August 10, 2017
The St. Francis Mountains are an ancient range rising from the Ozark plateau. Millions of years of erosion carved away at the volcanic rock creating the many valleys, bluffs, and shut-ins that can be found there today. The land is a beautiful rugged wilderness: hiking through these mountains can feel like you are going back to a time before humans. Sam A. Baker State Park perfectly captures the essence of this area.
At the heart of the park is Mudlick Mountain, one of the significant domes within the St. Francis Mountains. The mountain is surrounded by the largest wilderness preserve in the Missouri state park system. The park features an extensive network of trails that allow visitors to experience the untouched beauty of the Precambrian mountains. There are also many options for backcountry camping, including three shelters built in 1930 by the Civilian Conservation Corps.
For those who are looking for a stay with modern amenities the park also offers two campgrounds with a total of 187 sites, rentable cabins, a store, a diner, and more. Running through the park is the St. Francis River, and Big Creek. Both are perfect for swimming, fishing, and floating.
As is readily apparent, there is a lot to do at Sam Baker SP. It would be impossible to explore the park in a single visit. Thankfully I was able to make two trips so I could experience both sides of the park.
My first visit was for a weekend of camping with my wife. I had reserved a site online near one of the rivers, but I did not realize how small it was until we got there. We set up our tent, had dinner, and walked around the campground. Our campsite may have been small, but we had a lot to explore.
Once it was dark enough we headed to the nearby river so I could photograph the night sky. we discovered these little bioluminescent bugs with surprisingly white light crawling around the river side.
the next day we switched to a larger site, and spent our time relaxing. We took a short hike, made an awesome fire, and swam in the St. Francis River. It was a very nice stay.
Excited by what I saw the first time, I knew I would have to come back and hike more. I left Saint Louis at 1:30 am so I would arrive with time to photograph the stars. I have wanted to photograph the night sky at state parks before, but most of them have gates that do not open until 7 am. During our camping trip I discovered Sam Baker is one of the few that does not have a gate.
I parked and began my hike on the shut-ins trail, which lets out along the St. Francis River. Despite a full moon, it was quite dark in the parks forests requiring me to use my headlamp.
At the riverside the light from the moon illuminated the landscape beautifully. I was not able to find the actual shut-ins, but watching the mist roll over the mountains was very peaceful.
Another benefit of coming to the park so early was being able to watch the sunrise. I took the opportunity to experiment with a time lapse video. I think it turned out well, but next time I’ll use a shorter period between photos.
While photographing the time lapse, I ran between my tripod and the bluff to the west with my film camera. The way the sunlight hit the face of the mountain was absolutely stunning.
After sunrise I continued along the shut-ins trail towards the first of the shelters built by the CCC. Getting to the shelter was intense: the path was narrow, steep, and rocky. The mountains in this area are not the tallest in Missouri, but they have some of the largest changes in elevation I have encountered in the state.
I had intended to visit the other two shelters, but I took a wrong turn. I had a map, but due to a lack of sleep I misread it. When I realized my mistake I chose to stick with it: I would still end up where I wanted to go.
As I hiked along the top of the ridge, I was startled by something crashing through the underbrush. It was a boar making its way towards me. Not knowing what to do, I enacted bear rules. I made noise, moved slowly, and waited to hear it run away before continuing on. This is the first encounter I have had with a boar. I rarely see anything bigger than a squirrel on my hikes.
Eventually I came to another fork, but this time I made sure to triple check my map, so I was certain I was going the right way. My original route took me straight to a fire tower in the park, but because of my mixup I was going to be starting half way up the mountain it sits on. The trail to the top is only two miles, but it felt much longer.
At the top of the mountain the view is completely blocked by trees. I had wanted to go up in the fire tower for a better view of the park, but I discovered it is closed to the public.
Slightly disappointed, I made my way back down to where I parked that morning. I was tired, but I decided to explore a little more before I left.
I walked across the nearby bridge to see what was below. The bridge crossed a section of the St. Francis River that was different than anything else I saw that day. On the far side I found a way down, and continued to look around. I am very happy that I didn't leave right after I got back to my car.
The water looked inviting, but I was ready to head home. Sam Baker SP is an incredible park, and it has so much to offer. Hiking through the ancient land is amazing, It really feels like you could have stepped back in time. I know I did not see even half of the park during my two trips, and I will definitely be returning.
Thank you for reading about my Visit to Sam A. Baker State Park! If you would like to see more photographs from the trip, head over to my Instagram where I will post a new one every day.
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