For decades I have been photographing the St. Francois Mountains of the southern Missouri Ozarks. Last month I made several photographic trips to the area and I began reflecting on my ties to the region. On one of the drives home I began weeping as I wished I could share my new found discoveries with my parents (both having died in recent years). After posting new images from these trips onto my website, I thought about how deep my roots really are to these places.
My family began tent camping back in the mid 1960's and our first camping trips were along the Black River. Being raised in the suburbs, it was a thrill to explore the clear flowing Ozark streams catching tadpoles, swimming, canoeing, rope swings over the rivers... Missouri's state parks and recreation areas became our favorite vacation destinations - Sam A. Baker, Silver Mines and Johnson's Shut Ins among them. We hiked trails and climbed mountains like Taum Sauk and Mudlick... yes, my childhood memories are rooted deep in the St. Francois Mountains.
Besides the memories associated with the area, I find there is more that draws me to the St. Francois Mountains. This region contains some of the oldest exposed rock in North America. I have always been fascinated with geology, and the igneous rock that is so characteristic of the mountains is what gives the region its unique beauty. The predominant granite and rhyolite formations create some truly unique features.
One such geologic feature found in the St. Francois Mountains are shut ins. Numerous streams in this region of the Ozarks flow through these formations, referred to as shut ins, where erosion has reached the granite bedrock which restricts the flow into narrow channels and chutes as the streams descend through the valleys. Depending on rainfall, these shut ins can be comprised of slow moving water with pools scattered amongst the boulders or they can become dangerous torrents and whitewater rapids. Seasonal changes and water levels offer endless opportunities to capture unique and beautiful photographs. Johnson's Shut Ins, Castor River and Millstream Gardens are among the most familiar but there are others scattered throughout the valleys of this region.
Hiking in the St. Francois Mountains brings its own delights and a variety of trails exist, ranging from paved to rugged in nature. Some are easy to access while others are accessed via deeply rutted and rocky dirt roads in areas designated as wilderness. The Ozark Trail passes through the St. Francois Mountains crossing through state parks, conservation areas, national recreation areas and the Mark Twain National Forest as it traverses peaks and descends into the valleys below. These trails can be hiked year-round and each season brings its own beauty to the region. Winter hikes offer views that are often hidden by the foliage of other seasons and the winter landscape is punctuated with green pine trees which add a splash of color. During the springtime, wildflowers can add color with their blooms. Wild coreopsis blooms on open glades and wild phlox can be found along the sides of the trails.
However, it is the geology, the granite formations found in the St. Francois Mountains, that truly add to the beauty of this place and make it so unique. The most well known formations are those found at Elephant Rock State Park. The huge boulders sitting atop a reddish pink granite dome resembling a line of marching elephants is the big draw to this park. Much of the granite used in building St. Louis was quarried in the area. Yet this only scratches the surface of this area's geology. For example, at Silver Mines and Millstream Gardens one can find dikes in the bedrock, narrow bands of contrasting igneous rock (such as basalt) that were formed as the earth's hot magma rose through fractures in the surrounding rock and cooled. Also, there is the rhyolite formation that covers Hughes Mountain. It is a unique type of formation only found in a few places in the world. (Devil's Tower in Wyoming and Giant's Causeway in Ireland are other examples).
Moreover, what I find of particular beauty, are the granite boulders that lay scattered in ravines down the steep hillsides covered in green and bluish green lichens. The shapes and sizes of these boulders, together with the lichen, create a visual tapestry which adds interest to the scenery. Some of the boulders have been cleaved with such angularity and evenness, it is as if they were sculpted by human hands. After periods of rain, these steep ravines and hillsides come alive with cascades and waterfalls that descend in stages, hiding what is above each one. I often name my images with a preface of "upper", "lower", "below", "above" or "cascades" to differentiate the stages. Many of these waterfalls and cascades are intermittent and only have significant flow after rainfall, but my heart begins to pound as I approach these places and hear the sound of the water echoing through the forest.
I can certainly say that, as I have gotten older, I have become more adventurous in scouting out new locations to photograph in the St. Francois Mountains. It may be that I am setting aside more time now, but I still find it a thrill to explore this region. Perhaps it reminds me, subconsciously, of those eye opening experiences as a child when we first began visiting the area. What about you? Have you visited the St. Francois Mountains? Feel free to leave a comment and share your experience.
To see more of my images from the St. Francois Mountains view my online galleries: