State Park #15: Wallace State Park

This post is part of an ongoing series summarizing each State Park in Missouri that our family has attended. We hope to visit each of 54 State Parks before the kids graduate from high school.

Each Winter for the past few years, we’ve tried to get out to a local state park to let the kids play in icy creek beds. So long as we’ve had a good freeze, sometimes they can walk out into the marsh at Van Meter, for example, which is a a unique experience they enjoy.

This year, it had gotten so cold for so long that we couldn’t really do much outside, but we needed to get out of the house to do something, so we figured a longer road trip to a more distant state park than we’d usually visit as a one-off was a good idea. After poking around a bit, we found Wallace State Park near Cameron, MO.

To be honest, there really wasn’t much there. This park is north of Kansas City, so we suspect it gets visited quite a bit by that crowd as a day trip to swim at a lake and get some light hiking in. The camping facilities look fine, but as it was still covered in snow, it was difficult to get a good sense of how populated (or popular?) it tends to be. Some of the camp sites we passed were primitive, but interestingly, they were far enough away from the parking area and roads that it almost felt as if they were back-country sites. Those are the kinds of places we’d probably consider, though they’re further from our car and from firewood.

The primary attraction appears to be the lake. I say “appears” because, well, we couldn’t really see the lake as it was frozen over and covered with snow. We think we have a sense of how big it is, and I bet a hot, summer day there playing would be fun. It looked like there’s a beach, but it doesn’t look as large as Long Branch has, so it’s tough to say how crazy it gets around there if folks from KC come up to go swim.

We walked out to the middle of the lake, which frankly, made me a bit nervous… Still, it had been so cold prior to that day, and others had walked out seemingly recently, so we took the chance. Again, a unique experience for the kids!

The last thing we did before leaving was check out a hiking trail. There are a few trails on the property, but none of them seemed particularly long. We only went about 0.8 mi that day, but considering we were walking in snow, it sure felt like we were doing more than we actually did. The trail looked interesting, at least, but again, with all the snow, it was difficult to get a sense for how “good” the trail was.

In all, it was a fun excursion and the weather was perfect for it! I can say I’ve walked out onto a frozen lake now, too! Hopefully something I never do again…..

State Park #14: Long Branch State Park

This post is part of an ongoing series summarizing each State Park in Missouri that our family has attended. We hope to visit each of 54 State Parks before the kids graduate from high school.

I think Brooke discovered Long Branch State Park when she was looking for beaches in Missouri for us to take the kids to last year (Edit: She used to go there when she was growing up, so she remembered it!). Strangely, I didn’t post anything about it at the time, but we re-visited the park again this year during the Summer, so I’ll include pictures from both trips (although, the kids were wearing the same stuff on both visits.

The park has quite a bit to offer, including camping, hiking trails, picnic areas, a playground, and a marina. But again, the only reason we go is to use the beach! The park is also close to Macon, MO, so it’s about an hour and a half from our house, giving us a bit of a “road trip” vibe to get there.

The beach area has a nice set of bathrooms and changing rooms close by, so it’s pretty easy to shower off before you get back in the car (I do not like sand in my car……especially when it’s new…).

Other than that, frankly, there isn’t that much more to say! We go for the beach, and as such we do beachy things, like let the kids do their thing while we read a magazine or listen to a baseball game. The first time we visited in August of 2019, it was a nice, hot, sunny day. When we visited in August of 2020, however, the clouds were out and it wasn’t quite as pleasant (also, pandemic….). Still, I suspect we’ll go back each year, as it’s a nice little excursion for a Saturday or Sunday!

State Park #13: Johnson’s Shut-Ins State Park

This post is part of an ongoing series summarizing each State Park in Missouri that our family has attended. We hope to visit each of 54 State Parks before the kids graduate from high school.

