By Wes Johnson | Springfield, MO News-Leader
Just five minutes past the giant King Kong on the building, the go-cart tourist track and the White Water splash park, I step into one of the most serene natural areas in the Ozarks.
Still within Branson city limits, the Ruth and Paul Henning Conservation Area in the northwest part of town offers more than 5.5 miles of glade and forest hiking paths that leave the glitz and touristy glamour behind just moments after one steps onto the trail.
I’ve heard about Henning Conservation Area for years and assumed its close proximity to Branson tourist areas meant it would have that touristy feel as well. Boy, was I wrong.
I arrive early, just as a dense fog from an unusually chilly July night begins to burn away. The air is cool and crisp, almost autumn like, though I’ve come prepared with a small backpack and three cans of water for when the late-morning heat and humidity are sure to set in.
As many hikers know, there’s a price to pay for being first on a trail, and I clearly am the first person to make this trek this morning. The trail is laced with spider webs, which tickle my face and cling to my clothes as I walk through them every thirty yards or so.
Now I know how bats must feel when researchers harmlessly catch them with “mist nets.” I hope the hikers who follow me will appreciate my web-blazing effort.
There are three loop trails connected by a “shortcut” route that offer hikers a variety of distances and exertion levels on this 1,534-acre tract. Several of the trails are rated “difficult” because they are steep and extremely rocky, with loose dolomite stones and tree roots requiring close attention to one’s footsteps and balance.
I wear sturdy hiking boots. Later in the day, on my way out, I run into a family headed down the trail wearing flip-flops. I suspect they didn’t get far.
Greg Cassell, a forester with the Missouri Department of Conservation, said Henning is a special place because much of it is pristine glade land that has never been tilled or grazed. The 362 acres of dry glade terrain supports an amazing variety of wildlife, including large, fast-moving collared lizards, tarantulas, scorpions and prairie-lined race runner lizards. Hikers might also see cactus growing along the trail’s edge.
To deter invasive cedar trees, Cassell said the glades are burned every three to five years, simulating natural lightning-fires that occurred in the past. “So many of the plants on the glades are fire-dependent, like the coneflowers and blazing star,” Cassell said. “You will be amazed how the plants emerge after an area is burned.”
My path curves through oak forest and suddenly opens to a breathtaking vista, where an elevated wooden observation deck has been built. I sip some water while taking a short break on the wooden bench, watching black vultures ride thermals above the treeless “bald knob” hills above the forest below. Branson buildings and some of the major tourist attractions are visible in the distance.
I head deeper into the trail system, and soon am deep within the hardwood forest that covers 1,172 acres. I estimate that ninety percent of my trek is in shade, thanks to the tall canopy of green overhead. If you’re into birds, these trails are well-worth exploring. I hear trills, tweets and chirps from many bird species I know—and many I can’t quite place. A small pair of binoculars would help.
The trails take me past several tributary streams that feed Roark Creek on the northeast edge of the conservation area.
At one spot, a small rock ledge trickles cool water into a clear rock pool. Water spiders dance across the surface, while gnats and mosquitoes buzz about my head. Their high-pitched whine and the steady dribble-splash of the tiny waterfall is all I hear. I suddenly realize I’ve not heard a car or human-generated sound for at least an hour.
Ahead, the raucous cawing of a family of agitated crows draws my attention. My senses perk up, for crows sometimes let everyone know something big is creeping about. A black bear? Perhaps a bobcat or mountain lion? I listen carefully, but see nothing dangerous. Apparently I am the source of the crows’ angst.
The trail takes me past the makings of a future cave, where a dry stream bed leads to a fifteen-foot drop and water from past torrents has scoured out the rock beneath the ledge. Caution is advised here. I explored the ledge and found it to be slippery with mud and algae. Deep within the park, this would be no place to suffer a fall and broken leg.
Along the longest path—the Homesteaders Trail—I begin to see remnants of human habitation. A low rock wall, a concrete foundation and several stone cisterns dug into the ground (now protected by metal cages to keep critters and people from falling in) tell of the area’s pioneer past. Settlers moved in during the mid-1800s, finding a steady water supply from Roark Creek and plentiful game in the forest.
The pioneers are long gone, but I see several deer deep in the woods. With a flick of their white tails they bound away when they realize they’ve been seen.
At the far north end I make my way down some fairly steep wooden stairs where the park’s other entry point offers a beautiful view of Roark Creek. The water is low, but still flowing, and I see fish darting in the deeper pools. Fishing and frogging are allowed, but there is no hunting, camping, biking or horseback riding permitted within the conservation area.
After a quick snack of cranberries, nuts and a granola bar, I open my second bottle of water and down half of it. The heat has arrived, and I’m drenched in sweat, though the forest shade helps keep me cool. I make my way back, eventually hiking all 5.5 miles of trail.
So close to town, and with trails both challenging and scenic, Henning Conservation Area proves to be a very pleasant surprise.
About Ruth and Paul Henning Conservation Area
The 1,534-acre conservation area has an interesting connection to Hollywood. Paul Henning created “The Beverly Hillbillies” and “Petticoat Junction” TV shows, with both offering a hint of Ozarks flavor. He and his wife, Ruth, owned 1,334 acres of scenic forest and glade land near Branson that they eventually sold to the state for $975,000 in 1981. The Hennings then donated a portion of the sale back to the Missouri Department of Conservation to help develop the land into a public park. The Herschend family, which owns Silver Dollar City, also donated 200 acres to help expand the park.
The Ruth and Paul Henning Conservation Area was dedicated in 1988. It includes 362 acres that MDC has designated as the “White River Balds Natural Area,” which highlights the pristine dry-land glade. The park is free.
From the intersection of U.S. 65 and Missouri 76 in Branson travel west and then north on 76 for approximately 5.5 miles to the area entrance on the right (east) side of 76. This is the Ruth and Paul Henning Conservation Area Scenic Overlook that includes a parking lot, interpretive signs and a trail head.
Send your Outdoors ideas, tips or feedback to reporter/columnist Wes Johnson at firstname.lastname@example.org; or call 836-1243. Find Wes also at Facebook.com/Wes.outdoors.
PHOTO BY WES JOHNSON
Henning Hike Offers Break From Branson
These photos are from the Ruth and Paul Henning Conservation Area northwest of Branson and were taken by Wes Johnson.
Clicking on each photo reveals additional information.
Along the Table Rock Lakeshore Trail on a
sunny summer day.
(Photo by Terry Lynn Cooper)
Walking Trails in the Branson area
Map of the Table Rock Lake Shore Trail.