Sunday, November 15, 2009

Painted Rock Conservation Area

Painted Rock has been a favorite getaway for Jefferson Citians for generations. It’s just far enough away to keep it special, to make it a destination instead of a place to hang out by default.

This is another of those public lands that offer a variety of features, macro and micro, in both natural and human history. Comprising 1,480 acres, it’s a substantial area that can be visited repeatedly and continually yield surprises.

Where is it? Painted Rock CA is along the Osage River south of Jefferson City, southwest of the tiny town of Folk, off of Highway 133 between Meta and Westphalia. It’s about seven miles southwest of the junction of Highways 63 and 133. (That’s a pretty loop drive, by the way, between Westphalia and Meta, and then back to Jeff City through St. Thomas. I’m just sayin’.)

Human History

The Missouri Department of Conservation acquired the land in 1981, but it’s been used as a park and preserve since the last quarter of the 1800s. At that time, the land was leased and used by a group of affluent citizens of Jefferson City for hunting purposes. In 1907, when the land appeared to be in danger of being subdivided and sold, the group of hunters organized formally into the Painted Rock Country Club and purchased the property—1,086 acres.

The country club, whose members included Governor Herbert Hadley, had a clubhouse on the land, gathered there on the weekends, and had fall and winter hunts for deer, turkey, squirrels, rabbits, quail . . . this at a time when game was becoming increasingly scarce in the state due to the lack of centrally organized conservation efforts.

Again, these were prominent people; in 1909 the group’s annual banquet was held at the Governor’s Mansion, and it’s widely agreed that this club’s members were instrumental in developing and supporting Missouri’s first statewide hunting laws as well as creating (in 1936) the state’s department of Conservation.

The club’s heyday was in the 1920s, but it declined somewhat during the Depression; the land was sold in the mid-1940s and then sold again in 1952 to Sam B. Cook, a prominent Jefferson City banker who was the son and grandson of men who had been members of the country club. In 1981 he sold the property to the Missouri Department of Conservation, which developed the trail overlooks, interpretive signs, and other information, and worked to improve the quality of the area’s oak-hickory forests.

But the human history of the area goes back much farther than the country club. In fact, one of the first points on the interpretive trail is an Indian burial cairn (sadly vandalized long ago, so apparently there’s no good way to be sure of its age, or much else).

Also, there is the feature that gives the area its name: red pictographs of a buffalo and other symbols painted high on bluffs overlooking the Osage River by Indians between A.D. 1200 and 1300. For decades, the “Painted Rock” was a landmark for explorers, traders, and others who navigated the Osage, including Zebulon Pike, who noted it in 1806.

We tend to forget how very important rivers used to be in trade and transportation. The reason the state capital is at its current location is because the state’s early leaders specified that it had to be on the Missouri River, within forty miles of the mouth of the Osage.

I’ve never seen the “Painted Rock” pictographs; I don’t know where they are. The MDC literature for the Osage Bluff trail states they are “not accessible by the trail.” You can see recent images of them here. Apparently they are growing fainter and disappearing as the rocks weather; some disappearing in the last two hundred years.

I’d love to see the pictographs someday, whether from a boat or on foot. But for now, for me, the name “Painted Rock” can refer symbolically to the lovely splotches of mosses and lichens painting the many stones and outcroppings along the trail. This area must be home to dozens of species of bryophytes and their miniature amigos, crustose, foliose, and fruticose.


There is much to enjoy on the 1.6 mile Osage Bluff Scenic Trail, a loop that begins at a nice gravel parking lot and leads through pleasant forested territory before reaching tall bluffs and a nifty observation deck overlooking the Osage River, with a view of Bloody Island (which has its own colorful lore).

The trail then skirts the river, gradually descending to its lowest elevational point (a footbridge that crosses Cove Creek), then ascends a cool, fern-covered, north-facing hillside to emerge on another observation deck overlooking the Osage. Then, it’s another fairly level hike through oak-hickory woods back to where you parked.

There are some fairly steep sections of the trail, but these have long, mild switchbacks that make the grades less strenuous. Another issue for some hikers could be the rockiness at some places; yes, this is the Ozarks, and rocks are forever poking out of the soil. You know. “Ozark potatoes.” So flip-flops and penny loafers just aren’t a good idea. If you have Leki poles, you might be glad you brought them.

