First Hike of 2020: Rock Bridge Memorial State Park
Updated: Jul 29
Despite its location being just outside of the city of Columbia, Missouri, Rock Bridge Memorial State Park has a ton to offer even novice hikers like me. While some trails have wooden walkways and stairs, others are purely rugged with roots and rocks to climb, and even streams to cross. Some trails even allow horses or bikes, and the park itself is dog-friendly so we could bring our ornery husky, Howl.
Not only does it have wilderness, historical locations, and miles of trails, Rock Bridge is home to a huge cave system, part of which is open to the general public. And more intermediate and advanced spelunking can be done on their cave tours given during the summer.
Needless to say, with all of this awesome in one place, and with it not being too far from home, I felt Rock Bridge would be perfect for our first hike of 2020.
Who came along?
Since this was going to be our last day before my husband went back to work, we decided to bring the whole family. Myself, our daughter, Goo, and as I said before, Wizard Howl the ornery white husky.
Still being somewhat novice at hiking—we’re pretty spoiled around here with paved trails—this was no several-days hike complete with camping gear and a portable stove. Instead we decided to just make a day of it, pick a trail, and hike until we were tired.
For Howl, this meant forever. But for us hoomans, the hike wound up being close to three hours.
I’d meant to bring my Instax camera, but in case I was unable to get film—it’s all still sold out around here—I had decided to charge my Nikon D5300 the night before. What’s funny is, the next day I decided I’d give the film thing a go and found my Instax Neo 90 had a low battery. So the DSLR was ultimately what came along. With it, I brought my 35mm and the 40mm macro lens in case I decided to freelens and/or take macro shots. The 35mm never made it onto the camera. So I may stick to only one lens in the future, when the DSLR is the camera of choice.
As for painting materials, I brought several sheets of Khadi paper, folded neatly in a leather cover made for me by a friend, as well as a water brush and my Watercolor Confections “Terrain” palette. I also made sure to bring my dip pen and one of my jars of Hydrus watercolor. Burnt Umber. I was glad I remembered to bring paper towels, as they came in pretty handy for a few reasons. More on that later.
The last time we were here we got lost. It’s pretty hilarious to think about, considering again how it’s just outside of a city, but we were lost. So lost, in fact, we had to take our shoes off and cross a knee-deep creek to find the trail again. And after that, we were hiking for at least another hour or so before we saw another human being.
It. was. awesome!
So this time-around I decided we should try that trail again, only starting it where it ended the last time and going backwards. We hit several dead ends, including that fateful creek we crossed last year. We didn’t cross it this time—though we would have if we’d had swampers on—because of the cold and because, well, the creek was part ice.
And speaking of ice…
We found a nice little spot in a rocky creekbed, complete with tiny adjacent waterfall, to have a snack. I painted a little while Goo sat beside me and munched on almonds, and Howl splashed around in the frozen creek because he is insane but also because he’s a husky and he probably thought it was like summertime.
Me? My butt was frozen from the smooth rock we had chosen as a chair. It was my first note to self: bring an extra sweater or something to sit on. Because what’s really obnoxious about me is I can’t paint when I’m uncomfortable. Which is why plein air is often so difficult for me.
Still, I managed to start my 2020 Wordless Diary…
Other painting-while-hiking things I either learned, or confirmed:
Paper towels are great for cleaning off your water brushes in-between colors, as well as wiping mud from your paper, hands, anything else you don’t want mud on while painting…
It’s okay to put your paint and brushes next to you. You don’t have to carry it all in one arm while trying to paint with the other.
Less is more. You don’t need a ton of supplies. Pack light and you won’t run into things like “choice overload” or a sore back, while hiking creatively.
If you bring loose paper, keep it secure by either taping it to a small board or tying it together in a book. Otherwise a single gust of wind could send all your khadi paper scattering onto a wet, muddy creekbed.
Smile, dude! You’re painting in the freaking wild!
Freelensing patches of Light
Note: for those of you who don’t know what freelensing is, it’s merely detaching the lens of your camera and focusing my moving it around as opposed to letting the camera focus for you. I love the dreamy, selective focusing of freelensing, which is why I haven’t been able to stop since I started six years ago.
