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.

Afternoon at Johnson Shut-Ins

As we left our campsite, the grey clouds relentlessly showered the windshield with rain.  In the few minutes it took to drive to the Johnson Shut-Ins, the rain let up slightly, instilling in us a small hope that we might be able to play in the water.  We parked at a playground along the river.  Nearby was a covered shelter with information about the geologic history of the area.  We used our umbrella to cross the distance to the shelter and educated ourselves for several minutes until the rain was only a drizzle.

Geologic history lesson at Johnson Shut-Ins

Geologic history lesson at Johnson Shut-Ins

We decided to follow a gravel trail near the river and see if it would take us to the Shut-Ins.  I brought my camera with me, but the overcast weather made most photographs I took look rather dull due to poor lighting.  Luckily there were some nice flowers and wild plants along the path that made for interesting subjects.

Black-eyed Susans

Black-eyed Susans

Flowering plant

Flowering plant

After what seemed to be about a fifteen-minute walk, we arrived at a parking lot and a large wooden building.  From the tall radio antenna visible, I suspected it was a ranger station.  That turned out to be the case, but it also had a gift shop and changing rooms for people headed to swim in the river.

From the ranger station, we walked along a pathway until we discovered people playing in the water below.  They were wading in a shallow pool created by the river trying to squeeze through the rocks of the Shut-Ins.  The rocks near this pool were short and only just rose above the water, but as the water ran through the gaps and down into a large pool further down the river, the rocks became giant granite boulders as large as elephants.

Small rocks in upper pool at Johnson Shut-Ins

Small rocks in upper pool at Johnson Shut-Ins

Fox and I walked out on the rocks so we could check out the Shut-Ins from up close and I could take some photos.  As we were doing this, the sky continued to clear up.  We both wished we had brought our swimsuits as the water looked clear and was a good temperature.  After a while we left to return to our campground and eat lunch.

Examining the Johnson Shut-Ins State Park on a rainy day.

Examining the Johnson Shut-Ins State Park on a rainy day.

Later in the day the sun was shining brightly and the clouds had all but vanished from the sky.  We changed clothes in our tent, grabbed some towels, and drove back to the parking lot in front of the ranger station.

Due to the nicer weather, the Shut-Ins were bustling with activity.  Many families were scattered about with people looking on from the beach, playing in the upper and lower pools, and climbing all over the large boulders in the water.

We had received advice prior to our trip that it would be a good idea to bring water shoes.  As we started to make our way out into the river, we were glad we had listened.  The clarity of the water seemed to be due to the rocky bottom and the moist surfaces of the boulders could be very slippery.

Clear river water

Clear river water

To get accustomed to the water, we slowly submerged ourselves up to our heads in the upper pool where the shadows of a cliff above the river made the water temperature quite cool.  Fox was covered in goosebumps, so we decided to go explore the paths the river made between the boulders.

The river split into small streams as the water ran between rocks, creating small waterfalls with personal pools beneath them.  Where the streams could not reach there were some tidal pools with warm, stagnant water filled with algae which we generally tried to avoid.

Streams at Johnson Shut-Ins

Streams at Johnson Shut-Ins

Small pool in boulder at Johnson Shut-Ins

Small pool in boulder at Johnson Shut-Ins

We quickly found that traversing the streams between rocks was best done with both hands and feet in order to reduce the risk of slipping, falling, and hitting our heads on thousands of pounds of solid granite.  Also stepping along the bottoms of the streams gave good traction for our feet.

As we made our way to the larger boulders near the lower pool, we encountered some deeper pools where I could not touch the bottom as well as almost unsupervised kids jumping from a large boulder above into pools near us without warning.  As neither of us were interested in getting knocked out by sudden falling children, we turned around and headed back up to the upper pool where there weren’t as many people.

We found an underwater natural bench formed by flat rocks.  It was covered in some slimy moss but otherwise made a good place to sit and relax in the water.  Again I was struck by how cool the water was when I noticed the goosebumps on Fox’s arms, so we called it a day and waded to the beach to get our towels.

Johnson Shut-Ins turned out to be a great place to visit with clean water in which to swim and unique geologic features which were fun to explore.

