Hercules Glades Wilderness, near Branson Missouri
Located near Branson Missouri, the 12,314 acre Hercules Glade Wilderness provides a window into a unique Ozark Mountain ecosystem. The term glades refers to the bald top hills found in the wilderness. The Ordovician-aged Cotter Dolomite that caps these hills is a poor soil former causing what is termed a xeric limestone prairie (xeric means dry or desert like). The result is a prairie ecosystem that looks more like what you would find hundreds of miles to the west; dry land grasses spotted with cedar trees. In addition, the prairies have changed the makeup of the local forest. Rather than the typical oak and hickory assemblage, cedars are pervasive. Although the oaks are ever present in forest, cedars are sometimes the dominate species. Possibly because of the soil or maybe because of competition from the cedars, few short leaf pines are evident. As should be expected, there are also transition zones where the cedars have become so dense and big that they form their own forest shading out the grass.
The Map of the Wilderness: There are three FREE maps on this page. Each are true 1:24,000 scale based on the USGS 7.5 minute quadrangles. The "Full" map is the entire wilderness in one map that provides continuity across the wilderness that the West and East maps don't have. The West and East maps are pre formatted to print on 11x17 paper. Alternatively, the East and West maps are available on 11x17 Rite in the Rain weatherproof stock for $5/sheet ($10 for the set) plus S&H. Email Charlie@OuachitaMaps.com.
The track in red is what I call the Long-Pilot Loop, which I tracked November 7-8, 2010. The blue tracks are from the Forest Service GIS database. I had the the Forest Service track of the Long-Pilot Loop on the hike and they matched very well with the tracks I was taking. In addition, the intersections were spot-on, too. I believe you will find the blue trails to be accurate, but if you find an error, send me an email with the correction. The wilderness boundary is outlined in green. Waypoints are designated with a red dot and labeled HG-00. The mileages shown are between waypoints.
Trip Mileage Table: Click here for trip mileage table.
Tracks of the Entire Wilderness: This link is to a Google Earth KML file for all the tracks on the Full map. You should be able to right click the file and save it on your computer. Then open it with Google Earth to see the entire wilderness trail system in interactive 3-D. Once in Google Earth you can access individual tracks. If you have the right software you can select the tracks you want and load them on your GPS.
The Hike: The Hercules Glades Wilderness has three trailheads. The one used for this narrative is the Hercules Tower (aka Pilot) trailhead on the east side of the wilderness, and is accessed by Missouri Highway 125. Highway 125 is a good black top road and the entrance is a short flat gravel road suitable for any vehicle. The second is the Coy Bald Trailhead, on the west side. Take the Cross Timber Rd off US Highway 160 and follow it to Cane Creek. At the creek the road becomes rough gravel as it climbs the hill. It may not be suitable for low clearance vehicles. The third trailhead is to the south, off Blair Ridge Rd. There is a small parking lot just off the black top.
The Pilot Trailhead is a large picnic area with a toilet. I didn't see any no camping signs but I also didn't see any water. There are two trails that leave the area. The one we will follow is the Long Creek Trail at the far southwest corner. We will end the hike by coming out on the other trail, the Pilot Trail, found on the north side at the first parking area as you enter the trailhead picnic area.
The Long Creek Trail starts off wide and flat as it follows an old road bed through an oak forest. After about a mile the trail begins to descend and the ecology changes to prairie and cedar. This transition is very evident on Google Earth (note the lighter colored areas). The trail intersects the Pole Hollow Trail at HG-14 (mile 2.2) and then crosses Long Creek. The weather had been very dry and so was Long Creek. This was a little disconcerting since I was going to need water to camp. Since the trail followed the creek for the next mile, I figured I'd at least find a pool. Another mile of anxiety and still no water.
After crossing Long Creek a few times, you will pass the Cedar Trail junction on the north side of the creek (HG-13, mile 3). There are no signs but the junction is obvious. Another 0.1 mile is the Rock Spring Trail junction (HG-11, mile 3.1). Also on the north side of the creek, it too lacks signage but is obvious.
