The idea of camping has always attracted me. Sitting around the fire roasting marshmallows, hiking in new beautiful locales, learning how to “rough it”. The actual execution of camping is always somewhat less than ideal when you come right down to it and this past weekend was no exception to that rule for me.
This time it was Cole, Darby and I heading out to the Eastern part of the Ozarks to Elephant Rocks and Johnson Shut-Ins for the weekend. If you are a regular here at How to do the Ozarks, you’ll remember my article on Primitive Camping https://howtodotheozarks.com/2020/06/25/ozark-mountain-primitive-camping/ where I was so tired after attempting to sleep in a hammock that I was unable to enjoy neither scrambling around big rocks in Elephant Rocks State Park, nor cutting my bare feet on the rocks at Johnson Shut Ins. I promised Cole I would make another attempt, and this past weekend was the result.
Johnson Shut-In’s has a campground but all spots were taken for the weekend we were interested in going so we ended up in the quiet camp ground of Silver Mines https://www.recreation.gov/camping/campgrounds/232392 near Ironton, Missouri. For a mere $38 we reserved a nice size tent campsite with metal picnic table, fire pit and lantern pole for two nights. Unbelievably, the Summit Campground where we were located had only 4 or 5 other reserved sites for the weekend and one couple ditched their site Saturday afternoon due to the storm that blew up and did its best to ruin the trip. More on that later.
Wanting to take a more scenic route to the area, we started from Springfield Mo, traveling along Hwy 60 to Cabool and heading in a more northeasterly direction down Hwy 63 and then picking up Hwy 32 in Licking, Mo. The drive down Hwy 32 was beautiful but curvy and I would not recommend it if you have passengers prone to car sickness. At one point, Darby rolled down the window and stuck her head out to relieve some of the nausea the twists and endless hills brought on. Picking up Hwy 21 by the stunning Buford Mountain Conservation Area and continuing through Pilot Knob, Ironton and Arcadia was picturesque and filled with interesting stops including the Battlefield of Pilot Knob and The Wheelhouse in Ironton which is a new mountain biking experience I will be checking out soon.
We turned on Hwy 72 and traveled 11 miles to Hwy D (there is another Hwy D just a few short yards from Hwy 72-don’t turn there) where our campground along the St. Francis River awaited. The St. Francis River is the only white water river in Missouri and has an annual kayak race every spring when the waters are running fast and high. The area was beautiful and even better, not crowded. Temps were expected to be in the low 100’s on Saturday with a cooling off on Sunday, but we never had a temp higher than 85 all day Saturday. The campground also has electrical sites at the Riverside Campground and the hosts had information available outside their RV as they were unavailable when we showed up to check out the terrain. There are shut-ins on the St. Francis as well, but we were unable to reach them this trip as a thunderstorm blew up as we were exploring.
As we were setting up our tent, we could hear thunder in the distance prompting us to secure the rain fly more securely and use all the tent stakes on the 9 person tent as well. Pop up thunderstorms in the summer are common in any part of the Ozarks and they usually blow over fairly quickly. After securing our belongings in the tent and saying hello to our neighbors camping further down, we headed out in the rain to Elephant Rocks.
Elephant Rocks State Park https://www.mostateparks.com/park/elephant-rocks-state-park is located on Hwy 21 south of Buford Mountain Conservation Area and North of Taum Sauk Mountain State Park. It is a geological wonder and was part of quarrying efforts for the popular red stone demanded by builders in the early 1900’s. The hike can be as easy as sticking to the asphalt Braille Trail, and as difficult as climbing large boulders can be without equipment. As always make sure young children are carefully watched by adults. Not paying attention can result in a fall and serious injury in this area. The sheer size of the rocks and how they are scattered around as though giants were bowling with them is amazing and keeps people coming back in all seasons to view this cool area. Picnic tables, a playground, and information kiosk on how the boulders were formed round out this excellent park.
After leaving Elephant Rocks, we took Darby to the highest point in Missouri at Taum Sauk, which Cole and I hiked last July. At 1772 ft. above sea level, it’s not much higher in elevation than where we live in Springfield, but it has a great lookout and now Darby can say she’s been to the highest point in Missouri! One of the great things about this area is all the fun things to do. The Black River is close and has outfitters who will set you up to float. There are plenty of conservation areas managed by the Missouri Dept. of Conservation dotting the area with plenty of hiking, birding, camping and hunting opportunities (in season). It is definitely worth a week or more of exploring for the outdoor enthusiast.