The final State Park we hit on our “Staycation 2020” trip this past Summer was Johnson’s Shut-Ins State Park. Technically, this was Meg and my second trip, as we stopped by there (and Elephant Rocks) in the Spring of 2019 during a visit with my college, but this was our first trip as a family. This place is formed as part of the Black River, and features a shallow portion where kids can play in, as well as deeper portions where bigger folks can float around. There are also plenty of rocks to climb on (carefully!), as well as water falls that you can interact with if you want to (as in, climb down there, get underneath them, and more).

The State Park has camping available, as well as a pretty new visitor center. Normally we would have visited their offerings, but as part of the pandemic, we wanted to isolate ourselves as much as possible.

Speaking of which, there were way too many people there that day! We had waited until Sunday afternoon to go, thinking that folks from St. Louis would be heading home, but apparently….not. Frankly, we were pretty disappointed with the experience when we went. We know it can be fun to go, but we had to park about a mile away and walk. Because of that, we couldn’t really take much stuff with us, and even the stuff we could take didn’t include water bottles, aluminum cans, food, etc.

Still, after the kids were done complaining about having to walk so far, they had fun floating in the Black River, letting the flow of the river take them over short distances, and trying to find fish under rocks. It was less fun for Brooke and I because the areas more appropriate for larger people (i.e. adults) were populated by way too many people, so we didn’t venture far from the areas where younger kids can hang out.

Next time we visit, we will be able to plan it out more effectively. Also, we will get there earlier in the day so we can leave food at the car and go back and forth when we need something. Obviously, by the time we make it back there, the kids will be older too (and there won’t be a pandemic….hopefully….), so we won’t have to keep an eye on them quite as carefully. It was a disappointing visit, for sure, but we know it’s a cool place normally. It just wasn’t “normal” this time!

State Park #12: Elephant Rocks State Park

This post is part of an ongoing series summarizing each State Park in Missouri that our family has attended. We hope to visit each of 54 State Parks before the kids graduate from high school.

As part of our “Staycation 2020” trip in August, we also stopped by Elephant Rocks State Park, as it was close to multiple other state parks we wanted to hit. Really, this park was most of the reason we wanted to take the trip in the first place, as it’s one of those things we both remembered doing when we were growing up, so we wanted the kids to get to experience it while they were still on the younger side of things.

Because of the ongoing pandemic, we tried getting there earlier in the morning so we could avoid the inevitable crowds, and for the most part, we definitely did. After being there awhile, there were more and more people coming in and it was getting harder to distance from them, so we really only stayed for the morning.

The park itself features gigantic granite boulders that naturally formed and were weathered over millennia. The largest of the rocks is 27 feet tall, 34 feet long, and 17 feet wide. Some of them are pretty difficult to climb, while others are shorter for kids to try to maneuver around.

There aren’t really any serious trails at this park, but there is a well-defined nature trail with various signs that are instructional for the surroundings. A lot of school kids get taken there, so much of the material focuses on geology, as well as the natural environment in that region. Our kids weren’t all that interested in the signs, though we did try to get Meg to get some interesting factoids from them. Calvin really just wanted to climb on things, but hey, that’s why we went!

There are some playgrounds there and a few picnic shelters, but we avoided those for obvious reasons. In more “normal times,” we could definitely spend almost all day there, though I would probably want the kids to be a little older before letting them go run off by themselves. It was a memorable part of the trip, for sure!

State Park #11: Taum Sauk Mountain State Park

This post is part of an ongoing series summarizing each State Park in Missouri that our family has attended. We hope to visit each of 54 State Parks before the kids graduate from high school.

We visited Taum Sauk Mountain State Park as part of our “Staycation” 2020 trip, taking the opportunity to knock out a few parks that were close enough together for us to visit multiple in a single extended weekend. The “claim to fame” for Taum Sauk Mountain is that it’s the highest point in the state of Missouri. It’s found within the St. Francois Mountains and features a few trails through its 7,500 acres.

When we went, we really were just wanting to visit the “highest point,” but it took us a bit to find it. There wasn’t a really obvious sign or anything that said “highest point in Missouri this way!,” but we eventually found it.

