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Arcadia Valley Chamber of Commerce, (573) 546-7117 or visit online at
You can reserve a campsite in the Mark Twain National Forest by calling 1-877-444-6777.
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Exploring an ancient valley
Beauty of southern Missouri’s Ozarks shines through Arcadia

Published: Mar/Apr 2003
By Jinny Ravenscroft Danzer

Johnson’s Shut-ins is one of the more beautiful and popular natural attractions in southern Missouri. /Missouri Tourism photo. Pink in color and large as a pachyderm, Elephant Rocks State Park attracts visitors of all ages who are interested in experiencing whimsy created by Mother Nature. /Jinny R. Danzer photo.
I first visited the Arcadia Valley in southeastern Missouri when I rode the Iron Mountain Railway from the Delmar Station in St. Louis to Arcadia to visit a college friend. She took me up a fire tower overlooking the spreading St. Francois Mountains, which lie like sleeping giants in the broad valleys. We played in the potholes of Johnson’s Shut-Ins State Park when only the locals knew about it. I began visiting Elephant Rocks before it was a state park, when only a small path led through a quarry to the gigantic pink boulders. The valley soon became one of my favorite places.

Reliving history

The Arcadia Valley has much to offer the casual visitor and the history buff.

A Delaware tribe is known to have camped at the foot of Pilot Knob Mountain as late as 1819. Whites began settling the valley in 1805 and started the first ironworks west of the Mississippi. Ox and mule teams hauled iron ore over plank roads for 42 miles to a steamboat-shipping depot in Ste. Genevieve.

Workers began quarrying local granite as early as the 1840s. Immigrants from Prussia, Germany, Great Britain and Ireland came here to work in the granite quarries and iron mines. Quarries produced granite blocks that paved the St. Louis levee and formed the rotunda columns in the state capitol in Jefferson City.

Two towns–Ironton, the county seat of Iron County, and Arcadia–share one main street. Along with nearby Pilot Knob, all have a pleasant small-town atmosphere. The valley boasts a 19th-century courthouse and brick homes, four stone water towers, the former Ursuline Academy, and interesting old churches. The Union Army used Immanuel Lutheran Church as headquarters and a hospital during the Battle of Pilot Knob. More history will be showcased when the valley sponsors a home and church tour Oct. 5.

The Fort Davidson State Historic Site commemorates the Battle of Pilot Knob. The fight took place when Confederate Maj. Gen. Sterling Price swept north through Missouri in September 1864 towards St. Louis. He attacked the fort, which guarded the iron mines and the railroad that carried iron to St. Louis for gunboats and industry.

The site details the bloody battle between Price’s forces and the greatly outnumbered Union troops led by Gen. Thomas Ewing Jr. and the daring late-night evacuation of his small force. Exhibits display artifacts, fascinating photos of individual soldiers, some posed with an array of guns, and letters that give intimate glimpses into the thoughts of the men. Every three years–the next in 2004–Civil War buffs re-enact the battle, complete with uniformed soldiers, horses, tents and artillery.

Getting outdoors

The valley’s landscape is deceptively pastoral since the hills are actually quite rocky. Ancient granite from 1.5 billion years ago juts from hillsides and caps mountaintops.

At Elephant Rocks State Park, this exposed granite has eroded into amazing pachyderm-sized boulders. A paved one-mile Braille trail, also accessible to wheelchairs (there is a slight hill), winds through the boulders. Signs in Braille and English point out touchable features along the trail such as stoneworkers’ names carved into the granite and a curved iron rod for anchoring a crane that lifted granite blocks from a quarry. A kiosk displays photos and historical information about the early stonecutters' life and work.

Nearby Taum Sauk State Park claims Missouri’s highest point at 1,772 feet–not spectacular by Western standards, but it produces a nice view. A loop trail leads to the highest point and to the state’s highest wet-weather waterfall, Mina Sauk Falls. The Taum Sauk section of the Ozark Trail passes through the park and continues on 12.8 miles to Johnson’s Shut-Ins State Park, where the East Fork Black River flows through a narrow section of hard volcanic rock. This park has become so popular over the years that only a certain limited number of cars are allowed in at one time; if it’s full, you have to wait till someone leaves. Large potholes created by rushing water make for exciting water play, but can be a little rough for young children. They will do better in the calm swimming hole below the shut-ins. No pets are allowed in the shut-ins area.

To the north, Council Bluff Recreation Area includes a swimming beach and a 10-mile trail around the lake. It’s a good place for boating and fishing for large-mouth bass and bluegill.

Floating on the clear waters of the Black River just south of the valley is an activity that can’t be beat. The river can be crowded on weekends but still makes a beautiful float. Weekdays and fall and spring floats are less congested.

Campgrounds and picnic spots are available not only in most state parks but in areas of the Mark Twain National Forest like Marble Creek, Council Bluff and Sutton Bluff.

Stretching your legs

The area offers numerous scenic trails–from sections of the Ozark Trail, planned eventually to stretch some 500 miles from St. Louis to the Arkansas border–to trails in the Mark Twain National Forest. Several areas have shorter trails: Taum Sauk State Park, Johnson’s Shut-Ins, Marble Creek, Sutton Bluff, and Millstream Gardens, where Missouri Whitewater Championships are held each spring.

Biking and horseback riding are other ways to get out in the open. The five-mile Crane Lake Trail and the 24-mile Trace Creek section of the Ozark Trail are open to horses and mountain bikers as well as hikers. The new Goggins Mountain equestrian and hiking trail makes a 10-mile loop near Johnson’s Shut-Ins. Guided trail rides are available at Brushy Creek Resort. Arcadian Outfitters and Tours offers shuttle service as well as cycling tours, Black River floats and a local history tour.

Indulging your senses

You can indulge your palate at a variety of restaurants. One of the most pleasing is the Arcadian Café, which offers gourmet cuisine at reasonable prices in a restored 1880s grocery store. The café hosts acoustic musicians on weekends and sponsors wine tastings and other events.

Sleep in style at bed-and-breakfast inns, including The Parlor and The Green Roof Inn, or find a room at the Fort Davidson Motel and Restaurant. Neighboring Caledonia, Annapolis and Lesterville also have bed-and-breakfast inns and lodges.

Ironton and Arcadia have a number of antique shops–as does historic Caledonia to the north. The Arcadia Valley Academy, built as a Methodist High School in 1846, houses an antique mall, specialty shops and a bed-and-breakfast inn. The towns sponsor several events, including a Celtic festival April 12–13, and a spring festival May 10.

You won’t easily run out of things to do in the Arcadia Valley. Just grab your hiking shoes, your inquiring mind, and your wallet for that special antique and head for the southeast Missouri countryside.

Jinny Ravenscroft Danzer is a contributor from St. Louis, Mo.

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