Bonfire Run 2020: Overlanding in the Ozarks
Like a rainforest canopy shading the leaf covered trails, the oaks and pines of the Ozark National Forest provide unmatched scenery all along the route each year for the first big trip of the springtime, the annual Bonfire Run.
Named after the typical adventure to Natural State Overland’s Bonfire Rendezvous and Byrds Adventure Center, this year the Bonfire Run wasn’t aimed towards a Bonfire at all. As a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, the Bonfire Rendezvous was cancelled. Yet we set forth on what can only be described as a slippin’, slidin’, taillight bustin’ epic adventure.
The Bonfire Rendezvous is an informal gathering put on by Randy Putt of Natural State Overland. The goal is to have central meeting place for several groups to plan an overland route for a few days prior to the event, with the goal destination of Byrds on the final night of camp. However as mentioned this year the Bonfire was cancelled. That didn’t ruin our plans however. We limited our group to stay within social distancing guidelines and pushed forward.
We look forward to this trip every year. Since many of us work full time jobs, its a luxury to get a 3 day weekend. So this is really the one chance per year to have a full on overland adventure where the journey is the goal, camping at a different site each night. We get to hone our craft and practice skills that really only see usefulness on these trips. 3 nights camping remotely brings out the man in us all. You experience a small glimpse of survival mode. Putting our trucks and ourselves to the test, we would set out on what would be an unforgettable time away from everyday life to achieve the goal of long distance, vehicle based adventure travel. So enjoy the story as told through photography and memories I’ll not soon forget.
Bonfire Run is always a 4 day, 3 night trip. It is planned this way to allow for only requiring one day of time off of work, yet still enjoying 3 full nights of camping enjoyment. This isn’t just a car camping trip. We’re not weekend warriors just going wheeling with our buddies. Our goal is to travel through the remote Ozark National Forest 100% reliant on ourselves and each other. Little to no cell service for the majority of the trip means we’re off the grid, as remote as you can get in Arkansas. No hotels, motels, or Holiday Inns. Simply sleeping under the trees and the stars. It’s overlanding and its incredible.
The first night of our trip is easy going. The camp site is typically easy to get to and this was no different. Matt, our fearless leader, planned a great route that would lead us through unknown territory as well as some familiar trails culminating on the famous Big Piney Creek. Our adventure would begin at a large camp North of Hector with plenty of room for the 10 rigs that would be surrounding the camp fire. The skottles and skillets would soon be simmering with steak and fajitas. The aromatic smells of an overland camp are hard to beat. I’ve heard it said many times that overlanding is just driving somewhere to eat something good. No doubt the cuisine was tasty on this early spring evening. With full bellies we gathered around the pop up pit and really began the team building. While many of us had traveled together before, not everyone had fully met in person. It is safe to say lasting friendships grow even fonder around a campfire.
After a few hours spent by firelight, one by one each of use peeled away into our tents, hammocks, and vehicles. The night drew to a close a bit earlier than the next 2 as we prepared for the weekend ahead. Hopefully every rested well. The next day we would certainly need all the energy we could muster.
Three days of early mornings and late nights would start as peaceful as it ended. We awoke to sounds of the forest chirping and swirling; nature’s alarm clock was beckoning us into the daylight. As I crawled out of the pitch black 23 Zero Breezeway thanks to the Light Suppression Technology, I was surprised that I didn’t see anyone else moving around yet. Fog was lifting off of the trees surrounding the clearing where we camped. I fired up the Jetboil to start up a fresh cup of coffee and only once the water was rolling, I noticed Robert getting ready to make breakfast. Just as we had individually left the fire, we all emerged from our slumber to face the day.
After packing up the skottles and tents and hammocks, we gathered around to get a mission brief from Matt overviewing the trails planned for the day, what to expect, and how to arrange ourselves so that the vehicles with winches were spaced out. The formation was set and after praying for safety and protection we set forth and first full day of our adventure.