After that, we walked along one of the trails . The Mina Sauk Falls trail is the one we tried, as it’s a loop that passes by a scenic overlook and some waterfalls. I can’t say the falls were that impressive, frankly, but they were a solid distraction for the kids to play in for a bit before we went to visit other sites. The Mina Sauk Falls trail follows along the Ozark Trail for a bit, which actually connects to Johnson’s Shut-Ins State Park, but we just did the short-ish loop. The trail itself was pretty rocky, so we had to be careful with how the kids were hiking, as some of the grades were a bit steep.

We’re glad we stopped by, but we’re also glad we didn’t plan an entire trip around Taum Sauk Mountain. After we did the loop trail, there wasn’t really much else to do there! No park office, the parking lot was gravel, and there were very few informational signs around. It was a nice little trail, but there are other parks nearby where there are more activities available!

“Staycation” 2020

We had this grand plan in mind for our vacation this year. Reservations were made, days were claimed to be taken off, and tents were being bought in preparation for the journey. The plan was that we would drive out to Yellowstone National Park and camp at one of their campgrounds, then stay at an Airbnb closer to Grand Teton National Park for another few days, then circle down through Colorado and see Brooke’s cousin.

Well, we all know how that turned out, right?

The kids and I still needed to get out of the house though, and Brooke has an innate need to go on a road trip every year, so we decided to knock a few more state parks off our list and head out to Pilot Knob, MO, where we could stay in a motel (with a swimming pool), and hit up 3 state parks while we were in one central area. Pilot Knob is pretty close to Elephant Rocks State Park, Taum Sauk Mountain State Park, and Johnson’s Shut-Ins State Park, so we’d be able to spend part of the day at each one while we went for an extended weekend. We actually drove through Onandoga Cave State Park, but because they weren’t doing cave tours, we figured we should just go back there when all of this is finally over…

So yeah, because we’ve got a whole other thread of posts for state park visits, I’m going to make separate posts about those. Here, I’m going to speak more broadly about the trip.

Pilot Knob is about 4.5 hrs from Marshall, and luckily for us, St. James, MO is on the way, so we stopped off at our favorite winery in the state, Heinrichshaus, to pick up some bottles. While we were there, we had a picnic lunch and enjoyed being out of the car for a bit. It was a pretty short stop, but it had been a few years since we were last there (Meg and I stopped in last Spring on the return trip from an excursion with my Biology students,, but we didn’t exactly “stock up”).

That afternoon, we stopped off at the Huzzah Conservation Area to play in the water for a bit. Really, it was just an excuse for Brooke and I to relax with our feet in the water and let the kids mess around in a fast-moving float trip river.

We only stayed for an hour or so, but the kids could have done that all afternoon. They’d float their bodies while their hands kinda shuffled them along with the current, and then they’d do it again, and again, and again. It was like sledding.

There weren’t many options for where to stay in Pilot Knob or Ironton (which is practically attached…), and we weren’t thrilled with the prospect of camping in late-July humidity, so Brooke booked us a room at the Fort Davidson Hotel. It has an attached restaurant with a nice patio, it had exterior access to the room, and it had an outdoor pool, so we figured it was a relatively safe bet. The place turned out to be pretty nice, all things considered! We had an issue with the toilet constantly running, but the owner of the hotel came right over and took care of it for us. That night, I went out to Casey’s to get pizza, so the kids were more than satisfied.

The next morning, we went to Elephant Rocks (more on that in another post), and thankfully, it wasn’t all that crowded. More folks kept showing up and, as we were being responsible human beings, we tried avoiding others to the best of our ability, so it was good that we went relatively early so we could leave before the crowds got really bad.

That afternoon was mostly spent out by the pool! The kids were pretty proud of themselves swimming in the 11 ft deep end of the pool for much of the time. Meg was able to get diving sticks from the very bottom, though it took her some practice to get there. Calvin touched the bottom a few times, but again, he hadn’t really done that before, so diving from the surface was tough!

