Courthouse and Jail Rocks: A Nebraska Historical Site

Courthouse and Jail Rocks in Western Nebraska

Courthouse and Jail Rocks in Western Nebraska

It must have been something to be part of the westward expansion of the United States of America. Those brave souls must have felt the excitement of their historical significance, frightened by the unknown and hopeful for a better future as they faced the hardships of traveling by wagon and walking the plains and western states. These are things that we thought about as we travelled along or near the trails of the westward expansion.

The modern day traveller has the opportunity to drive through ranches with cows roaming freely alongside and over the unpaved roads near Courthouse and Jail Rocks in western Nebraska. We may have been lost and it may not have been necessary to travel these roads, but it definitely added to our experience.

Road near Courthouse and Jail Rocks, Nebraska

Road near Courthouse and Jail Rocks, Nebraska

We stopped next to a historical marker sign and took pictures with the rock formation behind us. There, we learned that people traveling west on the Oregon, California, Mormon and Pony Express trails found this to be a landmark on their journey. That location was probably the same place that weary travelers stopped to admire the view and wonder how much longer it would be before they would arrive at a place to permanently settle.

We arrived at Courthouse and Jail rocks to see one other couple exploring it. After meeting Wilma and her husband, we walked along dirt paths that led up and around the formation. The trail was not well marked and had loose dirt in parts of it. My parents decided to stay close to the car while my brother put his newly purchased hiking shoes to use as the trail leader.

The trail at Courthouse and Jail Rocks, Nebraska

Along the trail at Courthouse and Jail Rocks

On the opposite side of the formation from our car we could see Chimney Rock in the distance. The tallest point did not seem safe to climb to in tennis shoes, but we did enjoy the view of the flat Nebraska land with occasional buttes and plateaus from where we stood. I have a feeling that Courthouse and Jail Rocks is often overlooked as a destination to visit and hike. However, it was a fun stop for us to do a little hiking and sightseeing of Nebraska’s non-interstate landscape.

Preparing for our first backpacking trip

After hiking up Harney Peak last year, I looked up Missouri’s highest point of elevation. It turned out to be a rather disappointing 1,772 feet at Taum Sauk Mountain. But this discovery yielded an interesting bit of information. There is a hiking trail between Taum Sauk and Johnson Shut-Ins (site of one of our camping trips last year) with a length of 14 miles. The hike up Harney Peak left me itching to do more hiking and 14 miles seemed like fun. However, a hike that long would take us the better part of a day and we wouldn’t have time to do a roundtrip back to our car.

Then, sometime over the last two months I read about Missouri’s Ozark Trail. It is a hiking and backpacking trail (with a lot of mountain biking and equestrian access as well) with a total length over 350 miles at the moment.  The trail is situated mostly in the southeastern quadrant of Missouri and stretches almost down to Arkansas.

I spent several hours one night reading stories backpackers had written about their experiences on sections of the trail, including the section between Taum Sauk and Johnson Shut-Ins. That’s when I got the idea to do a backpacking trip with Fox.

We bought hiking boots about two months ago, but most of our camping gear is suitable only for car camping. In order to better understand what we are getting into and how to prepare, I started reading lots of guides to backpacking during my train commute to and from work (The guides on REI’s website seemed quite good).

Seeing as we normally camp with a queen-size air mattress, relatively heavy tent, and heavy blankets, we had some big holes to fill in our gear inventory. We would need at least one frame backpack, a lightweight tent, sleeping bags, and sleeping pads. We have been doing a lot of reading across the Internet about pros and cons of various types and brands of tents, sleeping bags, backpacks, sleeping pads, stoves, water filtration systems, clothing, and other accessories.

So far, we found a great clearance deal on a Kelty Coyote 80-liter backpack for me as well as clearance deals on Kelty Cosmic Down 20-degree sleeping bags (Long for me, Women’s Regular for Fox). We didn’t intend for this to sound like a Kelty advertisement, but their backpacks and sleeping bags have been consistently recommended on review sites for their quality at a reasonable price point. Also we keep finding great sales on their stuff where we look.

We are still looking for a good four-person tent (maybe the Kelty Gunnison 4.2 since it reviews well and is only $200 at REI) and sleeping pads (probably NEMO Astro Insulated) and probably a backpack for Fox too. If we need a backpacking stove, we recruited my little brother to go with us and we got him one for Christmas. We were thinking ahead there.

