Johnson’s Shut-Ins State Park is a popular place to cool off in warm weather seasons. (Photo by Sony Hocklander)

Need a change of scenery? Take a weekend road trip. Springfield makes the perfect basecamp for outdoor adventures less than half a day’s drive from home. We’re here to help with a getaway guide.

Missouri’s most famous natural water park, Johnson’s Shut-Ins is a geologic wonderland nestled in the St. Francois Mountains. While the park attracts thousands each year to play among its rocky water chutes, slides, waterfalls and pools, it has plenty to offer whether you want to get wet or not. 

If you come for the day on a warm-weather weekend, arrive early. Parking is limited and the lot fills up fast. Heading toward the trailhead, you can’t miss an intricate ground-level mural, a beautiful nod to nature. Nearby are a picnic area and the River Store, which sells day-use supplies, snacks, souvenirs and ice cream.

The rocky Johnson’s Shut-Ins are a maze of waterfalls, chutes and pools. As seen in the upper right corner of this image, the accessible portion of the trail ends at an overlook. (Photo by Sony Hocklander)

To reach the shut-ins whether to play or to view, follow the easy, wheelchair-accessible 0.3-mile path heading left of the store. A couple of short stairways lead down to the water at the shut-ins. The accessible portion of the trail ends at an overlook with great views and interpretive signage.

As viewed from the trail, Johnson’s Shut-Ins are an intricate maze of waterfalls, chutes and pools. (Photo by Sony Hocklander)

If you plan to spend time in the water, don’t forget water shoes! Rocks are slippery and uneven as you clamber up and around to find a section of beach or to play in the falls. Just downriver from an upper swimming hole is a popular section of the shut-ins where waterfalls, chutes and small pools lead to a lower swimming hole.

If you like to hike and don’t mind elevation and rocky paths, continue on the blue-blazed Shut-Ins Trail by climbing the stairway (which offers more views) to reach a natural dirt trail, altogether a 2.3-mile loop that’s rated moderately challenging on AllTrails and is strenuous in spots.

Rising from the overlook, a stairway continues the Johnson’s Shut-Ins Trail, leading to a dirt path that’s part of the 2.3-mile loop. (Photo by Sony Hocklander)

Depending on your time and goals, you can go one mile or less to reach more of the shut-ins and another swimming hole. Or at about half a mile, take the white-blazed connector trail to hike a shorter loop (see map).

If you do the whole trail, which enters the East Fork Wild Area, expect some steep areas and a rocky climb at the wet-weather waterfall area about halfway along. Depending on the season, hikers may encounter water crossings or slick wet rocks. There are gorgeous views of the wilderness area from a high point on the trail before it descends. Some people do the entire loop counterclockwise, so they finish closer to the shut-ins.

The 2.3-mile blue-blazed Shut-Ins Trail at Johnson’s Shut-Ins State Park is moderately challenging with a few strenuous rocky spots. Hikers may encounter slick rocks and a waterfall climb in wet weather. (Photo by Sony Hocklander)

If you have time and inclination, connecting with the Shut-Ins Trail are the Taum Sauk section of the Ozark Trail and the Horseshoe Glade Trail. Or explore more of the park using the Black River Trail System (part concrete, part crushed gravel) which also goes to the campground. (Learn more about the campground in our “where to stay” story.)

Location: 148 Taum Sauk Trail, Middle Brook, Mo.

Distance: 186 miles, 3.25 hours from Springfield


Johnson’s Shut-Ins history

The Johnson’s Shut-Ins occur on the East Fork of the Black River and are part of the 180-acre Johnson’s Shut-ins Natural Area, a portion of the 9,432-acre state park. It was named for three generations of the Johnston (later called Johnson) family, who first settled the area in the early 1800s. (Many family members are buried in a small cemetery in the park.)

A portion of Johnson’s Shut-Ins is viewed from the trail overlook. (Photo by Sony Hocklander)

Eventually, land was purchased by a St. Louis resident who donated it to the state in 1955. Fifty years later, the park and shut-ins were forever changed after a 2005 breach of the nearby Taum Sauk Reservoir, sending 1.3 billion gallons of water into the park, destroying parts of the campground and altering the landscape. Many of today’s day-use area features are a result of redeveloping the post-flood park. Learn more about the park and its geologic history by stopping at the Black River Center.

Sony Hocklander

Sony Hocklander is a freelance journalist, video storyteller and photographer who produces creative content through her small solo business, Sony Hocklander Creative LLC. When she’s not telling community stories, she loves wandering the Ozarks outdoors with a camera in hand. You can follow her on Twitter @SonyHocklander and on Instagram @shocklander or email her at: More by Sony Hocklander