Mark Twain National Forest Overview
Missouri may have only one national forest, but what it lacks in quantity it makes up for in quality. Mark Twain National Forest is a land of limestone mountains of surprising steepness, clear-rushing streams perfect for canoeing, and a diversity of plant life as remarkable as it is endlessly interesting.
Wildflowers and wildlife are plentiful, making the forest popular with hunters, trappers, fishers, and wildlife photographers and observers. Hikers can pick and choose trails from one of the country's richest trail systems.
Lying mostly in the Ozark Plateau, Mark Twain is 1.5 million acres of forested area that was once given up for dead after timbering operations denuded these hills by the turn of the century. Careful stewardship has brought the forest back to life, and the forest now holds some of the Midwest's wildest, most remote land. In all, seven federally designated wilderness areas cover 63,000 acres of the forest, including Bell Mountain Wilderness in the St. Francois Mountains, one of the oldest landmasses in North America.
Hike till You Drop
The short, sharp Ozark Mountains pack a surprising wallop, but the hardest part of hiking in these hills is deciding which trail to take. Mark Twain presents a tempting array of 742 miles of trail, including nationally renowned gems like the 24-mile Berryman Trail, the 22-mile Ridge Runner Trail, and the 5-mile Crane Lake Trail in the Fredericktown Ranger District. All three are classified as National Recreation Trails. Then there's the 500-plus-mile Ozark Trail, a sizable portion of which courses through the forest. If you're inclined, hop on and keep going.
More on hiking in Mark Twain National Forest
Tackle Knobs with Knobbies
Although wilderness areas are closed to mechanical transportation of any kind, more than half of the 742 miles of Mark Twain's trails are open to mountain bikes, including such primo rides as the rugged six-mile Noblett Lake Loop and the North Fork Loop, which is part of the Ozark Trail. Or gear up for the Kaintuck Hollow Trail, which courses through oak interspersed with cedar, dogwood, and spruce. The trail gets pretty hairy in places, which together with the wildflowers and berries dotting the landscape make for a beautiful, unforgettable journey.
Kayaking, canoeing, rafting, and inner tubing the 350 miles of floatable streams within the forest's boundaries is popular for up-close views of rocky bluffs, caves, flora, and fauna. The forest also has seasonal whitewater (spring and fall, generally) in the Potosi-Fredericktown Ranger District, but for the most part the forest's waterways are too shallow for whitewater rafting. For year-round paddling, try the pristine Ozark National Scenic Riverway, renowned for mild winters and scenery unchanged since the days of the Indians.
More on paddling in Mark Twain National Forest
Drive the Ridge Tops
For scenic driving that's tops in Middle America, try the Glade Top Trail (Forest Road 147), a 17-mile gravel road that rides across cedar-topped knobs with spectacular views of surrounding glades and the Arkansas Mountains. It's so good, it's designated a national scenic byway. Another worthwhile trip is Sugar Camp Road, which touts ten miles of ridgetop views of the Ozarks.
Go Wild for a Day
Mark Twain is popular with hunters, trappers, fishermen, and wildlife photographers alike. Wildlife abounds from the low hardwoods to the upland oak, hickory, and pines. The fortunate—and stealthy—may spot a coyote or bobcat. Hunters should note that wild turkey is in season in the fall, just in time for Thanksgiving. And for the fisherman, the many lakes, rivers, and streams in the region are well stocked.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication