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Rural Missouri Magazine

Stay and play @ the Shut-Ins
New campground and visitor center highlight a rejuvenated Johnson’s Shut-Ins State Park

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by Jason Jenkins

Mike Brunner of Fenton guides his son, Hayden, 5, down a chute at Johnson’s Shut-Ins. Though the state park opened for day use in 2009, this year marks the official reopening of the entire park, which was damaged in 2005 when the Taum Sauk Reservoir ruptured.

Four long summers have come and gone since the crackling of campfires and the screams for s’mores last rang out through Johnson’s Shut-Ins State Park, home to one of the state’s most popular natural playgrounds.

Instead, those sounds had been replaced by the rumble of backhoes and bulldozers as this destination along the East Fork of the Black River in southeast Missouri attempted to recover from a devastating accident that nearly destroyed all of the park’s developed facilities.

In December 2005, the 55-acre upper reservoir of the nearby Taum Sauk hydroelectric plant failed, sending more than 1.3 billion gallons of water rushing down through the valley. The torrent scoured the earth to bedrock, rerouted the river’s channel, flattened nearly every tree in its path and choked the shut-ins with boulders and other debris. The park’s campground, along with its wastewater and drinking water systems, were completely obliterated.

Now, after a multi-million-dollar environmental restoration and redevelopment effort, the park is again ready to welcome those who wish to play in the shut-ins by day and stay in the park by night. The new Johnson’s Shut-Ins campground welcomed its first guests on April 30, and a grand re-opening event, including the opening of the park’s new orientation center, took place May 22.

“We’re just tickled to death to get this park going again,” says Greg Combs, field operations supervisor for the Missouri Department of Natural Resources’ Division of State Parks, who oversaw the rebuilding project in Reynolds County. “It’s been a long four and a half years.”

From the park’s entrance off Highway N, there’s very little that will look familiar to those who frequented Johnson’s Shut-Ins before the accident. Trees are nearly absent in the once heavily wooded valley. Giant boulders washed down from the reservoir — some too large to move — dot the valley floor.

What is sure to catch your eye, though, is the Black River Center, which houses both an orientation center and the park’s offices.

“Inside the center, we have about 2,000 square feet of exhibit space where we highlight all of the natural and cultural resources here at Johnson’s Shut-Ins,” explains Combs. “We want folks to have a better understanding of all the things that make this such a special state park.”

The park’s new campground boasts six “camper cabins,” an alternative for families who don’t own a camping trailer and prefer not to camp in a tent. The units have electricity, heat and air-conditioning.

Foremost among those attributes is the park’s namesake shut-ins and the unique chutes, pools and waterfalls that make this 300-yard stretch of the East Fork such a magnet for visitors in the hot summer months. Combs says the shut-ins are just as people remember them, and the old river store — though it had to be gutted and renovated — survived the reservoir accident. The boardwalk to the shut-ins wasn’t as lucky and had to be replaced.

Johnson’s Shut-Ins State Park remains the only limited access state park. As before, only 100 vehicles at a time are allowed in the south day-use area to prevent overcrowding in the shut-ins. With the redevelopment, however, new recreational opportunities exist.

“We now have a north day-use area along the river,” Combs says. “It’s a great place for families with young children because the river is much more calm there. Whether you’re here to wade or play in the shut-ins or fish, we’ve been able to really take advantage of a lot of this river frontage.”

Additional pavilions and picnic areas also dot the banks of the East Fork and provide places for families to enjoy themselves. One feature that is no longer situated in the valley is the campground, which is now on the north side of Highway N in the Goggins Mountain valley, about a mile from its original location.

Combs explains that there were several factors in moving the campground, from limited physical space to protecting the Johnson’s Shut-Ins Fen Natural Area, a special type of wetland found in the valley. Primarily, though, public comment through a 2006 Web survey indicated that most were no longer comfortable camping below the reservoir.

The new campground is both larger and offers more camping options than before. There are a total of 85 sites across five different camping loops, each with different services available, ranging from basic sites to full-service sites with electric, water and sewer hook-ups. Each loop has its own shower house.

New options also are available at the campground, including sites for equestrian camping and primitive walk-in camping on special platforms built in the woods. Johnson’s Shut-Ins became the fourth state park to offer “camper cabins,” an alternative for families who don’t own a camping trailer and prefer not to camp in a tent. The units have electricity, heat and air-conditioning and are furnished with a microwave and small refrigerator. They are the epitome of “roughing it smoothly.”

The campground also boasts a special-use camping area for larger groups such as Boy Scout troops, as well as an amphitheater, playground, laundry room and park store that features a free Wi-Fi hotspot. As in the past, all sites at the Johnson’s Shut-Ins campground can be reserved in advance. A hiking trail connects all loops within the campground, and Combs says plans are underway to create a trail from the campground back to the park entrance.

Ironically, the accident that damaged the park also gave rise to a new feature that will attract professional and amateur geologists alike. The scour channel — a 7,000-foot linear path the water from the upper reservoir created — exposed layers of geologic history that previously had been studied from roadside cuts and textbooks only.

“Some of the oldest rocks we know of are in this area,” Combs says. “I’ve seen Ph.D.s turn into kids on Christmas morning walking up the scour.”

A 2.25-mile-loop hiking trail traverses the scour and adjacent woods. An interpretive pavilion along the trail details what took place in December 2005. At the trail’s halfway point, hikers are afforded an overlook that offers a vantage point on both the rebuilt upper reservoir and the Black River Center, providing new perspective on the devastation.

Learn more about Johnson’s Shut-Ins State Park online at www.mostateparks.com/jshutins.htm or call 573-546-2450.

Rural Missouri magazine - November 2014
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