Four wheel drive was engaged right away as we hit the trail immediately outside of camp. However we would soon come to stop, and another stop, and another. The trails in this area were legal and open yet not frequently traveled and the spring storms caused quite a bit of deadfall crossing right where we wanted to go. So instead of turning around 10 rigs, we pushed on and got some great use out of the Dewalt electric chainsaw and snatch blocks. It was slow moving and treacherous work. Anyone else who happens to come through this section should pay their respects to the casualties of taillights and and quarter panels that were lost. Add to that an annoyingly cold drizzle and you might can tell the morning didn’t go as planned and certainly dampened the spirits of the crew. Finally we made it to an exit and tucked our tails back to our previous night’s camp to recoup for some lunch and plan the rest of the day. We had to make up for some lost time in order to make it to the camp sites we wanted to hit.
We grabbed a quick bite to eat and we checked our maps for the best route to get back on track. Headed for the Illinois Bayou, our caravan quickly moved up towards some more familiar trails along the Lindsey Motorway. The crossing right off of the highway is a gatekeeper of sorts for the rest of the trail. If you don’t think you can make it through that then you might want to turn around as you’ll be faced with many similar obstacles along the way.
Mud and water abound along the East Fork Illinois Bayou. This stream is sometimes a creek and other times a river depending on the recent rainfall in the surrounding mountains due to the Bayou being narrow and dependent upon its origin further north at Divide Mountain. It snakes its way down towards Russellville and offers beautiful scenery along its banks and dozens of crossings for high clearance vehicles. A snorkel and high mounted breathers for differentials, transfers cases, and transmissions are all recommended during the spring and fall when water is high. We would cross the many forks of this waterway several times throughout the rest of the day as we made our way to our waterside camp along the North Fork.
The trails were wider and trees were still standing for the rest of this day. As I said, lots and lots of mud can be found in this area. A good portion of the trail is mostly swampy forest soup just begging for someone to earn $20 attempting the many holes along the trail. Sure enough, Ben is always up for the challenge and earned some gas money, but not for too long as he found himself buried up to the frame and his slick KO2s wouldn’t take him forwards or backwards. Thanks Ben for the entertainment. We quickly scrambled to winch him out after snapping a quick photo or two while he hooked up his recovery points.
Camp on night number two started out as another peaceful evening in a nice clearing a stones throw from the water. This picturesque place offered a few huge boulders that had settled their way into the water likely hundreds of years ago as well as high bluffs extending up on the other side. A small rock beach provided the rock skippers with plenty of flat smooth stones to toss across. Rightfully so, this site would be added near the top of my list for places to sleep, as I’m sure others would claim as well. However Mother Nature had plans to push us into shelter quicker than we would have liked. The fire that Matt started would quickly be put out by a thunderous rain storm with high winds and lightning all around. I sat in my tent for a while listening the train-like gusts blowing through the trees. Because I couldn’t see any light outside the tent at all thanks to the LST, there was little to no warning of a lightning strike close by and the resulting thunder sent shivers down my spine I have to admit. Some of them sounded too close for comfort. That was definitely a night to remember. It wasn’t too long before the thunder subsided and the rain settled in. I think we all knew what that would mean in the morning. Deep water.
To our relief the rain had quit sometime in the night and the clouds rolled away to let in some sunlight to warm the morning air. While everything was wet, there’s something about the sunlight that makes it a bit less tedious packing away camp. Matt took advantage of the morning light and snapped a few drone shots from above capturing the magnificent beauty of the Ozarks from the air.
Collective rain fly and tarp shaking all over camp was the sound right after bacon sizzling around camp. After we packed up, we headed back out of this trail the same way we entered except this morning the Illinois Bayou had raised about 6” at each crossing which goes to show just how much the stream in the Ozarks change with rainfall. Still no issue for our rigs, we headed North for more water and more mud to begin our second full day of driving.
Have I mentioned water crossings? If memory and my map serves me right, I think on Saturday alone we traversed at least a dozen or more separate crossings along North Fork, many times slowing down to capture the moments on video or photo. Some were deep and others not so much, yet others still caused a few of us with snorkels to switch on the windshield wipers after taking a plunge with some extra skinny pedal. While yes, this was fun, its imperative that you do not try this without the aforementioned diff breathers and snorkel. Even then, you still run many electrical risks taking water over the hood. But it was certainly exhilarating seeing the tsunami wave crash over the glass!
