Taum Sauk Mountain State Park is a good two hour drive from St. Louis, even more so if you get the driver lost on the way down and end up taking a longer, if very scenic, route (I'm not a very good car navigator, apparently). Taum Sauk mountain is part of the St. Francois Mountains, and is the highest point in Missouri, standing 1,772 feet above sea level. According to the wikipedia article, while it is the highest mountain in Missouri, Taum Sauk is not the biggestt mountain in Missouri (that would be Black Mountain) because Taum Sauk "rises from an already elevated plain." Weird!
The park at the top of Taum Sauk offers camping too, and I'm seriously planning on doing some hiking and camping up there. The main trail, Mina Sauk trail, is a 3 mile loop. However you can meet up with the Ozark Trail about half way down the Mina Sauk and go about twelve miles to Johnson's Shut Ins, where I hiked last October. It's a more rugged and less maintained section of the trail, so you certainly would need the whole day to do it. I kept thinking how perfect it would be with two cars... leave your campsite at either Taum Sauk or at Johnson's Shut ins, and then drive to the other site and hike the Ozark Trail between them, camping at your first destination. This may be something I try next year in the spring or summer.
The Mina Sauk Falls trail is about 3 miles long in a loop. It starts at the very tip top of Missouri, at the highest point, and then you start hiking downwards to the Mina Sauk falls, which Steve Henry in the second edition of 60 Hikes within 60 Miles described as the states longest waterfall, "132-foot cascade over rugged volcanic rock ledges." Of course, this time of year the fall was nearly bone dry, with only a trickle here and there and a couple of calm pools. I would love to see the falls when there is actually water. The panoramic views of the surrounding St. Francois Mountains, especially with all the fall colors, was gorgeous and totally worth it. It was a perfect place to sit, have some water and a bite to eat, and enjoy the scenery.
The trail itself is actually somewhat rugged, for a short 3-mile trail. It is very, very rocky, with some climbing involved. I was very glad I wore my boots, which have served me well over the last two years. The extra ankle support and firm soles really saved my feet and kept away some near ankle twistings. The trail was well walked, but not overcrowded (it was a Sunday, so I expected some families and so on). The trail was slightly more difficult than I expected, at least, and it was a nice chance to do something other than a peaceful walk through the woods. As you descend from the highest point of Missouri, which is fully wooded, you go through lots of glades and wooded areas, with wildflowers even in October. I love the Missouri glades. The trail from the falls then begins to ascent back upwards, joining up with the Ozark Trail for a mile or so before diverging back to the trail head (the Ozark trail continues on). The trail is definitely upwards, but never is it overly strenuous. We slowed our pace quite a bit on the way back up, but were steady and I didn't feel out of breath or overtired. After walking up and through more glades and rocks, you know you're back at the top when you hit the quietly wooded trail again.
My father and I actually took at detour at the falls to follow the Ozark trail the OTHER direction, down the mountain into the valley (the section of the Ozark Trail I would hike if I was hiking from Taum Sauk Mountain to Johnson's Shut Ins, as I mentioned earlier) to see what is called the Devil's Tollbooth, a "50-foot passage through an 8-foot-wide gap in a 30-foot-tall volcanic rock" (Henry, Steve 193). Steve Henry said this would be "a gentle but rocky descent" down next to the falls, but I found it very steep and hard to follow and very difficult! Probably because I lost the trail downwards and ended up climbing and scooting down a much harder way than was necessary. Once down, though, it was climbing over rocks, walking through the woods and over ponds, and climbing through and around fallen trees (it looked like this section of the Ozark Trail hadn't been maintained in quite a while). It was a very long mile to the Devil's Tollboth, and another mile back, so my father and I actually did about 5 miles on our trip. It was a very cool bit of rock, but I was awfully tired already by time I got there. And let me say, the trip back UP the falls to join back with the Mina Sauk Trail was hard!
All in all, this was a beautiful and fantastic trip. The ONE big drawback was that the entire trail, I was plagued by gnats. Billions and billions of gnats buzzing in your ears, flying in your eyes, getting stuck on your sweaty arms... I'm not sure if this is a usual thing for this trail this time of year, or if the swing back into 80 degree weather brought out critters that might not usually be a worry. Either way, the gnats were exhausting and extremely bothersome. However, the trail was a good workout, a great short length, and absolutely gorgeous!
I can't seem to find the cord that goes to my camera at the moment, so I will go back and add pictures to this entry as soon as I find it.