That night, we ate at the attached restaurant. We had the option of eating inside or outside, but the patio was nice enough and the weather wasn’t too bad, so we were comfortable. The kids got some Fitz’s soft drinks and their beer selection was surprisingly decent, considering how far Pilot Knob is from….er….anywhere… And my fried catfish was spectacular.

Across the street from the restaurant sits the namesake of the hotel: Fort Davidson. It was my first “earthen fort” that I’d ever visited, so there wasn’t really all that much to see aside from a hill with grass on it in the shape of a square. Apparently, the Union were holding the fort and then lost a battle with the Confederacy, who then subsequently took over.

So yeah, it was a nice evening stroll after eating way too much. An excuse to walk around a bit like normal people for a change. ūüôā

The next morning, we went to Taum Sauk Mountain, and that afternoon, we went to Johnson’s Shut-Ins. Again, I’ll have separate posts about those, but here, I’ll point out that Taum Sauk was a nice little hike where we got to sit and enjoy some small waterfalls, but Johnson’s Shut-Ins was a madhouse. We figured on a Sunday afternoon, the “St. Louis Crowd” would have waned a bit as they were all heading back home, but nope…totally wrong on that one… We had to park almost a mile away from the main area of the park, and it was very difficult to maintain any form of social distancing, let alone 6 ft. We only stayed for an hour or so, and while the kids would have liked to have stayed a little more (and seen more of the park), we just didn’t feel comfortable.

So we went back to the hotel and swam there again! ūüôā

That evening, we went to a Mexican restaurant in Ironton called Checo’s that was pretty good. Not a lot of good mask-wearing in that building either, but we were seated relatively far from anyone else, so we felt at least okay about it.

In the evenings, we played some games that we brought alone. The first night, we played Skip-Bo, which is a family favorite. The second night, we played a family edition of Trivial Pursuit that actually worked shockingly well. The kids get their own set of cards separate from the adult-level cards, and we think they did a good job of getting that mix right.

Monday morning, we decided to hit up Meremec Caverns on our return trip home, as Onandoga Cave was closed and we had played up how cool caves can be (literally and figuratively).

The kids definitely enjoyed it! I’m not sure I’ve ever been there, though I’ve been to others in the state like Mark Twain Cave, Bridal Cave, and Jacob’s Cave. Like those, this one is definitely a tourist trap, but again, it provided a bit of “spectacle” for the kids to experience. Hopefully they’ll remember it!

We were wearing masks, but very few others in our tour group was. Our tour guide did, but most of the folks with us weren’t doing their part. When we passed other tour groups, it looked like there were others there wearing them, but the majority of the visitors didn’t have them on. Definitely disconcerting.

Again, I think the kids enjoyed it quite a bit, and they did a great job of following directions and listening to the tour guide as he pointed out various aspects of the cave. They also very much enjoyed when they turned all the lights out, just how dark it gets in there. Of course, as we were vacationing in southern Missouri in late-July, we didn’t have jackets with us…..so next time, we should try to remember to bring long sleeves. Calving got a little chilly after being in there for an hour, but overall, they did a good job!

After we finished at Meremec Caverns, we continued home via Highway 50! Mostly, it’s because that was a different route than we took to get home (it also rained quite a bit on our return trip, so that was lovely…..), but the real reason was that we would pass through Jefferson City a little after lunch time:

For the record, Brooke did not eat that entire banana split. Meg did eat the mint chocolate chip sundae in its entirety, though. And she didn’t throw up, for the record.

That’s it! We had a ton of laundry to do after this, but for an extended weekend trip, it was “good enough” to tide us over until next year. We’ll have to double back and get to Yellowstone eventually, but assuming things get better in time, next year’s plan is a drive along the Pacific Coast Highway ending at Disneyland!

State Park #10: Harry S Truman State Park

This post is part of an ongoing series summarizing each State Park in Missouri that our family has attended. We hope to visit each of 54 State Parks before the kids graduate from high school.

We’ve been feeling pretty cooped up these past few weeks, largely due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, so with the weather being really good this weekend, we opted to go for a picnic lunch and hike at Harry S Truman State Park, which is a little over an hour south of us in Warsaw, MO.