The trail crosses the creek, heads up a little rise and intersects with the Blair Ridge Trial (HG-12, mile 3.3). On your left (east) is an excellent campsite. I would have stayed there if a horseman hadn't told me of a better one below the falls. Another 0.1 miles down the Long Creek Trail (at this point it may actually be the Coy Bald Trail but there are no signs to differentiate them) is a spur trail on the right that goes to the falls.
The falls were dry but there was a large pool of clear water at the base. The water continues down stream forming a small chasm and a nice scenic area. It is obvious from rock structure that the falls could be considerable after a good rain.
There is a campsite at the falls, but it is on the spur trail so it has the potential for lots of visitors. There is a minor trail that continues downstream from the falls that leads to the best campsite in the area. It has a nice fire ring, room for several tents and a view of the falls from a bluff. It is off the beaten path so it affords more privacy than the other two sites I saw.
The next day I headed back to HG-11 (trip mile 3.7) and took the Rock Spring Trail back to the west. At mile 4.7 is the junction with the East Devils Den Trail (HG-10). In this area there are some good examples of how the prairie grasses are being taken over by cedars. As can be seen elsewhere in the wilderness, the cedars can get so thick, they choke out the grass and it becomes a cedar forest.
After dropping back down into the Long Creek valley, you will encounter the West Devils Den Trail (HG-09, mile 5.5). While the sign is gone, you won't miss the campsite with the huge fire ring. If you cross Longs Creek, you have gone too far. In spite of the dry weather and condition of the creek above the falls, there was plenty of water in the creek.
The West Devils Den Trail heads up hill at the back of the campsite. The climb was surprisingly steep but it was short. At the top the trail meanders through the woods, passes a wildlife pond and then hits prairies surrounding the Upper Pilot Knob ridge. The water in the pond didn't look too bad, but it would be pretty muddy getting to it. Being what it is, it is probably teaming with giardia and needs to be treated.
At HG-06 (mile 7.2), the trail "Ts" at the Pilot Trail. This is an old forest road so the rest of the trail back to the trailhead is easy to follow and fairly level. Turn right to follow this narrative. The way back can be summarized as a wooded slope dropping off to your left and prairie and cedars ranging uphill to you right. Take some time and grab a view of the surrounding countryside from the "balds." The intersections are all obvious paths and some have cairns and signs. HG-05 ( mile 7.9) is the East Devils Den Trail. HG-04 (mile 9.2) is the Cedar Trail. HG-03 (mile 10.7) is the Pole Trail. As seen on the maps, any of these trails can be used to reach Long Creek and to modify this trip.
The last two trail junctions are for the 5.6 mile Pees Hollow Trail. The east junction, HG-02 (mile 10.7) was very difficult to find. I walk right past it and returned using the GPS to find it. When I was there it was nothing but a faint line in the leaves. The second is just before the final hill to the parking lot (HG-01, mile11.9). It had a sign but it was off the trail, back in the woods. Before this hike, I would have thought that the creek at the north end of the Pees Hollow Trail would have water in all but the driest summers. After seeing upper Long Creek and the other creeks in the wilderness, I wouldn't rely on it for water if it has been real dry. However, I have not been on this trail, so I am just surmising.
Info: USGS 7.5 minute Quadrangle: Hilda. Mark Twain National Forest, Rolla, MO, (573) 364-4621. Ava/Cassville/Willow Springs Ranger District, Ava, MO, (417) 683-4428.
To Buy Maps: These maps are FREE. Click on image to access full size maps and download them. The East and West maps are also available as a two map color set on weatherproof, Rite-in-the-Rain paper (11x17). The maps are $5/sheet ($10 for the set) plus S&H by emailing Charlie@OuachitaMaps.com.
Weatherproof Topographic Maps at
OuachitaMaps.com - Hiking Trails of the Ouachitas and Ozarks