Fall trip: Ozarks & Mississippi River

We were able to take a short vacation this fall, thanks to the help of workers who took care of the farm for us. Like most of our local trips, we focused on a road trip exploring interesting landscapes and historical locations, with lots of opportunities for photography. Past short trips have included northwest Missouri, the Niangua River, Royals baseball, lots of birding days,Kirkwood by rail, north-central Missouri, and now the eastern Ozarks and Mississippi River corridor around St. Louis. We write up these trips partly to inspire others, especially newcomers to the area, to discover the rest of Missouri outside Columbia. Read on for a (mostly) photo essay of the diverse and interesting places we explored in just a couple days.

DAY 1: Eastern OzarksDriving through the near-peak fall colors south of Jefferson City, we saw a sign for Dillard Mill State Park and took the turn on impulse. This beautiful setting (images above and below) was especially interesting to geologists like us, as the mill had been sited where Huzzah Creek took a shortcut through a bedrock ridge, abandoning its former valley.

We spent most of the day at Johnson’s Shut-ins State Park, a well-known site that’s worth every minute to be spent there. Here the East Fork Black River has carved fantastic formations in 1.4 billion-year-old volcanic rocks, a paradise for landscape geologists like us (images above and below).Below, Joanna enjoys rocks we don’t see at home, such as this lovely volcanic specimen.Of course, the other reason Johnson’s Shut-ins is now a magnet for geologists is the spectacular 2005 failure of the Taum Sauk reservoir. From the NOAA event summary:

Overtopping water at the AmerenUE’s Taum Sauk Upper Storage Facility caused a massive dam failure during the pre-dawn hours of December 14th 2005. More than a billion gallons of water rushed down Proffit Mountain and overwhelmed the east fork of the Black River and the lower ground of Johnson’s Shut-Ins State Park. It swept the park superintendent’s home and family at least a quarter-mile away and caused damage to several vehicles that were swept from Highway N into an adjacent field. According to local calculations the flow of the water at the time would have been nearly 150,000 cubic feet per second, which is the equivalent of the Mississippi River flowing at 7 feet in St. Louis. Luckily, the lower reservoir captured most of the overflow water, limiting the effects of the dam break down stream.

Wikipedia has a good summary, with photos, but here’s what the scour looks like today. Below left, near the base of the channel. Below right, near the top (you can see the rebuilt reservoir looming along the horizon). Below center, one of the many amusing warning signs now in place around the park. We found these especially funny/depressing as (a) most of them are in place along a strong metal-fenced riverside boardwalk that offers only the most nimble any chance of taking 200 steps uphill, and (b) were about the only reference to the disaster to be found anywhere in the park. We wonder if the park agreed to minimize mention of the sordid events in return for settlement money from the power company, which has been used to build all sorts of fancy new infrastructure. But that’s another discussion. In any case, we were pretty annoyed that the park had removed and/or rearranged most of the flood deposits near the park entrance. Though not a “natural” flood, the flood deposits were still geologically interesting. However, the park reconstruction undid what the flood water had deposited, and rearranged the boulders into a meaningless, rock-garden-like arrangement, eradicating much that was of interest to geologists like us along with a good educational opportunity for the general public. Below, more views of the scoured-out and rubble-filled valley through which the flood washed. Note that the trees are missing from a wide swath, but there’s no woody debris to speak of. We found charred wood & we’re pretty sure the park just bull-dozed and burned all of it.This scour also exposed lots of new bedrock for geologists to play with. Below left, Eric’s fingers are straddling the Great Unconformity, where the sedimentary rocks on the left (~540 million years old) contact much older granitic rocks (~1.3 billion years old). In effect Eric’s fingers are straddling something like 700-800 million years of time missing from the geologic record. There are also lots of interesting features eroded into the local limestone, like these miniature arches & caverns (below right).At the end of the day, we moved on toward the wonderfully preserved Mississippi River town of St. Genevieve, founded in 1735. We’ve been here before, and it’s a great place for history buffs. No photos as we arrived around dusk and left around dawn, but the well-preserved early buildings are well worth a visit.

DAY 2: Mississippi River & Cahokia Mounds

This was a day best captured through panoramas, as we worked our way north along the Mississippi River past St. Louis.

Crossing the river from St. Genevieve on the Modoc ferry.Attractive farmsteads tucked beneath the river bluffs on the Illinois side.View south from the top of Monks Mound at Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site, just east of St. Louis:

The remains of the most sophisticated prehistoric native civilization north of Mexico are preserved at Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site. Within the 2,200-acre tract, located a few miles west of Collinsville, Illinois, lie the archaeological remnants of the central section of the ancient settlement that is today known as Cahokia.

We’ll admit: We’re embarrassed by how long we lived in the region before finally getting around to visiting Cahokia. If you haven’t been, you should plan a trip now. It’s a reasonable day trip from Columbia if you’re willing to drive I-70. Allow plenty of time to walk among the mounds, to climb Monks Mound, and to take in the visitors center/museum.

Chain of Rocks, a bedrock waterfall blocking the Mississippi River that formed a significant navigation barrier to river traffic before a large canal finally bypassed it. A beautiful and surprisingly remote location.Confluence of the Missouri (left) and Mississippi (right) rivers; a pilgrimage for geologically-minded river-lovers like ourselves. Where else can you watch waters from half the continent come together? The quiet ambiance was completed by someone gently playing a Native American flute on the Missouri shore, the notes wafting quietly across the water.Driving north along the Mississippi toward Pere Marquette State Park, we found an especially attractive line of limestone bluffs catching the evening light. Poor-quality photograph due to playing with a zoom lens & camera settings, but the landscape comes across.

DAY 3: Hiking, birding, & home

We spent the morning hiking some ridgeline trails at Pere Marquette, enjoying both the lush woods along the Illinois River bluffs and the occasional vistas across wetlands and wildlife refuges:We headed a bit farther north along the river, looking for places to bird. This quiet pool in the Illinois River bottomlands was surprisingly rich in birds. We ate lunch while continually grabbing for binoculars as something else interested passed by. Eric even managed to capture a (blurry) Wood Duck on camera, despite a basic lens and no warning. After more exploration of back roads along both the Illinois and Mississippi Rivers, we finally headed home across NE Missouri.As in all our trips, we brought our own food and quite enjoyed the taste & quality of the farm even when away. Enjoyable meals included our chicken oven-fried in our cornmeal; a vat of cabbage/pepper slaw; fried chicken sandwiches with tomatoes, greens, & goat cheese; smoked pork sandwiches with goat cheese & tomatoes; boiled eggs, yogurt, cornbread, scones, and fruit preserves for breakfast; and so on. Eating out of a cooler is easy when the ingredients are fresh and the food is good.Such trips are easy to set up and inexpensive to carry out, particularly bringing our own food. We value the simultaneous relaxation of road trips, short hikes, and early bed times with the intellectual stimulation of exploring & learning a great deal more about our region. Placing ourselves ever-deeper in the geographic, ecologic, and historical context of this area helps us deepen our roots on, and enjoyment of, our own small farm.

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