Waterfalls in Missouri are frustrating to visit. During dry weather, they don't run at all. During wet weather, they are beautiful, but the rocks are slicker than snot.
Black Mountain Falls, just off Route E in Madison County, is a prime example. This little-known destination features a series of plunges, each more spectacular than the last.
Timing is everything here. Visit too soon after a heavy rain, and the falls are treacherous to explore, unless you enjoy sudden collisions with the ground. But wait too long after a rain, and the falls shrivel to just a trickle. The challenge is to find a happy medium.
Black Mountain, part of Mark Twain National Forest, has been proposed as a wilderness area. It doesn't have any trails -- marked or otherwise. At many places, it's necessary to step carefully through mazes of boulders.
A short distance upstream, walls encroach on both sides of the stream, creating a narrow canyon.
The rough topography makes following the stream difficult. The best bet is to cross the water multiple times and hope that each stepping stone is firm and not too snot-slick.
Despite the hazards, it's well worth the adventure to reach the "Upper Falls." Here, the canyon gives way to a large clearing featuring the tallest of the Black Mountain cascades.
If enough water is running, the stream forks in two, creating a V-shaped waterfall. The right branch passes under a large overhanging rock.
In drier weather, however, the cliff face is not nearly as impressive.
Above the falls, the stream flows through a wide, nearly flat glade offering clear views to Marlow Mountain in the distance.
A makeshift fire ring sits in the middle of the glade, surrounded by vast swaths of pink rocks.
Continuing upstream, the flat rocks give way to another series of cascades.
Eventually the cascades come to an end as the creek enters the woods. This point is roughly 400 feet higher in elevation than the lowermost falls. That makes this one of the tallest series of cascades -- if not the tallest -- in Missouri. Taum Sauk Mountain State Park features the tallest single waterfall in Missouri, but in many ways Black Mountain Falls is the more impressive landmark, weather permitting.
From the top of the cascades, it's possible to follow a pair of overgrown jeep trails to the summit of Black Mountain, the highest point in Madison County. But I'll save that for another day; the falls provide plenty to explore already.
[Google map] - GPS coordinates 37.47141, -90.48014
From Cape Girardeau, take Highway 72 west through Jackson and Patton Junction to Fredericktown. Follow the Highway 72 bypass around Fredericktown, then turn left at the on-ramp for US 67 south. After merging on the freeway, take the first exit for Route E and then turn right. (Note: As an alternative, you can also drive through downtown Fredericktown using the 72 and 67 business loops.)
Drive 11.4 miles west on Route E beyond the interchange. The road threads a needle between the St. Francis River on the left and Black Mountain on the right. Look for a spot where the road makes a subtle S-curve and crosses a culvert. The lower falls is visible on the right. Parking is limited here, but a pullout -- with just enough room for two cars -- can be found a short distance ahead on the left. If you reach County Road 472, you've gone too far.
Walk to the lower waterfall, which is only a few yards from the Route E pavement, then climb past it on the left side. Keep following the creek, crossing where necessary, until reaching the upper waterfall (which is hard to miss).