Points of Interest:
- See a bit of the Ozarks in north Missouri with caves, sinkholes, and springs.
- A great place to see and hear upland birds year round.
- View woodlands and prairies as the early settlers would have seen them.
- One of the few places in Missouri to support the rare running buffalo clover.
While located north of the Missouri River, the topography and life of this area are distinctly Ozark-like in character. Although this region was glaciated some 500,000 years ago, these uplifted hills were not as dramatically affected by the glacial ice as the rest of north Missouri. The limestone that underlies the area is rich in fossils, especially crinoids, ancient sea creatures that covered the ocean floor some 360 million years ago. Like the Ozarks south of the Missouri River, this landscape is riddled with caves, small springs, a losing stream, and sinkholes – all karst features.
Much of this area is covered with dry-mesic woodland dominated by mature white and black oaks and shagbark hickory, an open understory, and a ground layer dominated by sedges, bottlebrush grass, river oats, and legumes. Punctuating these extensive woodlands are limestone glades on south and west facing slopes, small dry-mesic prairies on level uplands, mesic forests on lower north facing slopes, cave openings, a sinkhole pond, and 4.5 miles of Big Sugar Creek. This varied landscape supports over 500 native plant species. Pickerelweed Sinkhole Pond is an important site for amphibians including the ringed salamander (a species of conservation concern).
The natural area and surrounding state park are great places to look for birds and butterflies. Over 60 butterfly species have been seen at the park and over 190 bird species. Big Sugar Creek, an Outstanding State Resource Water, supports 17 fish species including fishes common to north Missouri (e.g., red shiner) as well as fishes more common in the Ozarks (e.g., banded sculpin). A total of nineteen species of conservation concern have been documented, including running buffalo clover, a plant listed as endangered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
In 1888 Joseph Mudd described the appearance of the landscape of Lincoln County: “When the county was first settled there was no underbrush or small timber such as now exist. The timbered lands were open, the trees standing so far apart that the hunters could see the deer at distances from one to five hundred yards. The entire surface of the country was then covered with a rank growth of vegetation, consisting of native grasses and wildflowers…Annually, after this rank growth of vegetation became frosted, dead, and dry, the Indians set fire to it…” Today park managers use prescribed fire to restore similar conditions to the natural area. Of historic interest, the area making up the park today was originally purchased by the National Park Service in 1937. Between then and 1946 the Civilian Conservation Corps and the Works Progress Administration constructed many of the park’s facilities.