Branson is known for its wide variety of shows, attractions and shopping opportunities. But there’s a place west of town where you can get out in nature and take a break from the hustle and bustle.
If you head west on Highway 76 from Branson, you’ll come to the main entrance of a 1,534-acre wildlife preserve: The Ruth and Paul Henning Conservation Area, managed by the Missouri Department of Conservation. Here, life is much slower, and you can relax while hiking a trail or two.
The area has an interesting history: It was once owned by Paul Henning and his wife, Ruth. Henning is best known as the creator of the TV shows, the Beverly Hillbillies, Green Acres and Petticoat Junction. They donated most of the current conservation area to the Missouri Department of Conservation. Another 200 acres were later donated by Silver Dollar City.
According to MDC, several features of the Henning Conservation Area were immortalized in Harold Bell Wright’s book, Shepherd of the Hills, including Dewey Bald, Boulder Bald, Sammy Lane’s Lookout, Little Pete’s Cave and The Signal Tree.
And retired MDC forester, Frances Main, said there’s a connection between the Henning area and the vigilante group, the Baldknobbers.
"That was one of the first places that the Baldknobbers actually accumulated, you know, in balds being those open glade areas," she said. "That way, when they could meet up on the top of those balds, they could see if anybody was coming up to overhear their plans for getting revenge."
The Henning Area is largely oak and hickory forest, but it’s interspersed with a series of scenic glades, which make up the White River Balds Natural Area.
To find out what I might see on the trail before I set out on a six-mile hike, I met up with someone who knows the area, Branson forester, Stephen Short, who's with the Missouri Conservation Department.
Before we started chatting, a couple of hikers walked by, and one of them paused to tell Short the trail was beautiful and to say thanks.
There are several trail options: The quarter-mile Dewey Bald Trail is paved. It cuts through a wooded area and is ADA accessible. The Homesteaders Trail is the longest at 3.4 miles. It’s a loop trail, and you can get to it from the main entrance by using a 1/3-mile path called Shane’s Shortcut, or you can start at a trailhead on the Sycamore Log Church Rd. There’s also the 1.1-mile Glade Trail and a short quarter mile trail off of that one called the Streamside Trail. Most of the trails are connected.
Keep in mind there are certain hours you may visit Henning. The area is closed from 10 p.m. to 4 a.m. Gates at the main entrance open at 8 a.m. and close at 5:30 p.m. from October 15 to March 15. They close at 7:30 p.m. March 16 to October 14.
With such a variety of habitat on the Henning Conservation Area, Short said there are a few animals and plants you might see on your hike.
"Deer, turkey, migrating birds, things like that are very common," he said. "Of course, migrations happen at certain times of the year. Throughout the growing season, there are all types of plants in bloom at any time, so you can see multiple blooms during the year. At this time of year you'll see the greater roadrunner and then the more special things would be the painted bunting--of course, that would be a migratory bird--and the collared lizard."
A word of advice from someone who learned the hard way: Use bug repellant and concentrate the spray on your ankles and backs of your legs. Even though the trails are well maintained and I sprayed, I ended up with chigger bites—and lots of them. Chigger bites itch like crazy, and they last a long time, too.
On this day, I planned to hike most of the trails at Henning.
Hiking and birdwatching are the main activities at the Ruth & Paul Henning Conservation Area. No hunting or trapping are allowed. Fishing is allowed at Roark Creek, which cuts through part of the property near the Homesteaders Trail. And frogging is allowed here, too, under statewide regulations.
The glade area is beautiful with sweeping views and lots of wildflowers, and a few benches offer a place to take a break on the Glade and Streamside Trails.
After awhile, I come to the start of Shane's Shortcut where I can veer off and hike the Homesteaders Trail. All of the trails are well marked.
The Homesteaders Trail is a place rich with the history of those who made this place their home in the late 19th Century and early 20th Century.
Frances Main, with the help of some area Boy Scouts, put together markers that you pass on your hike with numbers that correspond with a guide that you should be able to pick up at the trailhead on Sycamore Log Church Road. I didn’t check to see if those are stocked, though. It talks about the area’s history.
Main pieced together the area’s past by interviewing locals who had lived in the Branson area for a long time.
"What did they remember and how did people get along, you know, how did they make their money? How did they grow food? How did they get food? What did they do for a living? That kind of thing," she said.
For many of those who lived on what is now the Homesteaders Trail, it was a difficult life.
"Cutting cedar poles for a penny a post and getting skins from different animals, and that's what they would trade to get some money, just how hard it was to live out there," she said. " I was amazed that people could survive on that rough land."
Main discovered two hand dug wells, lined with rocks, which she worked to preserve by having barriers put over them so they can still be seen but are no longer a danger. They show the hard work and determination it took to dig a well by hand.
"You know, sending the kids down in there since they were skinny enough and having them dig it out by hand and pull up the buckets with the dirt and place another rock in there to keep the sides from falling in," she said.
There are remnants of old homes that are mostly overgrown now and that you really have to look for.
"This is the spot where Reuben Isaacs lived. He was the temporary Taney County sheriff from July 18 to September 1, 1889. He was appointed after Sheriff Galba Branson was shot to death by Baldknobbers during a picnic on July 4, 1889," Skalicky read from the trail guide.
In another part of the trail, you can see a low concrete wall that was built around 1920 to prevent another flood like the one that destroyed the Stewart Store here in 1906. According to the guide, the store, owned by George Stewart, was housed in a large, two-story building and served as a center for trading and socializing.
And there’s a spot that Main calls a pine plantation, which—as a forester—she especially appreciates.
"You can find the original, kind of mother tree of the short leaf pine that is up there and then all the younger trees from where it had been cleared but there was still pine left, and it basically reseeded that cleared area," she said, "so, out in the middle of all this oak/hickory forest there's like this little pine forest, and I thought that was really cool."
A short walk through the pine plantation leads to a shelter with two bench seats.
After making the 3.4-mile Homesteaders Loop, I headed the opposite direction from which I came on Shane’s Shortcut, turned left to finish the Glade and Streamside Trails and stopped to take some pictures of the many wildflowers on the Glade. Short tells me tarantulas and pygmy rattlesnakes call this area home, but I didn’t see any on this day.
Besides the two women who passed me at the beginning of the hike, there is no one else around the entire three hours I'm here, but it's likely the high temperatures and humidity are keeping people away.
For KSMU and the SOC Series, I’m Michele Skalicky at the Ruth and Paul Henning Conservation Area.