The wilderness qualities and geology of Johnson's Shut-Ins State Park and the surrounding St. Francois Mountains area have made the park a special place to visit even before its official opening as a park in 1955. These same qualities make this park a unique place to visit today with a mix of ancient geology and recent influences with modern amenities.
The park is named after the "shut-ins" where the rushing waters of the East Fork of the Black River are "shut-in" by the hard volcanic rock. Over 1.4 billion years ago, violent volcanic eruptions created hard rhyolite bedrock forming the knobby shapes of the St. Francois Mountains. As the rhyolite cooled, it cracked in many places, creating pathways for flowing water. Over millions of years, water eroded the cracks into narrow channels. Scoured by water-born sand and gravel, the channels grew deeper and wider. The eroding action of water continues to shape these rocks into the potholes, the plunge pools below small waterfalls, and the chutes that form wild, natural waterslides that delight visitors today.
The rugged terrain and rushing rivers of the St. Francois Mountains once attracted Osage hunters, but did not appeal to most settlers from the East. They often preferred to settle first in the flatter, more fertile Mississippi and Missouri River valleys.
The Johnston family was among the early Scots-Irish settlers in this area that came west from the hilly countryside of Appalachia in search of better land. Here they found fertile valleys, vast uncut forests and plenty of room for homesteading. By 1829, they had established a farm. Three generations of Johnston (the t was later dropped) families once worked this land and 36 members of the family are buried in the small cemetery in the park. By 1900, most of the families that formed the self-sufficient community of Monterey moved away. Eventually, St. Louis resident Joseph Desloge bought much of the land, donating it for a state park in 1955.
In December 2005, the main use area in the East Fork of the Black River valley was changed dramatically. The nearby Taum Sauk Reservoir, a hydroelectric power station, breached, sending 1.3 billion gallons of water down Proffit Mountain. The water, carrying tons of trees, debris and boulders, scoured the mountainside and destroyed or extensively damaged facilities in the park, including the campground. It also altered the landscape of the valley and the East Fork of the Black River in the park. This event changed the park forever and has become part of the history of Johnson's Shut-Ins State Park. This area of the park has been redeveloped and many of the features and facilities in the main day-use area are the result of this redevelopment.
The rugged terrain of the St. Francois Mountains and Johnson's Shut-Ins State Park is home to many natural landscapes like woodlands, glades and rivers. The park itself has 17 different natural communities and supports more than 850 plant species, 40 percent of the plant species of Missouri.
The park supports two outstanding areas designated as Missouri wild areas because of their wilderness qualities. Covering more than 6,000 acres, the East Fork Wild Area and Goggins Mountain Wild Area have no road access, paved trails or park amenities, making them an outstanding opportunity for experienced backcountry hikers and campers. Most of the park's geologic and biologic diversity is protected in these areas. A trail in the Goggins Mountain Wild Area leads to Mark Twain National Forest's 9,000 acre Bell Mountain Wilderness. Together, the Goggins Mountain Wild Area and the Bell Mountain Wilderness makeup the largest tract of wilderness in Missouri.
The Johnson's Shut-Ins Fen Natural Area protects a small but environmentally critical Ozark fen -- a wetland fed by groundwater rather than rainfall or surface streams. This sensitive wetland supports species such as arrowhead, queen of the prairie, wild sweet William, four-toed salamander and devil crayfish. Located in the floodplain of the East Fork of the Black River, the fen was heavily damaged by the reservoir breach and is slowly recovering. An interpretive pavilion provides information about this unique resource.
Part of the park is included in the 7,028-acre St. Francois Mountains Natural Area, which is the state's largest natural area and designated in recognition of its outstanding natural and geologic features.
The 18-acre Johnson's Shut-Ins Dolomite Glade Natural Area is home to a different array of plants and animals. This sedimentary glade is a rare occurrence in the igneous St. Francois Mountains.
The signature feature of the park is the shut-ins with its spectacular chutes and waterfalls confined within the canyonlike gorges of the East Fork of the Black River. It is one of Missouri's most outstanding examples of a shut-in and is the principal feature of the 180-acre Johnson's Shut-Ins Natural Area. A walkway leads to an observation deck overlooking the scenic pothole shut-ins and gives great views of the shut-in and valley.