My husband and I love hiking and camping. When we envisioned our one-day family, we knew that we’d continue to travel to state and national parks to experience the wondrous and sublime beauty of the natural world. If we had decided to have biological children, I imagine we would have traipsed about on trips to the wilderness from infancy. (Some parents of babies may be scoffing politely at such a claim!) We did not, however, have biological children, and our first kiddo as foster parents had never been camping. What to do? How would we introduce a girl who loves to play dress up, have her nails painted, and wear pretty dresses to camping?
We started by talking about how much we like to hike and to camp and by describing the different things that we do on our hikes. We told stories about some of our hiking trips. She saw endless photos of our adventures on my computer’s screensaver. (Sometimes, she likes to sit at my computer to watch the different pictures flash by.) At one of her activities this summer, six weeks away from our first camping trip, she told her teacher that her parents liked to hike and to read. She saw the experience of being outdoors as a positive one before she herself experienced it.
We familiarized her with the equipment and the “experience” of camping in the comfort of a local store and our own home. At the local REI, we let her pick out a few of her own special pieces of equipment (like a purple spork, a blue camp bowl, and a purple chair). She got to walk around the store as we explained what some of the different equipment did. At home, we took out camping gear and explained what each piece did. We pitched her tent in the front yard and let her crawl inside it to color for a while. We started explaining the different rules for camping, including rules meant to manage any of her behaviors or if we were to have an unexpected (albeit possible) encounter with a bear. She knew everything to expect about our camping trip so well that she wrote a story about going camping and explained all the rules to her teacher before the trip. Boo-yah! Go team us!
We picked a kid-friendly place to camp that was a place we also would enjoy, which was critical to the success of the overall of the trip. The kiddo got to experience a taste of the kind of outdoors we enjoy. In other words, we chose a destination that we would have picked if we did not have a kiddo; we just saved some of the less kid-friendly or more remote options for later! We chose to go to Johnson’s Shut-ins, a Missouri State Park in the Ozarks.
Johnson’s Shut-ins is nestled in the St. Francois mountain region (which seem more like hills than mountains to anyone who has spent time in the Rockies or the Sierra, but mountains they are). The area is picturesque, and the Ozark Trail passes right through the state park for anyone interested in not staying in an established campground. The park includes geologically interesting and scenic short loop hikes that are about 1.5 miles in length, which limits potential boredom or repetitiveness for adults and kiddos alike. I recommend the Horseshoe Glade hike and the Scour Trail, though the Shut-ins Loop could be a good option (we didn’t hike it on this trip because I remember part of it as being pretty exposed up on a rocky ledge, but maybe my three-plus-year-old memory of it cannot be trusted).
The central feature of the park, however, are the shut-ins themselves. As the East Fork of the Black River meandered through the area, it became forced (“shut in”) to a narrow area over the rhyolite and granite. The rock eroded into this outdoor aquatic jungle gym of a water park with waterfalls, potholes, crannies, scrambles, creating hours of fun for kiddos and adults alike. When the water is shallow, the adventures are endless, though it can be downright treacherous when the river is higher than normal (as it was when I first visited the park in spring of 2013 and I could not envision why anyone would want to play in that torrent of foamy spray over the rocks).
The campground itself is relatively modern with flush toilets and shower facilities (and a playground, amphitheater, and shop if anyone is counting) due to the park’s overhaul after the breach of the Taum Sauk Reservoir in 2005. The campground offers RV, tent, and walk-in campground spots in addition to cabins, and I recommend the walk-in sites for those who want to give their kiddos a marginally better idea of what backcountry camping might look like without jumping in headfirst.
We spent our evenings under clear skies and nearly moonless nights, which made for a wondrous backdrop of stars against the light of the milky way. I sometimes forget just how luminous the sky is at night when we see only darkness and a paltry handful of stars in the city limits. After breakfast in the morning, we went on a short hike before returning to the campground for lunch and a bit of a rest. We then ventured back out to play in the shut-ins and swim in the afternoon. Pacing the day with scheduled activities (breakfast, hiking, lunch, water play, dinner) made the trip more enjoyable for a kiddo who has not yet developed a love for a long day spent hiking on the trail or spent just reading at a campsite.
The kiddo’s verdict on our adventure: She loved it! So, we’ll call that a success—and plan to introduce her to a longer hike next time. We’re thinking Big Bend National Park in Texas—one of our favorite places to roam over winter break.
(Pro-tips: even if you do visit the park on a busy weekend, as we did on Labor Day, plan to stay at the campground. The campground hang tag gets you access to a parking spot that lets you avoid the long lines for parking or the long walk from the visitor center. We’ve been in National Parks with less adept traffic control than we experienced at the Shut-Ins. You’ll still have to deal with a campground with an inevitable yahoo or two over a busy weekend, but it’s definitely worth it. Also, if you want pictures of the shut-ins when they’re devoid of visitors, be at the gate entrance when the park opens!)