wilderness per year, because some visitors are ill-equipped and ill-prepared for Rock Pile’s rugged landscape. I cannot stress enough how important it is to plan ahead and be prepared for wilderness trips. In the case of Rock Pile, I highly recommend bringing a detailed topo map (available at the trail-head register box and online here and here), an orienteering compass or a GPS with extra batteries, and most importantly, the knowledge of how to use whichever navigational tool you choose. A SPOT device is also a handy gadget for personal safety, in that it allows you to send a SOS signal to the nearest emergency response personnel via satellite communication. It is far more reliable than a cellphone. And, because there aren’t any natural permanent water sources available year-round (aside from the St. Francis River to the southwest), it is recommended to bring your own water supply and be prepared to treat any water you can collect.
That said, the Rock Pile Mtn Wilderness is so named for a circular formation of granite stones placed on the mountain by earlier human inhabitants, perhaps Native Illiniwek, but no one is entirely certain.
Here’s a view of the wilderness from FR 2124 on Little Grass Mtn. In the distance is Rock Pile Mtn.
And up at the trail-head:
The kiosk board has been updated since I came back from this trip, and this is what it now looks like. We were fortunate enough to receive 10 new register boxes from a boy scout as his Eagle Scout project, and they were very well made with great attention to detail. I installed one of them here, along with 2 others at the Bell Mtn Wilderness. On the board itself, I added a more detailed information poster about the wilderness after removing about 100 rusty staples and some older, weather-worn signs. It sure looks much better than it used to.🙂
I left the ranger station in Potosi on Sunday the 9th with all my kit stuffed in my LK-35, arriving at the trail-head at around 10:00 in the morning. As I drew nearer to my destination, I had a suspicion that, even though I have never encountered anyone in the wilderness (let alone see a vehicle parked at the trail-head), I just might see someone. Sure enough, I saw a Honda sedan parked just off the access road close to the trail-head. I have no idea how these visitors managed to climb up the deeply eroded, steep, and rocky track without damaging their vehicle….but somehow, they managed it. A high-clearance vehicle is recommended, but not necessary for accessing the Rock Pile Mtn Wilderness. Vehicles with lower ground-clearance can park off the road before the rather tricky ascent up Little Grass Mtn, and the occupants can simply walk up to the trail-head.
The trail starts off at the top of Little Grass Mtn before a steep descent down the slope. It would be very precarious in wintertime with snow accumulation on the ground disguising loose rocks. After that, the path mostly levels out before gradually ascending up to the crest of a glade-capped hill, and then down to a wildlife pond at the foot of the slope. This part of the trail is designated “remote”, or zone 2 on the Wilderness Opportunity Spectrum. Unlike the other wilderness areas in Missouri, Rock Pile is the only one to not have any transition zone (zone 1). This is largely due to the fact that fewer visitors go the this wilderness compared to the others, and Rock Pile’s location is in itself remote.
For the day, I was to conduct my solitude monitoring within the remote zone. After descending Little Grass Mtn, I came across the two visitors who had left their vehicle up on the access road. They had difficulty finding their way past the end of the maintained trail, but fortunately, they didn’t get lost. Their goal was to find the stone circle on Rock Pile Mtn, but because of the network of old logging roads, they were confused which way to go, and decided it would be better to head back than risk going down a wrong path – wise choice. I had never found the rock circle either, but I intended to make its discovery a goal for the trip. I also panned on bushwhacking to Turkey Pen Hollow at the edge of the wilderness, close to the St. Francis River.
I continued on and noted how quiet things were. In the past, I would almost always hear the drone of a sawmill, two miles or so to the east. Perhaps the mill doesn’t run on Sundays? Eventually, I reached the glade-capped hill, and decided to make my camp there, well off trail and concealed by dark Eastern Red-cedars, aromatic Sassafras, and graceful Sugar Maples.
This shelter was gifted to me from a family member. It’s made by Guide Gear and was sold on Sportsman’s Guide for a short time at $35. The full shelter is a tent system, with an inner mosquito net and bathtub floor, but I prefer the lightness and simplicity of the outer fly sheet. It has comparable weight to my DD 3×3 tarp at 26 ounces/0.737 grams. All the seams were sealed, and for $35, it was a steal. Pyramid/laavu tents can be ridiculously expensive, and you pay a premium for something ultralight. I don’t think this fly sheet qualifies as “ultralight”, but it’s light enough for me and packs down very well. Plus, the steeply-angled sides are ideal for shedding snow in the winter. The only issues I have with the shelter is that the tie-outs could be reinforced better, and the one vent should have been made bigger (or a second one added) to reduce condensation buildup. It isn’t bad as it is, but just something that could be improved. But again, for $35, you can’t expect everything to be perfect.
