A Morning at Tower Rock

January 18, 2013

Rising nearly 10 stories above the Mississippi River, bull-nosed at the bow and tapered at the stern, this limestone promontory is Tower Rock, sometimes called Grand Tower, especially by those across the river in Illinois. Coiffed with a flattop of stubborn cedars and a few other ne’er-do-well trees that have claimed squatter’s rights on its gritty surface, Tower Rock is a sight to behold. If you’ve ever considered a junket to this geological landmark, now is the time as the diminished flow of the Mississippi River has exposed a bedrock pathway right out to its base. Under these rare conditions, you can walk out to Tower Rock, touch its washboard face and maybe even feel the slight tug of its gravity. But be advised that according to folklore, a manitou and other monsters lurk at the base of the mother stone, waiting in the shadows to devour travel-weary visitors. I’m just saying you might want to stop and drink a cup of coffee in nearby Altenburg to clear your mind before you venture too close to the stalwart tower.

I’ve skirted past Tower Rock a few times over the years on towboat trips, as part of my job as a fisheries biologist, but I’d never visited the natural monument from land. After my friend Mike showed me some online photos of droves of visitors hiking out to the rock, I made plans for a look myself. I set the alarm for 3:30 a.m. and hit the road in hopes of catching the stone as it warmed its ruddy face in the soft winter sunrise. When I arrived at the site, a Missouri Department of Conservation natural area, it was still dark and the looming landmark appeared quite menacing. I hiked around in the twilight, trying not to slip on the wet bedrock until I found a nice vantage point to capture the tower in the orange glow of morning. When dawn finally arrived, I made this image which includes a nice reflection on the smooth backwaters of the Mississippi River. Honestly, I wasn’t too happy with the shot until Joyce reassured me. I think her exact words were, “You did fine; it’s just a big rock.”

After three hours of shooting, I packed my gear and readied for home. I sure had a wonderful morning at Tower Rock Natural Area and I didn’t even see another visitor, or manitou, until a few minutes before my departure. I can’t wait to return when the river’s flow is restored and I can capture the turbulent parting of waters around this citadel of Mississippi River folklore.

From Marquette’s journal (1673) regarding Tower Rock: “A place that is dreaded by the savages, because they believe that a manitou is there, that is to say, a demon, that devours travelers.”

Thanks for Looking!


Tower Rock; Canon 1D Mark IV; Canon 17-40 f/4 L Lens @ 17 mm; 1/10 sec @ f/22; ISO 400; Mirror Locked Up; 2 sec Timer; B + W Circular Polarizer; RAW Capture; Feisol CT3301 Carbon Fiber Tripod with Markins M-10 Ballhead

Note to Photographers:  If you are wondering, “ISO 400—what the….?” It was an accident as I temporarily went from 100 to 400 to photograph a towboat and forgot to shift back. Fortunately, the Canon 1D performs nicely at either setting.


Find more images at my Website Gallery and read my story about the Yellow-rumped Warbler in the January, 2013 Missouri Conservationist.


16 comments on “A Morning at Tower Rock”

  1. Totally interesting, Danny. Makes me want to go but not at 3:30 a.m. Chris

    Sent from my iPad

  2. I love pictures of rocks. Really great photo and story. Glad the demons didn’t get you Danny!

    My dear Irish grandmother, Nana Hurley, frequently used the phrase, “They’re comin’ after you Danny”, even though we had no Danny’s in our generation. I always thought it was perhaps a phrase from a book or movie from the WWI era. Maybe it was for me to pass on to warn you about this rock 🙂


    Sent from my MUSKIE iPad http://www.muskiesinc.org/indy_files/mimag.html

    • That’s funny Kevin. I guess we’ll never know where she got that….one of those things you can’t just look up on the internet. Take care.

  3. I remember it from a distance when I was a deckhand on the Emily Gladders for Gladders Towing back in the 70’s. Your photo makes me want to make a trip there.

    Thanks again, mike


    • I didn’t know about your John Hartford–esque background. I think you’d like a visit to the rock.

  4. MUST go to see Tower Rock….and will think of you (and probably call you before I go!) Thank you for this wonderful post.

  5. Nice capture, Danny. I wonder what type of wildlife lives on top of that rock? What a great place to look out and see the world. Thanks for sharing!

    • A lot of birds using it the morning I was there. I bet the occasional bald eagle uses it for a vantage point as well. Take care Brenda.

  6. That’s quite the landmark. Beautiful.

  7. Now there is something else on my list of things to see in Missouri. Great shot as usual. Only a photographer understands getting up at 3:00 am to get the best light.

    • Thanks Mike. Gotta get the golden hour! I almost didn’t make it as it was a longer trip than I thought. I’ll be seeing you soon if it gets real cold.

  8. As usual…you produce a beautiful picture with awesome narative…..you have a knack for bringing your audience right into the picture and feeling its beauty just as you do…

    • Sometimes I worry about overstating the beauty of Missouri but I never get complaints from people that visit natural areas after I write about them. Wait until you see what I have for you next Friday. I captured the image yesterday morning. Thanks Jessee.

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