What to do on a Johnson’s Shut-Ins State Park visit in Missouri.
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During a recent camping trip in the Ozarks in southeast Missouri, our family’s goal was to visit all the locations on the magnet.
We discovered the magnet during our first day at Johnson’s Shut-Ins State Park. We were browsing in the campground store and spotted a souvenir magnet highlighting four destinations in the area: Elephant Rocks State Park, Taum Sauk Mountain State Park, Fort Davidson State Historic Site, and Johnson’s Shut-Ins State Park.
We are suckers for buying magnets from places we visit anyway. Our fridge is tattooed with magnets from Turkey Run State Park and Spring Mill State Park in Indiana, and with magnets from gems like the zoo in our hometown of St. Louis, and even a magnet from Shakespeare’s birthplace in Stratford-Upon-Avon in England that my husband and I picked up in our pre-kid days.
So when we saw the four-destinations-in-one magnet, we knew we had to hit up all those places so we could buy the magnet.
In this part of Missouri, Johnson’s Shut-Ins State Park makes a good home base if you’re a die hard camper. We pitched our tent at the large campground and devoted a day to enjoying the park’s signature attraction: the shut-ins. We devoted two additional days to seeing the area’s other attractions.
Johnson’s Shut-Ins State Park Visit
What to do:
The East Fork of the Black River runs through this park, and the water is “shut in” by hard volcanic rock. Over time, water eroded the rock into channels, small plunge pools, small waterfalls, and chutes. Visitors can play and swim in the (mostly) shallow water among the rocks, and the area is described as “Mother Nature’s water park.” Be sure to bring good water shoes.
There were some great open, pebbly, shallow areas that were safe for preschoolers to play and splash in, and my 4-year-old delighted in seeing minnows and holding a tadpole with two legs.
The rest of the river bed alternates between chunky, ankle-twisting rocks that range from tennis ball-sized to basketball-sized, and large, smooth, very slick rocks. We often resorted to a bear-crawl style of walking to get around, with feet and both hands down on the rocks to reduce the risk of falling. Some of the channels, waterfalls, and chutes are like small rapids and are not suitable for young children. You must supervise your kids closely here, and signs are posted indicating swimming is at your own risk. Despite the area’s reputation as nature’s water park, this is a wild, outdoor area. It is not a real water park.
Nonetheless, my 4- and 8-year-olds had a great time playing and swimming in the safer parts of the shut-ins. We designated one day to exploring the shut-ins, but we could have spent another day there.
Near the parking lot for the shut-ins is a store that sells souvenirs, water shoes, and food. There also are changing rooms and bathrooms.
The shut-ins are the main attraction on a Johnson’s Shut-Ins State Park visit, but there are a few other things to see and do.
Be sure to visit the River Center near the park entrance. The upper level of this large building consists of offices, but the lower level contains a gift shop and exhibits about the park’s history, geology, and wildlife. There’s also information about the 2005 breach at a nearby hydroelectric power plant reservoir that sent water and debris careening down the mountainside, destroying the park’s old campground and flooding the shut-ins. The campground has since been moved to a safer location nearby.
More to Do on a Johnson’s Shut-Ins State Park Visit
If you are staying overnight, you can check out backpacks filled with activities for children from the River Center. We got a backpack that contained a battery-powered, handheld device with various cards that, when inserted, show pictures and names of birds and make bird call sounds. My kids spent a long time playing with this. Our backpack also included a bug-catching net, a magnifying glass, a nature journal to write in and leave for future park guests (we drew pictures of things we saw while hiking a trail), and a variety of easy identification guides for animals, trees, and more.
Children also take part in an exciting scavenger hunt in the River Center. At the front desk, they can request a sheet that lists about a dozen questions, all of which can be answered by reading and viewing exhibits in the River Center. Upon completion of the scavenger hunt, children can pick small plastic trinkets from a prize box. It took 30 minutes or less for my 8-year-old to complete the scavenger hunt, and I offered some guidance, pointing her toward specific exhibits where she could read and discover answers for herself.
During our Johnson’s Shut-Ins State Park visit, the park naturalists also conducted an informational program on black bears, whose population is increasing in southern Missouri. A bear – or evidence of a bear – has been sighted near the park, and visitors are encouraged to keep clean campsites and store all food and toiletries in secured vehicles or campers. My 8-year-old helped collect feedback cards at the end of the program and received a coupon to get a free dog tag at the River Center.
A Johnson’s Shut-Ins State Park visit also features several trails of varying lengths. We hiked part of the two-mile Scour trail, which leads to an overlook where guests can view the path the water carved down the mountain when the reservoir was breached more than 10 years ago.
My family did encounter a small, venomous copperhead snake on the Scour trail. We later spoke with a few naturalists who said copperheads are sometimes seen in the park. While it was unnerving to see it up close, we left it alone and walked around it, leaving as much distance between ourselves and the snake as possible without venturing off the path into poison ivy in the woods. The copperhead remained frozen in place and didn’t bother us as we passed. I was one half startled and one half fascinated to actually see a live copperhead that wasn’t contained in a nature center exhibit, and it turned out to be a unique highlight of our family’s time at the park.
For serious hikers, a 14-mile trail connects Johnson’s Shut-Ins State Park to Taum Sauk Mountain State Park. Several people who have hiked the trail said it took 13 to 14 hours to hike.
Where to Stay during your Johnson’s Shut-Ins State Park visit:
Johnson’s Shut-Ins State Park has a large campground with sites ranging from full hookups for trailers and RVs, electricity and water (in the equestrian camping loop), electricity, basic, and basic walk-in. Our site with electricity cost $23 per night.
