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Missouri Bluffs

Updated on February 21, 2013
Photo by Lynn Wakefield, Summit 1985
Photo by Lynn Wakefield, Summit 1985
Wind River Range, Wyoming 1986
Wind River Range, Wyoming 1986

Parts of this article were published in the 1985 July-August Issue of Summit, a mountaineering magazine, Volume 31, No. 4. The rock hasn’t changed much since then. But I have. No longer do I rush from one boulder to the next seeking and overcoming challenges in rock. Given the opportunity, I will scale a boulder and maybe a cliff or two, but don’t have the time to set up the ropes, and it’s unlikely I’ll try "soloing" any time soon.

However, after last summer’s hike up Mt. Bierstadt in Colorado, my daughter wants to climb a mountain using crampons and ice ax, so we are in the initial phases of planning a "mountain experience." How can I say no? After all, I’ve climbed mountains from Alaska to South America. My outdoor adventures have undoubtedly influenced me as a fiction writer, novelist, and poet. And the landscape, including mountain climbing, is essential to my novel Where the River Splits.

I am a Missouri climber. That is not something to brag about, but it may arouse some curiosity. Are there even "mountains" in Missouri? Yes, there are, sort of, but it’s doubtful they ever reached towering heights, and they’re so old and weathered that the highest "peak" soars to a not-so-majestic 1,772 feet. Whatever snow my have capped the old, flat summits is long gone and , during the summer , they are blanketed by a lush, green, almost tropical forest, mottled by poison ivy and poison oak, and haven for ticks and chiggers. They are the Ozark Mountains. They are all we Missouri climbers have.

The Ozarks are located primarily in southern Missouri and the northern third of Arkansas. They were formed by lava flows and huge masses of granite pushing through the hardened lava. Water then deposited sediment that hardened into layers of limestone, followed by gradual uplift and erosion.

Geographically, the Ozarks are generally referred to as having a Karst topography; that is, most of the water runoff is by underground channels. Springs gush white water – tons of clear, cold water daily from inside the earth. Rivers and streams cut deep into the limestone and granite. The bluffs range from ten to one hundred feet. They often rise right out of the water, or can be a few feet to a few hundred yards from the streams and rivers. Ancient granite can be found exposed, outcroppings distinctly alone in the forest as if still pushing.

Driving through Missouri on the interstates will reveal little. A quick glimpse at 60mph might tell you there is more, but passing motorists seldom recognize the potential for climbing. If you are used to California or Colorado, where your prospective adventure can unfold before you gradually from one hundred miles down the highway, the Ozarks will seem nothing more than a series of mildly interesting forested, foliaged hills.

To climb in those hills, you may have to explore Daniel Boone who settled in Missouri, but you won’t have to fight off the fierce Femme Osage. The climbs are not far from the main road, maybe just a short hike through the woods, or they are within an area well-known for its streams and rivers but not for climbing. Or, they are hidden deep within the forest, well off established backpacking routes. A swimming hole may be nearby. It the weather is hospitable, a dip after a climb is refreshing. In early March, it’s stimulating.

Finding your climb may at times equal the challenge of the climb itself. A few areas are probably well-known to most in Missouri, but some areas hopefully will remain a secret. The Ozarks are home to hidden fly fishing creeks, swimming holes, natural beauty, and rock climbing.

Depending on how much fun you can stand, climbing in Missouri is best during the spring and fall. Once, we climbed on Christmas day (probably around 1980) at Johnson Shut-Ins State Park. The winter’s first snow flurries swirled into the forest and river, while I watched my climbing pal, Bob Poe (2010 candidate for governor of Alaska) climb a forty-foot vertical wall, pounding numb hands onto tiny hand-holds while traversing above the greenish dark pools of the Black River. Afterward, we commented on how much fun we had. In mid-July, three of us protected ourselves with long pants, long-sleeve shirts, sublime sulfur to discourage chiggers, and drenched in mosquito repellent. We smelled bad. In the half-mile hike through the woods to the old bluffs, several elaborate spider webs contoured around my face. Not that you shouldn’t climb in summer in winter, just that your have to expect the extremes. I’ve done a lot of rock climbing in July and January when the days seemed to defy expectations.