After returning to camp, we were planning on making dinner, but the thunderstorm that had loudly been heralding its arrival finally decided to rain on our parade, literally. Howling winds, enough to make us slightly nervous, thunder, lightning, hard rain pounding on the roof of the tent which, of course, leaked. We rested, and waited…and waited. Finally, after an hour and a half, we decided to head to Fredericktown in Madison County and search for a place to eat as the idea of dinner over the campfire was definitely out. We found the small town quaint, with a variety of restaurant options. Cole wanted a beer so we decided on Lalo’s Mexican Grill on Lincoln Drive off Bus 67. Darby and I shared the Nachos Supreme and Cole had fajitas. The chorizo queso dip was delicious and we barely ate all the food. Cole’s medium Dos Equis was huge and the total bill was reasonable considering he had two drinks. What was most fun was watching the townspeople out on a Saturday night having a good time. The staff was attentive but not overbearing as it was busy when we arrived and we had a good time.
During the night, another storm blew through, but barely woke us. What did wake me was having my Coleman airbed collapse under me and feeling the cold press of the earth on my spine. At 50 I have to have a good night sleep or I am going to tear someones head off tomorrow. So twice in the night I ended up using the air pump to refill the Coleman so I could fall right back to sleep. I also remembered to take an over the counter sleep aide with me this time, so getting back to sleep was easier than last year. Again, temps were supposed to be in the high 90’s and we planned accordingly. With the storm, the overnight average was probably 65 which was a little chilly. Darby was grateful she had bought a cheap blanket at Dollar General, and I had cotton sheets to lay over the air mattress. Next time I will throw a blanket in the car as well just in case.
A few camping tips: Earplugs are helpful. Noise travels in the night like it does over water. A camper or animal can be 50 feet away and will sound like it is right on top of you in the middle of the night. Please do not play obnoxious music at 6:30 a.m. in your camp site. I was awake, but Eminem at that time of morning did not please me from our neighbors who had arrived noisily sometime in the night. Put your firewood in your vehicle or tent where it won’t get wet, it’s much easier to start a fire that way. Do not bring firewood from your county to other counties in the Ozarks. The Missouri Dept. of Conservation is trying to mitigate damage from pests by asking people to buy or scout for local firewood when camping. There were plenty of people making a few extra bucks in the area we were in by selling camping firewood.
On to Johnson Shut-Ins! https://mostateparks.com/park/johnsons-shut-ins-state-park What a fun place. You can float, sit in the water, hike the trails and boulder over the shut-ins as well as slide down the natural slide formations made by the rocks. Shut-Ins are rock formations that create pools, waterfalls, rapids and crevices on a river that are a lot of fun to navigate if you have water shoes on! Last year, Cole and I went barefoot and it definitely shortened the trip and our level of enjoyment dropped drastically. This time I couldn’t help but think that video of me reaching for each rock as I placed my foot on algae covered rocks would have made good fodder for Americas Funniest Home Videos. I work with people who have broken their hips or had back surgery; I knew I did not want to fall at on the rocks at Johnson Shut-Ins. Be aware there have been deaths that have occurred at this park as people do not always stay away from areas with No Trespassing signs. The last person to die was an 18 year old girl this year that attempted to jump off a ledge, changed her mind and slipped and fell causing her untimely death. I want to take my granddaughter when she reaches the age of 8 or so. There is an area that has less rock and more gravel beach at the first staircase and my advice is if you have any orthopedic issues with hips and knees, take that first stairway. You can check out a short video on my YouTube Channel How to do the Ozarks to see more of the trip.
This was a great trip and again I learned more about how to camp, what to bring, and how to be flexible with the schedule depending on circumstances. I will be going out to Ironton, Missouri to check out the new mountain biking trails which are world class and have been included in the national circuit this year. I’m not going to try anything crazy, but I will try a lower level trail and let you know how it went. So get out there friends and enjoy the Eastern Ozarks.
Check out the Facebook page How to do the Ozarks and Instagram htdto2020 for more pictures and places to visit!