The next day, we needed to get away from people and chose a long hike into the hinterlands of Bennet, heading for an intriguing natural geologic feature miles up the valley. The trail led us through an enjoyable diversity of landscapes, ecosystems, and elevations, rambling from upland oak glades to stream-bottom forests, open fields, and lots of interesting rock outcrops. It still wasn’t well-marked and the printed trail map was poorly done and nearly worthless, but the trail itself was clearly visible and enjoyable. Photos above show the dry stream branch miles above Bennet Spring (which steals its water), and Joanna investigating a large and well-preserved stromatolite in the stream bed.
We encountered plenty of birds, including large flocks of robins & yellow-rumped warblers, along with clouds of crows and vultures more than 50 strong. This baby three-toed box turtle was a highlight, along with various butterflies and more on a gorgeous warm fall day. Then we arrived at our destination, the Natural Tunnel:
This glorious feature tunnels beneath a limestone ridge for more than 200′, forming a cutoff for the stream branch which used to circle well around this ridge before typical Ozark karst erosion developed a shortcut (similar to our local Rock Bridge State Park but longer and more remote). Now the old stream channel is an abandoned bed, and the stream plunges through this instead. We had the place to ourselves, and spent plenty of time exploring and photographing it. Here’s my favorite shot:
We did eventually have to leave, and headed back along a different trail, which offered even more scenic, ecological, and geologic variety, including this impressive stream bluff:
Heading north for home, we intentionally took a lot of back roads, exploring the remote parts of the Niangua valley that aren’t overrun by beer- and trout-fueled tourism. A good map, good instincts, and patience can reward you with very neat finds in almost any part of rural Missouri, and this was no exception. Small dirt roads gave us this blufftop view of the river, and these well-preserved cross-beds in sandstone.
Oak-prairie glades and savannas are common, on steep hillsides and valley bottoms, as the back roads wind through a mix of private and conservation lands. We’d particularly like to return to the 7,000+ acre Lead Mine Conservation Area, which we couldn’t do much more than poke our noses into at a few points. It’s also worthwhile to have some interesting guides and references; one of our favorites is Geological Wonders and Curiosties of Missouri, available from the Missouri DNR online store. This book is old and somewhat outdated, and many of the features described and listed are on private land where you can’t (or shouldn’t) get to them. But they’re still fun to read about, and enough are findable with some skill and patience that the book is a worthwhile asset. For example, at one point we noticed some unusually folded rocks in a roadcut, looked up the area, and confirmed Joanna’s rough memory that there were several suspected meteorite impact structures nearby. Cool.
The entire afternoon, I was searching for one thing in particular: a good open view of the overall landscapes. The Ozarks are difficult to photograph well; in person you can see and feel the rolling topography, the glades and forests and open ground, and feel the remoteness and variety of the ground as you wind through it on dirt roads and rugged trails. As one writer noted, what the Ozarks lack in elevation they make up in steepness. But a camera’s lens is almost always too small to convey the sense of place, and ends up looking like just another forest or hill. Then we rounded a hilltop bend on an obscure one-lane gravel track, crossed a cattle guard, and hit the brakes in satisfaction. A quick hike up into an unposted ridgeline bluestem pasture, and I had my Ozark scene. Prairie grasses, rock outcrops, hills in fall color, small farms in the bottoms, and a nice limestone bluff along the Niangua in the background. Here was the Ozarks we’d been enjoying all day, captured in one perfect location.
I could have stayed on that ridge for hours, but the sun was dropping west and we had to get home by dark to take care of farm animals. So we wound north a while longer, eventually emerging onto “better” roads that took us north, across the Missouri River at Boonville, and back into the familiar terrain of home as the sun set. A thoroughly enjoyable day, and one that nicely balanced the deep sense of place we get from rarely leaving our own farm. This is the Missouri we love.
Our deep thanks to the friends who did evening and morning animal chores so we could be gone overnight.