Camping at Johnson’s Shut-Ins

On a Friday night in August, traffic creeped down the road as people in RVs, trucks towing campers and vehicles filled with tents and camping supplies anxiously awaited check in at the Johnson’s Shut-Ins State Park campground. The highway signs pointed the way to the park and signage within the park provided easy navigation to the campground, camp store and activities within the park. The ability to navigate the park eased our fears that we would arrive too late and would find it difficult to locate the campsite and set up camp in the dark.

Setting up camp:
Our camping gear was organized for quick access to set up camp before the sunlight disappeared below the horizon. The only hiccup that we faced with pitching the tent was that the grass sat on top of rocky ground which proved to be difficult to pound the stakes into it. Thunderstorms were predicted for the weekend, therefore it was important to secure the stakes in the ground. We really did not want our tent to blow away.

Rain drops on a tent's rain fly after a mild shower.

Rain drops collect on our tent’s rain fly after a mild shower at Johnson Shut-Ins State Park.

Storms did come through the area while we were camping, but it luckily ended up being mild rain, wind, lightning and thunder. We prepared the car to be able to sleep in it if the storm became severe during the night. However, it did not get to a point that even I, the unadventurous one, felt unsafe in the tent.

Campfire and food:

Aluminum foil breakfast packets cook over the campfire.

Our breakfast in aluminum foil packets cooking over the campfire.

Delicious campfire breakfast!

Delicious campfire breakfast!










It was our first camping trip alone and we discovered that neither of us had ever started a campfire. We used close to a full quart of lighter fluid over the weekend, but we managed to have a fire for all of our meals. We have some ideas of how to better use our resources next time and will write a post about lessons learned on starting and maintaining a fire. The fire ring at this campsite included a grate that was short and not adjustable.

On this trip, we made tin foil breakfasts, brats and macaroni and cheese. I found this great recipe on Pinterest for Campfire Mac ‘n’ Cheese, but the first night we accidentally dropped it in the fire (whoops!) and the second night we did not get it evenly heated. We will have to try it again sometime.

Mac 'n cheese in campfire

Whoops! We accidentally dropped our mac ‘n cheese in the campfire.

Shower and restroom facilities:
The shower houses had three private, unisex restrooms with a toilet, sink, trash can, changing table, hand dryer and electrical outlet in each. It also had three private, unisex shower rooms with a shower that had a short curtain to separate the changing area and a bench in each area. There was a family bathroom that I did not check out, but heard other campers state that it included the shower and toilet in one private room. The shower house had free hot water, but it appeared that it was not cleaned often and there were several bugs in them even with doors that closed completely to each individual room. The hand dryers were placed just inches above the handicap rail and the air pointed toward the wall which made them difficult to use. However, it was nice to have private rooms with locking doors.

The campground:
The campground was divided by type of campsite. Each site was divided by walls of trees on three sides for privacy and nice scenery. There was a large concrete parking area at each site which would easily park two cars. The picnic table was on the concrete parking slab that allowed for ease of moving the cooler in and out of the car.

Tent camping at Johnson Shut-Ins State Park

Our tent at Johnson Shut-Ins State Park in Missouri.

The campground was located within Johnson’s Shut-Ins State Park, which we will post about later this week. We participated in some of the park activities, but hope to make it back to enjoy more of the hiking trails and ranger-led interpretive programs. The only hiking that we did was on the trail that led through the walk-in campsites. While I told Griff that I am not adventurous enough to want to do backpacking trips, I may consider the walk-in sites at Johnson’s Shut-Ins because they offer hand carts to get your gear through the trail and provide cute decks as a platform for the tents.

The camp store was extremely nice. It was well-organized, clean and had a wide selection of goods. The store offered the standard fire wood bundles and ice as well as a variety of camping supplies, packaged food, food prepared at the store, postcards, souvenirs, books and much more.

It was our first camping trip alone and we learned a lot. It was a wet weekend with the rain, but Johnson’s Shut-Ins State Park and its campground is an interesting place. We would definitely recommend this place for the recreation at the Shut-Ins, the privacy in the restrooms and for each campsite and the division of campground types.


One of our first campfire attempts.