Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Sam A. Baker Park: Shut Ins Trail

Sam A. Baker is a popular Missouri State Park, let me stress popular... and why the heck not?! This park really seems to have it all, from zipping along on bicycle trails, grilling hotdogs over a campfire, popping a tent at one of two huge camping areas, taking a cooling dip in the clear St. Francis River, to hiking on one of four trails, there is a little something for everyone. There is an added bonus to Sam A. Baker too, if you happen to forget something back at home, the area boasts a Park Store that has just about anything you may need. But keep in mind, with so much to offer at Sam A. Baker, there are many who seek to really take advantage of it, and by that I mean, it may be a bit... crowded.

First Impressions of the Park

My initial impressions of Sam A. Baker were fantastic, as we made our way down Highway 143 the trees began to envelop the road, creating a tunnel of green gently leading us toward our initial destination, Campground 1. The campground was very nice, and despite the recent rains, our campsite (number 5) was relatively dry with only a few low spots gathering puddles. After pitching the tent we decided to take a nice, leisurely stroll through the campground. Making our way just a bit to the South we found the cool St. Francis River, nearly a clear as a window, carving out its gravel banks and creating perfect places to wade and swim in its refreshing waters. As we explored the campground further we found a very well traversed and well maintained Paved Bike Trail to the North, which is quite a perk for the visiting camping jogger. This trail stretches 1.5 miles and travels from campground 1 all the way to the park store, it travels along State Highway 143 and allows for some picturesque views of Big Creek as well.

It's All About the Amenities!

After exploring the campground we journeyed over to the park store (which is VERY handy if you have found yourself forgetting something at home) and the park lodge. As Sam A. Baker does not allow you to transport your own firewood into the park, due to the emerald ash borer, so if you plan to have a campfire, be sure to pick up some wood at the store. Then while you're out you may like to take a quick stop at the Park Office and Visitor Center. There they will provide recreational equipment, free of charge, that you may use by simply checking the items out. After taking quick tours of the amenities we returned back to our campsite, flush with wood for a cozy campfire, ice cold sodas and some delicious chips from the store.

"Nocturnal Calls" and Camping

Once back at our campsite we started up our fire (due to the damp wood this was quite the undertaking, thank the heavens for lighter fluid) and roasted up some hotdogs, marveled as the fireflies faint green glow lit the night, told a few stories and then decided to get a good rest so we could explore the park even more the next day. After zipping up the tent, lying atop my sleeping bag I soon found myself being "gently" lulled to sleep with the echoing "Whoo HOOO" and "I'm SOOOOO Drunk" mating calls of the Migrating Midwestern Hooter, which were interrupted only by the heavy and constant "Ker-Thunk!" of the all to closely located latrine door. We did have a laugh out loud moment as our border collie, Hyatt, spotted a huge raccoon that had made its way onto our picnic table and attempted to leap through the mesh window of our tent in order to chase the raccoon away.

Upon awaking the next morning and with the migratory mating calls of the night now behind us, we decided to escape some of the more popular areas, in a desperate bid to get at least a small taste of the park's beauty without the crowds or noise. So we checked our area map and chose to set foot upon the Shut Ins Trail, a quick mile and a quarter hike out from just behind the Park Lodge, to see if we could find a slightly more secluded swimming hole.

The Shut Ins Trail

The Shut Ins Trail is wonderfully maintained; consisting of a well worn dirt path, sometimes sprinkled with gravel, and features low water bridges, handrails, and steps along the way. Children will find an easy hike on most of this route, and there are plenty of sights to see and share on your way along the path. We began our journey by heading downhill along the blue blazed trail with (what I believe to be) Big Creek bordering us just to the East. As we hiked about half a mile through the Sycamores, Cottonwoods and Sweet Gums we came upon a small off-shooting path, which we decided to investigate. Boy am I glad we did, because at the end of that path we found a gorgeous little waterfall, that wound its way through and over the large, moss covered dellenite boulders.

After getting our fill of scrambling over the boulders we headed back to the main trail and continued on, with all of summer's colors seemingly on display as wildflowers competed for our attention along the trail. We followed the trail for nearly another half mile until we came to a fork, one path leading to the Big Creek shut ins (to the right) and another path leading up the hill toward a connection with the Mudlick Trail. The path that led to the Mudlick Trail boasted a Shelter, which marked the intersection of the two trails, but also heads up a steeper incline. After a short bit of consideration we chose to head towards the Big Creek shut ins for a refreshing dip. Seriously, could there have been any other decision to be made on a hot summer's day?

The Big Creek shut ins seemed almost too good to be true, the area was wide, with water plenty deep enough for swimming and there were some low, flat cliffs that just begged to be jumped off. In fact, the water was at an almost perfect depth that day, but if you choose not to swim you could easily wade the shut ins, whose water was just a bit over chest high on our visit. We quickly found it was too good to be true, such a naturally beautiful swimmin' hole had spoken out and many had answered its call, within just a few minutes of our arrival the Big Creek shut in transformed from a peaceful watery respite to a rowdy outdoor roadhouse complete with Swazye'esque mullets to boot. We swam for a bit more then decided to make our way back to camp for a spot of lunch. As we headed back down the trail, making our way toward the Park Lodge, we passed a steady stream of like minded visitors who may have been just like us, looking for that little hide-a-way in the middle of a very, very popular Missouri State Park.

Final Thoughts

With so much to offer its no surprise that Sam A. Baker is so appealing to so many and there is no doubt that we'll return sometime and the 5.5 mile Mudlick Trail certainly looks very, very appealing, especially the Backpacker Camp located on a small spur of the Hike Only Section.. But the overall experience, for me, was it seemed simply too crowded. Sam A. Baker seemed (to me) more like a nature theme park than actual State Park and the campground, while very well maintained, was just a bit too... popular.

More Information: 

Sam A. Baker State Park Homepage
Sam A. Baker Hiking Trails
 - Shut In Trail Map
Fishing Report and Prospects: St. Francis River (above Wappappello Lake)
Local Treks on facebook 
Tiny. Tenacious. Terrible. Ticks. - A post on how to keep those bloodsuckers at bay!
How To Take A GREAT Day Hike - Hitting the trail? Then you may want to check out these tips.

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