Caney Mountain is a nearly 8,000 acre conservation area operated by the Missouri Department of Conservation. It has things in it and you should go there.
First off, a little history on the Caney Mountain Area. Established in 1940 (because all the wild turkeys in Missouri were dead and apparently this was not a good thing) the reserve is located smack dab in the middle of Ozark County. The purpose of the area originally was to help restore the wild turkey population, but soon after the conservation department got tired of the lame ass turkeys and threw some deer into the mix. The main features of the park include the many food plots established throughout, and cool mountains that are a part of something called the Gainesville monadnock group.
Joining me on this trip would be the two people who I’ve done more hiking with than anyone else in the world. Noah, who you’ll get to read more about in our upcoming “Oregon Trail 2017” series, and Bri. The three of us have been on dozens of trips together all over the Ozarks. One summer we went hiking somewhere new every week.
Our trip to Caney Mountain is a perfect example of how not to be prepared with any knowledge on an area going in, and still being able to have a good time regardless. The first mistake we (I) made was not really knowing where we were going. Information online about this place is pretty limited, and I was getting most of my info from the not extremely helpful MDC page and a blog post by a lady named Tricia written in 2011. According to Tricia there were maps available at the visitor center, so I figured that could be a good place to start.
After locating the visitor center on both Google Maps and the one map available from the conservation department, and making a mental note to make sure Maps was taking us there, I set our destination for “Caney Mountain Conservation Area” and blindly followed Google like the sheep I am.
Google will take you right there! If “there” is literally just the words “Caney Mountain Conservation Area” on the map. This is where a unique feature of the park comes into play. There are only two miles of designated hiking trail in the entire park, but there are seven miles of gravel road that is closed to public vehicles but open to hiking, mountain biking, and horseback riding. On Maps however, these just look like roads, and Google thinks they are. So imagine our surprise when the gravel road Google had been taking us on for close to half an hour on the west side of the park hit a locked gate labeled “Authorized Vehicles Only”.
At first I was pretty confused. For as far as we could see, the road continued past the gate. Luckily I had thought through enough to download offline Maps for the area, and quickly realized my mistake. We were roughly a mile away from what looked like the visitor center, and we decided we could either park here and walk on the road behind the gate that connected to it, or drive back out the road we came in on to Highway 5 and go around the south end of the park to the main entrance.
Daylight wasn’t on our side, and we had been in the car for almost two hours, so we packed up our bag and set off on the other side of the gate. The road soon hit a “T” and we went right, towards the visitor center. The mountains here have the best names. Bear Cave Mountain. Big Acorn Knob. Tater Cave Mountain. Separating us and our destination was “Long Mountain”. The name most likely comes from how walking up one side and down the other, even on a wide, packed gravel road, feels loooooooong.
In all honestly, the elevation change isn’t the worst. Most of the mountains are 300-400’ above the valleys that separate them. The problem is, they aren’t very large in terms of their footprint, and 400’ up a steep gravel road can start to feel like rock climbing after a couple of miles. As we headed down Long Mountain we were greeted by a picturesque scene of an old farmhouse, Caney Creek, and large open green fields, all backing up to Caney Mountain itself.
This wasn’t all though, scattered throughout the valley, parked near some garages or just in the fields, were newer looking John Deere tractors. Like farm tractors. With farm machinery. Like ten of them. This was weird.
Another thing that was weird. There were no cars. Or people. Or sounds. The valley was dead quiet apart from the babbling of the creek. There were some signs labeling what was a campground area, some bathrooms, and the “Main Trail”. There were no signs for a visitor center of any kind, so we sacrificed Noah to go and knock on the door of the old farm house. There was no answer, but then again this didn’t really seem like a visitor center, unless the Missouri Department of Conservation is going for a reallllllyyyyy homey feel.
So now, armed with no maps and more questions than we arrived with we set off on the main trail. Passing an open sided shed with shelves full of hundreds of brand new plastic information signs, some more farm machinery, and other miscellaneous stuff. Then, yet another large lot full of yet more farm implements, canoes, and trailers.