Getting to the park wasn’t really all that difficult, though it was a bit further off the highway than we anticipated. We had to drive through Warsaw to get there, which was a nice diversion. They seem to be big enough for fast food and grocery stores, so if we were to go down there for an extended camping trip, we’d be all set. Unfortunately, all of the camp grounds in the state parks are closed for the time-being (more on that later…), so that wasn’t really an option this weekend, anyway.

By the time we got down there, it was a little after 11:00, so we opted to eat first before finding our hiking trail. Because of the way Truman Lake bobs and weaves into and out of the land surrounding it, we thought we were in a place close to the hiking trail we were looking for, but upon further examination (and the distinct lack of a trail head), we figured out we had to drive about 10 minutes through the park to get there.

Unfortunately, the trail we wanted (that was something like 2 miles long) was located far back into the camping area of the park. Further unfortunately, said campground was closed, so we couldn’t even drive to it. We could have parked at the Park Office, but we’d have to walk on the road at least a mile just to get to the trail head, making it a 4 mile day. Calvin has improved a lot in the last few years, but 4 miles isn’t something I’m prepared to get him to do just yet……

Instead, we found a trail that we could access, but it was only about 0.9 miles long. It was a decent trail and was well-maintained, but it was a bit muddy in spots (it had rained recently). There were definitely some nice vistas off the trail where you could see Truman Dam off in the distance.

So yeah, this is a weird one, under the circumstances! There’s a beach down there that would probably be good to visit, as well as a pretty massive boat area (that had tons of vehicles parked, so lots of folks were out on Truman Lake, it looked like). We assume the Park Offices had some educational displays, but they weren’t open. There were playgrounds, but they were all roped off. Apparently there are hiking trails, but you can’t get to most of them!

I guess we’ll just have to go back sometime after this situation is all over!!

State Park #9: Knob Noster State Park

This post is part of an ongoing series summarizing each State Park in Missouri that our family has attended. We hope to visit each of 54 State Parks before the kids graduate from high school.

Brooke reminded me that we actually went to another State Park last October and I totally forgot to post about it!

Knob Noster State Park is out near Warrensburg, MO, so it’s a relatively short drive for us. We were looking for a quick hiking trip on a nice day where we could see some pretty Fall leaves, so we made the trip for the afternoon.

Honestly, we didn’t do a whole lot and there wasn’t a ton to see, at least not that I remember. There was a trail that we used to hike around a pretty late, so the bulk of our time there was spent hiking. Calvin was able to get around the whole lake, but he wasn’t particularly speedy…

The aforementioned lake seemed nice and would probably be good for fishing and kayaking, but as we didn’t bring any of that equipment along, we couldn’t make use of it. There’s a campground associated with the park, of course, but we didn’t check it out. It seemed like there were quite a few people there on that particular day, including some groups getting pictures taken with the lake in the background.

Really, the most fun we had was crossing a shallow part of the lake that had some neat rocks for the kids to jump across. Pretty sure we spent 15 minutes just walking across them, back and forth, back and forth…

So yeah, there are a lot of trails there and it’s probably worth revisiting sometime, but hiking and fishing seem to be the biggest attraction to that particular state park. It’s close, at least, so maybe we’ll camp there sometime, but I bet we’ll keep on hitting the other state parks instead!

State Park #8: Watkins Mill State Park

This post is part of an ongoing series summarizing each State Park in Missouri that our family has attended. We hope to visit each of 54 State Parks before the kids graduate from high school.

We had a free weekend and Brooke told the kids that some hiking was in order. I poked around and found a state park about an hour and a half away from us, so we decided to make a picnic afternoon of it.

Watkins Woolen Mill State Park is close-ish to Kansas City and is technically next to a state historic site of the same name. The mill is a 19th century textile mill that still has the original equipment intact, and apparently it’s the only one in the country set up like this.

But first, we should probably start with the picnic. Nothing terribly exciting, but we were definitely ready to eat something by the time we got there. The picnic area is next to a nice lake, along with a 3 mile paved walkway set up for walking and biking.

