Sunday, October 11, 2009

Spring Creek Gap Conservation Area

Today I’m going to tell you about Spring Creek Gap Conservation Area, and Spring Creek Gap Glades Natural Area, which is included within the Conservation Area. We hiked this area a week ago, Sunday, October 4, and had a great time at this gorgeous, relatively untrampled public land.

It’s administrated by the Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC) and comprises 1,816 acres in Maries County (that’s pronounced MARE-eez, for you outsiders). On a map, you’ll find Spring Creek Gap CA a little north of Rolla, and a little southeast of Vienna. The closest town is Vichy (rhymes with “fishie”). (I won’t touch the local pronunciation of “Vienna”—I hear there are different ways to pronounce it, and I’m not going to enter that fray!)

Anyway, we first visited this Conservation Area early this year (February 28, 2009) and hiked in the snow. We didn’t hike very far, but we had a great time, loved the views, and vowed to return. Hence our trip last weekend! Here are a few pictures from our February outing:

. . . So after that visit, we ended up picking perhaps the best weekend of the year for our return hike. The weather was perfect—sunny, crisp, with those intense blue skies we can get here in October. The fall color changes were still in the early stages, with early changers—such as brilliant red sumacs—showing great color against the warm palette of late-summer greens.

Additionally, the asters, goldenrods, and other friendly, late-blooming composites were casually bobbing their waist-high inflorescences, adding their earth tones to the landscape like patches of lavender, gold, and cream in a hillside by Cézanne.

The landscape changes a lot at Spring Creek Gap. Entering the area at the south parking lot—at the top of a hill, near the Vichy Fire Tower site (more on that soon, I promise) off of Old Highway 63—you are surrounded by a forest of shortleaf pines, which is pretty special for Missouri.

Shortleaf pines used to be all over the southern part of Missouri, but they were so intensively logged that few forests remain. The patch here by Spring Creek Gap is a planting, and it’s cool to see these gorgeous, soft-looking pines and to think about how this area might have looked when they were much more numerous.

As you hike the trails of the area, you pass through oak-hickory forests, along ridges, way down into creek crossings, and all topographic levels in between.

Additionally—and I think this is the reason for the Natural Area designation—there are a number of glades, some small, some covering more than ten acres.

Glades are relatively open areas where the soils are poor and usually involve rocks poking out of the ground. They’re kind of like miniature deserts, and they feature plants that are xeriphytic by Missouri standards—prairie species like yellow coneflower, liatris, and big bluestem, for instance. Glades are also good places to look for lizards—and we saw plenty of them, basking on this sunny autumn day.

In terms of the hiking experience, the glades provide a cheery contrast to the forested sections of the trail, a place where you can see vistas and get a view of where you’ve come from and where you’re going. A breath of fresh air and sunshine.

Adding even more ecological interest to the area, the MDC has created several small watering ponds to improve the terrain for wildlife. Most of these ponds are off the trail, hidden from view by small ridges, but a few are easily seen. I’ll bet these are wonderful places for photographers to visit at daybreak to capture images of animals taking their morning drinks.

The trails in this Conservation Area vary. The main trails appear to be fire roads—double-tracked, often graveled, sometimes slightly rutted. These are easy to follow. Some of the other trails are more difficult, however.

We had the area brochure and map with us, and we got off course when we missed a trail juncture that wasn’t marked accurately on the map and wasn’t marked with signage at the trail intersection. Plus, the trail we had missed was pretty grown up and hard to see, anyway.

So the topography on the map soon contradicted what we were seeing around us, and we sensed we were on a wrong course. We turned around and were ready to backtrack possibly the whole distance, when a pair of spry ladies trip-trapped up the trail and were having basically the same problem as us; together we found the missing trail turn-off and continued on.

And there were a few notable places where this section of trail was greatly overgrown with grasses (river oats and such). Part of me was pleased to be in such a wonderfully remote area, but then another part of me wondered, “Well, is this the dang trail, or not?

Yes, there were some signs tacked to trees at (most) major trail intersections, but they were ambiguously marked (“D” was spray-painted on one; “E” and “F” were two others we saw). These signs didn’t match anything we saw on the map, so they might as well have been written in Sanskrit for all the good they did. The trails aren’t named on the map, either, and approximate mileages aren’t provided—any of these would have been nice to have.

I think that the loop trail we hiked was about three miles long—but since there’s no name for it, it doesn’t do me any good to tell you that, does it.

Another gripe about the trails: Many of them go straight up and down hillsides. My poor ol’ knees were singing, but beyond my personal comfort, I also think that switchbacks are important safeguards against erosion. Why aren’t there switchbacks on these steep (and rocky) hillside marches, or at least generally more oblique approaches up and down the terrain? One wonders. Maybe these are simply old hillbilly trails from the 1800s, and no one has changed them.

After this complaining, let me reiterate the good stuff. It’s a fairly remote area and gloriously little-traveled. We were there the best weekend of the year for hiking, and we only encountered those two ladies the whole time we were there. There’s lovely topographical relief and a diversity of landscapes, a little bit of everything—forests, creeks, glades, ponds, Ozark panoramas. Biological diversity: check! We saw lots of different plants, fungi, and animals. The hike is long enough to be substantial and satisfying, and definitely worth a few-hour drive.

. . . And then there’s also the Vichy Fire Tower, and I’ll tell you about that next.

[Photo credits: Sue, Sue, and Sue, my photographer extraordinaire. Thanks sweetie, and a happy NCOD to you! And to every one of us.]


Sandy said...

Has anyone ever heard of Bear Branch in Maries County? My father, Everett Curtis, grew up on a piece of property near there. I'm wondering if his old house/cabin in still standing. He's turning 80 on April 6th.

Sandy Curtis Wallace

Julianna Schroeder said...

Hi, Sandy, I'm not familiar with the place myself, and it doesn't appear in the standard references I'm familiar with--but a friend of mine is a geographer specializing in Missouri, and I'll ask him. Meanwhile, I'll put a link to this post on the Op Op Facebook page to widen the net of your search!


Kristina said...

Hi!! wonderful piece! My friend and I started out aimlessly for a nice motorcycle ride and ended up here. (both attend MS&T) We took a brochure and started on our hike around 7:15. Needless to say, around the same time you did it sounds like..we got lost! Right as it hit dark. The last sign I saw was the "F" and again, had no clue what that meant. We saw orange flags around trees for while. but after we hit the creek for the second time (right under the na in natural on the map) we couldn't find the path on the other side! At least I think thats where we're at. Trails def are not obvious in a lot of parts. We just decided to get on top of the ridge and start walking in the distance we thought was right based on the sounds of the highway and moon location. We're convinced we hit the trail at the water hole under the 'S" on spring creek. We were very thankful a sherrif had come down the path looking for us! Anyway, it was a lot of fun and very pretty! Next time we'll set off earlier and be more prepared (no pocket knife, dead phones, not even tennis shoes!) but I'd love to know more areas like this around Rolla! What have you found and any advice to bring during a hike? Or what to do when lost? (:

Julianna Schroeder said...

Thank you, Kristina, for your comment. I'm sorry to hear you had trouble seeing the trail, too. Fortunately, like us, it sounds like you had a decent time despite the worry of not quite knowing where you were.

As for finding good hiking places, see if you can get a hard copy of the Missouri Conservation Areas Atlas. It's available online here but as you said, some of the best places for hikes don't include Internet or cell phone reception. (One reason they're so magical, I think!)

There are lots of other guides available, too, including "what to do when lost." This one looks like it has good advice: