The Lower Mississippi River Water Trail

St Louis to Cairo

69 RBD Indian Creek

Indian Creek marks the northern boundary of Trail of Tears State Park. In its gentle meanders it carves through tall banks of yellow, orange, and red rock, and its channel is strewn with the same. Beautiful shoals and gravel bars of brightly colored rocks are strewn along its length. Normally it’s a clear-running waterway. Too shallow to explore far upstream unless the Mississippi is in high water, in which case the colorful shoals are buried under Mississippi mud. Unfortunately P&G [Proctor & Gamble] has built a sprawling city of industry on the edge of the Indian Creek basin about a mile upstream from the Mississippi River. You won’t want to camp anywhere nearby on the Mississippi for the all-night steaming and screaming coming from this plant.


69 - 65.6 RBD Trail of Tears State Park

Once passed Indian Creek Trail of Tears State Park dominates the right bank descending, and it’s one of the most beautiful stretches of river along the entire Middle Mississippi River, with distinctive bluffs and cliff lines running down the west bank, if you paddle close to the right bank descending the cliff lines are sometimes eclipsed by tall trees and deep ravines full of lush vegetation, and the piles of rip-rap and gravelly train sidings.   Tall limestone & chert bluffs, some towering 100 feet or more above the river’s surface, sliced by deep ravines which drop at precipitous angles from the plateaus above, and are topped with a delightful woodlands mix of hickories, buckeyes, oaks, sycamores, beeches, eastern red cedars and short-leaf pines.


The bluffs here are haunted with the ghosts of dozens of souls lost in this treacherous crossing of the icy Mississippi during the treacherous winter of 1838-1839. I personally have heard deep drum beats emanating up the river while camped on Hanging Dog Island, across from Teatable Bluff. I know you are rolling eyes now and and saying that I was hearing things. Maybe so, but what about the other seven people with me at camp that night at sunset who heard the same? The Mississippi was the Freedom Trail for slaves following the Underground Railroad, and for Huck and Jim following the river downstream. But it was the incarceration trail for others. Thousands of Cherokee crossed the southeast in a tragic forced exodus following a long arc from Appalachia to the Oklahoma Indian Territory the years of 1838/39. Nine of the 13 bands of Cherokee followed this route. Of the estimated 16,000 who started the 600 mile long trail only 12,000 arrived.


Long distance paddlers in their focus on getting down the river sometimes miss the good stuff along the banks that require a landing and a “walk through the woods.” Most will spend a couple of days in St. Louis and then rush on to the next big city downstream, Memphis, with a short stop for water & replenishment somewhere along the way, like Chester or Cairo or New Madrid, and then paddle hard for the next place. Why not spend a few extra hours, or even better a day or two, and smell the roses? The best way to approach the Mississippi is as the enjoyment of “being there,” not “getting there.” One of the must-sees is Trail of Tears State Park. You might not get another chance like this, and the experience will vastly increase your appreciation and understanding of the big river you are paddling. Pull off the river at or near the boat ramp. You might want to set up camp here. There are hot showers, laundry service and campground WIFI. Paddler’s heaven, right?   Hide your vessel if just staying for a couple of hours. Walk up bank and start hiking. You can follow the main road up to the visitor’s center


67.5 RBD Trail of Tears Overlook

You’ll feel like you’re flying over the river like one of the many bald eagles that frequent the Middle Mississippi from the Trail of Tears Overlook. Upstream you can see all the way over what remains of Hanging Dog Bluff, past Dog Hollow, over the Apple River Valley, Patton Creek Bluffs, Tower Rock and Devil’s Bake Oven. You can see the pipeline crossing at Grand Tower and the power plant behind. Fountain Bluff shadows everything to the north, and the Shawnee National Forest. You can trace the curvy channel of Big Muddy River as it meanders northeasterly up along the floodplain and then into the shady recesses of the Pawnee Hills. Downstream the view is a little more limited, as it gets cutoff by the hulking bluffs below Moccasin Springs which obscures everything southward. But still you can trace the channel of the big river several miles as it rolls along the base of Trail of Tears State Park, and then curves behind it.


Looking northeastward you might notice a giant white cross on top of a distant ridge over the Illinois Pawnee Hills. This is the the Bald Knob Cross, and it’s a little under ten miles away, but you can still distinctly make out its shape. No wonder, it stands 111 feet tall and is 63 feet wide. You could take this as a gentle reminder that you are now entering the Bible Belt, the land of crosses and churches almost as big as people’s desire to share their religion with you. You are now entering the land of “yes Ma’m, no Ma’m,” “Yes Sir, No Sir,” and “Pass the Biscuits and Gravy.” What does this have to do with religion? I don’t know, but the two seem to come hand-in-hand. The next giant cross you will see is just past the mouth of the Ohio, in Wickliffe. But most mega churches are hidden behind the hills or over the levees, notably in Memphis and Baton Rouge. I don’t think there are any big churches right on the river, or even in view of the river, but there are beautiful places of worship visible from the river in St. Louis, Memphis, Vicksburg, and most of the river towns downstream. The St. Louis Cathedral in Jackson Square New Orleans is of course a stand-out. I am curious about the lesser known but intriguing Church of the River of Memphis.


Although you won’t see it from where you stand, the arms of the cross are dedicated with the chiseled words: “Peace, Hope, Faith, and Charity,” which are as good as any four words to aspire to.


Bald Knob Cross and The Bald Knob Wilderness

See appendix for more about Bald Knob Cross and The Bald Knob Wilderness