One of the things I particularly enjoy about this fly sheet is that it blends in VERY well, great for for stealth camping/Leave No Trace.
Two hundred feet away and it’s practically invisible.
Like usual, I hung my bear bag about 100 yards away and downwind from camp. This is the time of year when bears are stuffing their faces and seeking high-calorie and carbohydrate meals, and they won’t pass up an opportunity when they smell one.
This is the PCT (Pacific Crest Trail) bear hang, which relies on tension provided by a simple toggle system. It is more bear resistant than the more traditional way of hanging a bear bag. In some places, such as the Shining Rock Wilderness in North Carolina, black bears have learned to chew through the cordage to cut the line releasing the bag – thus prompting wilderness managers in such places to recommend bear canisters. But because the line in the PCT system isn’t loaded with weight from the bag, a black bear will have a harder time getting the food. Luckily for me, black bears in the Ozarks seem to be well-behaved, but one can never be too careful in bear country.
At around 16:00, I started fixing an early dinner and got my Emberlit fired-up with flint, steel, and chaga. The steel striker was part of a fire kit that I received from a friend in Texas.
There are two ways that I know of for igniting chaga with the flint and steel. One method is to take your knife (or a stone flake) and drill a small hole into a large piece of dried chaga to make a fine powder. Then you hold the steel close and above the tinder, striking down with the flint. This method does work, but I have found that it take a lot of patience because you need a spark to land directly on the powdered chaga. The one time I got it to work, it took about 15 minutes for a spark to land where I needed it to…but maybe I’m not doing it right (and it won’t be the first thing I haven’t done correctly, either LOL). The other way is to break off a small piece of chaga, and hold it against the flint whilst striking down with the steel, in the same manner that you would ignite charred-cloth. It helps to expose the dark orange part of the chaga to the edge of the flint where you strike. And it might take a dozen strikes with the steel, but it’s a much quicker method than the aforementioned.
One package of Thai Kitchen instant rice noodle soup (basically a ramen, but gluten-free) and a Zatarain’s rice mix to spice it up🙂.
After stuffing my face, there was little else to do except watch the sun go down and then turn-in. It stayed relatively cool the whole night, and the clear skies let the light of waxing moon splash silver across the landscape.
I awoke just before 06:00 in the morning on Columbus Day….and just as 06:00, the sawmill drone started. Hearing that sort of background noise can be rather bothersome, but I wouldn’t let it put a damper on my trip. I packed up all my kit and started my trek back on the maintained trail, passing the wildlife pond, and ascending the gradual slope next to Rock Pile Mtn. From there, I turned east and began the climb up the side of the ridge. The way was a mostly overgrown logging road, so thick at times that it was easier to handrail the path off to the side.
The beautiful red shades you see here are from Tupelo trees🙂.
Once I gained enough elevation, I passed by a few glades before reaching the summit, which was essentially one large, open glade. And just around a corner along the old, overgrown track, I saw the mysterious circle of granite rocks.
This is it – this is what most people who come to the wilderness look for, and not everyone finds it. But with good navigational skills, a decent topo map, a compass or GPS, and some perseverance, you can get to it😉. Personally, I don’t think the pile of rocks is as impressive as other parts of the wilderness, which I discover later on.
The sawmill could still be heard to the north and east, but it was faint. And so I lingered on the summit for a little while, admiring the natural beauty of my surroundings as well as the brisk wind from the north. But I couldn’t stay there all day – I had a long way yet to travel deep into the wilderness, and I hoped to reach Turkey Pen Hollow and the St. Francis River as a goal for the day.
For most of my trips, I do take along a GPS for distance calculation, and to make note of latitude and longitude bearings of user-created recreation (camp) sites as well as feral hog sightings, but I don’t use it for navigation, preferring the reliability of a map and a good compass and my experience using them.
