Missouri Highway 21 Revisited
November 13, 2011
Filed under Destinations
Every year it happens, practically overnight. Shorter days and cooler temperatures work their fall magic, and we rise one mid-October morning to a countryside that is transformed. Hillsides and fields relinquish their mantle of green for a richer tapestry woven in every metallic shade, and emerald canopies over country roads become Technicolor tunnels.
Fall color in Missouri, as presented by a wide variety of soft- and hardwood trees, is some of the most intense and dramatic as we’ve seen anywhere (and yes, we have been to New Hampshire and Virginia at the peak of their seasons). With luck, meaning no goose-drowner rain or violent wind, the color stays a while, though never long enough, it seems.
Leaf peepers have many scenic-drive options around the state for witnessing fabulous displays: hickories and hard maples in showy gold; nearly a dozen kinds of oaks in as many shades of copper and bronze; sumacs, dogwoods, sassafras trees and sugar maples turned the fiery red of forge-heated steel; and the amazing sweet gum trees whose leaves are either a mosaic of all the colors or bright yellow with the tips seemingly dipped in blood.
My husband and I are fortunate to live not far from one of the state’s most interesting — and in fall especially, loveliest — scenic roads, Missouri Highway 21. A buffalo trace that became an Indian trail then a pioneer trail long before it was paved, the route stretches from St. Louis south to the Arkansas state line, a distance of about 185 miles.
We’ve driven the road — also called Veterans Memorial Highway — many times, and can’t imagine ever tiring of it. This year we set out on a perfect morning, the sky blue as a peacock’s shoulder, the air cold and still, the sun’s first rays shafts of gold through the trees.
As always, we started the drive on two-lane “new” Highway 21 at the Meramec River, which separates St. Louis County’s suburban sprawl from Jefferson County’s pastoral landscape, and where the Ozark Mountains begin in earnest. Limestone bluffs reveal a host of crinoids and other fossils, evidence of the inland sea that once covered the region, and hillsides are collages of bright autumn color.
For those planning to follow our same path, drive half a dozen miles north of Hillsboro (the new section of the road ends at the town) and turn right at the Shenk Road exit. Then continue south on two-lane “old” Highway 21 to the scenic drive’s first stop, Sandy Creek Covered Bridge State Historic Site. The original bridge, built here in 1872, was destroyed during a flood in 1886. It was replaced in 1887 with the red barn-like bridge, now restored, that spans the creek today. Nearby exhibits tell the story of Missouri’s 30 covered bridges, of which only four remain.
Continue south through Hillsboro, seat of Jefferson County, and DeSoto, hometown of Missouri’s current governor Jay Nixon, to Washington State Park eight miles south. The heavily wooded 2,147-acre park, which offers hiking (10 miles of trails), swimming, fishing, boating, a visitor center and a variety of interpretive programs, contains the largest group of Native American petroglyphs found in Missouri.
Cut into dolomite above the Big River between 500 and 2,000 years ago, the carvings show a coiled rattlesnake, turkey tracks and a mythical thunderbird, among others. The 60-foot site, protected by a shed roof, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
The more modern stonework, for the 11⁄2-mile 1,000 Steps Trail and numerous buildings, was done by the only African-American Civilian Conservation Corps company to work in Missouri parks, sent here in 1934, said park staffer Dorothy Johnson. The exceptional quality of their work “earned them high praise in the National Register of Historic Places’ citation for the park,” she said.
A memorial to Korean War veterans is in the park, as is a placard explaining that the 38th Parallel — the dividing line between North and South Korea — also runs through “the heart of Missouri.” Washington State Park includes a campground with fine wooded sites (800-334-6946, www.mostateparks.com).
Old Mines, the oldest white settlement in Missouri, is ahead, a quaint town of antique clapboard houses. Just west of Highway 21 on Pat Daly Road, where a sign on a rustic storefront reads Bienvenu a La Vieille Mine, is a cluster of early 18th-century log buildings moved here to re-create a historic French village called La Brigade a Renault.
On this recent occasion Ron Thebeau and Ken Thebeau (unrelated) of the Old Mines Historical Society explained that the village was named for Phillippe Francois Renault of France, who came here in 1723 to mine the area’s rich lead deposits. For the past 25 years La Fete a Renault, a festival held the third Saturday and Sunday in May, has celebrated 18th-century life with a French traders’ camp featuring period music, a black-powder rifle shoot, food typical of the era and other activities.
Across the road a walking bridge leads to historic St. Joachim Catholic Cemetery, founded in 1828. Today iron crosses lean at rakish angles, marking the graves of early French settlers.
