Nestled between the cities of Arcadia and Pilot Knob, Ironton (population 1,500) is the largest of these three side-by-side towns, which comprise the tranquil destination known as Arcadia Valley — long described as Missouri’s “best kept secret” by those possessing the knowledge of its existence.
The valley is tucked amongst the St. Francois Mountains of the Ozark plateau, a range with origins dating back 1.5 billion years, and was aptly named after the ancient Greek province of Arcadia, whose mountainous topography and sparse population of pastoralists led to the word’s evolution as a poetic term for an idyllic vision of unspoiled wilderness. The dominant rocks strewn across this area are rhyolite, formed from magma that extruded onto the surface from long-extinct volcanoes.
Though the region was one of the first to be settled in Missouri due to its bountiful mineral resources, it has maintained an untouched quality, perhaps due to both the hiddenness of the rugged landscape and the quiet ways of those who occupy it.
Nearby Outdoor Recreation
The outdoor opportunities sitting just outside the city of Ironton are abundant. Taum Sauk Mountain State Park features Missouri’s highest point and a 3-mile loop trail that takes you to the state’s longest wet-weather waterfall, Mina Sauk Falls. A brief detour along the connecting Ozark Trail (OT) will bring one to Devil’s Tollgate, an 8-foot-wide passage through 50 feet of volcanic rhyolite standing 30 feet high. The OT connects Taum Sauk State Park to Johnson’s Shut-Ins State Park, allowing visitors to hike or backpack along the 12-mile route between the two and providing access to the beautiful St. Francois Mountains Natural Area.
Johnson’s Shut-Ins along the Black River serves as a popular swimming hole, and access to climbing the red granite bluffs along the river has improved with newly installed anchors along the Shut-Ins Trail. Additional trail systems at the park include the Black River Trail System, Scour Trail, Horseshoe Glade Trail, and Goggins Mountain Equestrian Trail.
Elephant Rocks State Park fills visitors with awe as they walk amongst and upon the geological wonders there. Additionally, the park is home to hundreds of exceptional bouldering problems, including highball bouldering, to satisfy even the most experienced climbers — yet even amateurs can scramble up the humongous stair-stepping boulders to reach the highest point and view the wilderness surrounding the park. Though the park typically closes at sunset, it often hosts special events in which it stays open for viewings of astronomical events.
The rivers and streams in and around Arcadia Valley give visitors the opportunity to enjoy some of the most pristine bodies of water in the nation. Test your paddling skills on the nearby St. Francis River, home to the Missouri Whitewater Championships, or embrace a local tradition with a relaxing float down the Black River.
All of these outdoor locations are, at most, a 20-minute scenic drive from Ironton. Other nearby recreational areas include Millstream Gardens, Silver Mines, and Marble Creek.
Shepherd Mountain Bike Park
As the seat of Iron County, one of the poorest counties in the state, Ironton has taken it upon itself to turn what was once a secret into a well-known destination for outdoor enthusiasts across the nation using its greatest natural resource: Shepherd Mountain.
The city is spread along the base of the mountain, which was mined before the Civil War along with Pilot Knob Mountain beside it. Since then, the approximately 800 acres of city-owned property upon and surrounding its peak has seen only seasons of use, none which proved financially sustainable for the city. In 2020, planning began for a project on Shepherd Mountain that would serve as the catalyst of a much-needed shift in the economy of the area.
With over 600 feet of vert, a top trailhead of 1,604 feet, and 12 miles of trail, Shepherd Mountain Bike Park is now home to some of the most challenging mountain biking in the Midwest. The trails are defined as technical, rocky, and raw paired with flow and include steep berms, beautifully crafted wood features, natural rock features, and a long jump line with a Hollywood hit at the end.
Ironton served as the first stop in the 2021 Big Mountain Enduro Series almost immediately after the completion of the original trails, becoming the first location in the state to host the series, bringing it farther east than it had ever been, and setting an example for what Missouri mountain biking can offer.
The park continued to experience expansion alongside new developments within the city before hosting the Big Mountain Enduro again in May 2022, but the growth does not end here. We can expect the city to host more bike-specific events and races in the near future. Additionally, phase two of the development of the bike park will include the implementation of cross-country and novice friendly gravity trails.
Recreation in Town
Though there are many spectacular places just outside Arcadia Valley, one does not need to leave town to experience outdoor bliss. For those who appreciate history, a visit to the historical Iron County Courthouse or Battle of Pilot Knob State Historic Site makes a pleasant excursion.
Other activities within the valley include nine holes of golf at Arcadia Valley Country Club, disc golf at Arcadia Valley Sports Complex, horseback riding at Arcadia Valley Stables, and fishing on Shepherd Mountain Lake.
Wrapped in woodland, this 23-acre reservoir is uncommonly serene despite sitting within city limits, due to being the source of drinking water for Ironton. No boats are permitted other than the few non-motorized ones that reside on the shore, and no structures are visible except the small water treatment plant beside the dam. The lake has served as a popular fishing spot for both visitors and locals for generations. Species caught here include bluegill, catfish, bullhead, crappie, sunfish, and largemouth bass. A small park is located just beyond the dam, sporting picnic benches and a spacious lawn for lounging with an uninterrupted view of Shepherd Mountain.
Lodging & Food
There are many reasons to spend the night in Arcadia Valley, the stars being only one. Many unique stays are offered by gracious hosts, providing a variety of lodging to fit the needs of each visitor.
For a tranquil camping experience, Arcadia Valley Outdoors is the place to book. Tucked away just beyond Shepherd Mountain Lake, this campground opened alongside the development of the bike park and is in an ideal location for those looking to hit the trails.
For RV travelers, Arcadia Valley RV Park offers sites tucked into a shaded setting near Highway 21. For those who prefer a solid roof over their heads, the area also offers various bed and breakfast and inn options, ranging from quaint and cozy to luxurious and historical.
Another reason to stay in town is the food served at locally owned restaurants. Choose from pizza, wings, burgers, and a long list of appetizers at The Iron Mule or savor the flavor across the street at Baylee Jo’s Barbecue. Enjoy morning coffee with a view of the historical courthouse at Arcadia Valley Coffee Company.
Other restaurants surrounding the courthouse square include authentic Mexican at Checo’s and fine dining at Punkin’s Steakhouse and Seafood.
Throughout the year, Ironton’s courthouse square and the streets surrounding it are transformed into an outdoor bazaar for events such as the Arcadia Valley Mountain Music Festival, held each spring and fall, and the Arcadia Valley BBQ Battle, which takes place each year in June.
Enjoy Fourth of July fireworks each year at Battle of Pilot Knob State Historic Site, which also hosts a large reenactment and festival every three years in late September. If you’re not in town for one of these fun and free events, you can still support local artisans and growers at the farmers market, which is held at the courthouse square each Friday evening and Saturday morning from May through October. Linger a bit longer on Friday evenings to enjoy the valley’s musical tradition: Pickin’ on the Square.
All of this said, the most spectacular thing about Ironton is the community of people in and around it. Although Ironton sits at the center, it’s incomplete without its neighbors supporting it on either side, hence why the three towns consider themselves a whole — a place bursting with natural splendor for each of us to find our unique escape, peace, and Arcadian bliss.
Author: Sydney Willis is a contributor to Terrain Magazine.
Top Image: Downton Ironton, Missouri, during the Big Mountain Enduro 2021. (Alex Noguera)