Missouri Ozarks Spring Tour

I’ve wanted to expand my photography beyond Southern Illinois for a long time. I spent a while mulling over what the perfect destination would be for my maiden out-of-state photo expedition. When I remembered that the Shawnee Hills are considered the foothills of the Ozarks the choice was obvious. A quick search on Google Maps revealed that the Ozark National Scenic Riverways is only roughly a 2.5 hour drive – perfect!

Big Spring, located near Van Buren, was my first stop. I was running late and didn’t arrive until after sunset so I wasn’t anticipating any photography, but I grabbed my camera as soon as I pulled up and saw the mist shrouding the spring.

286,000,000 gallons of water coming out of the ground tends to make a little noise, which is fortunate  because it was so dark I don’t think I would have found the spring otherwise. That’s the average daily flow, which makes it the largest spring in the U.S. and one of the largest in the world. This 30 second exposure was taken at the edge of twilight.

Big Spring Slumber
Big Spring Slumber

I woke up for sunrise at Alley Spring. In addition to the spring, this site is also home to Alley Mill, a picturesque historic structure that once served the community for grain processing.

Alley Mill

Alley Mill

Alley Spring has an average daily output of 84 million gallons. I was drawn to this scene’s overhanging tree, rocks, and pristine flowing water.

Alley Spring Flow

Alley Spring Flow

Blue Spring is a special, exceptionally beautiful place, but difficult to capture in a photograph. The Osage Indians called it the “Spring of the Summer Sky.” Once you see it you understand why; it’s vivid color is unmatched.

Blue Spring

Blue Spring

At 310 feet, it is Missouri’s deepest spring. As water moves up through the spring it dissolves limestone and dolomite, giving the water its rich color. Peering down into Blue Spring’s unworldly blue water transported me to the Caribbean, temporarily forgetting that I was still deep in rural Missouri.

Looking down into Blue Spring

Looking down into Blue Spring

The water’s impressive blue soon fades as it makes its way toward Current River.

Blue Spring Spill

Blue Spring Spill

My last stop was Greer Spring, which is not a part of the Ozark National Scenic Riverways, but well worth the effort to find. With an average daily flow of 222 million gallons, Greer is Missouri’s second biggest spring. Unlike Big Spring and Alley spring, which one can practically drive up to, this one is a mile hike down into a steep ravine.

Greer Spring’s water flows from two sources, the first being a cave at the mouth of the spring.

Greer Spring Cave

Greer Spring Cave

The rest of the water bubbles up a short distance downstream. It is a sight to see that much water gurgling up, especially with that turquoise color. I greatly enjoyed the peaceful seclusion I found at Greer Spring.

Greer Spring Bubble

Greer Spring Bubble

Like the Shawnee National Forest, Missouri’s Ozarks are filled with some of the Midwest’s hidden gems. I only scratched the surface of the photographic potential during this trip; it won’t be my last!

Epic Garden of the Gods Sunset

Garden of the Gods, which features some of the most unique and spectacular rock formations in the Midwest, is arguably the best scenic vista in southern Illinois to watch a sunset. Most of the site’s eponymously named hoodoos face westward, which causes them to glow with warm light as the sun sinks behind the rolling Shawnee foothills.

I drove to Garden of the Gods one evening in August when it had been storming all day hoping that the clouds would break at sunset. My wish was granted; as the sun disappeared the sky began to glow with color and mist formed over the hills.

“Garden of the Gods”

The light was changing incredibly fast so I scrambled to fire off as many shots as possible. The light and mist reached their peak about five minutes after the previous shot was taken.

“Camel’s Apocalypse”

Just a few seconds after this shot the fog was so dense I couldn’t see the camel! It was quite an experience and I was the only person there all evening. Inclement weather often presents us with conditions ripe for wild, dramatic photos, which is why I love seeing “scattered storms” in the forecast.

