Taum Sauk, Missouri, History

As a native Missourian I climbed Taum Sauk several times in the 1970’s (including a first visit in 1969 with my brother and parents). I most recently visited on September 12, 1999, during the Highpointers Club convention which was held on the summit.
I am not the only one who finds Taum Sauk the philosophical center of the highpointing phenomanon.

Jakk Longacre, founder of the Highpointers Club, moved here from Seattle after completing all 50 summits. He invites you to stop by his house on the County Route CC approach when you visit (it is marked by a huge Club sign). The Club pays to clear the road to the summit from litter and Jakk plans to donate land for a Club museum to be located near the summit.

Geologists say that Taum Sauk is unique among state highpoints in that it has never been under the ocean or under a glacier (something which even Everest and McKinley can’t claim!).

Taum Sauk (and the Ozarks) are also unique in that they run east-west (most mountain ranges on the planet run north-south).

Taum Sauk is made of rhyloite — very similar in appearance to granite except that the crystals are much smaller. Rhyolite which is found all over the world is formed from the cooling of volcanic magma and consists of chunks of feldspar and quartz. Outcroppings of this rhyolite is celebrated at a couple of nearby Missouri state parks at Johnson Shut-Ins and at Elephant Rocks.

The area is still not silent geologically speaking. The most powerful earthquake recorded in North America occurred in the early 1800’s 50 miles east at New Madrid, Missouri and caused the Mississippi River to flow backwards!

Geologists say that given the Midwest’s fragile geology, if this fault acts up again, it would devastate a swath from Memphis to St. Louis to Chicago to Kansas City (in contrast an earthquake of similar size in California or Alaska would be relatively localized because of more dense rock formations there).

Historically, Confederate General Sterling Price lost the state of Missouri in a battle 10 miles north of the summit at Pilot Knob/Fort Davidson. Price went on to fight (and lose) a battle literally on Mississippi’s highest point (incidentally, Pilot Knob with its mesa like summit was once thought to be Missouri’s highest point).

Ulysses S. Grant (who was also at the Mississippi battle) extolled the virtues of the area and its cool streams.

Perhaps most interesting, Jesse James may have hid out around Taum Sauk when he robbed the Ironton train (which is celebrated in “The Ballad of Jesse James” song).

In the 30 years that I have been visiting Taum Sauk, a lot has changed. When we first visited, Union Electric of St. Louis had just opened a novel electric operation — pumping water up a nearby mountain (but labeled the Taum Sauk Power Plant) during off-peak hours and then releasing it down the mountain during peak hours to generate electricity.

This pumped storage process coincidentally also used just off Coloroado’s highest point — Elbert. The flat topped mountain summit reservoir with its new white concrete was visible from the obseravation tower on Taum Sauk and had the impression when new of being a snow-capped peak. When we visited in 1999, the concrete had yellowed to the point of blending into the background. The power plant museum (which has a very interesting explanation of the area’s unique geology) was unmanned (it appears that only a handfull of people visit it in any week).

From the reservoir itself you get one of the few unobstructed views of Taum Sauk. It’s a relatively unremarkable mountain with its long ridge.

A trail leads 5 miles from Taum Sauk to the reservoir. You can also drive up by heading south on the highway and following the signs.

When we first visited Taum Sauk, you accessed the summit from the fire tower parking area by crossing private property and wandering around in the woods looking for the USGS marker. These markers were apparently not on the actual summit (which was difficult to find given the area’s flat nature).

When Missouri officially opened a State Park on the summit (it is unmanned and is maintained by Johnson’s Shut-Ins State Park) a few years ago, they put in a wheel-chair accessible paved sidewalk to a rhyolite boulder marking the summit (although I could find no USGS marker there!).

The parking is perhaps a half mile from the old fire tower (which is still climbable and gives you a great view of the area). You will only see trees at the actual summit.

One of the state’s best trails has led for years approximately 10 miles from Taum Sauk to Johnson Shut Ins. I have fond memories of hiking it and spending nights on nearby Proffitt Mountain being serenaded by whip-poor-wills and watching the show of hordes of lightning bugs.

Other highlights of this trail are Mina Sauk Falls (only a mile down from the summit) which cascades down more than 100 feet of rhyolite boulders (but was dry when we visited in September 1999 following a drought) and the Devil’s Tollgate boulders at the base of Taum Sauk.

This premier trail has been supplemented by the Ozark Highlands trail which travels on nearly 100 miles to St. Louis (and which starts in western Arkansas).

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