Pack and Paddle – Backpack and Float Trip – on the Ozark Trail
Let me start by explaining what a pack and paddle trip is for anyone unfamiliar with the term. Pack and paddle comes from combining overnight backpacking with some form of paddle powered water travel, typically. canoe, kayak, or raft. It’s a great way to add a twist and a bit more of a challenge to either backpacking or floating.
Recently I’ve taken an interest in the Ozark Trail. Designed as a long distance trail system similar (yet shorter) to the Appalachian or Continental Divide and Pacific Crest trails it traverses about 500 miles of the Ozark mountains through southern Missouri and northern Arkansas. The highest point you hit is only 1772 ft on Taum Sauk Mountain so this isn’t going to give you the elevation gains you see on some of the larger trail systems but don’t let that fool you. The Ozarks are still a tough mountain range to hike.
In my reading I came across an option for a short pack and paddle trip on the first section of the OT. It’s about a 12.5 mile hike from the first trail head to Bass River Resort – a floating outfitter serving several Ozark streams. The trail head itself is about 100 yards from the takeout point. This sets you up for the perfect trip to hike up river and float back. Since it is the upper section of the trail the highest single elevation gain you will see is only about 200 ft making for a good trip for almost anyone.
For an experienced hiker this is probably a 2-day trip. Hike in one day, camp at the resort, and then float back the next day. I’m honestly a bit overweight and was taking my 14 year old son so I wanted to slow the pace just a bit. We hiked the trail in 2 days and floated the third.
The map of the section is below. A couple highlights. The Onondaga trail-head is near the gravel bank where Ozark Outdoors takes out. Bass river resort has access to retrieve canoes here too. The first 7.5 miles are within a conservation area where you are technically not allowed to camp. I saw plenty of signs of it though.
We camped just past point D on the bank of the Courtois creek. While technically against the CA rules I think we were fine by being on the bank. Many floaters camp this way too for multi-day trips. If you want to be 100% legal then the overlook at point E offers some great views and someone has already put together a fire pit. There’s no water there without walking down a couple hundred ft of steep elevation to the river so carry it in. You can refill when crossing the Courtois creek. Point F literally dumps out into the parking lot at Bass River Resort. The whole section is very well marked and we never had any problems staying on the trail.
Bass River Resort is a backpackers dream. Right off the trail it gives you every amenity you could hope for. A fully stocked store with camping and grocery items. Reasonably priced hot showers. A pool if you want to relax. And they even sell pizza, deli sandwiches, and cold beer. After two days on the trail we opted for pizza for dinner and I quenched my thirst with some Missouri craft beer. You may notice a chair in the background. They sell those too and the canoe had just enough room for them and our gear.
The 12 mile float back will take you on 3 Ozark streams. The Courtois creek, which flows into the Huzzah creek, followed by the Meramec river. Don’t let the term creek confuse you. These are basically rivers that just don’t make the distance requirement to be called such. The first half on the Courtois is some of the most beautiful crystal clear water you can find and you can watch the fish swim right by the canoe.
We made it back, in one piece, with no tipping and mostly dry gear. I’d highly recommend this trip for anyone looking for a reasonably easy adventure. If there are any boy scout troops in the area interested in the trip please reach out with any questions. This would be a great experience for some new backpackers. Let me know what you think in the comments, I’d love to hear from you.