Welcome to Paria's “Hike of the Week” series. Each week, we highlight one of America's best backpacking trails. For us, just reading about and seeing pictures of a great hike are enough to inspire us to want to see it for ourselves. We hope this series does the same for you!
This week we're covering the Big Piney Trail in Missouri.
Featured Photo: Ozark Forest (photo by University of Missouri)
Why This Hike?
The Big Piney Trail is widely regarded as one of the best trails in Missouri. Located in the Paddy Creek Wilderness, this area was named after the Irishman who first logged the region in the 1800s. The Big Piney is just one of many trails in the expansive Mark Twain National Forest. The beautiful, undulating Ozarks mark this area of south-central Missouri. At 16.5 miles, it makes a quick, scenic overnight trip if you're short on time.
- Length: 16.5 miles
- Type: Lollipop loop
- Elevation gain: 1,800 feet
- Difficulty: Moderate
- Best time to visit: Open year-round, though you'll get a lot better views in late fall through early spring
- Several creeks and a river run through the area, so filtering water shouldn't be an issue.
- You'll find a mixed forest of hardwoods and pines. Rocky outcroppings and steep cliffs mark areas of the trail too.
- There are several small seasonal waterfalls along the way. The largest can be found near the end of the trail.
- Take in the views at the scenic overlooks of the Big Piney River and surrounding rolling hills.
- Four-legged friends are welcome so long as they are kept on a leash.
- Wildlife: hawks, lizards, eagles, deer, turtles, coyotes, bobcats, turkey
- Many hikers stay at the Paddy Creek Campground since it's relatively close to the halfway point. But, there are several campsites along the way. You can also disperse camp.
- Dip your feet, or whole body, depending on the water level, in the creek near camp on a hot day.
Before you pack your bags, keep the following in mind:
- Bugs can be horrendous in the summer, especially ticks.
- This is a dual-use trail. Equestrians have the right of way.
- The route can be quite muddy after rain.
- Conversely, both the Little and Big Paddy Creeks may not be reliable sources of water during dry spells in the summer.
- There are a lot of man-made side trails through the area. Be sure to have good map reading skills.
How Do I Get There?
St.Louis Lambert International is the closest major airport to the Paddy Creek Wilderness. From here, merge onto I-70 W. After 3.5 miles, take exit 232 and merge onto I-270 S. Keep to the left to stay on I-270 S for 14.3 miles. Take exit 5B and merge onto I-44 W. Continue 122 miles, paying attention to signs and staying to the left when needed to stay on I-44 W. Take exit 153 and turn left onto MO-17 S. Continue 26.7 miles before turning left onto Lake Dr. After a half-mile, the road turns slightly left and turns into Forestry Tr 274A. After a very short distance, head straight onto Lake Dr. Follow the road until it ends in the parking area at Lake Roby. Total drive time is about 2 hours and 35 minutes.
Map of Recommended Route
The following map outlines our recommended route. Click the "Load Interactive Map" button to load the correct map. Once loaded, you can navigate along the route and view recommended campsites.
For even more detailed mapping, including being able to print a copy for yourself, click the "Open in CalTopo" button at the top of the map once it's loaded into view.
- Day 1 - Big Piney Trailhead to Paddy Creek Campground (7 miles)
- Day 2 - Paddy Creek Campground to Big Piney Trailhead (9 miles)
Day 1 - Big Piney Trailhead to Paddy Creek Campground
From the Roby Lake parking lot, backtrack on foot up the road a bit (about 450 feet). You'll pass through a wildlife gate and traipse through an open field. Once you get to the trees you'll pass through another gate. Be sure to sign the registry. And, if there are any, grab a map.
When you come to the first fork, you have two options. The left will take you clockwise; the right counter-clockwise. Don't let the trail signs of “North Loop” and “South Loop” confuse you. They are labeled this way because there is a shortcut trail between the two sides of the Big Piney Trail. This shortens the trek. For this article, we take the South Loop to head counter-clockwise.
The beginning takes you through a beautiful, quiet pine forest. Before long, you'll come across the scenic overlook area. This is a nice spot to take a quick break and a few pictures of the rolling hillside. Past here, you'll find a small stream that may or may not have water flowing. You're sure to admire the random rocky outcroppings as you continue. The walk along the ridgeline is rocky, but gives a nice view in leafless seasons.
