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Missouri State Parks Director Bill Bryan leads the way on stepping stones across the clear East Fork of the Black River.
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The northern fence lizard, or fence swift, is a common species in open forests or along edges of woods and on rocky glades.
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Kim Todey with the Ozarks Parks District and fellow hiker Kevin Miquelon enjoy the vivid fall color of sumac.
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The aptly named jack-o’-lantern mushrooms are poisonous. You can spot them from July to October.
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Johnson’s Shut-Ins is known for water fun in the summer, but a board walk provides stunning views of autumn solitude.
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Pools form at the top of Mina Sauk Falls, which provides an overlook into Taum Sauk Creek valley below.
By Greg Wood
Wanting one more long hike last fall as November was fast approaching, I sent a hurried email to Bill Bryan, director of Missouri’s State Parks, a division of the Missouri Department of Natural Resources.
“What would make a great fall hike?” I asked.
“How about hiking from Taum Sauk to Johnson’s Shut-Ins?” he replied. “We have a new shuttle service there, and the trail itself has only been recently reopened.”
“Sounds great! Want to come along and lead the way?”
So, late last October, we ended up on the trail from Taum Sauk to Johnson’s Shut-Ins with the director of Missouri State Parks as our guide. Our five-member crew was myself, Bill Bryan, Danita Allen Wood (my wife and Missouri Life editor in chief), friend Kevin Miquelon from St. Louis, and Kim Todey, an Ozarks Parks District assistant supervisor.
It was a chilly, foggy morning, and the mist was rising from the Black River as we rode the shuttle from our campground at Johnson’s Shut-Ins State Park toward Missouri’s highest peak—Taum Sauk mountain, 1,772 feet above sea level. At the very center of the five-thousand-square-mile St. Francois Mountains and thirty other summits, Taum Sauk possibly means Big Sauk and is a reference to the Sauk tribe.
Just before the road curves into the parking area at Taum Sauk Mountain State Park, an overlook above Arcadia Valley offers a beautiful vista to the north and informative sign panels identifying the St. Francois mountains that you can see, if it’s not foggy as it was that morning. The fourteen-mile trail we were about to embark upon begins on the Mina Sauk Trail and then follows the Ozark Trail. It’s one of the wildest walks in Missouri, according to Bill.
For sure, it’s rugged. Although the trail is marked, there are certain rocky places where you could easily lose your way. We gradually descended the mountain’s west flank, with surrounding mountains occasionally looming through the fog.
Soon, we heard the unmistakable sound of a waterfall. The Mina Sauk Falls drops 132 feet over volcanic rock ledges that lie at right angles across ancient faults and rock fractures. This is Missouri’s tallest waterfall, and you can reach it on a three-mile loop from the trailhead.
But we pressed on, following part of the old Boy Scout Trail down the southwestern slope of the mountain into the Taum Sauk Creek valley. Taum Sauk Creek itself meanders through areas so remote and unsuited for farming that it was never settled, leaving it crystal clear and lined with Ozark witch hazel, which has sweet scented red and yellow blossoms sometimes as early as January.
Shortly after reaching the creek at the base of the falls, we passed through Devil’s Toll Gate, an eight-foot-wide gap in a huge pink rock, igneous rhyolite some thirty feet high and fifty feet long. Many of the most twisted, gnarled post oaks and blackjack oaks are two hundred or more years old. Pines dot the slope, and prairie grasses and wildflowers cover it. Kim tirelessly named the flowers, answering our ceaseless questions about what we were seeing.
We continued on the Ozark Trail, skirting the lower slopes of Weimer Hill, and then we went up and across Proffitt Mountain. About mid-morning, the fog and mist lifted, and the day turned to sparkling sunshine and cool breezes. Like a typical Missouri fall, the day warmed up, and we stuffed our jackets and sweaters into backpacks.
As we descended toward Johnson’s Shut-Ins, we could see the new reservoir on Proffitt Mountain built by AmerenUE to replace the reservoir that failed in 2005. That disaster inundated Johnson’s Shut- Ins State Park with 1.3 billion gallons of water in just a few minutes. In the deluge, the park superintendent and his family were swept out of their house into the waters and a field. Miraculously, they all survived. Also miraculously, there were no people camping that night—a rarity for the Shut-Ins.
Back then, Bill was a litigator for the Department of Natural Resources, and he described the lengthy and deliberate process of recovery. Both AmerenUE’s engineers and state park staff worked together to clean up the park, restore certain natural areas, and reconstruct facilities that are now better than ever and no longer in the floodplain. Now, visitors can enjoy new campgrounds with camper cabins, bathhouses, a store, and concrete slabs for pulling in campers with full hookups. A complete equestrian campground was also added away from the regular campground.
One natural area that was re- stored is a fen, a wet area constantly fed by cool groundwater. Ozark fens are unique in geology and composition and create rare ecosystems. Over a long time, the area developed a boggy, deep muck soil with some unique species, such as the Hines emerald dragonfly. Missouri State Parks staff literally dug out all of the muck and debris to restore this nine-acre, spring-fed area, which nurtures swamp wood betony, bottle gentian, wild sweet William, marsh blue violet, orange coneflower, southern blue flag wild iris, golden ragwort, and cowbane.
The rebuilt reservoir perches like an alien spaceship atop the mountain and provides hydroelectric power to our state, especially during times of peak electrical use. Toward the end of our hike, we entered the Scour Trail, situated along the path the water took when the first reservoir broke and water roared seven thousand feet down the mountain, a reminder of the compromises we make to enjoy electricity.
At the end of the Scour Trail, we crossed the East Fork of the Black River and entered our camp- grounds. After fourteen miles, we were glad to see our camper, take off our boots, and head for the showers. The hot steamy water, provided by that electricity, never felt so good.
We ended the day at a cozy campfire, exhausted but happily reflecting on the clear waters, delicate rock barrens, diverse woodlands, and unsurpassed scenery. The next day, Danita and I further explored Johnson’s Shut-Ins by first stopping at the new visitor center, which has a fascinating exhibit about the events surrounding the breach in the dam. Also, there are exhibits about the early history of the area.
We then went on to see the shut-ins for which the park is named. Shut-ins are narrow river gorges confined by erosion-resistant rock. There are others in the St. Francois Mountains, but Johnson’s, named for homesteaders who actually spelled their name Johnston, are the most famous. We strolled on a newly constructed 1.75-mile walkway that provides a continuously scenic overlook of the Shut-Ins.
The Shut-Ins were formed when the river met and washed away the more easily eroded dolomites but had to meander through the erosion-resistant igneous rocks of the ancient ash and lava flows. These are the smooth and slippery volcanic rocks that visitors enjoy climbing up, sliding down, and sit- ting between. The water flows here and there and seeks a path through this rock maze, creating eddies and crosscurrents, jumping at right angles, and flowing onward as it seeks a course through the narrow canyon.
We hiked a short way up a trail but quickly decided we would come back to explore this rich reserve, which is home to more than nine hundred recorded species of trees, shrubs, vines, grasses, wildflowers, and ferns—almost one-third of the native flora found in Missouri.
This beautiful, ruggedly wild place is nearly impenetrable, genuine backcountry, and it’s right here, just a few hours from home.