Iron County is lucky to have two new hiking trails completed within the last year. I've blogged previously about the Shepherd Mountain Trail, completed last summer by the City of Ironton. More recently, the Missouri Department of Conservation has opened a trail above Royal Gorge at Ketcherside Mountain Conservation Area.
Located next to Highway 21 south of Arcadia, Royal Gorge has long been a popular spot for pulling over and taking a quick look at the shut-ins below.
However, the gorge is quite narrow and rugged, making it difficult to cross the creek and reach the main part of the shut-ins on foot.
That's where the new trail comes in handy. It climbs above the shut-ins on the east, providing dramatic views of the gorge.
An overlook provides a bird's eye view of Highway 21 and its Depression-era stone parapet and retaining wall adjacent to the shut-ins.
A second overlook provides a panoramic view to the south along the Big Creek Valley. To the right is the foot of Hogan Mountain, while Ketcherside Mountain is located to the left.
The hillside above Royal Gorge features outcrops of volcanic rhyolite, rock that is over 1.4 billion years old.
Small glades can be found a short distance uphill from the trail.
One of these glades provides a clear view of Taum Sauk Mountain in the distance.
The scenery alone makes the 2.3-mile hike worthwhile, but there's also a bonus: a walk along an old railroad grade from the 1870s.
The Iron Mountain Railroad had to find a way to cross the tall ridge that separates Big Creek Valley from Arcadia Valley. The solution was a steep and curvy approach to this summit, called Tip Top. It was an appropriate name since this location was the highest point along the line. The rails were so steep (2% grade) that helper locomotives sometimes had to be used to provide enough oomph to push trains through this barrier.
In the late 1940s, Missouri Pacific reconstructed the tracks to make this crossing easier. Instead of going over Tip Top, the new route blasted right through the ridge with a rock cut almost 200 feet deep. After the new tracks were opened, the original route was abandoned.
Today, the hiking trail conveniently follows two short stretches of the old rail grade. The first is a walk through the woods that soon converges on the modern-day Union Pacific tracks. The second is a private road, but signs make it clear that the road is open to hikers. The road doesn't follow the old tracks exactly (it's awfully twisty), but this particular spot is where the tracks started their climb toward Tip Top.
Iron County's newest hiking trail provides dramatic scenery -- and exposes a chapter in local railroad history.
From Cape Girardeau, take Highway 72 west through Patton, Fredericktown, and on to Arcadia. After crossing the viaduct at Arcadia, make two right turns to reach Highway 21 South. Follow the highway to the summit at Tip Top Roadside Park and then continue as the road descends to the other side. Look for the parking area with the sign Coolbaugh Creek Trailhead on the right. This is a trailhead for the Ozark Trail, but it also serves as the starting point for the Royal Gorge Trail.
From the parking lot, the trail goes left and quickly crosses Highway 21. It meanders through the creek valley before crossing the creek on stepping stones (might be difficult in wet weather). Continue straight as the trail meets a gravel road. From here the trail climbs the unnamed peak above Royal Gorge. Follow the trail to the first overlook above the gorge and explore. A short distance ahead, the trail reaches another overlook. Later, the trail leaves the hillside and descends to the bottom.
The trail seems to come to a sudden end. This is actually the intersection with the old railroad grade; turn left and follow the path north. Although the trail is generally well marked, the signs for this particular turn are missing. Follow the old grade until it reaches the modern railroad tracks, then walk parallel to the tracks. A private road veers away to the left; follow this road. Soon the dirt road reaches a gravel road and a gate; follow the gravel road to the left. This road will eventually lead back to the entrance trail, completing the loop.