Johnson Shut-Ins are gorges where the Black River encounters rhyolite (a rock similar to granite, and the oldest in Missouri) and forms whirlpools, spouts, and gushing white water. In summer, thousands flock to swim and bask and to peal form the forty plus feet rhyolite walls into the pool below. The walls stretch into he forest, and during the off-season, the climbing is excellent. Note: In December of 2005 the Upper Taum Sauk Lake AmerenUE Dam breached and sent a twenty-foot wall of water down to the Black River and the State Park. However, the park has recently reopened to day use.

Near Johnson Shut-Ins you will find Elephant Rocks state park. Drilled blasting holes mark the end of the old quarry and now make unique finger holds. The rest of the park is a series of huge, peculiarly shaped granite boulders. Some of them look like elephants when viewed from certain angles, others take a little more imagination. There is a well maintained wood sign with yellow message – No Rock Climbing Equipment allowed, but nobody has been stopped from bouldering and soloing. Tourists leap haphazardly from one rock to another, dangling cameras and teetering on the edge. Once, on a seventeen foot boulder that sloped gradually at the top (as most do there), I dug my fingernails into the coarse granite and made a move. It worked. A momentary lie back, barely enough friction, and I was atop the boulder, feeling satisfied, cat-like smile. That was in the fall after several of these small ascents; the Elephant Rocks turned red as sunset and cast long weirdly shaped shadows – enough time for one more climb.

Across the Mississippi, old high bluffs now well inland rise from the bottomland. That these bluffs are in Illinois and are often geographically recognized as part of the Interior Low Plateau does not diminish the Missouri climber’s claim to the territory. After all, were it not for an errant meander, they could’ve ended up on our side of the river. Giant City State Park, Fern Cylff State Park, Cedar Bluff, Jackson Falls all offer great climbs. One time, on the highest bluff, my girlfriend now wife dangled upside down for about twenty minutes. Unfortunately, Draper’s, has been closed to climbing because of a law that holds the private landowners accountable for climbing accidents.

Back in Missouri, Rockwoods Reservation is very close to St. Louis, and likely one of the reasons climbing is highly controlled. Check with local official for current guidelines. One early June morning, as the base of a high Rockwoods Bluff, my climbing partners and I discussed the two routes, one a difficult open book and over hang, the other a less difficult but deceiving crack on the right. The temptation is to slide your body into the crack, but once you do that, you’re stuck, there’s nowhere to go. You have to lean back out and grip knobs of the face. Trying the overhang, I took off one of my shoes and stuck and sweaty toe into a small indentation, but finally gave up and took the easier route.

Hiking down the bluff trail, I thought, "Wow! There really is some pretty good climbing in Missouri." I stopped to admire the mist lingering over the Ozark Hills.


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    • Jeff May profile imageAUTHOR

      Jeffrey Penn May 

      8 years ago from St. Louis

      Thanks Peggy. The Ozarks make this part of the world special. National Scenic Riverways.

    • Peggy W profile image

      Peggy Woods 

      8 years ago from Houston, Texas

      Really enjoyed your stories of rock climbing in the Ozarks and your pictures are stunning with those pools of water looking not only beautiful but very inviting. Thanks! Rating this beautiful and up.

    • Jeff May profile imageAUTHOR

      Jeffrey Penn May 

      9 years ago from St. Louis

      Yes, I've been to Ha Ha Tonka. Aside from being funny, ha ha, it is lots of fun, especially if you go up and down those steps to the spring.

    • profile image

      Vacation Rentals at Lake of the Ozarks 

      9 years ago

      Really great hub about hiking in Missouri. Lake of the Ozarks has some really great hiking trails. Ha Ha Tonka State Park is a great place to visit while at the lake!


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