My plan at the moment is to keep an eye out for a dry weekend this spring and drive down to Taum Sauk Mountain State Park early in the morning. We will then park where our car will hopefully not get disturbed for a couple of days. Then the three of us and our dog, Mishka, will set off for Johnson Shut-Ins. We will hopefully arrive at Johnson Shut-Ins State Park a couple hours before dark so we can get to a campsite and get our tent up without trouble.

We may spend a day hanging out at the park and spend a second night there, or we may head out the next day. This part is still up in the air. The park has a good showerhouse, camp store, and campgrounds with fire pits, so we will still have nice amenities and won’t have to make camp in the wilderness this time.

I have been spending a lot of time looking forward to this trip. The thought of hiking through the wilderness while carrying everything we need to survive holds a particular sense of excitement for me. It’s definitely my most anticipated adventure for 2015 that we have planned so far. I’m looking forward to making some good memories this year.

Return to Pere Marquette

View from the Twin Mounds overlook

View from the Twin Mounds overlook

 

Last year, Fox wanted to spend her birthday with me doing something special.  I had gotten her a picnic basket, so she wanted to have a picnic at Pere Marquette State Park in Illinois.  After the picnic, we hiked a trail which loops through much of the park.  We enjoyed that day so much we got married there the following spring.

This year, we have been working hard at our jobs both at work and in the evenings.  We  wanted to take a break and wanted to get back to the park where we were married.  After running an errand in St. Charles in the morning, we made our way over to Pere Marquette via ferry for an afternoon of hiking.

Fox tying her shoes during a break

Fox tying her shoes during a break

We took the same loop around the park as last year.  The road used to get to the lodge and visitor center also continues into the park itself.  To the right of this road, just beyond the turn-off to go to the lodge, a hiking trail begins.  This is a relatively easy trail but with some noticeable elevation changes.  It proceeds from west to east along the south side of the hills of the park.  In the fall, the sun is low in the sky but this trail stays well lit until sunset.

Due to our choice to hike in early November, we were able to experience a backdrop of mostly yellow and orange leaves in the trees during our hike.  If we had waited another weekend for the leaves to turn shades of red, we (1) would not be able to go due to work obligations and (2) would be hiking in freezing temperatures and falling snow this weekend and the trees would be mostly fallen and dead.

Autumn leaves along trail at Pere Marquette

Autumn leaves along trail at Pere Marquette

During the hike, I was so obsessed with the vivid colors of the leaves that I repeatedly stopped and took hundreds of photos using various focal lengths along any point of the trail with a good view of the colorful tree canopy.  I took close-ups, wide shots, mixed different colors, and filled photos with a single color while Fox continued walking (probably giving up on me ever finishing the hike).

Close-up of Pere Marquette's leaves

Close-up of Pere Marquette’s leaves

Eventually we did make it to the eastern end of the trail.  After a gradual climb, the trail splits into two.  Straight ahead winds to the north and crosses the road.  Another path to the right goes down the hill and further to the east.  According to the map, the trail continues for a quarter of a mile to a lookout point called “Lover’s Leap.”  But the dense bed of fallen leaves obscured the trail after a few hundred yards.  All around us we could see tall, dark trunks penetrating about six inches of red and brown leaves that seemed like burnt, crunchy snow.  “Lover’s Leap” will have to wait for another day.

Thick bed of leaves cover trail on the way to Lover's Leap

Thick bed of leaves cover trail on the way to Lover’s Leap

When the trail turns north on the east side of the park, it crosses a road along the tops of the hills before turning back to the west.  This part of the trail is on the far side of the hills from the sun and is therefore darker and cooler.  It also has more variation in elevation and the trail surface itself is rougher and rockier.  It’s more fun for people who like hiking up and down hills.

With the sun falling behind the ridge to the south, we crunched through leaves as the trail started uphill.  We had already climbed and descended a few hills (and were not necessarily in the best shape anyway) so this hill quickly got our hearts beating in our ears and our chests puffing trying to get oxygen.  After a tight u-turn, we spotted a wooden wall at the top of the hill.  I remembered that wall from last year’s hike and knew the toughest part of the hike was nearly over.

Wooden wall at the top of long trail climb

Wooden wall at the top of long trail climb

Turning a corner at the wooden wall had us walking along a pathway partially covered by tree canopy.  The slight decline of the path allowed us to catch our breath.  Then we could see a bright light shining through an opening at the end of the trail.  We got closer and I pulled out my camera in an attempt to capture the sunlight shining on some railroad ties which led out to a clearing.

