A bright sun nudged the thermometer to 10 degrees and glistened off the light snow that covered the forested hills and valleys on the opening day of Don Robinson State Park.
The view of the wintry scene was spectacular from the highest point in the park where the late Don Robinson built his home. A picnic shelter and overlook with rocking chairs now welcomes visitors to pause and inspect the rugged landscape.
“I can’t think of any other overlook in Jefferson County where you can look out 360 degrees and not see another house,” said Ron Colatskie, a natural resource steward for Missouri State Parks who grew up and lives nearby.
Wearing a stocking cap and a scarf around his face, Colatskie led a tour that started at the top of the highest hill and descended into the labyrinth of box canyons, where seeping water had frozen into ice sculptures on the sandstone walls.
Although he had been there many times before, even Colatskie was impressed by the icy formations in a small canyon that Robinson had named Green Gulch because of its verdant display of lichen, mosses and Christmas ferns.
“Wow,” said Colatskie as he pulled out his phone and began taking photos.
Winter is a great time to visit the park’s 818 acres because the leafless trees offer a better look into the canyons cut by small streams that form the headwaters of LaBarque Creek. The creek supports 42 species of fish and is the most pristine in the Meramec River watershed.
When the forests and glades green up in spring, the park becomes a botanical garden, with some 524 species of vascular plants, in addition to more than 100 species of mosses.
“What is really special is the contrasting communities,” Colatskie said. “The canyons harbor very wet environments with rare ferns and mosses, but just above are the desert-like glades, where you’ll find species like prickly pear cactus.”
The Real Gems
Located just 20 minutes south from the Highway 109 exit off Interstate 44 at Eureka, the park is a wild sanctuary amid the booming development at the southwest corner of the St. Louis area.
The LaBarque Creek Conservation Area is on the park’s northern boundary, and the two combine to form designated natural areas that total almost 2,000 acres. Natural areas represent some of the best, and last, examples of Missouri’s original wild landscape
“I would argue it’s the highest quality natural area around St. Louis,” Colatskie said. “The box canyons are the real gems of the area.”
The park will be for day use only, and has two trails that show off its steep hills and deep valleys. Don Robinson’s wood-and-stone house, with a widow’s walk to take in the view, is the only remaining structure, alongside new restrooms.
The LaBarque Hills Trail is a 2.4-mile loop that takes hikers along the backbone of the park’s western ridge. The Sandstone Canyon Trail is a four-mile loop that follows a ridgetop along the upper edge of a sandstone canyon. There also is a half-mile paved ADA trail.
“Everybody’s awestruck by these canyons,” Colatskie said. “What also attracts people to the park is the escape from the growing urban communities that surround it.
“The majority of the LaBarque Creek watershed is publicly owned, which is incredible considering the real estate values. This is one of the few sites that wasn’t subdivided up.”
The temperature had climbed to 15 degrees as we hiked back out of the canyons after two hours of enjoying the ice art. I found that I was carrying some ice of my own – my water bottles had frozen in the mesh bags of my pack.
Promoting the Wildness
Although Robinson lived alone in the house, and never married or had children, he enjoyed entertaining on summer weekends and built a large swimming pool, with a high dive, for his guests.
His business was in Kirkwood, where he manufactured and sold a spot remover called “Off.” He often appeared on late-night television in commercials promoting the product. Robinson also developed three subdivisions.
In an interview at his hilltop home in 2010, at the age of 83, Robinson said his main goal was to keep the land intact for future generations to enjoy.
“The most depressing thing I’ve ever had to do is worrying about what to do with this place,” he said. “I’m used to putting things together, not writing the last chapter.”
He had been visited by several agencies interested in his property, ranging from the St. Louis office of The Nature Conservancy to the New York Botanical Garden.
Doug Ladd, the Conservancy’s top botanist, had visited the land and praised its “unique diversity.”
“Beyond that,” he said, “its incredible scenery on the doorstep of St. Louis. Winding, steep-sided sandstone canyons, trickling springs, moss mats. Scenery you normally don’t associate with the Midwest.”
Robinson ultimately chose to leave the land to the Missouri Department of Natural Resources when promised it would become a state park.
When he died in March of 2012, Robinson’s gift of land included a trust fund to help in its management.
“Don wanted to limit development and highlight the natural aspects of the land,” said Colatskie, who first met Robinson when he shopped at a grocery store where Colatskie worked as a young man.
“He really promoted the wildness of the land,” Colatskie said. “I think he’d be impressed with what we’ve done with it.”
A gravel path leads from the overlook parking lot a short way to a grove of trees at the top of a nearby knoll. A park bench sits before a granite headstone that says, simply, “Don A. Robinson.”
Visitors have left coins and plastic flowers as offering of thanks.
“Don was always adamant that he would become a permanent feature of the landscape once he passed away,” Colatskie said.
“He once told his friends that he didn’t care if someone left him in the woods for the vultures, but instead settled to be interred on a small knoll overlooking the landscape he loved.”