Pass a small pond before coming across the next major intersection. Around mile 4, be sure to head straight to stay on the main trail. The fork to the left is the shortcut trail. Continue across the top of the small mountain. After two more miles, you'll head down into the valley and cross Big Paddy Creek. From here, it's less than a mile until you reach the road to the campground. It is also less than a mile down the road.
Day 2 - Paddy Creek Campground to Big Piney Trailhead
From camp, you can wade through Big Paddy Creek heading northeast. This saves you some time and backtracking. Plus, you would have to cross the cold creek either way. You'll find the trail again about 130ft from the creek. Be sure to snap some pics before you head back into the trees. The creek area is scenic in its own right, especially during fall and winter. (If it's too brushy, too much of a scramble on the other side, or the water is high, you can A) Backtrack down the road to the trail again or B) Cross over the creek and head a short way northwest and look for the trail there.)
You'll begin climbing again through a rugged area under the pines. After winding around the ridgeline, you'll find another awe-inspiring overlook. It's another perfect place to take a break and photograph the creek valley and rising Ozarks. There's also a nice campsite nearby if you don't mind dry camping and/or the campground is too busy for your liking.
Pass another small pond before passing the Big Piney Trail Camp. This one is more for equestrians with hitching posts nearby. After that, you'll pass through a surprisingly big yucca patch for the region. From here, the trail is pretty straightforward through the woods for a bit. Eventually, you'll come across yet another small pond. (It's almost as if someone just copied and pasted them along the trail.) A big boulder field awaits you past here as you make your way down the mountain.
Last, pass by the small, but lovely, shelf waterfall. At the fork, be sure to follow the sign and head straight to the beginning of the trail.
What Will I Need?
For spring and fall, average lows range in the 30s-50s; average highs in the 50s to low 80s. Whether you prefer a down sleeping bag or a versatile quilt, either will keep you warm. As always, don't forget the other half of your sleep system: your sleeping pad!
A backpacking quilt is extremely versatile! It can go from an open blanket to a closed up, mummy-style sleeping bag. This versatility makes them them ideal for 3-season use on the Big Piney Trail.
In warmer months, a mesh tent for some good ventilation while keeping the bugs off of you is nice. You'll likely want a backpacking tent for the open area of the campground for a little privacy.
Lightweight, titanium mugs come in handy for hot cocoa, coffee, or tea on cool mornings. Speaking of titanium, a long-handled spork is a lifesaver for those somewhat hard to eat dehydrated meals.
With all of the creek crossings, water shoes and trekking poles are a good idea. As for the bug situation, be sure to treat your clothing with permethrin before you head out on your trip. You can find more tips on keeping bugs at bay here.
If there's anything else you need to complete your pack, visit our full line of high-quality, affordable backpacking gear.
Shop Backpacking Tents
Shop Ultralight Tarps
Shop Backpacking Quilts
Shop Down Sleeping Bags
Shop Insulated Sleeping Pads
Shop Backpacking Pillow
Shop Folding Trekking Poles
Shop Titanium Cookware
Shop Tent and Tarp Accessories
Finally, to make sure you don't forget something at home, use our Ultimate Backpacker's Packing List. It even includes a convenient printable checklist!
Do I Need a Permit?
No permit is required. Staying in the campground is free too, though it is closed from December through the end of March. You are allowed to camp in the picnic area during this time.
Looking for a quick overnight on one of the best hikes in the Missouri Ozarks? Head out on the Big Piney Trail!
Have you completed this trail or any others in the Mark Twain National Forest? We'd love to hear about your experience in the comments!
If you're looking for more hike ideas, read our "Best Backpacking Trips in the Midwest" round-up post. Also, the following Hike of the Week articles cover other great trails in the region.
Hike of the Week: Ozark Highlands Trail
Hike of the Week: Lake Ouachita Vista Trail
Hike of the Week: Lusk Creek Wilderness to Garden of the Gods
For even more amazing backpacking trips visit The Trailhead, our interactive hike map. It contains a curated list of dozens of hikes, each with a detailed write-up like this one.
Finally, check out our comprehensive list of backpacking articles that cover just about everything there is to know about backpacking. If you're just starting out, our Backpacking 101 section covers all the basics. If you already have a few trips under your belt, you can find more advanced topics covered in our Expert Articles.
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