Thursday, September 19, 2013

(Belated) Adventures in Camping - Elephant Rocks, Taum Sauk, and Johnson's Shut-Ins

Note: This post is a joint post by Andrew and Erin. Andrew will introduce the post and give his impression of some of the places we visited on our camping trip, and Erin will join in the middle to talk about her hike at Taum Sauk State Park..

For me, the second weekend in August was a chance to do something different. After several weekends spent in Wisconsin's glacially molded terrain and the beautiful north woods, bogs, and rock formations of the UP of Michigan. However, this weekend he'd be going the other direction, south to the St. Francois Mountains in the Ozarks of Missouri. The rocks, animals, and plants would be different. Unfortunately, so would the climate.

However, the most important thing about this trip was that I would not be doing it alone. Although I was curious to check out Elephant Rocks, Johnson's Shut-Ins, and the views atop the St. Francois Mountains, my main reason for the trip was to visit with my sister. The last time we had camped out did not go so well, so I was hoping this time would be better.

So that Friday I left work a bit early and headed down I-55 to St. Louis. After an interminable delay caused by construction south of Joliet and a stop to pick up my new camera at a Best Buy in Bloomington, I finally made it to my hotel. Erin had plans that night, so I wouldn't meet her until the next morning when we would set out on our journey.

The difference between Illinois and Missouri around St. Louis is night and day. Until you get the Mississippi River bluffs at Collinsville, the Illinois side is typical central Illinois prairie, whether you come from Vandalia on I-70 or Litchfield on I-55. The Missouri side, however, is much hillier, resembling the Ozarks that are not too far to the south and west of the city. Our drive from St. Louis to the St. Francois Mountains was very scenic, reminding me of the terrain of eastern Kentucky and central Tennessee.

Once we reached Farmington and made our turn to the west, it became even hillier. Here the terrain was more like Eastern Tennessee, although the "mountains" weren't quite as tall as the Appalachians. The St. Francois Mountains are the only true mountains in the Ozarks, which is mostly a plateau.* However, they are ancient, so the peaks are fairly low. Still, the tallest peaks are several hundred feet above the valley floors, and there are plenty of beautiful views to be had.

Our first stop was Elephant Rocks State Natural Area. Although a fairly short and easy hike, it was still a very neat place to visit. There were giant rocks everywhere, many of which arranged in interesting ways. The highlight, of course, were the rocks that gave the place it's name. Situated atop a giant rock face are various boulders that definitely look like elephants walking in a row. Clearly, this has been a popular place to visit for decades, as visitors from a century ago, or even longer, etched their names into the rocks around Elephant Rocks. Obviously its not a good thing to do and should be discouraged because it does detract from the experience, but at some point those etchings stopped being defacement of property and instead became history.

After we finished at Elephant Rocks (for the first time), we headed back into Farmington for lunch and some hiking snacks. Then it was back to the mountains, and Johnson's Shut-Ins State Park. The shut-ins in the name refer to rock formations spread out along a stream that trap water and create small pools. When the water is low or at normal levels, this makes for an interesting swimming experience, almost like a natural water park. When the water is high (as it was that day), it's makes the stream a tortuous death trap. As such, the water was closed for swimming.

However, it wasn't closed for picture taking. Erin and I used the scenic backdrop of the mountains and the roaring stream, including with the interestingly shaped rock mazes sticking up out of it, to test out my new camera. Walking up the stairs on the hillside, I could feel the benefit of the exercise from my Hiking Training Plan, as the stairs were coming easier. Not easy, but easier than they would have a few months ago.

We walked off the wooden stairway onto a rocky trail for a little while, but turned back after a very short while. The trail was very rocky, and very wet. Without my good hiking shoes, or my trekking poles, this was not a good place to be. Further complicating that was having just gotten through an issue with my back, so I was a bit cautious with where I walked this weekend. It couldn't have been too difficult, as people were making the walk up and down the slippery path in flip-flops and swimsuits.**

Our short venture onto the steep slickrock trail complete, we headed back to the parking lot along the trail. Here we really tested out the color selection on the camera, taking some pictures of the water and trees with various colors the focus of the photo. In addition, Erin took several wonderful pictures of bumblebees buzzing around wildflowers, courtesy of the yellow color focus and the powerful optical zoom.

Our day of hiking done, we then moved on to our campground, which was several miles away in a part of Mark Twain National Forest. The campground, named Silver Mines, was a decent campground. It was secluded, but not isolated, as it was just about a ten-fifteen minute drive from there to a sizable town. It was maybe half full, and had lots of shade trees. The only problem was our campsite itself, which was kind of on a slope and a bit mucky. Still, it wasn't too bad.

We decided to head into town for dinner before we set up our camp. We hadn't brought any food to cook, and we didn't have any firewood, thus the necessity to go into town. We had a good meal at the Pizza Hut in downtown Frederickton, and headed back to set up our camp.

I had purchased a new tent (nominally a two person tent, but for my purposes a comfortable one person tent), and had no problems getting it set up. Erin, however, was missing her footprint. Somehow after the Grand Canyon/Yosemite trip it had been left with me, and it was sitting in a plastic tub in the storage room at my apartment in Schaumburg. Had the ground been dry, Erin might have gone without a ground cover, but decided it was wiser to go into the Wal-Mart in town and pick up a tarp. Considering how moist the ground was, that probably was a good idea.

