Need an escape from the concrete jungle? Whether you're looking to zen out in front of vistas and waterfalls or have a little fun sliding down nature's natural waterslide, the St. Francois Mountains have something for everyone. A fun two-day camping trip in this mountain range includes longtime Missouri favorites Elephant Rocks and Johnson Shut-ins.
The car part of this trip is the easy part. It takes just two hours to drive to the highest point in Missouri, Taum Sauk, listed at a whopping 1,772 feet. The trail to the tippy-top of the state shares a spur with Mina Sauk Falls, the tallest waterfall in Missouri, which drops 132 feet when flowing.
It's easy to joke about the height of these ranges; in comparison to other North American peaks, Taum Sauk is kind of a tall hill. But don't discount this heap of rhyolite and granite formed by hot magma. The St. Francois not only has some really cool rock formations, but it dates back more than 1.4 billion years — the oldest mountain range in the U.S., according to most geologists.
For a hiker, getting to the highest point can be kind of lackluster. It's in a sea of trees and lacks a real view, but hey: You can say you've stood there and take the obligatory Instagram photo. The best views arriving at Taum Sauk can be found from a 1949 fire tower (gps coordinates: 37.5688,-90.718758) and the designated lookout just before you ditch your car for the trail (148 Taum Sauk Trail, Middle Brook; www.mostateparks.com/park/taum-sauk-mountain-state-park). The lookout can't be missed. The easiest way to find the fire tower is to turn left when the paved road turns to gravel.
After you get your photo, head down the Mina Sauk Trail counter-clockwise. This is a three-mile loop marked with red blazers. The vast majority is still rocky, rugged and frequently waterlogged. Wear sturdy shoes.
Once you're a mile in, don't forget to look up. There is a lovely view at this point — you'll know it when you see it. Continue down the trail to the top of the waterfall, but don't stop here, because you have yet to experience the best part. Climbing downward breaking from the Mina Sauk Trail to the Ozark Trail, the trail blazers are marked with an OT on white. From here you'll get a good look at the loop's most impressive drop. The view is slightly obstructed, but if you're ballsy enough to climb onto the rock at the base, a nice vista will be yours. It also happens to be a nice lunch spot.
For those looking for a little more adventure (and who don't mind adding another two-mile loop), you can continue down the OT another mile to the Devil's Tollgate, a unique rock formation that's 30 feet high.
Those in excellent shape can continue the ten miles down the Ozark Trail to Johnson Shut-ins Campground. Others need only hike back to the car for a short drive to camp.
While the area has many campsites, Johnson Shut-Ins is by far the best. A major breach from the Taum Sauk Reservoir in 2005 left the entire original campground flattened. Since then the campground has updated cabins and shower houses, as well as basic and premium sites offering sewage, water and electric for RVs. Walk-in camps are also on offer. While signs help you get to the campground, it lacks a mailing address for your GPS. First-timers should stop by the Visitor Center (148 Taum Sauk Trail, Lesterville; www.mostateparks.com/park/johnsons-shut-ins-state-park) for directions and basic information.
The fourteen walk-in sites ($12) are quite private; however, you'll have to carry your stuff up to a quarter-mile. The campground provides a wagon, but with no paved trail it can be a pain. Go ahead and pop your tent on the provided wood plank — this is where those bungees will come in handy. Underneath the plank is a nice shady nook for your cooler. (Note: Ticks and poison ivy can be atrocious in the late spring and early summer; fall may be a better bet for worriers.) The private nature of the walk-in sites can accommodate campers craving shut-eye and early start, as well as those looking to share a beer around a roaring fire with new friends.
Both Elephant Rocks and Johnson Shut-Ins can get very crowded in the summer. However, because they are popular day trips, the crowds don't typically make it in until noon or a little later. Staying nearby will get you there early the next morning to beat the bikers, field trips and soccer moms.
Start at Elephant Rocks State Park (7406 MO-21, Belleview; www.mostateparks.com/park/elephant-rocks-state-park). These massive red granite boulders slightly resembling pachyderms will test strategy, long jump, body contortioning and your ability to get down from something you were really excited about climbing. Just remember: what goes up, must come down. Two designated trails include a wheelchair-accessible one. However, half the fun is exploring these big boulders on your own path.
When you've gotten all sweaty from jumping boulder to boulder, it's time to head to the local watering hole Johnson Shut-Ins State Park (148 Taum Sauk Trail, Lesterville; mostateparks.com/park/johnsons-shut-ins-state-park). Full of dips, slips and pools, this is the original waterslide. Formed from years of rushing water and weathering, these volcanic rocks will show you a rough and risky good time.
For those a little uneasy with the gushing waters and jutting rocks, there is a calm pool at the far end of the chaos. Bring water shoes — but if you forget them, a store at the entrance to the Shut-Ins is equipped for all your last-minute needs.
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