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Spring Migration at the Confluence of the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers

Riverlands, West Alton, Illinois

Riverlands Migratory Bird Sanctuary, West Alton, Illinois

Confluence Greenway posted its schedule for April and May, a celebration of the spring migration in the St. Louis area.

Confluence Greenway started in 1998, when the McKnight Foundation, based in Minneapolis, suggested that five groups it was funding with small grants, each with an interest in the Mississippi, pool their resources and form a bigger organization, that McKnight would seed with a much larger grant with the intent of building on the historical, cultural, and natural resources of the area.

When complete the Confluence Greenway that would extend from the St. Louis Arch north to Pere Marquette State Park on the Illinois River and to the Pelican Natural Area on the Missouri River, managed by the Missouri Department of Conservation.

The new organization would string together parks, natural areas, recreation areas, bike trails, and heritage sites, 10,000 acres of green space in ribbons forty miles long that would occupy both banks of the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers.

The cost of creating the 200-square-mile greenway was upwards of $200 million. Even before the greenway came to fruition, it was possible to bike from downtown St. Louis to Pere Marquette. The greenway would add trails that would take bikers to both the Columbia Bottoms Conservation Area and the Confluence State Park at the confluence of the two rivers.

As the first decade of the new century drew to a close Confluence Greenway planned to develop a linear system of riverfront parks and trails and historic sites and connecting them to the river; conserve open space; preserve and enhance natural resources and water quality; foster economic and community development; develop the partnerships necessary to building, managing, and maintaining a greenway system. In short, the goal of the organizers was to bring the citizens of the Confluence region in touch with the rivers and their historic, cultural, and natural resources.

The spring schedule includes a hike at Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site at Collinsville, Illinois.

Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site at Collinsville, Illinois.

The spring schedule includes a hike at Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site and a 5-mile bike ride at Horseshoe Lake State Park nearby.

Horseshoe Lake

Horseshoe Lake State Park

It also includes events at the Columbia Bottoms Conservation Area at the Confluence of the Mississippi and Missouri.

If you live in the St. Louis region, check out the schedule and get acquainted with Confluence Greenway. Then check out TwoTankTours.com for my tour of the Riverlands, starting at Monk’s Mound and ending at Marias Temps Clair on the peninsula between the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers. Download the tour at a cost of $7.

Confluence Greenway, “Master Plan,” April 30, 2001, http://www.confluencegreenway.org/documents/masterplan.pdf; Poe, William, “The Greening of St. Louis,” St. Louis Commerce Magazine, January 2004, http://www.stlcommercemagazine.com/archives/january2004/facts2.html.


Kassel Cave Natural Bridges


Kassel Cave Tunnel 1

Kassel Cave Tunnel 1, the portal to a system of natural tunnels

Yesterday was warm, windy, and overcast, perfect for making photographs of the Kassel Cave Natural Tunnels in Perry County, Missouri.

Thomas R. Beveridge described the tunnels in Geological Wonders and Guriousities of Missouri. For years it has been on my list of places to hike. But, it is privately owned and I needed permission. Somewhere along the line, someone gave me the owners’ number. I called and they gave me permission to  hike to the tunnels.

We hiked across the pasture, where their llamas graze and where their in-your-face llama gave us each a kiss, to the road that leads down to the creek. Of course, we missed the gate and hiked down to the creek and back up to the gate to the road to the creek. Once, at the creek we hiked through a tiny floodplain forest to the portal to the natural tunnels.

There are four of them, plus the cave, all within an area 100 feet in diameter.

Kassel Cave Tunnel 2

Kassel Cave Tunnel 2

We picked our way across the rocky floor of  Tunnel 1 to the canyon, where  Mike turned to me and said, “It looks exactly like the description you read to me on the way here.” It did, but sorting out which is tunnel is which is beyond me.

Tunnels 2 and 3

Tunnels 3 and 4

The tunnels were eroded through Plattin limestones.

Castor River Glade


Castor River Glade

Castor River Glade

The soil on the Castor River Glade is thin and rapidly drained and the rocks exposed. It almost desert-like and it supports drought-tolerant trees, grasses, sedges, and wildflowers.

Moss and Lichen on southward facing slope

Moss and Lichen on southward facing slope

At least three different moses and one lichen carpet the pink granite bluff on which a cedar has taken root in a crevice in in the rock.