As I mentioned above, my 35mm didn’t make it onto my camera, and my 40mm was (mostly) only attached while we were hiking. Once I’d spot something that could potentially look cool freelensed, I’d stop and detach the lens while my family would head on without me (at my request).
I also had to be super picky about what I took a picture of, as my SD card was only large enough to hold sixteen raw photos. I don’t mind that, as it keeps me focused and selective, as opposed to simply firing away at whatever and having zero emotional connection to what I shot.
At first I took photos of the usual tall grasses and little white flowers, but then I began to notice that small patches of light, in otherwise dark woods, look so cool freelensed.
And, of course, I couldn’t resist attaching the lens for the occasional macro-without-a-tripod shot and a pretty picture of the scenery.
At one point (when we came to the stream) I noticed a large area of washed-up rocks. It was the perfect area to look for arrowheads, fossils, and apparently mussel shells. We each dug around, showing one another the fossils we found, and had Husband tell us what type of rock it was. Then, while Husband and Goo were skipping stones, I finally dug up an arrowhead (though its size suggests it could be a spearhead) ! felt so lucky y’all I was cheering. It was the perfect find to start 2020. As was my new pet rock, Bonehead, which I plan to bring with me on every hike this year.
My new pet rock: I named it Bonehead because the fossils make it look like a skull.
Once we’d made our way around again—and had indirectly gained a follower who had gotten lost on the same trail we’d gotten lost on the last time—it was time to head to the caves. This is Goo’s favorite part, and is usually a good incentive for all of us to have an awesome hike because the caves are a great way to end the trip.
There are a few cave areas we are allowed to visit, such as Connor’s Cave and The Devil’s Icebox. Connor’s Cave, we read, used to be larger, but had collapsed some time ago and created a small “tunnel” which is filled with a rushing stream and is fun to splash around in during the summer months. Unfortunately it was not-so-summer yesterday, and so we had to forgo entering Connor’s Cave, but we did make it into The Devil’s Icebox, which has been my favorite part of this park since I was a kid. As a teenager I even went spelunking in this cave with my Environmental Science class. So visiting this cave is always an awe-inspiring treat.
I could never capture the wonderful smells and delicious sights of this cave, from both inside of it, at its mouth, and looking down at it from above. Moss covers every bit of the external walls, where tiny waterfalls trickle down from the land above. Inside the cave is an even deeper stream, but several large rocks at is mouth allow you to head inside a few feet without getting wet. I took a short video there to try and bring you guys to the experience.
I say try because the only way to truly experience it is to be there.
Future Hikes at Rock Bridge
Since it’s so close, I obviously plan to go back to Rock Bridge several times this year. Chris and I even want to do the cave tours, heading into The Devil’s Icebox with a guide and some galoshes. We’re hoping they take us to the right, which is only accessible with a canoe.
I also only found out about the historical locations when researching for this post, and so I’m already itching to go back and find those. Perhaps we can make it a goal to trek the entirety of the park in one stretch—which would probably mean camping yay!
Either way, this place is always fun for the four of us. Howl gets his creeks to swim in, Goo gets Connor’s Cave to splash in, Chris and I get The Devil’s Icebox and the miles and miles of trails to explore. You always forget it’s just outside of a city, just beyond a highway. It’s Missouri pre-city and pre-highway, preserved and lush and vibrant and hilly and cave-y. It’s everything I love about this state in one park.
Those are the things I thought of while painting my intuitive piece for the hike. I thought of the moss on every tree, on every stone and the walls of the caves. I thought of the patches of light touching the occasional leaf or flower, as if it were in a spotlight on a stage. I thought of the smells of the Devil’s Icebox, those earthy musty rainy scents. I thought of the rock hunting and the streams and tiny waterfalls. And this might sound extra sappy but I kept thinking about my childhood y’all. Because it was all of those things. And I’m so glad Goo gets to experience the same.
For the painting I initially wanted to go with a sturdier art board as opposed to paper, as I had a feeling I’d be using a lot of water, but wound up using a 9×12 sheet of Arches cold press paper instead. For paints I used my Hydrus watercolors with a little mix of my Terrain palette to sort of tie in my plein air piece from the hike itself, as well as some white gouache. As for brushes I used a variety, from water brushes to script brushes to my nib pen.
The painting, The Caves of January, has since been sold.
Until next time, I hope your caving is earthy and your boots stay warm.