Bill Bryan climbed to a snow-covered overlook at Rock Bridge Memorial State Park and paused to take in the sounds of winter hiking.
Make that, the lack of sounds.
This scene was totally free of audio. Only the sound of hiking boots crunching in the snow broke the silence.
And at one of Missouri’s most popular hiking areas, that was noteworthy to Bryan, the director of Missouri State Parks.
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“We haven’t seen another person on these trails all day,” he said. “That’s unusual.
“We’re not even hearing birds or other wildlife. The snow muffles things, and it can just turn the woods silent.
“That’s why I like being out here at this time of the year. You’re in total solitude.”
Bryan and his hiking partners — Steph Deidrick, Kyle Wayne Stewart and I — basked in that same solitude.
“When I was going to school here (University of Missouri), we would come out here right after a snow to hike,” said Stewart, who lives in Jefferson City and is a communications manager for the Beenders-Walker Group. “This state park is beautiful as it is. But when there’s snow on the ground, it just adds to it.
“You can come here and have the hiking trails to yourself.”
Of course, the fact that the temperature was struggling to get into the teens and the snow and ice on the trails might have had something to do with that. But that only added to the adventure for Bryan.
“It really isn’t too bad,” he said, almost sounding like he was trying to convince himself. “Once you get hiking and get the blood flowing, it doesn’t feel that cold.”
There were other signs of life on the trails, to be sure. There were fresh deer tracks in the powdery snow, and the distinctive tracks left by wild turkeys could be seen in a skiff of snow that covered the ice of a frozen creek.
There were even footprints of other hikers who had been on the trail earlier in the week. But on this day, Bryan and the group he was leading had the winter beauty of Rock Bridge State Park to themselves.
The park is only five miles from the hustle and bustle of the University of Missouri campus, but it is a world unto itself. It features a look at caves, sinkholes, craggy outcroppings and even an underground stream.
The park has eight hiking trails totaling 21.7 miles. They range in difficulty from easy to fairly strenuous.
On Thursday, we combined both.
Bryan started by leading his group down a trail to the Devil’s Icebox, a cave that got its name because of its constant 55-degree temperature year-round. The first stop was at the base of a natural bridge, a massive bluff with an opening at the bottom of it and a creek flowing through it.
Frost clung to the rocks in the stream bed, and snow covered the steep hillsides and the limbs of trees.
“This is an example of where part of that rock structure collapsed and it created an opening,” Bryan said.
Moments later, Bryan and his group were admiring the beauty of Devil’s Icebox itself, a popular hiking destination. The cave features a stream that flows underground. On tours sanctioned by the State Park System, hikers can carry lightweight canoes down to the entrance of the cave and take a unique float trip.
“There are places where floaters have to lay almost flat in their canoes to get through,” Bryan said.
The Devil’s Icebox is now closed to tours, mainly to protect the bats that have white-nose disease. Biologists worry that if the bats were disturbed, they could disperse and increase the chances of spreading the disease, which does not affect humans.
But Bryan said the situation is improving, and he anticipates tours reopening sometime in the future.
From there, it was off to the Gans Creek Wild Area, with its beautiful vistas and trails that wind through hardwood forests. Bryan paused at the rock foundations of houses from years ago and carefully worked his way onto rocky cliffs where he could look down on a quilt work of miles of forests broken by meandering creeks.
Bryan, an avid hiker, estimates he has been on the trails of more than half of Missouri’s state parks. He is out year-round, and doesn’t let the snow and cold of winter stop him from hitting the trails.
In fact, he looks forward to winter days when the snow and ice glisten in a cold sun.
“In the winter, you can see forever, with the leaves off the trees,” Bryan said. “The view changes with every season, but I love being out here in the winter.”
Five places to hike into winter
▪ WATKINS MILL STATE PARK (NEAR LAWSON): The Lake Trail is a paved path that circles 100-acre Williams Creek Lake. It includes six wooden bridges, one metal truss bridge and an overlook. In the winter, geese and bald eagles ca be seen perched on the ice.
▪ HAWN STATE PARK (NEAR FARMINGTON, Mo.): The Pickle Creek Trail is less than one mile long, but it is high on scenery. It follows a shut-in creek filled with granite boulders and runs along sandstone bluffs.
▪ THOUSAND HILLS STATE PARK (NEAR KIRKSVILLE, Mo.): The Thousand Hills Trail offers hikers a chance to walk a short portion of the trail or take a 10.25-mile backpacking journey. The natural-surface trail goes through forests, and savannahs and along Forest Lake.
▪ ROARING RIVER STATE PARK (NEAR CASSVILLE, Mo.): The Fire Tower Trail is a 3.75-mile path that offers hikers a look at the true Ozarks. It includes rugged terrain, deep hollows, open dolomite glades and hardwood forests.
▪ MERAMEC STATE PARK (NEAR SULLIVAN, Mo.): The 1.5-mile Bluff View Trail provides breathtaking views from the ends of two bluffs along the Meramec River. Between the bluffs, the trail descends to the banks of the river.