Cedars invade the glade

Cedars invade the glade

The Caster River Glade is an igneous glade that supports pineweed, prickly pear, little bluestem, pencil flower, rushfoil, wild hyacinth, flowering surge, sundrops, and fame flower. The eastern collared lizard warms itself on the exposed rocks.

The Missouri Department of Conservation has a program of prescribed burning to hold back the invasive cedars, black jack oak, post oak, and shrubs that might crowd out the grasses and wildflowers.

Igneous Forest

Igneous Forest

Moss and lichen mantled outcroppings of granite scatter through out the well-drained forest on the eastern slope of the hill bordering the Castor River Shut-ins. Slow-growing black hickory, northern red oak, and black jack oak vegetate the forest.

The St. Francis River–Silver Mines

February is such a come-on in southern Illinois and southeastern Missouri. We have the beautiful warm spring-like days. Then, March comes, all cold,  gray, and rainy. 

Yesterday, Michael Sue and I took a break from editing the Swamp book and took a hike to the Castor River Shut-ins in Madison County, Missouri and Silver Mines Shut-in on the St. Francis River, also in Madison County. Both rivers are interesting because they rise in hard, igneous rock in the St. Francois Mountains of southeastern Missouri and drop down into the Swampeast Mo, the once known as the great swamp that extended from Cape Girardeau, Missouri to Helena, Arkansas and has been cleared and drained for cotton and soybeans.

Silver Mines, October, 2001

Silver Mines, October, 2001

In October the Vernal Witchazel that grows on the bank is brilliant yellow and the river placid. In February the river is not at all placid. Water sweeping over the low, concrete bridge across the river made it too dangerous to cross in order to make a photograph looking up stream. 

Silver Mines, February 2009

Silver Mines, February 2009

And the shore was flooded, making it difficult to get to the rocks in the river.

Silver Mines, February 2009

Silver Mines, February 2009

The St. Francois mountains are ancient, a billion and half years old. Geologists have speculated how Missouri’s rivers formed the shut-ins, which are rapids formed in the bottom of very narrow canyons. Younger sedimentary rocks spread out around them, much like a woman’s circular skirt, one she might wear for square dancing. In some places the sedimentary rocks may have buried the igneous rocks. The river ran over them and eroded the sedimentary rocks down to the igneous rocks at the bottom of their canyons.

The most recent speculation postulates that the rivers eroded upstream from their heads and enlarged weak fracture zones in igneous rock and formed shut-ins at the bottom of canyons.

Vernal Witchazel in bloom

Vernal Witchazel in bloom

As I turned away from the river, I discovered that the Vernal Witchazel that grows on the bank is in bloom. 

February is such a come-on.

Hike Hickory Canyon

Hike the St. Francois Mountains, a dome ancient Precambrian rocks in the southeastern corner of Missouri. They are two and a half billion years old and were never completely buried by the inland seas. Look at a Missouri’s geological map, layer upon layer of sedimentary rocks–sandstones, limestones, and dolomites–spread out around the ancient mountains, a circular calendar of geological time: Cambrian, Ordovician, Silurian, Devonian, Mississippian, Pennsylvanian. North of the Missouri River sedimentary rocks are buried under glacial till and seldom emerge at the surface. Where they do, the results are dramatic tunnels and pinnacles. South of the Missouri River, however, the rocks lie at or just below the face of the Ozark Plateau. 

LaMotte Sandstone, Missouri’s first layer of sedimentary rocks,  eroded from the St. Francis Mountains. Missouri’s Hawn State Park and the Pickle Springs Conservation area, both in Ste. Genvieve County, are two well know places to hike the terrain created by LaMotte Sandstone.

Less well known is Hickory Canyon Natural Area, also in Ste. Genevieve County and owned by the L-A-D Foundation.  It offers two hikes, a short one, 1/4 mile, into a box canyon, and a longer one, a mile, tracks down through sandstone forests, crosses a pretty creek that flows out of a second box canyon, and returns to the trailhead. 

The 1/4 mile hike is easy down into the box canyon and easy up . It is an intimate hike that takes you along the canyon walls, where fiddle fern sprouts from a mossy substrate that is blooming.



At the foot of the trail find the intermittent waterfall, which can gush after a rain, but generally dribbles as water tumbles down from ledge to ledge.



Winter at Hickory Canyon is an icy marvel, where melting snow slides off the bluff and freezes in a waterfall.



To get to Hickory Canyon: Exit I-55 at Missouri Highway 32 and go west to State Highway C. Turn Right. Follow C to Sprott Road, which will take you to the Hickory Canyon parking area. Signs will tell you which hike is which.