Getting My Feet Wet at the Devil’s Icebox

Photographs from January 25, 2018

As I have been learning, Missouri is more than farmland and forests. From the rocky mountains of the Ozark Plateau to the rolling fields of the north, every section has a unique and interesting landscape. For my second State park visit of the year, I picked a region I haven't spent much time in: Central Missouri.

Many of Missouri’s most interesting features were created by a mixture of different kinds of rock, and millions of years of erosion. As the more soluble rocks, like limestone and gypsum, were striped away, the remaining weathering-resistant igneous rock shaped the area. This process gave rise to Missouri's shut-ins, Bluffs, and karst landscapes.

Karst is something I just learned about during my visit to Rock Bridge Memorial State Park. It's created when the rock eroding away is beneath the surface which creates open pockets underground. As these pockets grow, and shift above or below the water table, it gives rise to underground streams, springs, dry and aquatic caves, natural bridges, and sinkholes: all of which are present at Rock Bridge Memorial State Park. 


Rock Bridge Memorial State Park

Contained in the parks borders are nine caves, a large number of sinkholes, a spring, and the feature the park is named after: a natural tunnel, or rock bridge. Another of the parks main draws, the Devil’s Icebox, is a double sinkhole that exposed an underground stream, allowing entrance to two sections of the cave. This stream was used as a power source for settlers in the 1800s as a community known as Pierpont grew in the area. You can still find the remains of many structures scattered throughout the park. 

Despite being privately owned, the land was semi-public for over a century. The area became a gathering place for the country folk on account of the naturally cool air coming from the Rock Bridge and the Devil’s Icebox. 

This ended though when a young girl, Carol Stoerker, was struck by a car and killed in 1961. With the support of the community, her family pushed to establish the area as a park for children to play in safety. In 1967 the land formally became a part of the state park system. 

Today there are many opportunities to enjoy the park's natural spenders. There are campsites, 18 miles of trail, and an orienteering course that will take you all over the park.

Grassland trail

The first trail I took was through a section of restored grasslands. The path meanders through fields of 5-6 foot tall grass and the occasional forest, with sinkhole ponds dotting the landscape. 

During my research using Google Earth, I discovered an abandoned barn nearby. It’s not hidden or anything, but the park map doesn’t show the trail that extends over to it. I didn't go inside it, but I am glad I knew to stop and check it out. 

Overall the trail was fairly uneventful, but it was a lot of fun exploring the landscape and wading through the tall grass.


Devil's Icebox and Connor’s Cave

The trailhead for Sinkhole Trail is right across from where I parked. The trail traverses a forested section of the park, and as the name implies, it passes numerous sinkholes. Near one of the sinkholes I stopped at are two concrete silos: remnants of the area’s agricultural past. You could easily climb into both of the silos, but one had a sunken floor that would make it hard to get out of. A little further on I finally crossed paths with the trail I really wanted to explore: Devil’s Icebox trail. 

The trail itself is a boardwalk loop that goes to some of the parks most impressive features, including the Devil’s Icebox Cave. From the surface the sinkhole entrance doesn't look like much, but once you descend the staircase you are confronted with the door to another world. 

At the bottom of the sinkhole is a wide, four foot tall arch shaped opening in the rock. After ducking under, I found myself in a large canyon like room. In the center there were a few large boulders beautifully illuminated by an opening in the ceiling.

A stream ran through the room, out of the Devil’s Icebox to the right, and into Connor’s Cave to the left. The stream wasn’t too deep, but I was glad I had waterproof boots as I moved around the rocks. The stream bed dropped off towards the Devil’s Icebox so I could only go so far in that direction. It didn't matter though, because that section of the cave is closed to the public anyways. Connor's Cave on the other hand, is open to visitors. 

I dropped my pack, and set off to explore. It was much easier to move along the rocks with out the extra weight, and using my trekking poles made navigating a breeze. As I moved deeper into the cave I had to climb onto a large rock outcropping and crawl. 

When I reached the end of the rock I decided to turn around. It looked like I could have gone further, but I didn't want to leave my gear for too long. I would be back shortly though, because I discovered a small waterfall/rapids as the stream flowed by the outcropping. 

After returning to my pack I began photographing the entrance area. To get the composition I wanted, I placed my tripod as far back into Devil's Icebox as I could before the drop off. It was a little nerve racking as I balanced myself to peer though the viewfinder, the risk of falling into the cold depths behind me constantly on my mind. I ended up shooting the scene with two types of film and with my digital camera. Each one gives an interesting rendition of the location, but I think I prefer the digital in this instance. After I was satisfied I headed back into Connor's Cave.

It was more difficult to move through the cave with my pack on, but not unmanageable. I setup my tripod on the rock outcropping, and worked by lamplight to frame the rapids. I had to "paint" the light using my headlamp, otherwise it was pitch black. 

As I sat in the dark waiting for each exposure, I couldn't help but feel uneasy. I knew there was no "monster in the dark", but sitting alone in the pitch black of a cave was a strange experience.


Returning to the daylight

As I left the cave I ran into a couple who were checking out the entrance room. I wonder what they thought seeing this random man emerge from the depths with a headlamp on, and a fully packed hiking bag. 

I exited back up the steps, and followed the boardwalk around to the natural tunnel. Unfortunately the staircase down to the tunnel was closed because a section was missing. Since that had been the last location I planned to see, I made my way back to the Sinkhole Trail and headed back to my car.

Exploring this park was a great experience. The karst landscape was unlike anything else I’ve seen before in Missouri. I found out later that I missed a lot: a 30 ft deep sinkhole, the spring where the Devil’s Icebox stream lets out, a number of old structures, and numerous bluffs. There is so much to see at this park! 

I would highly recommend visiting Rock Bridge State Park, especially if you live near Columbia, MO. I know I’ll be going back.