Distance: 6.7 miles (10.6 km)
Elevation: 880 - 1220 feet (268 - 372 m)
Difficulty: Moderately Easy
Time of Year: Any time but October is the best!
|View across the ridges from Coy Bald|
Described by many as the greatest natural area in Missouri, Hercules Glades Wilderness in the Mark Twain National Forest certainly does provide for scenic beauty, ecological diversity, and interesting variety. At 12,200 acres, this wilderness is the 2nd largest in Missouri. It is located at the northern edges of the Ozarks and provides some interesting mixes of ecosystems due to its limestone/dolomite glades and balds. You can access this wilderness by taking MO-76 east out of Forsyth, MO, turning right onto US Hwy 160 and then turning left on Crosstimbers Road and following it to the end.
The trail begins in a forest of white oak and eastern red cedar. There are hickory, sassafras, and sugar maples mixed in, with plentiful poison ivy in the understory. When the trail branches shortly after entering the wilderness fence, bear left.
Within 1/2 mile, you descend down to Long Creek and to the beautiful limestone bluffs that rise on the far side. Along the sides of the cliffs, sugar maples add a brilliant hue of red. The waters are clear and cool and a great place to splash around on a hot day. Much of the creek bottom is a flat pavement of dolomite, covered with lots of small snails and fish darting all around the pools.
|Some lichens are drapped from the eastern red cedar branches above the cliffs|
|A break in the limestone pavement of Long Creek|
Then you arrive at the waterfall. It is a notch dug into the layers of dolomite and an excellent place to eat lunch. It is fun to hope around on the slabs of rocks and explore the area.
|In this region, these kinds of river features are called "shut-ins"|
After you have enjoyed your time here, it is time for the final 4 miles back to the trailhead. Here you will backtrack up the creek a few hundred yards and look for the trail heading up slope to the southwest. The trail will climb to the ridgetop. As you approach the ridgeline, the vegetation will change over from the oak/hickory forest to an open grassy area full of large eastern red cedar. These are the "glades" that gives Hercules Glades its name.
Historically, these areas would have been larger and more open, providing excellent views, but fire suppression and the planting of these eastern red cedars by farmers as wind breaks has allowed for this invasion. These trees are not cedars, but actually junipers and they are a native species. But, they are far more common, even weedy, than they were historically. As you go from glade to glade, with tantalizing glimpses, but no real views across the landscape, it can get frustrating. But, fear not, as you approach the top of Coy Bald, those views will be there!
|Coy Bald view across the wilderness, with Long Creek Hollow in the middle|
These glades are formed because the soils are so shallow here with a solid limestone pavement below, that only arid adapted plants can grow here. The grasses are those typical of the tallgrass prairie and there are even some plants common to the southwest, including prickly pear cactus.
|A nice view of the landscape|
The trail will go in and out of openings for the next half mile or so.
|As you look to the north, you can see the edge of the Ozarks and the flatter plains of Missori beyond|
Eventually the trail reenters the oak/hickory stands with really beautiful stands of white oak. White oak is a fire adapted species that can survive in droughty soils. You can often find it in sandy soils up north, but it excels here in these limestone soils as well.
The trail will go in and out of forest and glade for the last 1.5 miles before returning back to the trailhead. This really was an enjoyable hike and if you are ever in Southern Missouri, you should check it out.
PS- If you don't really want to do the hike and/or the weather doesn't allow, there is an alternative for you. It is called the Glade Top Trail and it is a Forest Service Scenic-Byway that runs through the area. This 23-mile dirt road that runs from Bradleyville to Ava allows people to drive through the glades on the nearby ridgetops with excellent views as well!