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Rural Missouri Magazine
Adventure Alley
A trip down Highway 8 offers summer fun

by Jim McCarty

Travis Mowers, an employee of Crawford Electric, rides his mountain bike on the Berryman Trail. Bikes are a relatively recent means of transportation on the rugged trail built in the ’30s. Mountain biking is just one of many adventures that await travelers on Highway 8 between St. James and Potosi.

For years I have been driving down Missouri’s Highway 8, always bound for somewhere else, never able to stop and enjoy all the attractions the road has to offer. With the long winter behind me, I set off in search of adventure on the 75 miles of twisting turns and scenery.

Highway 8 is a National Scenic Auto Tour that stretches from St. James to Desloge. It closely follows the Trail of Tears, the route used on the forced march when Cherokee Indians were relocated to Oklahoma.

A better name for the scenic route might be “Adventure Alley.” There are more summertime activities available on Highway 8 than possibly anywhere else in the state.
I strapped my mountain bike to the roof, stashed camping gear and fishing equipment in the back of the van and pointed the “helm” to the east and St. James.

Highway 8 has its western beginnings when you cross Interstate 44 and the road sign changes from 68 to 8. Just before the busy interstate, the Highway 8 adventurer will want to stop at the St. James Visitor’s Center to plan the trip.

Inside I found Myra Ortbals, the town’s enthusiastic tourism director, punctuating her conversations with brochures she snatches from the center’s racks.

Links to adventure

Most of the attractions along Highway 8 can be found by searching the Internet. We recommend these contacts for more information:

St. James: 1-800-480-3899
Steelville: (573) 775-5533
St. Joe State Park: (573) 431-1069
Sayersbrook Ranch: 1-888-854-4449
YMCA of the Ozarks: (573) 438-2154
National Forest Service: (573) 438-5427

“Tourism is one of the main things here in St. James,” Myra told me. “We are working on growing that more, getting people here.” She says a MoDOT detour that used Highway 8 to bypass I-44 construction made people more aware of what St. James and other towns on the scenic drive have to offer.

You could drive all of Highway 8 in a couple of hours. But to really appreciate all it has to offer takes at least three days. St. James is a good place to get started. Here you can choose from roughing it in area campgrounds or more luxurious surroundings at motels or one of the four bed-and-breakfast inns.

The town is home to four wineries, including Missouri’s largest, St. James Winery. They all give tours and samples. The downtown area has recently been renovated to appeal to visitors. Unique shops like Buffalo Stone, which offers American Indian art, The Book Addict (home to more than 25,000 used books) and two flag stores make this a fun place to shop. Part of Route 66 goes through St. James, which can boast one of the few divided sections of the Mother Road.

Jane Cape introduces visitors to the Midwest Antique Mall in Steelville to her cat, Holstein. The flea market in a former Brown Shoe factory also features a cafe.

Heading east, Highway 8 takes on its character as a tightly coiled snake of a road. Or maybe it’s more like a puppy chasing its tail and never quite catching it. Nearby the city’s municipal golf course, one of two links on the road, scenic stands of shortleaf pine add to the character you will see from beginning to end.

St. James grew out of an iron works located a few miles east at Maramec Spring. The Maramec Iron Works kept the furnaces working from 1826 until they closed in 1876. But the fortune made from Missouri pig iron was put into a trust by heiress Lucy Wortham James, who wrote, “As this is considered to be the most beautiful spot in Missouri, it is my great hope that you will arrange that it may ever be in private, considerate control, and ever open to the enjoyment of the people.”

At Maramec Spring, a friendly lady called me honey as she took my $6 — half to enter the park and the other half to fish for (but not necessarily catch) trout. The spring pours cold and clear from the base of a bluff, with an average flow of 100 million gallons a day. Downstream from the deep blue pool, I found Hoot Daugherty and his son, C.B., slaying the fish while anglers around him struck out.

The crystal clear water of Huzzah Creek creates an exciting float stream. Highway 8 takes adventurers within reach of the Courtois, Meramec and Big float streams.