The campground has many sunny sites and few full-shade sites, but most sites are cut into the woods and do not sit on open fields, so you do have some shade during the morning and evening. Our site had some poison ivy creeping out of the nearby foliage and onto the grassy area of our site, so keep an eye out for leaves of three.
The bathhouses are a little different at Johnson’s Shut-Ins State Park. Each loop has a bathhouse that contains several individual bathrooms opening to the outside and each featuring one toilet and sink, and there are several individual rooms each containing one shower. One room in our loop’s bathhouse was a family bathroom with one toilet, sink, and shower. The lighting in all of the bathrooms is dim, and it doesn’t help that the walls are dark gray cement blocks. I found the bathrooms to be extremely gloomy but clean as far as campground bathhouses go.
If tents and RVs aren’t your thing, the campground also offers a few cabins that accommodate four adults or up to six people if you have kids. Cabins are open year-round and have electricity, heat, and air conditioning but no water or bathrooms. A bathhouse is nearby. Cabins each have a dining table, small refrigerator, and microwave, with a picnic table, grill, and fire pit outside.
The campground has a store that sells basic groceries and camping items, snacks, firewood, ice, and souvenirs. As a treat on our last day, our family bought hand-dipped Edy’s ice cream, which is available in both the camp store and the store near the shut-ins. At $1.45 for one scoop, the price was reasonable and the portion size was just right.
Bikes are available for rent outside the camp store, and there is a coin-operated laundry facility. A playground and an amphitheater (where we went for the program about black bears) are located near the camp store.
A nice trail system runs through the entire campground, and it makes for a nice, shady place to walk off dinner in the evenings.
Elephant Rocks State Park
Elephant Rocks State Park is not large, but it’s worth spending half a day here. If you only have time to go to one other place after your Johnson’s Shut-Ins State Park visit, you should go to Elephant Rocks. The park’s claim to fame are giant granite boulders lined up end to end. The park has picnic areas and restrooms, a small playground, and a one-mile easy paved trail that offers great views of the large rocks, opportunities to climb on some of the rocks, and informational plaques at intervals along the trail. A gravel extension off the trail leads to an old railroad engine house. No camping is available here.
Taum Sauk Mountain State Park
What to do:
Taum Sauk Mountain State Park is in a remote area on the highest point of land in the state of Missouri. Unless you are a serious hiker, this is another place where you will likely spend just half a day or less.
We had a picnic lunch in the park’s day use area that has several tables and open grassy space where kids can run. There are no trash cans, so be prepared to pack out your own trash. After lunch, we spent a few minutes at a lookout point that gives a view of the St. Francois Mountain range and features a few informational plaques.
Taum Sauk Mountain has a three-mile trail that leads to a waterfall, but our preschooler wasn’t up for the hike that day, so we didn’t check out that trail. This is also where you can pick up the 14-mile trail that stretches between Taum Sauk Mountain and Johnson’s Shut-Ins State Park.
Just outside the official park property is an area managed by the Missouri Department of Conservation that contains a lookout tower. My husband and 8-year-old climbed the open stairs almost to the top, where there is a large platform surrounded by a railing, but a closed gate prevented them from reaching the platform. Just standing on the stairs offered a good view of the surrounding area for those who aren’t afraid of heights.
Where to Stay:
Taum Sauk Mountain State Park has a few basic campsites with no electricity, and trailers and RVs are not allowed, so this is the place to camp if you truly want to get away from it all. Some pit toilets are located near the camping area, but there are no showers.
Fort Davidson State Historic Site
This place has an interesting story. Also known as the site of the Battle of Pilot Knob, Fort Davidson was attacked by Confederate Major General Sterling Price during the Civil War as part of a plan to eventually attack the city of St. Louis to the north. The Union soldiers in the earthworks fort put up a fierce fight and the Confederates fell back to reorganize and plan a renewed attack for the next day. General Thomas Ewing Jr., who led Union soldiers in Fort Davidson, knew his forces couldn’t hold out for a second day and ordered the fort evacuated in the middle of the night. The Union soldiers quietly left under the cover of darkness, traveling past Confederate guards who assumed they were other Confederate soldiers. A small group of Union soldiers exploded the fort’s gun powder magazine and remaining supplies so Confederate troops could not take them.
Today, visitors to Fort Davidson can walk among the remains of the fort. It was – and remains – a simple earthen fort with high dirt walls covered with tall grass, surrounded by a dry moat. In the middle of the fort is a small crater filled with water, which marks the location of the former powder magazine and indicates how powerful the explosion was when Union soldiers blew it up.
A museum on the property houses Civil War artifacts and provides information about the Battle of Pilot Knob, including an audio presentation that accompanies a light-up map that describes how the battle played out. The employee we met at the museum was friendly and helpful, and admission is free.
This property includes a playground and picnic area. It doesn’t take long to get through the museum and see the old fort, especially if you have young kids who won’t read everything. We spent about an hour to an hour and a half here.
On our last day camping at Johnson’s Shut-Ins State Park , we treated ourselves to ice cream and bought the magnet at the camp store. It’s now stuck on our fridge next to a host of other magnets from our various travels. Visiting all four locations on the magnet was a fun challenge and made for a fairly inexpensive vacation, with our total cost running about $100 to camp for three nights and purchase ice for our coolers and firewood, with free admission to all other attractions. It was a good way to spend part of our summer vacation. This area is worth visiting if you’re in or near southeast Missouri.
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