Thick wooden beams line the trail up to an overlook

Thick wooden beams line the trail up to an overlook

Walking out into the clearing, we were greeted by the fantastic view offered by the Twin Mounds overlook.  The overlook is hundreds of feet above the valley below.  We could see a field of prairie grass, multicolored autumn forests, the boat docks across the street from the park, the Illinois River, and miles of grassland and forest in Missouri.

Red-leafed plant stands out at the top of the overlook with a river barge in the background

Red-leafed plant stands out at the top of the overlook with a river barge in the background

We probably spent ten or fifteen minutes taking in the view before taking a series of steps down another short trail to a second overlook.  This one features a small roofed structure with a wooden staircase out to a vantage point.  As we walked up to the structure, I noticed two people sitting on the roof filming with a small camera.  I silently made my way out from under the roof and captured this second overlook’s in my camera’s memory.

Trail opens out to roofed structure at Pere Marquette overlook

Trail opens out to roofed structure at Pere Marquette overlook

Fox was resting against one of the structure’s support pillars, so I turned my camera on her.  Another couple walked up as well and had the same idea.  They offered to take photos of us against the scenic background if we took some of them.  The guy reviewed the photos I took with his phone and seemed quite pleased with the results.  I always feel good when I can make someone happy with my photos.

Fox and Griff at a Pere Marquette trail overlook

Fox and Griff at a Pere Marquette trail overlook

We left the couple to enjoy the view and we made our way back beyond the first overlook.  The trail splits in several directions at one point and we took the quickest way back down to the Visitor Center.  We were tired and wanted to get some photos of the lodge while the sun was still above the horizon.

As we walked back to the car, our legs were tired and the air was getting cold.  We got in the car and were thankful for heated leather seats and protection from the cold.  Fox and I pulled out of the parking lot and headed back down the Great River Road as we made future plans for a return trip.  Along with being the site of our wedding, Pere Marquette is a beautiful park with fun and challenging hiking trails and we intend to return year after year.

Elephant Rocks State Park

To take a giant leap or turn around and head back to the trail? That is a question that I found myself asking a lot when Griff and I visited Elephant Rocks State Park in Missouri.

Climbing on boulders can be great exercise and fun at Missouri State Parks.

Climbing on boulders in Missouri.

The park: gentle trails and giant boulders

The paved trails with easy inclines are nice for visitors out for a stroll, while giant granite boulders call to those looking for a more moderate hike. Along the paved path there is a braille trail with ropes leading to signs with short paragraphs that explain the history of the area and encourage visitors to enjoy the natural beauty in the park. Climbing on and around the boulders requires visitors to be more cognizant of their footing as slopes may be steep and it is important to watch for gaps as some are wide and/or deep.

 

One of the easy unpaved paths at Elephant Rocks State Park.

One of the easy unpaved paths at Elephant Rocks State Park.

 

There was a youth group visiting at the same time who jumped across the gaps of the boulders with ease and a carefree attitude. I, on the other hand, thought very seriously about the direction that I would take in order to make the smallest possible leap from one boulder to another. Although the choices that we made on the hike were less youthful, we couldn’t resist the urge to take silly photos with the rock formations. Griff also found ample opportunity to take other (more artistic) photos throughout the park. The maze created by these rocks provided a fun place to get light exercise and capture the fresh air before getting back into the car.

Watch your head! Fun photo opportunities at Elephant Rocks State Park.

Watch your head! Fun photo opportunities at Elephant Rocks State Park.

 

Elephant Rocks State Park offers opportunity to take silly photos with the giant boulders.

Elephant Rocks State Park offers opportunity to take silly photos with the giant boulders.

The history: volcano, granite and railroad

Granite built the area and is still a major resource for the community. For many years, the granite in Iron County, MO has been transported throughout Missouri to build some of the most admired buildings in the state. To transport the rock from the quarry to other areas, the railroad was once a major factor. A short detour trail in the park will lead to the old engine house. While the former engine house is in ruins, the granite walls are still a beautiful sight to see. It is easy to envision what this area must have looked like at the time with multiple former railroad tracks convening near the engine house. Griff and I definitely thought the sidetrack to the old engine house was worth the time.

The ruins of the Old Engine House demonstrates how beautiful the granite is from this area. This can be found on a detour from the main trail of Elephant Rocks State Park.

A slight detour at Elephant Rocks State Park leads to the ruins of the Old Engine House.

A wall at the Old Engine House in Elephant Rocks State Park. Trains carried granite out of Iron County to other areas of Missouri.