I planned my route by scanning the topography on the map, looking for a way to make the descent down from Rock Pile Mtn a little easier. Regardless, it would be really steep in Turkey Pen Hollow. To circle back to the maintained trail, I would follow one of the major runoff streams that runs east to west into the St. Francis River on my way out. Rock Pile might be the smallest wilderness in the state, but it’s rugged country, and bushwhacking across this terrain would be a test of my physical fitness and navigational capabilities.
I still kept to what was left of the logging road, descending the height and heading south, until I came to a junction. Checking the map again, I decided to turn to the west, as that course would eventually take me a bit north. After about 1/4 mile/0.4 km, I stepped off the path to start my cross-country trek, bearing 270 degrees (due west).
The going was relatively easy at first, but the further I went, the more vegetation I ran into due to the gradually decreasing elevation. At some point, I reached a spot at which I could see far ahead to the northwest through the forest canopy.
Checking my map, I confirmed that this was the great backwards “c”-shaped valley known as Cave Branch. This meant that I went too far north, since Turkey Pen Hollow lay to the south. So, I changed my course and set the compass to 180 degrees. Even though I was then following the contours lower of Rock Pile Mtn, the way was tough with areas of dense undergrowth (even some Pawpaw saplings at one point) as well as treacherous loose rocks, partially disguised under the leaf litter.
At length, I crossed over the ridge-like slope forming the northern part of Turkey Pen Hollow, and fumbled my way down the precipitous side.
The hollow is incredibly steep, and the further down you go, the steeper it gets. But this characteristic has allowed some of the trees to endure a few hundred years, never felled by axe or saw. Most of the trees I saw were relatively new (estimated 120 years and less), but as I followed the dried-up, jagged stream that leads out to the St. Francis River, I found what remains of a giant American Sycamore:
I cannot be sure exactly how large this tree once was, but the diameter near the base was about 5 feet. Even though it has suffered storm damage, this Sycamore is quite tenacious, with numerous sprouts and branches jutting out from what is left of the trunk.
A bit further on, and I reached the very edge of the wilderness at the St. Francis River.
It looked particularly beautiful with many trees flaunting their autumnal clothes🙂.
From there, I hand-railed the river until entering the wide valley of Cave Branch a little to the north. I soon discovered the stream that runs north, and then east and south in a horseshoe shape, and so I followed it for awhile.
Every now and then I’d come to a dry section, at one point startling a lone coyote. The journey became more hilly as I gained elevation, but I held my northeasterly direction. Eventually, however, hand-railing the stream turned difficult as it narrowed, connecting into branching brooks which led this way and that – and I could no longer determine with certainty which one led east. To my left was the upper part of Cave Branch, basically a ridge-like slope, and I climbed it hoping to get a better view of my surroundings. To the south I could see the opposite hill containing the valley, but I could see little to the east other than more tree canopies. By now, it was a little after 13:00.
Knowing that the slope I had climbed pointed in a general easterly direction, I decided to travel along it, taking comfort in the swift breezes that whisked through the trees. I gained more elevation, and then the rise seemed to give way to a small valley surrounded by more hills. I saw a dried up brook running south to north, and this confused me, as I couldn’t see any such waterway marked on the map (actually, it is marked, but sort-of hidden by a grid line). Still, I knew that continuing east would lead me back, even if it meant climbing over those hills.
I trudged on up and over the slopes and through endless thickets, at length crossing onto what was left of a logging road. I felt optimistic, thinking that this might lead back to the maintained trail, but I should have known better. I found out after 15 minutes of hiking alongside it that the path ran south to north, and therefore wouldn’t lead me back. There was nothing to do other than reset my course to east again and continue. After crossing over another hill, I heard that familiar murmur in the distance. Could that be the blasted sawmill? Maybe.
Keeping to my 90 degree bearing, I ascended a steep-sided ridge lined with Short-leaf Pines. They sure looked familiar, and as I reached the crest of the rise, I heard the unmistakable drone of the sawmill. After 200 more yards, I found the maintained trail, and turned north to head out.
That was one heck of a hike -by the time I reached my Forest Service truck at around 15:45, my legs felt worn out. Still, I was happy – I had seen more than most people who come to this wilderness ever get to see. And, after checking my GPS, I found that I had trekked 11.73 miles that day. Every now and then, I like a good, solid challenge to test my skills, and this adventure into the Rock Pile Mtn Wilderness sure tested my abilities. I have thoroughly enjoyed maintaining and managing this beautiful area, and I will dearly miss it when I depart in early November.