County: Madison County, Missouri
Nearest City: Fredericktown
Trailhead: 37.4634, -90.4051
Distance from downtown STL: 1 hour 45 minutes / 101 miles
Trail Length: 10 miles (trail & bushwhack)
Trail Format: Out and back
Land Management: Rock Pile Mountain Wilderness Area
Camping: Primitive dispersed camping
Shut-ins Location: 37.4288, -90.4366
Watershed: St. Francis River
Rockpile Mountain is the smallest of Missouri’s eight designated wilderness areas. With only two miles of maintained trail, exploring its 4,238 acres is entirely cross-country. Old road traces are still easy enough to follow along most of the ridgelines, though none are marked. The cairn-like stacked rocks of its namesake tend to draw the attention of most visitors.
Yet the shut-ins along Cave Branch Creek are far more impressive. It’s perhaps the difficulty in reaching them that adds to the reward. Just reaching the trailhead requires a 4×4 vehicle (you could walk the last mile). The maintained trail starts at Little Grass Mountain, drops quickly in elevation, then continues on with only moderate gain or loss for a few miles. My preferred route to the shut-ins is another 2.5 miles along the northern ridge above Cave Branch Creek before dropping into the valley.
The shut-ins are over two hundred yards of dark aphanitic rhyolite which form a spectacular straight and long clearing in the wooded landscape. Gnarled cedar trees and lichen covered rock outcroppings flank both sides. Golden grasses and green moss contrast with the deep black creek bed. Best visited with good rainfall, it’s a rushing cascade dropping into a beautiful blue plunge pool.
There is a special solitude in this area that is not often found in Missouri. The terrain is rugged with many interesting rock formations. If time allows, there’s a particularly scenic outcropping a short distance from the shut-in (37.4281, -90.4409) . Frontage with the St. Francis River also contains caves and limestone pinnacle bluffs.
Nearby attractions include the Fish Trap & Lee Bluff.