Their secret: a homemade dough bait and gossamer strands of sewing thread instead of fishing line.

It’s hard to leave a setting as peaceful and beautiful as Maramec Spring. But there were more adventures in store. Leaving the park, it’s not unusual to see entire herds of deer grazing in the hayfields along the Meramec River (can someone tell me why the park spells the name differently?). At the Woodson K. Woods Conservation Area access, floaters outfitted by Green’s canoe rental hit the water. This is the first of four float streams that can be reached by Highway 8.

As the road winds toward Steelville, you pass the aptly named Peaceful Bend Winery. A hound resembling a small cinnamon-colored bear blissfully sleeps on the porch. You don’t get in a hurry here. A turtle crossing the parking lot makes me wait for a parking spot. Often this winery holds special events with live music.

Golfers tee off at Fourché Valley Golf Club, an 18-hole course that is often referred to as the “jewel of the Ozarks” due to its spring-fed streams, towering pines and natural rock formations.

Just before you reach Steelville proper, a sign points to the Midwest Antique Mall and Circle C Restaurant. In what was once the Brown Shoe factory I meet Holstein, the greeter cat, and Jane Cape, whose enthusiasm transformed the factory into a most unusual antique mall.

On display or for sale is everything from a stuffed horse once used to teach manners at a women’s finishing school to a rare Playboy magazine car with retractable hardtop. The restaurant, decorated in Buster Brown theme, offers all-you-can-eat crab legs on Friday night.

Steelville is variously known as the “Home of Hospitality” or “The Float Capital of Missouri.” On weekends its 1,400 population swells dramatically. Since the 1920s, vacationers have come to Steelville to stay at one of the many resorts or to listen to music at venues like the Meramec Music Theater.

Hoot Daugherty and his son, C.B., slay the trout at Maramec Spring Park near St. James. The 100-million gallon daily flow of spring water once powered an iron furnace here.

Others come for the floating. With easy access to the Meramec and its clearwater tributaries, the Huzzah and Courtois creeks, it’s small wonder so many outfitters have sprung up here. My destination this evening is Huzzah Valley Resort, founded 28 years ago by “Huzzah” Bob and Karen Cottrell and managed today by sons Cory and Colin.
I asked Cory what brings people to the area. “The clear water,” he answers quickly. “People feel comfortable when they get in because they can see the bottom.”

It’s also the excellent fishing. Cory boasts of a recent fishing trip he guided where the anglers landed 20 fish over 12 inches long. The catch included one 18-inch largemouth bass and a 17-1/2-inch smallmouth.

Typical of the many Huzzah resorts, this one offers primitive camping, cabins, canoe, raft and kayak rentals, horseback riding and more. A Huzzah float is unlike any other in Missouri. The water is shallow, sometimes just a few inches deep. It moves fast and is so clear you can see every rock — and fish — on the bottom. Yet it isn’t ice cold like the spring-fed rivers farther south.

The Courtois is similar but even smaller. “When it grows up it wants to be Current River,” Barb Jones says of the creek she crosses to get home. Barb and her partner, Donny Allen, operate No Hard Feelings Paintball, another area attraction.

For the ultimate in excitement, partners Barb Jones and Don Allen created No Hard Feelings paintball field. The two designed a challenging course that can handle up to hundreds of players in a variety of scenario games. Veteran players will appreciate the unique bunkers and Vietnamese-style huts while novices can rent equipment.

The field was designed as a tribute to Vietnam veterans. “They were my heroes,” Don says. Set deep in the woods, it is eerily similar to a Vietnamese village. The two have designed a variety of scenario games where paintball fanatics can match wits from dawn to dusk.

The field can accommodate groups from six to 600, with rental equipment available. The emphasis, as the name implies, is on having fun. During breaks in the action, players are welcome to cool off in the creek or rent a canoe.

