Ring in spring with a hike in Paddy Creek Wilderness
Budding trees are beautiful, falling leaves are better and lazy summer float trips can’t be beat, but winter truly opens up the wonders of nature in Missouri. Animal tracks and birds are easier to spot, and if you brave the cold, you’re rewarded with views you only find in winter. Some of the best are hidden just a half-hour’s drive from one of the busiest highways in America.
Comprising more than 7,000 acres of public land in Mark Twain National Forest, Paddy Creek Wilderness Area is accessible via the Big Piney Trail which winds through forested bluffs and outcroppings around Big and Little Paddy creeks. The trailheads prove popular spots for fishing, picnicking and warm weather swimming, but there’s no such thing as an “off season” in Paddy Creek.
“In the winter it’s a totally different experience,” says National Forest Service Recreation Specialist Tray Hall. “In what we call ‘leaf-on’, the canopy really closes in around you. But in the winter you see scenic views and parts of the woods you walked right by during the summer.”
Formerly logged, homesteaded and farmed, the land named after 19th-century timber baron Sylvester Paddy was designated a wilderness area by Congress in 1983. Nearly 40 years later, the land is abundant with wildlife and a haven for people seeking the solitude of the woods. In order to preserve that sense of remote beauty that’s unique to wilderness areas, there are a few rules: Follow the principles of Leave No Trace ethics, limit groups to 10 people or less and leave the bike at home — only foot and horse travel are allowed. As with any outdoor adventure, familiarity with a map and compass is a good skill to have.
“People think it will be well-signed, like an average trail,” Tray says, noting that’s not the case in an area meant to display as little impact on nature as possible. “When you’re talking wilderness, those are going to be much fewer in number and low-key,” he adds. “That’s what we want.”
Despite challenging terrain, Paddy Creek is one of the best of Missouri’s eight wilderness areas for a first-time visitor. Backpackers might endeavor to complete the whole trail in one long day or weekend, but two loops provide options for day hikers. Constant use and volunteer maintenance from the Back Country Horsemen of Missouri mean the trail is typically easier to follow.
No matter your intensity level, you’ll want to arrive prepared. Winter hikes in particular mean dressing not only for the weather but also for changes in the forecast. Tray advises bringing along an extra set of shoes as the bridge-less trail crosses Paddy Creek in several places. And hydration remains vitally important even when the summer sun isn’t shining.
By trail’s end, you’ve only scratched the surface of adventures available around Paddy Creek. Cole Creek Trail southwest of Waynesville gives access to 20 miles of trails along the Gasconade River, while Kaintuck Hollow also offers multiple segments of varying degrees of difficulty.
Those looking for a shorter, easier-to-access hike should try the Cedar Bluff Trail at Lane Spring just west of Highway 63. You may want to bring a fishing pole: Mill Creek near Kaintuck Hollow is one of the state’s Blue Ribbon Trout Areas, and a guided or self-starter trip down the Big Piney River for smallmouth is the epitome of Ozarks float fishing. If your idea of leisure is stoking the fire at camp or taking a dip on a warm winter day, Paddy Creek Recreation Area makes for an excellent base camp to access the area’s wonders.
“It’s a great place to unwind and relax,” Tray says. “Paddy Creek is the heart of it all.”