Bison, nature’s ice sculptures, maybe an eagle or two - visitors to Missouri State Parks can expect to see these and more when taking part in the 40 First Day Hikes programs scheduled at parks throughout the state on Jan. 1.
At Prairie State Park on the western border, visitors will have the opportunity to view some of more than 100 bison that call the park home.
“Until the morning of the hike, we won’t know exactly where the bison are,” said Dana Hoisington, park naturalist. “We’ll go out and hope to get close enough to get a good look.”
The herd can make for a dramatic sight, especially when a fresh snow mounds up on their shaggy backs. The recommended distance for safely viewing a bison is about the length of a football field.
All 50 states are taking part in the New Year’s Day activity, which is sponsored by America’s State Parks, a national organization that celebrates state park systems developed in the United States.
Missouri State Parks, a division of the Missouri Department of Natural Resources, is especially accommodating for the hiking event because it has more than 230 trails in 58 parks and historic sites. The wealth of trails helped Missouri earn the title of “best trails state” awarded by America’s Trails, a national, non-profit group.
Bill Bryan, director of Missouri State Parks, said participating in a First Day Hike helps get the New Year off on the right foot - on one of the state’s award-winning trails.
“Winter is a great time for hiking and First Day Hikes help families become more comfortable with the idea of getting outdoors in Missouri state parks during cooler weather,” Bryan said. “For many, it’s a way to experience nature and can lead to a new, unique family tradition.”
Visit mostateparks.com and contact a park near you to find out if it has a hike on Jan. 1. Starting times vary; some parks have scheduled more than one hike.
Most of the hikes will be short and of moderate difficulty, and require proper footwear and winter clothing. They will be held in case of light snow and in cold temperatures, unless ice or other inclement weather makes roads and trails hazardous.
Bison are the stars of the show at Prairie State Park, but there are other interesting creatures that visit the park in winter.
“Northern harriers are here now,” Hoisington said. “And we definitely should have short-eared owls. They’re most active at dawn and dusk, but we could kick one up out of the grass and see it fly across the prairie. We’ve done that before.”
Rock Bridge Memorial State Park near Columbia got a jump on winter hiking; the park staff and friends group has been offering New Year’s Day hikes for more than a decade and now has merged into the national program. Last year, 91 people showed up for the hikes, which toured some of the springs at Rock Bridge.
“This year, we’ll visit our prairies,” said Roxie Campbell, park naturalist. “What’s nice about winter on the prairie is it’s pretty wide open; you enjoy the sky and the shape of the land. You can see the tall grasses and dried wildflowers with the russets, oranges and yellows – it’s still there in winter.
“Last year, we had snow on the ground and it was pretty cold. But if you’re dressed for it and exercising, it’s comfortable. I remember the sunshine sparkling off the crystalline flakes of the snow.”
There are more than 40 hikes planned throughout the state. Here are some of the hikes planned for a half dozen other parks in various corners of Missouri:
Roaring River State Park near Cassville in southwest Missouri: The First Day Hike will cover the 1.5-mile Devil’s Kitchen Trail, which leads back to an impressive formation of jumbled boulders that looks like a cave. “It was said to have been a hideout for Bushwhackers in the Civil War,” said Kerry Hays, the park’s assistant superintendent, who will lead the hike. “There are several large rocks that are incredibly fun to climb on.”
Ha Ha Tonka State Park at the Lake of the Ozarks: The hike will tour two of the park’s geologic wonders, a 100-foot-high natural bridge and the 150-foot-deep Colosseum Sinkhole. “If there’s moisture, you’ll get lots of icicles on the Colosseum and the natural bridge,” said Larry Webb, park naturalist. “At this time of the year, with the foliage off the trees, you’ll be able to see the bluffs on the other side.”
Watkins Woolen Mill State Park near Kansas City: The hike will be on the park’s most popular trail, the 3.7-mile paved trail that circles 100-acre William Creek Lake, crossing six wood bridges and one metal truss bridge. “We may see some deer, some geese, depending on the weather,” said Mike Beckett, natural resource manager. “The trail is almost all level. We’ve had people that cross-country ski on it.”
Castlewood State Park near St. Louis: The hike on the River Scene Trail will be led by Michael Brady, a park volunteer who is an avid birder. The hike will start on the trail along the Meramec River, and may climb wood steps to the bluffs for a panoramic view of the river valley, weather permitting. “Eagles are probably a guarantee, and other raptors like red-shouldered hawks,” Brady said. “Pileated woodpeckers are really active in the winter. People always get a kick out of seeing them.”
Trail of Tears State Park in southeast Missouri: The hike will be on a two-mile trail that loops around Lake Boutin, crossing valleys and ridges. Denise Dowling, natural resource manager, said snack bars will be provided for hikers. “They should wear sturdy shoes or hiking boots as the trail may be muddy, and bring water,” she said.
Hawn State Park near Ste. Genevieve in southeast Missouri: The walk will be along the Pickle Creek Trail, perhaps Missouri’s prettiest short hike. “They’ll see lots of pine trees and exposed granite and sandstone along Pickle Creek,” said Ed Schott, park superintendent. “If it’s cold enough, there will be some really outstanding icicles hanging from the bluffs, maybe see some frost flowers. There will be lots of bird life, and deer, and maybe tracks. It all depends on the temperature; I’ve seen butterflies in January.”