The Old Engine House wall along the former rail that carried granite out of Iron County to other areas of Missouri.

 

Visit Iron and Reynolds Counties

The granite and other large rocks formed by a volcano have left behind beautiful parks in the area including the nearby Johnson’s Shut-Ins. Visitors to Iron County (Elephant Rocks) should consider visiting Reynolds County (Johnson’s Shut-Ins) if time is available. We heard that there are other parks and natural sites in the area that we did not have time to visit in 2014 but hope to in 2015. Visitors to Elephant Rocks, and probably other area attractions, may find the Johnson’s Shut-Ins State Park campground a convenient place to share stories around the campfire about their day at play in the great outdoors.

This boulder looks like a turtle that has come out of its shell.

Elephant Rocks State Park.

This boulder sits atop a hill of giant granite rocks at Elephant Rocks State Park in MO. It reminds me of when I was a kid and would try to crush people with my thumb and finger.

Ever try to crush someone at a distance with your thumb and finger? Unfortunately for these people, the camera angle and the giant boulder made it look like they were being crushed at Elephant Rocks State Park.

The Tallest Peak East of the Rockies

Looking up at Harney Peak from the trail

Looking up at Harney Peak from the trail

As we walked along, the gravel trail had changed over to dirt and narrowed substantially. We were now required to walk more or less single-file along the old, dusty pathway as the elevation once more started to increase. The late morning sun beat down from above, sapping my energy despite the day’s moderate temperature. Maybe the thinner atmosphere 6,000 feet up transmitted more of the rays to my skin or maybe being one mile closer to the big ball of flaming gas 93 million miles away made a difference. Probably not, but it sure felt like it.

Another hiker approached as he descended the trail. “You’re about halfway there,” he said, repeating what we had heard from several other hikers over the previous 30 minutes. The trail must abruptly teleport us from the halfway point to the top at some point.

Dead tree along trail up to Harney Peak

Dead tree along trail up to Harney Peak

Let’s rewind a bit back to the start of this adventure. Fox, her parents, and I were on vacation in the Black Hills of South Dakota. We had seen buffalo, prarie dogs, and Mount Rushmore lit up the previous evening. We had seen advertisements for the highest point in the Black Hills, Harney Peak. I had listened to Fox reminisce about hiking Mount Christoffel during a previous trip with her family to Curacao before I had met her. I wanted to experience something similar with her and so I suggested we hike up to Harney Peak.

So there we were about an hour into the hike. We had walked up and down a wide gravel path which passed multiple overlooks from which we could see the inactive fire tower at the top of the peak far in the distance. Eventually the path descended to a small creek which seemed to be at a lower elevation than the 6,000+ feet at the trailhead.

Near beginning of Harney Peak trail

Near beginning of Harney Peak trail

From there, it was all uphill to the top. None of us was in great shape, but at least Fox and I had youth to combat the relatively thin atmosphere compared to our home in Saint Louis. Her parents had more difficulty, but we made steady progress through the numerous switchbacks.

Looking southeast from near Harney Peak summit

Looking southeast from near Harney Peak summit

Soon the tree cover cleared signficantly and we had a fantastic view of the Black Hills for many miles in some directions. It was inspiring me to reach the top. I periodically took a sip from my Camelbak filled with nearly a gallon of water as we climbed. Although the air felt about room temperature, I was sweating profusely along my back, under my arms, and under my hat. Perhaps the dry air and elevation had something to do with it.

Once it seemed that we had ascended above the competing peaks in the area, I knew we were closing in on the top. We came across an old hitching post for tying up pack animals and then the path changed from rocky dirt to man-made stairs. Fox and I pushed ahead, eager to get a view from the top.

Stairway to fire tower on Harney Peak

Stairway to fire tower on Harney Peak

The old fire tower appeared to be in good condition, but the strong winds unobstructed by the surrounding hills made our footing feel a little precarious. But it didn’t really matter as the thrill of being at the top of the Black Hills and all the land for hundreds of miles around forced my camera up to my eye. I got busy shooting off dozens of mediocre photos as I forgot about good composition and merely captured anything that caught my eye.

View from the Harney Peak fire tower

View from the Harney Peak fire tower

Climbing Harney Peak was a wonderful experience. It was my first hike up anything even resembling a mountain and it immediately made me want to do more. It may be a little while before we can do another high elevation hike, but hiking Harney Peak has me in the mood to do more hiking closer to home.

Another dead tree on Harney Peak trail

Another dead tree on Harney Peak trail