More Things to See

Probably the most remarkable things about Painted Rock are the breathtaking views of the Osage River from along high bluffs. The southern viewing platform is 140 feet over the river, and you have a tremendous view of the Osage Bend (yes, which the town of Osage Bend is named for; that burg lies across the river, within the river’s big loop). You can see flat cropland and farmhouses, and gentle distant hills that, the interpretive brochure points out, would have become steep Osage bluffs if the river had flowed to the west instead of its current course.

Also at the southern overlook, there’s an eastern red cedar clinging to the bluff that is approximately six hundred years old. It’s not very large. Sue, the bonsai artist, always admires it—and many other cedars on these bluff—for their strong, twisted shapes and tremendous character.

I should mention that there are a number of wooden benches at different points overlooking the Osage. We usually like to bring an apple to gnaw on while we enjoy the view. These overlooks are fantastic places to see sunsets, I might add.

Along the bluffs overlooking the river is also a good place to look for soaring birds, ranging from turkey vultures to bald eagles, as well as great blue herons and others associated with large rivers.

Another thing to enjoy at Painted Rock are the unpainted rocks—I mean, the basic geology of the area. The Gasconade Formation rocks that poke out in places were deposited as ocean sediments over 400 million years ago. There’s lots of sandstone, chert, and dolomite about, much of it eye-catching as you walk.

There’s a point, about midway in the trail when you’re getting close to river level, where you pass a remarkable shelf of dolomite and chert—which is a cool grayish-purple—there’s nothing under it, as a softer, tannish dolomite layer beneath it has eroded away.

Atop the shelf layer is an icing of sandstone, which sparkles when it catches the light. It’s so soft, it looks like it’s melting from the elements. There are holes, tiny caves, in it.

We always pause at this outcrop and smile as we fancy that this outcrop, with its decorations of various mosses, looks like a miniaturized version of the bluffs around us. It’s fun to take pictures that represent this; with a little imagination (or confusion), you might think you’re looking at a long-distance view of the bluffs, or a side of a mountain.

I really like to go hiking where I can be delighted by both small things and expansive things, and if you’re like me, you’ll enjoy Painted Rock Conservation Area, too.


“History of Painted Rock Country Club Tied to Development of a State Conservation Program,” in Gary R. Kremer, Heartland History Volume 3 (Jefferson City, Mo.: City of Jefferson, 2004), 28-31. (This essay includes some neat pictures of the country club's parties and outings.)

Osage Bluff Scenic Trail: Painted Rock Conservation Area, trail brochure published by the Missouri Department of Conservation (n.d.), available at the trailhead.


JaneL said...

This definitely looks like another place to add to my list of sites to visit.

Anonymous said...

I was just wondering how did Bloody Island get its name?

Julianna Schroeder said...

How did Bloody Island get its name? Aw heck, I can't remember, and I can't find the brochure I used to have that interprets the Osage Bluff Scenic Trail at Painted Rock. (Maybe I purged it last time I went through my office like a white tornado...)

The MDC regularly stocks the trailhead kiosk at Painted Rock with copies of a trailguide, a little booklet with explanations at various points along the trail. I'm sure it discusses the origin of the "Bloody Island" name.

I *think* that it has something to do with gold, smuggling, Civil War, Indians, and/or Spaniards--but if memory serves, it's all legendary, with much more "color" to it than veracity. (Maybe that's why I didn't commit it to memory, it if amounted to a pack of myths!)

If you find out, I hope you'll post a comment here summarizing the story.

And next time I'm out there hiking, I'll see if I can verify the place-name origin.

Sorry if this response is lame beyond belief!


Julianna Schroeder said...