After this we came to a “Y” in the trail with the Main Trail ahead of us staying in the valley along the creek, and the “North Trail” to our right vertically climbing up to Lander’s Bald. We were on the hunt for some views, and took the North Trail.
When we reached the top the views of the surrounding points really were great. It definitely helped that it was mid-November and the trees were bare, but the views at this place are really what make it. There was a road off to our right side that looked less traveled and had another “Authorized Vehicles” sign, so we decided to take it.
This road stayed mostly flat, twisting through the woods, it’s deep ruts filled with leaves. It wasn’t long until it opened up into a small glade (with more fantastic views of Caney Mountain) and then eventually ended at a large field cut out into the forest. We were pretty confused as to why this field was here, and what it was for. Every food plot we had passed to that point had been labeled, and this was much larger than those. This one also had something growing on it…
Onions! We thought. Really at this point it probably wouldn’t have surprised us if there was frickin’ bamboo growing in this field. Noah decided we needed to pick some, and I went over to help Bri, when she pointed out that these didn’t really look like onions. Or smell like onions. I cut one open, and yeah, they weren’t onions, they were turnips!
We must have picked 30 some turnips. Noah wanted to take some home for his mom to cook with. Not that any of us had any clue what you use turnips for, we had never really ate them. My only experience with them came from playing Animal Crossing as a kid. We cut and skinned one to taste, it wasn’t bad! Kind of tasted like fresh green beans and peanuts.
As our turnip picking came to a close, the sun was well on it’s way down. It was a quarter till five, so we had half an hour maybe of sunlight left. We headed back down Lander’s Bald, taking in the awesome views one last time with the setting sun. Really, this place has some of the best views of anywhere I’ve ever been.
When we reached the intersection with the Main Trail, we noticed a sign laying face down on the side of the road, and flipped it over. It was a bright yellow wooden sign that had definitely seen better days. It read “CAUTION 4X4 VEHICLE RECOMMENDED”. It wasn’t doing anyone much good here, and it looked badass, so we took it.
Eventually we made it back to Dudley. Our calves burned from climbing the steep hills. Bri may or may not may have had to be carried at one point. But we had turnips and a neat sign, and it had been another cool adventure. For our totals on the day, we hiked for almost exactly two hours, and did a total of 5.5 miles.
So what’s the deal with this place? Most of the research I should have been doing beforehand I did after we got back that night. The important thing to consider is that this is first and foremost a conservation area. It exists to help keep healthy populations of wildlife in the area. This is what the food plots are for, and after looking at the map, our turnip field was just another one of these. Apparently deer like turnips, which actually makes decent sense.
This would also explain all of the farm machinery, according to the MDC map there are 75 food plots throughout the area, and while we only found one with crops growing on it, I’m willing to bet there are others. Not to mention the task of simply maintaining 75 plots of land across 8,000 mountainous acres.
Why did we not see anyone else there though? For beginners, there isn’t much in the area surrounding Caney Mountain. Gainesville is five miles to the south, but Ozark County doesn’t have much else. Being a beautiful Monday evening before Thanksgiving, a lot of people were probably out hunting. Judging by the size of the campground and facilities there, I’m going to guess Caney Mountain sees plenty of traffic during the spring, summer, and early fall. Also, we definitely heard a barking dog on our way back, so there probably were other people we just didn’t see.
I cannot recommend a day trip to Caney Mountain enough. For places to explore within two hours of Springfield, this one is great. I definitely plan on going back next summer, among the things we missed are several caves, old cabins, and springs. Compared to traditional hiking, the gravel roads are fast and easy, and provide a different experience. An adventure is waiting for you here. You read this, so you know more than we did going in, get out and do it.
There are plenty of remote, little known places like Caney Mountain across the Ozarks. Know one that’d you like to share? Drop me a line in our contact tab, I’ll go check it out.