Seasons in the Shawnee

I’m finally getting caught up on my processing. I was so far behind that I had to start with Summer 2009! Unlike this summer, which has been fairly dry, last summer brought some nice rain. Burden Falls roared to life after a big rain in July:

“Burden Falls Fanfare” – Burden Falls Wilderness

I love to get out and hike during fall. The cool, brisk air – lack of humidity – and, of course, fall color!

“Giant City Autumn” – Giant City State Park

Most people stay indoors during harsh, cold winter months. For those willing to bundle up and venture outside, unique and beautiful scenes await.

“’Round the Bend” – Stone Face Trail

Even those not in tune with nature can appreciate the splendor of the spring bloom. The forest floor is carpeted with wildflowers and the hills are painted with the soft pastel colors at the return of foliage. April is always one of the most photogenic months in southern Illinois.

“’Springtime at High Knob” – High Knob Campground

We are fortunate to live in a temperate zone with four complete seasons. Get outside and see for yourself the dramatic changes that take place in the forest throughout the year.

Rainy Day Hike

I had a great time hiking and taking photos over the weekend. Rainy, cold, overcast days have most people couped up inside but those are among my favorite conditions to hike in. One reason is that there are fewer people out; it’s not uncommon to spend hours on a trail and not see another soul. I miss that sense of solitude during the warmer months when more people are out. Cool temperatures keep many people at home, but believe me – after a few minutes on the trail you’ll warm up and may even shed a layer or two. Allergic to Poison Ivy? I am, but it’s non-existent this time of year. During warmer months it’s rare to make it very far into the woods without picking up a tick (or ten). Ticks, mosquitoes, spiders, and all those other pests are wonderfully absent during winter hikes.

Saturday afternoon I went to Bell Smith Springs. There were several cars in the parking lot, but once I hit the trail I didn’t see another person. While I’m as anxious as anyone for the colors of spring to appear, I found some great colors in the rocks and water here. Overcast skies and rain really saturate the colors in the sandstone and streams here.

Turquoise Canyon

“Turquoise Canyon” – Bell Smith Springs
Canon 5D II, 17-40L, polarizer, tripod
f/16, 4 seconds, ISO 200

Copperous Spring

“Iron Oxide” – Bell Smith Springs
Canon 5D II, 17-40L, polarizer, tripod
f/16, 1.3 seconds, ISO 200
Note: This sandstone contains large amounts of iron, which precipitated into the pool as iron oxide and turned the water orange.

I’ve never seen the colors in the water here quite this vibrant before. It’s remarkable how moisture, cloudiness, and a polarizer can saturate colors. These photos would have looked dull and drab if taken on a clear, dry day. They were both taken at Devil’s Backbone. I thought about hiking on to the canyon area since the water was flowing nicely, but it was getting close to dark so I called it a day.

Sunday I explored an area I had never been before and it turned out to be quite a hidden gem. Hayes Creek Canyon, just outside of Eddyville, is a popular destination for horse riders. As I discovered, it’s also excellent for hiking. This is the off season for horse riding, so we were the only people there aside from the camp owners. If you go, check in at the office and they will instruct you where to park and how to get to the trail. Just below the campground there is a sandstone gorge called Double Branch Hole which features twin waterfalls. The trail follows the canyon where there are several other falls, fast flowing gorges, and plenty of great photo ops.

Canyon Grunge

“Canyon Grunge” – Hayes Creek Canyon
Canon 5D II, 17-40L, polarizer, tripod
f/13, 1/8 second, ISO 200

Aqueous Nexus

“Aqueous Nexus” – Hayes Creek Canyon
Canon 5D II, 17-40L, polarizer, tripod
f/13, 1/8 second, ISO 200

If you continue beyond this area you have the option of hiking on to Jackson Hole, which features another great waterfall. It was getting dark so I didn’t have time to photo it but I want to revisit it soon.

On the hike back I contemplated what people miss by staying inside on days like this. Someone making this same hike on a hot, dry day in July or August would miss out on the rejuvenating, even spiritual experience afforded by cool temperatures, lack of pests, solitude, and flowing water. Next time, don’t sit inside, get out and go on a rainy day hike.