Tucked neatly into a scenic corner of Ironton, Missouri, Arcadia Valley Outdoors (AVO) opened in September 2021. “Professional campers” Mike Flieg and Jackson DePew, whose partnership led to the conception of the campground, continue to dedicate themselves to its growth while also enhancing each guest’s experience and encouraging travelers to take advantage of the best that southeast Missouri has to offer.
Flieg and DePew have known each other since attending high school together in St. Louis. Since then, they have pursued outdoor living in distinct ways. While Flieg participated in endurance sports, guided coast-to-coast bike tours with Trek Travel, and founded St. Louis Mountain Bike Camps, DePew became an outdoor instructor, earned an education in experiential education, and led expeditions through some of the most remote locations in the country for the North Carolina Outward Bound School.
As life changed in 2020, the two men found themselves reconnecting. Flieg had become involved with the development of Shepherd Mountain Bike Park in Ironton, and the pair began attending planning meetings together. The stars aligned during one meeting as the city set aside the task of creating a campground to serve the bike park. Flieg and DePew looked at each other, and the spark that would become AVO was born.
“With the last decade of experience we’d been accumulating, it just made a ton of sense that we should be the ones to do it,” said DePew.
A Clear Mission
In response to the men’s enthusiasm, the city of Ironton offered to lease them a large, wooded lot bordering the blue water of Shepherd Mountain Lake in the shadow of Shepherd Mountain. As Flieg and DePew accepted and moved into their tents, a clear mission emerged. They wanted to create a space that reconnects campers with nature without them having to source that experience externally.
“We really wanted to immerse people and make it a place that felt more natural,” said Flieg, who feels that campsites should complement the landscape, or better yet, be built into it.
So far, they have created 12 unique campsites, avoiding the all-too-typical, side-by-side, heavily cleared style that is often found around the country. A natural, immersive quality was preserved through intentional planning and avoiding the use of heavy machinery.
“We used a rock bar, shovel, wheelbarrow, chainsaw, leaf blower, and rake,” said DePew.
“A rusty rake,” corrected Flieg, as they both laughed.
Clearing and building each site was time consuming in the thick, rocky Missouri forest, but perhaps from their experience pitching tents in untouched wilderness, the men not only saw beauty in the wild landscape but its usefulness as well.
When most people look at a rock, they see a rock. DePew and Flieg see magical entryways, clever campfire seating, and a gorgeous natural material to create useful structures, such as the skillfully dry stacked stone fire pits you can find at each site. Other site features include handmade benches and tables suspended artfully among the rocks and trees, and a variety of solar lighting. Each site also has a narrow trail that exits out the back, leading to the AVO trail, which the men blazed themselves to connect all the campsites.
“Since the campsites are inspired by natural features in the woods, it seemed silly to be hiking on the road,” said DePew. They also added a short trail leading to the lake, with a large, stand-up paddleboard waiting at the water’s edge for guests to enjoy.
Though the campground provides a more primitive experience, its developers also strove to make it accessible to campers of all calibers — hence the creation of the Arcadian Oasis glampsite. The path leading to this area winds through trees and lichen-frosted boulders. The large, canvas bell tent features a small wood stove, power bank, and mattress. All of this sits upon a spacious deck looking towards the lake. A terracotta chiminea and outdoor, propane-heated, clawfoot bathtub sit just below.
Providing Access and Opportunity
Though much has been accomplished in the past year of development, AVO is still only at the starting line.
“We have huge dreams,” said DePew. These dreams not only include the development of 40 sites — including more glampsites — around the half-mile road that loops back to the entry, but also the installation of a bathhouse with showers and toilets, an outdoor wellness and workout area, and a game area.
“We want people to be excited about being at our campground,” said Flieg, who plans on building a bike skills course at the campground to complement the neighboring bike park. The duo also aspires to create a bouldering pit as a training ground for the nearby climbing at Elephant Rocks and Johnson’s Shut-Ins state parks. Most excitingly, they plan to bring overnight, multisport summer camps to AVO.
Throughout the process of creating AVO and camping there for over a year, Flieg and DePew have realized an even deeper appreciation for the topography that essentially sits in their hometown’s backyard.
“We’re in the epicenter of all the mountain biking, climbing, hiking, and rafting you can dream of in Missouri,” said DePew. “That’s kind of our mission…to raise that awareness, and to provide access and opportunity through this campground and youth development.”
“It’s important because I think this part of Missouri is underappreciated and underutilized for outdoor sports and recreation,” said Flieg. “I think there’s a lot here that people don’t necessarily know about.”
“Missouri has some seriously unique outdoor opportunities, but they’re not exactly in your face like the Rockies or the Redwoods — they’re a bit more hidden but easily as cool,” added DePew.
Consistent bookings and positive feedback from guests have been an affirmation for the two men after committing a year of their lives to a “build it and they will come” mentality.
“Which is what we had to tell ourselves every night when we were building all this without any power, cell reception, Wi-Fi, or resources,” said DePew. “We had this thing in our heads, and we knew how great and unique it could be, but there’s a spot that you get to when it starts to feel like a forever journey.”
The journey certainly hasn’t ended for AVO, though its founders can rest more easily knowing that, if they continue to build, people will continue to come.
Author: Sydney Joy Willis is a contributor to Terrain Magazine.