Caravanning north towards Pedastal Rock, the route turned to the west once more venturing further into the heart of the forest and higher elevation before shifting southbound down Indian Creek Road. This is one of the most scenic dirt roads in all of the Ozarks. It winds down the side of a ridge line with a magnificent panoramic view all along the side through the trees. Drivers can see for miles and miles off the their side of the mountain. If you’re an adventurer looking for scenic rather than technical, this is a great place to be.
After stopping for a quick lunch on Indian Creek at the planned campsite for night number two, the team pressed on towards our final campsite for the journey. One we were all looking forward to. We had a few stops a long the way, the first of which would be Pilot Rock. Admittedly this was one spot I had never heard of before and I am now all the more thrilled to have taken the short hike up to the top. At just over 2100 feet, this is one of the highest points in the Ozarks and just simply doesn’t get much better than this. With a nearly 360 degree view overlooking the valleys surrounding the rock tower, the horizon seems to fall off over the trees miles away. Truly breathtaking.
The seat of my jeans were stained during the descent with the grimy black dirt seemingly growing on the rocks after Shadow, eager to get back down to the truck and a bowl of water, pulled his leash a little too hard and sent me sliding on my back pockets. Thanks, Shadow.
Once back in the driver’s seats, the crew looped around and motored north once more towards Haw Creek and just passed that along the Big Piney and the famous landmark, or watermark rather, known as Car Wash Falls. Of course being a fair weather weekend day, the road was quite busy and teeming with explorers like us. The one solitary water crossing at Hurricane Creek had onlookers checking to see if they were able to cross. After our lineup of 9 passed through, we gained a few followers and even became followers ourselves as everyone wanted a glimpse of the car wash and the take the rite of passage underneath. Car Wash Falls is just one of those overlander staples that you have to do at least once. It’s unmistakable as the likely the single most recognizable place in overland circles regarding the Ozark National Forest. If you’re in the area, be sure to pay a visit.
Once everyone got to pose their rigs for a photo op underneath the falling water, the push forward continued so that we could make it to our last camp before sundown. The rest of the trail was not difficult, but winding and slow. A washout on one side of the road right as we approached the rocky banks of our destination did set a bit uneasy with me as I’m not necessarily fond of washed away creek banks. Nevertheless we all crossed with ease slowly but surely and reached camp number three and to our relief it was vacant.
Along the bank of the Big Piney we maneuvered our rigs to level ground and began to setup camp. Soon after more serene sounds of steak sizzling could be heard from nearly every stove. If you’re used to eating hot dogs or canned chili at camp, try having a steak sometime cooked either over the fire or in a cast iron skillet. You’ll be glad you did. After all, overlanding had been said many times to simply driving somewhere remote to eat something good. And that is what we did.
Matthew and Preston tossed a line for a while on the bank but unfortunately came up with nothing. Ben and Matt took a dip into the frigid waters of the Big Piney. Nick, Ryan, and I had one last steak dinner. Robert and John whipped up some more fajitas on the skottle. Grant had a medley of chicken and vegetables. And then Ben had… chicken and eggs? Well I guess at the end of weekend you just eat whatever you have left.
Then came something we had all been looking forward to since the adventure began: Peach Cobbler whipped up in the Dutch oven by Matt. I’m not much a dessert connoisseur but I’ll say that was pretty much perfect as far as cobbler goes. Top notch. Thanks Matt.
With our hunger fulfilled and drinks opened, we settled in around the campfire once more and delightfully so since we were robbed of a fire by the rain the previous night. Knowing it was our last night on the trail we did stay up a little later and let the warm light of the blaze wash over us before finally succumbing to our slumber. Day 3 was in the bag.
Awaking on the last day of the trip, we were all met with chilly temps and low fog floating over the river bank. The water level had come up slightly but still rolled over and around the rocks which was of course the perfect subtle alarm clock. Breakfast was a quick rendition of the previous the morning with bacon, eggs, and anything else that we had to share. Shadow cleaned up the scraps and we began folding up the RTTs and rolling up sleeping bags and hammocks to get the final day started. Not without a quick drone shot of the crew on the rock beach.