UPDATE RE. BLOODY ISLAND LORE: I've been to Painted Rock recently and got a copy of the interpretive trail guide. Here's what it says about "Station #3," which is Bloody Island Overlook:

"Many stories and legends describe the area. In some cases, it's hard to tell the difference between fact and fiction. The most repeated story is about buried treasure on or near the area, but the story has several versions. One is that an army payroll was buried on the island during the Civil War. Another story, from the book _Stories from Painted Rock Bluff,_ describes the adventures of a young Spaniard, who, in order to marry his sweetheart in St. Louis, went west to make his fortune and did. His party was returning, loaded with gold, when they encountered Indian trouble while camped at the junction of the Osage and Maries rivers. They fled up the Osage by canoe. Shortly after passing a bluff with many paintings on it, the party pulled into the river bank and hid the gold and themselves. Later, leaving the gold, they made a dash down the Osage to the Missouri River. However, all were killed or fatally injured. One Indian guide lived long enough to pass on the directions to the treasure. Using these directions, many have searched unsuccessfully over the years, apparently even before the story was published."

This quote is from "Osage Bluff Scenic Trail: Painted Rock Conservation Area" (Jefferson City: Missouri Department of Conservation, n.d.).

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed reading about Painted Rock. I live in Illinois and plan to visit when it's warm enough to enjoy. I was recently reading an archeological report from 1907. It mentioned an Indian "house" located on a bluff one mile from Painted Rock. Also, there are reports of Indian hand prints in the area. Would anyone be able to direct me to those? One last thing. The area was called the "Spires" during the last half of the 19th century. Are there spire like rock formations nearby? Thanks. I'm hoping to find out as much as I can before making the long drive over.


Julianna Schroeder said...

Hi, Tom, what I said in my post above hasn't changed: I've never seen the pictographs at Painted Rock Conservation Area, and I don't really know where they are. Apparently they are:

1. Hard to get to without boats and ladders and maybe even rappelling equipment;

2. Fading and hard to see; and

3. Fragile to the extent that the MDC does not want people trampling, hunting for, and possibly defacing them.

Also, per my post above, here is the only recent commentary and pictures I've seen of them (though my research is admittedly shallow):

The fellow who created the page did actually visit the site in Nov. 2007; photos of the pictographs appear on his web page.

I highly recommend his website; it satisfied my own curiosity about what the pictographs look like. (Honestly: I used to live in the Southwest, and hey, if this is what the Painted Rock pictographs look like with colors *enhanced,* then it's not much to get excited over. It's just nice to know they're there, even if they're fading.)

For more information on the pictographs, I recommend you contact the fellow who created that webpage. He's a professor of anthropology at St. Louis Community College: Dr. Michael J. Fuller. E-mail (per his college website, is His phone is (314) 984-7987.

Re. the "Indian house"--perhaps that refers to the looted, craterlike burial cairn near the Bloody Island overlook--?

Re. the "spires"--there are some pretty prominent cliffs along the river, and I suppose people called some of them "spires"--but it's nothing like the hoodoos in the Southwest. (Maybe there used to be pointier formations that have since fallen down?) To get views of the bluffs, either ride a boat in the Osage River, or drive the loop of East Bend Road on the other side of the river, accessed by taking Hwy W to the tiny, picturesque town of Osage Bend.

There's at least one trail at Painted Rock CA that leads down to the river's edge, and due to the curve of the river you can get some nice bluff views.

Whether to see the pictographs or not, the place is scenic on large and small scales. I hope you enjoy your trip!

Steve Wiegenstein said...

I recently visited Painted Rock for the first time and was delighted to discover it! Then found your blog post, which gives a great overview. I hope you don't mind if I quote from it in my own blog post about this wonderful location.

Julianna Schroeder said...

Hi, Steve, and thank you for your comment. You may certainly quote my words. Please simply tell your readers the name of my blog and provide a link to it. Thanks again! Maybe I'll see you out there sometime. I've been really getting into lichens recently, and there are tons of nifty specimens out at Painted Rock.

John said...

Ah Painted Rock, source of many a pleasant teenage memory. Bloody Island is one of those places I wish was accessible by the mainland (but it can be visited by boat, I've met someone who lives in a house down on the Osage River and this summer I'll likely get to explore it with him) but like most river islands it's probably just a bunch of quicksand and vegetation and not much else. I have driven down to the community of Osage Bend and sometimes on a clear day in the winter when the vegetation's cleared away I swear you can sometimes see specks of red on the rocks from clear across the way. Really neat area.



Julianna Schroeder said...

I agree that Bloody Island is probably just a glorified sandbar and what the lumber industry calls trash trees. I do love those platforms out there overlooking the river.

Thank you for your comment, John.