It seems as if I have spent my whole life standing on a river bank, on a slough, or atop a levee next to one oldtimer or another proclaiming, “Water comes up, water goes down. It’s what the river does, and we can’t ever really control her.”
Yet, for some reason, the low water levels in the Mississippi in southwestern Illinois are suddenly making headlines across the nation. A primary feature of these headlines is that Tower Rock, located mid-channel near Grand Tower, is now accessible by foot from the Missouri side of the river.
The long-term historic landmark has become quite the destination and sensation. People are traveling hundreds of miles for this “once in a lifetime experience” of traversing on foot across the mighty Mississippi to Tower Rock.
Here’s the catch – it’s not that unusual. I’m an old river rat. The “bottoms” from Monroe County south through Jackson and Union are my stomping grounds. The ability to reach Tower Rock has always happened during times of low water.
Locals are more likely to complain about the overall drought status, the impact
on the upcoming waterfowl season, and difficulties shipping grain than
terribly excited about a hike out to the rock. We’ve seen this happen.
In almost a cyclical fashion, yet somehow now extreme weather equals
Is it that influencers and media outlets are sloppy and not really taking the time
to look at the historic river levels or the history of the area? Or do
we suddenly have a generation with information at their fingertips and a
sense of entitlement that they should experience every single thing
that is shown on social media and the 6 o’clock news?
Looking back in my old notes and journals, it seems the river has been low
enough to walk out to Tower Rock 11 times since 1988 alone.
I checked the gauges and gauge records to find another list indicating when it would have been low enough to hike across (see the box at the far right of this page). The
rule of thumb in our neighborhood is that the Mississippi River gauge
at Chester should be reading about 1.5 feet or lower to get across.
Alternately it’s sometimes accessible when water is a little higher but
As you can see, there have been many opportunities to view the exciting
things left behind in the river beds, including a trip out to explore
the now infamous Tower Rock. What in the world is making everyone so
crazy about this low water this time?
Indeed, as we move south down the river, some low water records are being
broken. Navigation has undoubtedly been impacted, and Lord knows, unless
something changes, it does not look like a promising waterfowl season,
given the utter lack of natural water anywhere in the southwest corner
of the state.
But still, in all, why are hundreds upon hundreds of people flocking to
Tower Rock? Of course, it’s interesting, but it’s just not that big
of a natural phenomenon despite what social media and the mainstream
media are telling us. The bigger story here is the change in weather
patterns, the flood management or lack thereof, and the definite changes
to the river system and overall climate we are starting to see.
The sad part about the sudden fame and notoriety of Tower Rock is the multitude of problems
being caused by this sudden influx of visitors to the area. Visitors are
unfamiliar with the road systems, the topography, the infrastructure,
or lack thereof. All they seem to be interested in is being able to get
that selfie for the ‘Gram and the hell with any good sense.
The weekend of Oct. 16 was horrible with endless stop-and-go traffic,
vehicles parked all over the place, even on railway right of way.
Unfortunately, this resulted in vehicles being struck by trains and
extremely long delays in traffic, only to discover that traffic wasn’t
going to move anytime soon.
Visitors were careless, climbing on the fragile rock faces, rude, and generally
displayed a preponderance of self-centered behavior.
Although the Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC) was clear about no
climbing, it was impossible to police the near mob. Folks who climbed to
the top had difficulty coming down because the crowds below them did
not lend the right of way. Thousands of footsteps have now trod across
the ancient limestone. Not just the neighborhood but the whole county in
Missouri has been turned on its head.
Oh, but the economic folks are rubbing their hands together in glee because
all those visitors are buying gas and lunch somewhere. There’s overflow
to the Illinois side as folks either misunderstand the location or want
a view from both sides. But is this really worth what we are doing to
I think not.
Many of you will jump from here to Google and suddenly decide you also need
to be part of this great event of a lifetime. If you do, the Missouri
Department of Conservation has some advice for you when planning your
The Missouri Department of Conservation reminds those visiting the
400-million-yearold Tower Rock Natural Area in Perry County to explore
nature safely and be respectful of the area and its neighboring land.
The roughly 32-acre natural area is comprised of upland oak, pine, and
mixed hardwoods. It features a vertical geologic formation known as
“Tower Rock” in the river channel.
During average river stages, the formation is perched in the middle of the
Mississippi River and is accessible only by boat. But during extremely
low river stages (typically below 1.5 feet at the Mississippi River
Chester gauge), this large limestone outcrop is accessible by foot.
Southeast Regional Administrator Matt Bowyer said this season’s dry weather created
conditions that have attracted numerous visitors to the area over the
past few weeks.
“We want folks to enjoy Tower Rock,” he said. “But the parking lot of the
actual area is relatively small, so space is limited. If you are parking
along the county road to access the area, please remember to not
further restrict access to other visitors or neighboring landowners.”
“The Mississippi River is still a very dangerous water body, even during low
conditions,” he said. “Please use caution. And as always, pack out what
you pack in. Do not leave litter behind.”
Tower Rock typically rises about 60 feet above the average river level. Much
of the rest of the natural area is connected to the mainland along the
river and features a small trail up the hill to gain a better view of
the nearby river and the tower.
The area was designated a Natural Area in 1972 and purchased by MDC in 1973.
Anyone with information pertaining to vandalism or other suspicious activity
at Tower Rock Natural Area is asked to contact Cpl. Christopher Doran at
Seriously folks, what is wrong with us? Is it that important to say you walked across the Mississippi to Tower Rock?
Any river rat will tell you this: Water goes down, water comes up. It’s part of one great and ever-changing cycle.