Rock Bridge Memorial State Park, located just 5 miles south of Columbia, Missouri, is a must-visit destination for anyone who appreciates the majesty of the great outdoors. The 2,273-acre geological playground is home to eight trails ideal for hiking, biking, horseback riding, taking the pup out for a long walk, or simply enjoying a breath of fresh air.
But there’s so much more to explore at Rock Bridge Memorial State Park – from sinkholes and caves to small springs and underground streams. There’s also the Devil’s Icebox Cave, said to be one of the longest caves in the state. So, lace up your comfiest hiking boots, take a big stretch, and bookmark this nifty guide for spending a day at the state park – it’s time to get going.
BUT FIRST, SOME BACKGROUND
Discovered in the 1800s, this mid-Missouri preserve was originally the site of operations for a gristmill, as well as the first paper mill west of the Mississippi River. What is now Pierpont, Missouri, was once a small-yet-vibrant community called Rock Bridge Mills. In the 19th century, the quaint town claimed a general store, post office, local blacksmith, and several houses.
The property also housed two whiskey distilleries until 1908, and just over a decade later, it became the site of an amusement park. (Talk about versatility.) The land was officially designated a state park in 1967, and has been providing breathtaking views and natural beauty to the public as Rock Bridge Memorial State Park for more than 50 years.
WAYS TO SPEND THE DAY
Explore the Cavernous Sights
One of the reasons this state park is such a bucket list destination? The caves. People come from all over the world to see the Devil’s Icebox: a double sinkhole that leads to two caves, aptly named for the underground stream of cold air that runs through the area. While tours of this wild cave are currently on pause in an effort to protect bats from white-nose syndrome, the 166-foot-long Connor’s Cave is open to visitors for a glimpse into the park’s underground world.
Admire the Natural Rock Bridge
Don’t miss the opportunity to snap a photo by the namesake of this state park – a gigantic (read: 125-feet-long and 64-feet-high) limestone rock bridge, which visitors can access along the Devil’s Icebox Trail. (Note that there are several steps to climb along this half-mile trail, which is mostly boardwalk.) The rock bridge, surrounded by streams, was separated from the rest of the cave system when a portion of the cave roof collapsed.
Put on Your Hiking Shoes
With eight trails to traverse, ranging from multiple-hour loops to moderate routes for beginners, Rock Bridge Memorial State Park is a hiker’s utopia. Take to the park’s Sinkhole Trail, and you’ll find yourself at the historic Rockbridge Mills site – and, as the name suggests, you’re bound to spot a sinkhole or two. The High Ridge Trail can also help elevate your experience, winding its way up toward one of the highest points in the park. Enjoy views of native grasslands from the peak as well as the aquatic life in the Clear Creek stream.
Ride on Horseback (or Opt for Mountain Biking)
Want to ditch the hiking boots for an equestrian excursion? We’ve got good news for you. The Gans Creek Wild Area Trail – which runs along scenic vistas with calm, flowing streams – permits horseback riding when the trail is dry, typically from July through the end of October. The caveat here: It’s a “BYOH” (bring your own horse) system. If you don’t have access to a sturdy steed, or you’d rather ditch saying “giddy-up” for off-road biking instead, check out one of the preserve’s mountain biking trails.
Play Around at the Playground
Have the kiddos in tow? Make the day unforgettable with a stop by the playground area, located at the intersection of the park’s second loop and main park road. There, you’ll find plenty of swings, a tunnel, an arch climber, and a horizontal ladder to keep the young ones entertained.
Unwind With a Scenic Picnic
What better way to spend an hour or two than a picnic (featuring a side of stunning views)? There are several picnic areas and shelters to choose from, including the Billy Gilbert Memorial Shelter and Rockbridge Mills Shelter. Pro tip: If you visit during August or September, fill up your picnic basket with local produce from the Columbia Farmers Market – just a 15-minute drive from the park.
WHERE TO REST YOUR HEAD
Now that you’ve worked up a sweat wandering around this enchanting green space, it’s time to get comfortable with an overnight stay in the area. Stoney Creek Columbia provides the perfect restful oasis just three miles from the preserve, with amenities like complimentary Wi-Fi – which you’ll certainly need for uploading all your park pictures to social media – as well as an indoor pool and fitness center.
Save time in your itinerary to stop by the property’s popular Antler Bar, where you can sip back and relax with a local brew (or two). The hotel is also within spitting distance of the University of Missouri – perfect for those looking to explore the campus or catch a Mizzou game at a local bar. Of course, unwinding for the night in one of the cozy gathering spaces or lovingly appointed guest rooms after an action-packed day might be just what the doctor ordered.