Something that most of had been wanting to do for a long time was a vehicle swap while out on the trail. So after we exited the camp site and got back on the main road we each picked a vehicle that wasn’t our own and experienced a different ride for a while. First I hopped in Matt’s JK at the front of the line. You can hear my famous line in his Part 2 video, “Is there anything on a Jeep that doesn’t rattle?” The Jeep handled nicely and was definitely a change of pace from the ZR2. Next up I got to sit behind the wheel of a 4th gen and then a 5th gen 4Runner. Both were well equipped with MTs and metal bumpers and both were very comfortable inside as well as in the feet and the seat. Ultimately each returned to his own rig and we carried on. Gathering a different perspective on vehicle selection definitely adds a new way to think about how the others in your group tackle and obstacle or why they might take a different line or travel at different speeds. I hope this is a Sunday tradition that we continue on future trips.
With everyone planted in their own seat again, we turned off the gravel and hit the dirt, our engines pointed towards the old homestead and the Spurgeon -Warren Cabin, or Bub’s Cabin, as most might know it. I don’t have much of the exact history to report but I do know its over a hundred years old and its nickname comes from the current owner of the cabin and the land, Bub. Bub is someone I’ve never met but heard a lot about. From time to time you can find him out there working on something, cleaning, mowing, or just enjoying the front porch. He’ll almost have something small that you might can help him with if you ask, so be sure to lend a hand. After all, Bub takes care of this place in his free time and keeps it open to all who wish to stop by. It is definitely a must see in the Ozarks as it gives a glimpse of how people lived so long ago.
We didn’t have too far to go, but the trails in between here and out final destination were challenging and rewarding. A few rock ledges here and a few root wads there, the winches were pulled out several times to conquer the hills. The solid axle Jeeps fared well in the off camber washouts and made for some great “Flex” photo ops.
These trails were simple to maneuver but slow and tons of fun! Of course it wouldn’t be a full day without some mishaps, so Ben and I both had the opportunity to showing just how sideways we could get our rigs. Ben went a little too far left and I went a touch to far right. Fortunately, there was no damage and we had quick recoveries to get us moving as lunch was calling our names.
After a few more miles of dirt and ruts we exited onto a gravel road and hammered down towards the Ozone Burger Barn. Luckily they were open and ready to serve group of hungry wanderers who had been merely surviving on low rations of steak, shrimp, fajitas, and cobbler all weekend. Once we arrived to a nice flat spot, the air hoses were hooked up and tires filled back to highway pressures as our offroad adventure had come to its final waypoint. When the hot sun is beating down on your back and dust is flying all around from trucks flying by, the speed of my CO2 tank at filling up my tires really shines. I helped top off some others since I was close and then it was off to the Burger Barn to fill our bellies with delicious food one last time for the weekend.
A thick, greasy, double cheeseburger was the cherry on top of the overland sundae and gave us time to catch up, share pictures and videos, and let those back at home know that we would soon be headed their way. We scarfed down the beef, said our goodbyes, and rolled on towards the interstate, the final “trail” of this trip.
As each of them always are, this trip was truly memorable fro beginning to end. There’s not much better for a human being the being surrounded by the natural landscape that was created for us to enjoy and thrive in. Even if we did spend 8-10 hours of each day in a vehicle, there was not a moment when there wasn’t something to take in, to capture a moment in time to remember forever.
The Ozark National Forest is a special and unique place like no other. Offerings of thousands of miles of offroad trails are bringing many people into the hobby and sport of overlanding. We’re seeing an influx of offroad enthusiasts and explorers in many different types of vehicles. Unfortunately there are some bad actors who wish to see it come to an end, and in some cases they have good reason. So if you do plan to come and enjoy what the Ozarks have to offer, I just ask that you please do so responsibly like I know most overlanders do. Never leave trash and always respect the trail system. Leave it better than you found it. We’ll leave a remarkable place for future generations of adventurers to experience their own memories.
In his hand are the depths of the earth;
the heights of the mountains are his also.