Exploring The Ozark Trail: The Little Known Wonders Of Rocky Creek

Photographs Taken March 5, 2018

If you have been following my adventures for the last few months, it may appear that I only visit Missouri's State Parks. I have definitely been making an effort to visit them lately as I work through a series focused on the State Park Systems 100th anniversary, but with the imminent release of the first part of that series, I wanted to do something different. 

During the last couple weeks of February we had a lot of rain here, and with many streams and waterfalls being seasonal, I knew that it would be a great time to get out and photograph some water features. As I searched for a place to explore, a friend on instagram shared a photo of a beautiful shut-in I hadn't seen before. I asked him where it was, and he told me about the historic Klepzig Mill and nearby Rocky Falls Shut-ins. I began researching the area a bit more and found that the Ozark Trail ran between the two.

I have hiked short portions of the Ozark Trail in the past, but only where it intersected with other trails. As I searched for a new project last year, one of my ideas  was to hike the entire trail one section at a time over the course of a year. I'm not sure if I will end up hiking all of it, but I definitely want to explore more of the land the trail crosses.

 

Ozark Trail

In the late '70s Missouri was considered to have a trail deficit, reported to be 500-900 miles behind demand. To combat this, a council made up of seven governmental agencies, a private landowner, and several environmental groups, was formed around the idea of creating a long distance trail from Saint Louis to the states southern border.

Because the project was not a national initiative, it didn’t need an act of congress to get started. The first sections of trail were constructed only four years after the OTC was formed, and by 1991 over 200 miles of trail had been added to the system. The trail was, and still is, being constructed on many fronts at the same time, each land holder undertaking the construction of their own section.

Despite the success of the OTC in constructing the trail, it didn't have a centralized support system and awareness of the project lagged behind. In 2002 the Ozark Trail Association was formed to continue the construction of the trail, and help promote its use. With the addition of 50 miles since the founding of the OTA, the Ozark Trail now consists of over 400 total miles, with around 230 miles of through-trail. 

The trail was planned with not only thru-hikes in mind, but also day and weekend use. At this time there are 13 sections of the trail, each with multiple trail heads allowing visitors to experience any segment of the trail as they see fit. (Ozark Trail Association)

 

Current River Section

There is a 30 mile of the Ozark Trail that loosely parallels the Current River in Southern Missouri, aptly named the Current River Section. I visited a portion of the first 8 miles of the section (see map below), which is contained within the Ozark National Scenic Riverway. The Ozark NSR is the first such Scenic Riverway to be protected and managed by the National Park Service.

There is a lot to see along this section of the Ozark Trail, and I had a hard time narrowing down the scope of my visit. Ultimately I decided on a six mile round-trip from Rocky Falls Shut-ins to Klepzig Mill. It was a three hour drive to the trail head, so I knew I had to be smart with my time. 

I wanted to try using video more than I have on previous adventures. It seems like a good way to share parts of the trip that still images just can't fully express. It was a lot of fun experimenting with the medium and learning how to edit. Let me know what you think about the video in the comments.

 

Rocky Falls

After a long morning of driving I made my way down an unpaved county road, and found myself in a small dirt lot. As I got out of my car I could hear the water rushing in the distance. After a liberal stretch, I made my way down to the waterside and was blown away! Before flowing downstream, water from the Rocky Creek cascades down a 40 foot rock incline into a pristine blue-green basin. I had some idea of what to expect from my research, but what I saw doesn't compare to seeing it in person. 

I had planned to arrive just as the sun rose over the surrounding mountains, going as far as to use an online app called The Photographers Ephemeris to estimate the suns path and find the best time to get there. Despite my best efforts, I misjudged the angle of the sun by an hour and had to wait for the light to clear the peaks. 

As I waited, I unwittingly tested the limits of the waterproof coating on my hiking boots. I stood in three to four inch deep water setting up my tripod, and was surprised that after ten minutes my foot felt cold and wet. Thankfully it wasn't too bad, but my sock never fully dried until I took my boots off on my drive home.

 

The Trail to the Mill

The trail between Rocky Falls and Klepzig Mill is really quite tame, but here are two stream crossings within the first mile. The rain that enticed me to come made the crossings more difficult because of the higher water. I  Used my trekking poles  to help me to keep my balance as I carefully made my way through the flowing water. I think I will get a pair of sandals or light weight water shoes for future crossings. I won’t have to worry about getting water in my boots, I'll just have to dry my feet and be on my way!

Beyond the streams the path winds through peaceful woodlands. Occasionally I came across large swaths of open grassy fields. I still don't know what they were for: they certainly didn't look naturally occurring. 

As the path continued the surrounding environment changed between deciduous forest, glades, and pine trees. Speaking of which, I could not believe how vibrant the pine trees were! It was a beautiful sight.

A Little over halfway to the mill I came across the Buzzard Mountain Shut-ins. I hopped off the trail to photograph the area, and then followed along the river to see what was ahead. The actual shut-ins were just around the bend from where I stopped, so I spent some more time photographing the area before continuing on.

The remainder of the trail was pretty straight forward. It crossed more forest, passed by another large field, and then let out right next to the final destination of my trip: the Klepzig Mill.

 

Klepzig Mill

Finally I was at the location that inspired this entire trip, and I was not disappointed. The mill, a "sawmill" house built by Walter Klepzig in 1928 (Learn more here), over looks a section of the Rocky Creek with numerous small waterfalls. As I sat taking a short snack break, I couldn't help but consider what it would have been like to live there. I imagine it would have been a hard but rewarding life, surrounded by the raw beauty and fury of nature.

Once done with my break, I began exploring the area. I climbed over the rocky outcroppings of the shut-ins looking for compositions. I had plenty of options! I attempted to place myself in a few of the photographs, but I just ended up frustrated by the lack of range Canon's remote shutter app has.

 

Wrapping up

I began packing up my gear and heading back towards the trail when an older man stopped along the road in his pickup truck, and struck up a conversation. After introducing himself, he told me that he had been photographing the area for the past four years. It was nice meeting someone who lived in the area.We parted ways, and I began the return hike to my car. With the aid of my trekking poles, I powered my way back. 

When I got back to Rocky Falls I wanted to jump into the water so badly. The sun was high above without a single cloud in site, and It looked very refreshing. If I had a towel with me I probably would have, even if the water was probably still really cold.

It is a long drive from Saint Louis, but this section of the Ozark Trail is worth it. I want to come back sometime with my wife when we can actually enjoy the water. I will definitely continue exploring the Ozark Trail: I’m sure to find plenty more gems along the way. 

 

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Thank you for reading about my adventure! Let me know in the comments what your favorite hidden gem is. 

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