The town of Potosi — founded by Moses Austin, father of Stephen Austin, the “Father of Texas” — lies ahead. Moses Austin, fleeing debtors in the East, came to Missouri Territory in the late 1700s to mine lead. He established a bank, which failed in the Panic of 1819, leaving him destitute. Two years later he had permission from the Spanish government to lead some white settlers into Texas, but died before they could depart, so his son continued the venture.
Moses Austin was buried at the city cemetery, now Potosi Presbyterian Cemetery. The red-brick church was established in 1833. Austin’s grave and that of his wife, Marie Brown Austin, lie under a five-sided pavilion supported by brick pillars.
Caledonia, ahead, has just 158 residents, but the historic downtown with several fine shops is a magnet for antiques enthusiasts. Most intriguing is old-fashioned Antiques and General Mercantile, which has changed little since it was built in 1909.
Now on the National Historical Register, the mercantile sells everything from antiques to coffee beans and more than 600 varieties of candy. Caledonia is home to the oldest Presbyterian church west of the Mississippi, Bellevue Presbyterian, built in 1816.
The “elephants” at popular 120-acre Elephant Rocks State Park a few miles south are actually “herds” of massive pink and gray granite boulders formed here a billion years ago as molten magma beneath the Earth’s crust cooled and the land uplifted to shape the St. Francois Mountains, part of the Ozarks. Over the years wind and rain have rounded the formation — boulders atop bedrock, or “tor” — into pachyderm shapes. The largest, nicknamed Dumbo, is 27 feet high, 35 feet long and weighs 680 tons.
Paved walkways wind among the boulders and slim oaks which sprout from crevices, and placards explain how the tor took shape. Elephant Rocks became a state park in 1969, and every year hosts some 250,000 visitors.
Just ahead is Highway N, the road to Johnson’s Shut-Ins State Park 13 miles west. (For details about this natural water park, check out our Web Exclusive article.)
Continue south into Arcadia Valley, and at Pilot Knob turn left on Highway 221 to Fort Davidson State Historic Site. Placards explain that in September 1864 Major General Sterling Price, in the Confederacy’s last-gasp attempt to “liberate” Missouri, led 12,000 Confederate troops, a quarter of them unarmed, from Arkansas and attacked the fort, intending to proceed north and take St. Louis. Some 1,500 Union troops under the command of General Thomas Ewing defended the fort for two days, then made a daring midnight evacuation after setting a slow-burning fuse to the powder magazine.
Price presumed the explosion had been an accident and expected the fort to surrender in the morning. Instead he found it empty, and having already lost 1,500 troops in the battle, turned his attention away from St. Louis. Today, remnants of the earthen walls, the dry moat and the 40-foot crater caused by the blast remain. There’s also a fine interpretive museum open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily.
Ahead are the historic neighboring towns of Ironton, county seat of Iron County, where the imprint of a Confederate shell can still be seen in the courthouse frieze, and Arcadia, where a statue of a Civil War soldier stands on the site (now the grounds of Ste. Marie du Lac Catholic Church) where in 1861 Ulysses S. Grant was promoted from colonel to brigadier general.
Go south and turn right on Highway CC for the short drive up through a colorful oak, pine and dogwood forest to 7,448-acre Taum Sauk Mountain State Park. In this near-wilderness, the namesake mountain, 1,772 feet above sea level, is Missouri’s highest point (an easy walk from the parking lot).
Rugged three-mile Mina Sauk Falls loop trail leads to the state’s tallest waterfall, which in wet weather plunges a dramatic 132 feet over rocky ledges into a clear pool at the base. After weeks without rain, as on this occasion, the falls are dry, but worth the effort getting there for the stunning high-up views along the way.
From here the road winds on south through the hills, a world of spectacular fall color 100 miles to Arkansas. Towns are infrequent: quaint Lesterville; Centerville with rows of false-front buildings; lovely Ellington, “Gateway to Missouri Spring Country” and Doniphan, seat of Ripley County.
Today, Doniphan is a popular resort town. Thousands of visitors come annually for canoeing, rafting and tubing on the beautiful, shallow, crystal-green Current. Rocky River Resort (Jefferson Street at Highway 21) offers these activities plus camping with RV hookups (573-996-7171).
From Doniphan, the last major town along the drive, the road arcs south another 10 miles. The journey ends just past the sleepy burg of Poynor, where Highway 21 becomes Highway 115, and leads visitors into neighboring Arkansas.
Missouri Division of Tourism, (573) 751-4133, www.visitmo.com.