With no firewood, there wasn't much for us to do after we set up camp but head to bed. Erin fell asleep quickly, but I had my usual issues with sleep in a tent. I am hoping this will resolve itself over time. I figure I did get some sleep, but a bathroom trip at 3:00 in the morning effectively ended my night, as I didn't want to have to deal with getting back in the tent. I sat at the picnic table at the campsite and watched the stars. The cicadas were buzzing all night, stopping only as the sun rose.

Shortly thereafter, Erin got a wake up call from some squabbling birds that were fighting above her tent. We packed up our camp and went into town for a quick breakfast, letting our footprints dry. By the time we got back they were dry, and we were ready to move on. We took a short trip down the hill to the river below our campsite, Erin helped a turtle cross the road, and we were off to Taum Sauk State Park, home of Mina Sauk Falls and Taum Sauk Mountain, the highest point in Missouri.

On my travels, I have visited three of the fifty highest points in the United States*. By far the least impressive is the high point of Missouri. Although there are great views from places near the high point, the high point itself is barely above the parking lot in the middle of trees. It's certainly a place to visit if you are in the area, but the spot itself is rather anticlimactic.

However, another state record holder is in the area, and that is Mina Sauk Falls. When there is water, it is the highest waterfall in the state. It is on the Ozark Trail, a long distance trail that stretches across the Ozark region of Missouri. In addition, there is also a connector trail from the Taum Sauk Mountain State Park parking lot (and the high point) to the falls.

I walked a portion of it, some of which was fairly rocky and a bit challenging. However, when it started going seriously downhill, I bowed out, letting Erin take my camera and continue on. I hated doing it, but with my back still a bit tender and those rocks looking awfully slippery, I decided to play the long game. There will be other trails and other waterfalls. Instead I walked around up on the top of Taum Sauk Mountain, killing time until Erin made her way back. Speaking of which...

[Erin talks about Taum Sauk and Mina Sauk]

It was disappointing that Andrew couldn't have continued the hike with me, but the decision was probably wisest as the trail eventually became inundated and rocky. I had to be extremely careful with my footing and even scramble in some places (or so it seemed) to get up and over or down the slippery boulders that led to the Mina Sauk Falls. Beautiful, open spaces with tall grasses and wildflowers and the fresh scent of water and soil accompanied me on my way, and although the day was warm and muggy and I was slightly fearful of breaking Andrew's new camera, I found the hike to be a serene one. I stopped occasionally to take pictures of the water trickling down the mountainside on the trail, or of butterflies flittering from flower to flower, but mostly kept a solid pace. I could hear the falls in the distance and, about a mile in, I was not disappointed. The Mina Sauk Falls are a series of short waterfalls that eventually give way to a giant drop (which is also a fantastic vista). I felt I could easily navigate the rocks and sit close to the falls, as the water was not moving with such a force that I feared for my safety. The boulders were slippery, but I had fun climbing around and sitting on the warm stones overlooking the pools of water below. I spent about 15 minutes or so taking in the scenery before I heard other hikers making their way over and I decided to head back towards the peak. Heading back up the trail, I hiked back another mile uphill, with the falls on my right. The trail and the stream are parallel for quite a ways and the hike wasn't overly strenuous - some roots here and there, small rocks to walk over, but for the most part it was pleasant. The back half of the loop (for me) is actually part of the Ozark Trail and from my place at the Falls I could have hiked down towards Johnson's Shut-Ins (about 11 miles away). I would advise using trekking poles or walking sticks and wearing shoes with good traction in order to make the hike truly ideal. Snacks and water are also a good idea as the change in elevation and the output of energy required to navigate down to the Falls and back up work up an appetite. By the time I met back up with Andrew at the paved trail, I was very hot, very tired, and very hungry, but also very happy that I had seen such a beautiful piece of Missouri's natural history.

[and now back to Andrew]

Her hike complete and celebratory oranges consumed, we made our way back to the car. The day was hot and sunny, but we had one last stop to make: a return trip to Elephant Rocks. When we were first there, my camera only had the very limited memory on the camera. Thus, I only was able to take a few pictures. Since then I had salvaged the larger card from my old camera, so I wanted to go back and get some more pictures. Thus we headed back once more to the land of rock elephants.

They were still just as awesome as they were before, and this time we also saw some more things we had inadvertently skipped the day before. By now, however, I was getting kind of tired (partially from the lack of sleep, partially from all the exercise), and hungry. With that, we wrapped it up, found a McDonald's in Ironton, and ate lunch.

With that, our adventure in the Missouri Ozarks was complete. Although the camping experience was mostly just sleeping outside, and the hiking (for me at least) wasn't too strenuous or magnificent, it was still a fun time. That part of Missouri is a beautiful place, and I recommend you visit there if you are in the area, or are looking for somewhere to take a trip. There's plenty to see, whether you are just a car tourist, or an avid backpacker. I hope to get back there someday soon for another round of hiking and camping, and I'm sure Erin does as well.

*Like the Cumberland plateau to the east, the centuries of erosion by countless creeks and rivers have left much of it with a rounded and rolling appearance, giving it the impression of being mountains. Geologically, however, these are not mountains, which require different forces to shape them. -AT

**Apparently there was a place they could access the water somewhere up the trail. Not legally, of course, but away from the prying eyes of the State Park personnel.-AT

***Besides Taum Sauk Mountain, the other two I've visited are Clingman's Dome in Tennessee and Brasstown Bald in GA. Both are steep walks up paved paths, but the payoff is the wonderful view from atop these mountains.

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