The lake actually looked really nice! We didn’t see the campground, but we saw plenty of people there fishing and boating. Now that we have a few kayaks, we could see us spending a decent amount of time boating across the lake on a nice afternoon.

We ended up walking about 1.5 miles around the lake, as it was a bit on the warm side that day. Still, we met some nice people as we traveled around and found some well-placed benches for Calvin to sit on.

After we were done hiking, we hopped back in the car for some welcome A/C and headed off to see the rest of the mill.

We next visited the National Historic Site, which had a nice visitor center with some exhibits showing off life in the 1870s. We have seen plenty of these kinds of exhibits in other places around the state, so it wasn’t anything particularly new, however the giant loom they had was pretty cool. They also had a miniature version available for the kids to try their hand at.

Seeing them work on it for a few minutes, I’m not convinced they’ll be next-level textile makers, but it was still an interesting and entertaining experience.

After leaving the visitor center, we walked down toward the mill and the accompanying mansion. You have to pay extra to visit those two spaces, and after spending plenty of time walking around the lake and eating lunch, we just wanted to see the building without actually going inside. It’s probably an interesting tour (they had period-appropriate women waiting outside each building to walk you through it), but maybe next time.

Anyway, we had a good visit. That lake would probably make a weekend camping trip worth it, but the historic site likely doesn’t take all that much longer than we spent that day.

Afterward, we stopped in Lexington, MO for the return trip and grabbed some ice cream. Again, it was a hot day! We’ll keep Watkins Mill in mind for a camping weekend at some point, as it’s a relatively short drive from here, but we’ve probably seen most of the historic material we need to.

State Park #7: Prairie State Park

This post is part of an ongoing series summarizing each State Park in Missouri that our family has attended. We hope to visit each of 54 State Parks before the kids graduate from high school.

Prairie for as far as the eye can see.
Prairie for as far as the eye can see.

We returned from Pittsburg, KS from Taylore’s wedding back in August of 2016 and, at Brooke’s suggestion, we looked for a Missouri State Park near that region that we otherwise wouldn’t visit for a very, very long time. ¬†She ran across Prairie State Park, which happened to be just over the Kansas/Missouri border.

In all honesty, it doesn’t seem like there’s all that much to do there. ¬†They’ve got multiple hiking trails, including one we went on that, literally, involved walking through a field. ¬†There are some backpacking trails that are a bit longer and further out, but again, given the terrain, I’m not sure that it would be all that “hilly” or otherwise difficult to make good time on a long trail. ¬†Shade was certainly at a premium out there…

...the boy was very slow...
…the boy was very slow…

The “claim to fame,” at least so far as we could tell in our limited time there, was that this open field we were hiking through also contains bison and elk. ¬†When we first drove in, the sign informed us that there were free roaming elk and bison moving through the area and, while we didn’t see any, unfortunately, we did see signs of them…

Ew...
Ew…

…but with multiple buffalo patties around, it was clear that large animals move through the area frequently. ¬†They were easily identified by their similarity to their other bovine brethren (and the fact that we saw tons of the elk variety in Colorado and it looks nothing like this).

A nest for something...big...
A nest for something…big…

We also saw multiple spots in the grass that clearly used to bed some kind of large animal. ¬†It wasn’t obvious to us whether we were seeing elk or buffalo “beds,” but they must have been recent, as the grass looked like it would pop back up given enough time.

"You may experience bison/elk"...is that a combination organism?!
“You may experience bison/elk”…is that a hybrid organism?!

Overall, it was a nice, brief little stop. ¬†They’ve got camping, but we didn’t see much of a shower house available: only a single in-ground outhouse near the picnic area. ¬†It looked like mostly primitive camp sites and, although they actually looked pretty nice and spacious, only one was reserved for the coming days. ¬†I suppose August isn’t exactly prime camping season.

We want to go back and see some bison up close, though!  Perhaps another time, when we happen to be down in southwestern Missouri!