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Paddy Creek Recreation Area
Paddy Creek Recreation Area is perfect for exploring the 7,000-acre Paddy Creek Wilderness on the 17-mile Big Piney Trail.
Address: Paddy Creek Recreation Area
Mark Twain National Forest
108 S. Sam Houston Boulevard
Houston, MO 65483
Operated by: U.S. Forest Service
Contact: (417) 967-4194; fs.usda.gov/mtnf
Open: Apr. 1Nov. 30; camping permitted in picnic area Dec. 1Mar. 31
Each site has: Table, lantern pole, fire pit with grate
Assignment: First come, first served
Registration: Donation box at loop entrance
Facilities: Vault toilets, trails; no water
Parking: At individual site
Fee: Donations accepted
Elevation: 890 ft.
Restrictions: Pets: On leash only
Fires: In fire pits
Alcohol: Allowed, subject to local ordinances
Vehicles: Up to 34 ft.
Other: 14-day stay limit
Paddy Creek Recreation Area isn’t just another nice campgroundit’s my favorite Missouri camping spot. I love Paddy Creek’s beauty, but fun memories make it special for me, too. I’ll never forget waking in predawn darkness one April morning and hearing a low voice from the next site murmur, “I’ve got a shotgun, you’ve got a shotgun, he’s got a shotgun . . . I guess we’re ready to go.” I chuckled in my sleeping bag, thankful I knew it was turkey season.
Spending a few nights at Paddy Creek might put this campground at the top of your list too. Tall bluffs overlook Paddy Creek as it curves around the campground to join the Big Piney River to the east. The campground is at the end of the road into the recreation area, so it’s remote and quiet. A cooling splash in Paddy Creek is less than 200 feet from all sites. Distance between the sites is good, and all except site 23 are well shaded. Even so, I really like site 23. One tree shades its table, and an open grassy area stretches north of it. It’s well suited for several tents, and its grassy field is perfect for Frisbee, sunbathing, or stargazing. Sites 14 and 15 are the best sites at Paddy Creek, overlooking the stream at the end of the campground road.
A terrific campground for hikers, Paddy Creek is located at the eastern edge of the 7,000-acre Paddy Creek Wilderness Area. The Big Paddy and Little Paddy Creeks meander through the wilderness area. You can explore the hills and hollows around these creeks on the 17-mile Big Piney Trail. A cutoff divides this long and narrow loop into two sections, making it perfect for weekend hikers. You can hike the east half of the wilderness on a Saturday ramble of around 12 miles, then poke around the west half on a 9-mile jaunt on Sunday. A map of Paddy Creek Wilderness is posted at the pay station in the campground, or you can print one off the Mark Twain National Forest’s website. Maps and trail signs for the wilderness are confusing, referring to a South Loop and a North Loop. They really refer to the north and south sides of the Big Piney Trail. These two sides meet near Roby Lake Picnic Area, the trailhead for hiking the west half of the Big Piney Trail.
You can hike the east half of the Big Piney right from your campsite. Don’t bother to walk to the trailheadjust cross the creek next to the camp, push about 100 feet through the woods, and turn right onto the north-side trail. Just over a mile later you’ll be enjoying a beautiful overlook of the campground and the hills to the southa wonderful place to watch the sunset. A half-mile farther is the Big Piney Trail Camp, designed for equestrians. With picnic tables in a grove of pines, it’s a great place for a picnic. The trail crosses FS 220 3 miles into your hike. For an easy 5-mile loop, you can turn left here and follow the road back to camp.
West of FS 220 the trail enters the wilderness. About 1 mile in you’ll cross a stream that’s usually dry. About a quarter-mile down this wash is a beautiful little box canyon and spring. Another mile past the spring is the cutoff that cuts 1 mile across the loop to the south side of the Big Piney Trail, where a left turn heads toward the campground. The cutoff crosses Little Paddy Creek, so in spring you might get wet feet. About a half-mile before reaching camp you’ll get wet again, this time crossing Big Paddy Creek in a pretty bottomland just west of camp.
Don’t blow off the west half of the Big Piney Trail from Roby Lake, especially in spring, when the creeks are flowing strongly. Three miles along the south side the trail hugs several hundred yards of steep cliffs overlooking the headwaters of Little Paddy Creek. This vista faces southeast, so it’s a wonderful place for a snack or napping in the morning sun. On the north side, 2.5 miles east of the trailhead, there’s a rocky streambed with ledges and cascades. When the creek is flowing, an exquisite little waterfall pours off an 8-foot undercut ledge. The waterfall’s undercut is so deep that you can scramble underneath and admire the wilderness through a sparkling curtain of water.
Two short trails in the area are worth a look, too. The 1-mile Paddy Creek Trail starts at the picnic area and explores the creek banks to the west. Its best feature is a spectacular overlook, complete with benches and boulders for watching the sunset. The other short hike is the 2-mile Slabtown Bluff Trail at nearby Slabtown Bluff Picnic Area, a few miles to the east. It follows the Big Piney River, then climbs to a bluff overlook with beautiful vistas.
Note: To reach Roby Lake Picnic Area and the west trailhead for the Big Piney Trail, drive 1 mile north of Success, a small town west of Paddy Creek, on MO 17 to FS 274, then go east a half-mile to Roby Lake.
Drive 13 miles west from Licking on MO 32 to Paddy Creek Road (FS 220). Turn right and follow this gravel road 6 miles north to Paddy Creek Recreation Area. Turn right and drive past the picnic area and trailhead to the campground at the end of the paved road.
GPS Coordinates N37º33.463’ W92º2.934’