The terrain here closely resembles my next stop, the Berryman Trail. A sign points the way to what was once a Civilian Conservation Corps camp. The “CCC boys” built the trail, which today is used by backpackers, horseback riders and, more recently, mountain bikers.

The trail is not for the faint of heart. It winds up and down steep switchbacks for 24 miles, coming close to civilization only at the Brazil Creek Campground.

The Berryman is a trail many use to test their mettle. Once a year the St. Louis Ultrarunners Group adds two miles to the trail and hosts a grueling marathon.
The Berryman left me gasping for breath and ready for the easier adventure to come.

When Highway 8 reaches Park Hills, a slight detour leads to St. Joe State Park. While you can fish, swim, hike, camp and ride bikes at the park, the main attraction at this former lead mine complex is ATV riding.

Still heading east, Highway 8 reaches a wide spot in the road called Shirley. A sign points the way to two more attractions, the YMCA of the Ozarks Trout Lodge and Sayersbrook Bison Ranch.

Trout Lodge is an elegant setting for family adventure. Set on the bank of Sunnen Lake, the lodge offers a variety of summer recreation opportunities. Nearby is one of Missouri’s most beautiful golf courses, Fourché Valley Golf Club. Nestled in the pines, with fast-flowing spring creeks and natural rock outcroppings, this course will challenge the most experienced golfer.

Within spitting distance is the working bison (don’t call them buffalo) ranch owned by Skip and Connie Sayers. “This is adventure central,” Skip says of the ranch. “Talk about adventure — you can’t get any more than on these 3,000 acres.”

For the well-heeled, Skip can set up anything from a bison hunt, fly-fishing in Fourché Renault Creek, a computer-operated sporting clay range or a chance to fire a World War II vintage .30-caliber machine gun. The ranch boasts an off-road driving school and 21 different off-road trails.

Adventure abounds at Sayersbrook Bison Ranch where visitors can see owner Skip Sayers feed his herd. The well-heeled can even hunt the shaggy bison while the Average Joe might just stop by for bison steak to cook over a campfire.

The Average Joe will want to stop by on Saturday mornings for a guided tour of the bison herds and a lecture on how the ranch was carved out of the wilderness. Campers can choose from 118 cuts of bison meat at the country store, which is open seven days a week.

As the road winds farther east, Potosi comes into view. History buffs will want to spend some time here learning about one of Missouri’s oldest settlements. Moses Austin moved here in 1796 and sunk the first mine shaft. He donated land for the courthouse and is known as the father of Potosi, as well as one of the individuals who “invented” Texas. His grave, almost robbed by Texans who wanted their hero moved, sits across the street from a new restaurant called Bo’s Market, which is a fun place to relax.

Potosi also features an increasingly rare drive-in movie theater located just north of town on Highway 21.

Leaving Potosi, Highway 8 gets straighter but just as scenic as it crosses deep cuts in the rocky hills. You are now officially in the old Mineral Area, one of the nation’s most productive mining sites in its day. You can learn more about Missouri mining at Park Hills, home to Missouri Mines State Historic site and St. Joe State Park.

Highway 8 passes a picnic area with a curved stone wall built by the Civilian Conservation Corps.

A tour of the old mill-mine complex, with its outstanding collection of minerals, is fascinating. But the quest for adventure leads to nearby St. Joe Park. Once mine tailings were pumped to this area and allowed to settle in the valley. Today it makes a perfect spot for ATV riding. The 8,238-acre park is Missouri’s third largest state park, with approximately 2,000 acres set aside for the off-road vehicle riding area.

Trails crisscross the valley, and on any given day, the angry whine of motorcycles and four-wheelers reverberates from the hills. The park also offers camping, swimming, fishing and a paved trail for bikes. There are trails for horses and hikers, too.

Highway 8 officially ends at Desloge, another old mining company town built by Firmin Desloge.

Here the adventure could end — but I recommend turning around and heading back west to see what you missed. Highway 8 has a lot to offer, and chances are you won’t see it all on one trip.

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