COLUMBIA — Phil Burk hops from rock to rock across the shallow flow of Silver Fork Creek, stopping halfway through to lean over and fish out an empty beer can. As a board member for Pinnacles Youth Park, his job includes picking up litter. As the son of the 4-H extension agent who was instrumental in opening the park, it’s also his legacy.
Pinnacles Youth Park, a 77-acre natural area 15 miles north of Columbia, is one of Boone County’s most remarkable landmarks, not only because of the 80-foot limestone formations for which it is named but also because of its unique status as a private park that has been open to the public since 1965.
During daylight hours, visitors can hike through dense woods, search for fossils, climb the towering rocks, explore a shallow cave, paddle the streams or cast a line for small-mouth bass. Many Scouting and church groups take advantage of year-round camping and park access, which are free for all Missouri youth organizations.
As the Pinnacles nears its 50th anniversary in 2015, a handful of people worry it might be lost, because that's when terms of the deed that transferred ownership to the Pinnacles park board expires. That deed stipulates that the board can do nothing to change the park: it can't sell the land, adjust its boundaries or change its availability to the public.
Boone County District II Commissioner Skip Elkin said it's important that the Pinnacles remain accessible.
"If the (Pinnacles) board wants to continue to keep it up, we would support that," said Elkin, who is a liaison to the Boone County Board of Parks Commission. "We want to make sure it remains a park, whoever is taking of it. It's a jewel, and it would be a shame if it didn't continue to be a public open space."
Burk said there's no need to worry.
"We own the land outright," he said. "It was written into the papers developed in 1965 that we can't sell it, change it or do anything to it until 2015." Even beyond that time, said, the board has no desire to change anything about the park.
Keeping it simple
Unlike a national or state park, the Pinnacles has no park rangers. The custodians of the grounds include two on-site caretakers and the eight board members. For the past three years, Burk has served as president of the park board.
“Our job is to see what’s best for the park and do what’s necessary to maintain everything,” Burk said.
Burk has been a frequent visitor to the Pinnacles since childhood. His father, Don Burk, was a Boone County Extension agent who helped orchestrate the creation of the land trust and the park’s opening in 1965. Don Burk died just a year after the park board was established, but Phil Burk remembers coming to the park with his mother, two brothers and his sister. Burk's siblings have moved far from the park but still come back to visit.
“There’s a special connection for all of us who have grown up here. It’s a beautiful place during all seasons,” Burk said.
Like all the board members, Burk receives no pay. He works full time for the Family Counseling Center, where his duties include billing and auditing. He alternates duties monthly with the other board members; when it’s his turn, he walks the park every week or so, picking up trash, looking for fallen trees and making sure everything is as it should be. Current members of the board come from all over Boone County, including Columbia, Sturgeon and Rocheport.
The Burlington limestone rocks that are the Pinnacles are more than 300 million years old, MU geology professor Mitch Schulte said. He explained that during the Mississippian period, shallow saltwater seas flooded the area and formed the limestone.
“The limestone exposed at the surface is very reactive with water,” Schulte said. “The water essentially dissolves the limestone, which is how the rocks got to be the way they are today.”
Over hundreds of millions of years, Silver Fork Creek has doubled back on itself and crowded Kelly Branch Creek, carving away at the 1,000-foot-long ridge. Spindly, twisted cedars thrive along the main peaks, stubbornly resisting the whipping winds from the high altitude. From the top of the rocks, you can catch a glimpse of the area where Silver Fork runs into Kelly Branch Creek. When the creeks are low, there is nothing unusual about the confluence, but Burk said the view is “fantastic” after it rains.
“It’s just two huge forces of water running together,” Burk said. "It's fun to watch."
Across the Silver Fork is a narrow pass up to the peaks, including the keyhole-shaped peak directly across from the picnic area. Balancing precariously on the rocks, it isn’t difficult to imagine being swept off the edge by the winds. For those without a fear of heights, the rocks serve as a natural playground of tunnel-like caves to climb through and limestone boulders to maneuver. Because the ridge ends at the edge of the park’s property and a vertical rock face, hikers must turn around and climb down the same way they came.
“This is what people come for: the craggy nature, the ability to climb where you want to climb,” Burk said.
On the southwestern side of the park is another geological wonder, the cave-like overhang called the Shelving Rock. The 40-foot-deep, 125-foot-long shelf is another effect of floodwater from Silver Fork Creek.
Schulte said the MU Geology Club has come to examine the unique confluence between Silver Fork and Kelly Branch, the rock formations and the fossils to understand how the peaks developed.
Burk estimated 10,000 people come through the park annually, but few make it through the entire park.
“Most people who come out to the park only use the first five acres and never use the other 72,” Burk said.
The front five acres of the park are a lowland recreation area with a few tables and several picnic shelters, including the biggest shelter, named in memory of Don Burk.
Phil Burk knows more people would explore further into the park if it weren’t for Silver Fork. He said board members have discussed building a bridge across the creek, but not all members agree it’s a good idea. Limited access to the Pinnacles isn’t such a bad thing, they think.
“People do climb on the rocks, but they are limestone and slowly degrading. The less people we have on the rocks, the more the rocks will maintain themselves,” Burk said. “The creek, I believe, is in and of itself a natural barrier for being on the rocks.”
Furthermore, building a bridge could cost as much as $250,000. That would be hard to come by for a board that depends primarily on private donations to finance its $3,000 to $4,000 annual budget. The biggest expenses are liability insurance and pumping out the two pit toilets.
Donations are unpredictable and can come from anywhere. Burk remembers a check left by an Arizona couple who remembered the park from their college years in the 1960s. Organizations such as the Columbia Downtown Optimist Club also have helped sponsor the park for years. The park earns some money from small fees for weddings, bridal showers and other celebrations held on the property. The steadiest source of income the board receives is the monthly rent it charges for the caretakers’ trailer on the property.
“For a lesser rent, we have expectations that they will watch over the park, and if there’s any emergencies, they handle them. We’re very happy to have them,” Burk said.
Outside groups occasionally step up to help make improvements on the park. Most recently, Kevin Hallagen, a Boy Scout from Troop 705, decided to build a new footbridge as one of the requirements for his Eagle Scout award. Hallagen, 18, noticed a muddy area on the trail leading to the Shelving Rock, and so he built a bridge to make the trail safer.
“(The ground) looked like someone had put the rocks and bricks in there to level off the ground, but they had all washed away,” Hallagen said. “It was just a little dip from an intermittent stream that floods when it rains really hard.”
Hallagen decided to do his project at the Pinnacles because he has always enjoyed the area for its quiet and relative solitude. He finished the bridge about a month ago with help from community businesses such as Boone Electric Cooperative that donated materials.
Other Boy Scout troops have built flagpoles, helped install the latrines and built picnic tables that are less prone to vandalism. College students help clean and beautify the park during the United Way’s annual Spring Day of Caring, and local businesses lend employees to do the same during the Fall Day of Caring.
Unlike most state parks, the Pinnacles has no maps or guidelines about how to explore the area and no park rangers on patrol. Every morning, the caretaker opens the gate to allow the public in, even if flooding has left the lower areas of the park several feet under water. The board trusts guests to exercise common sense when enjoying the park.
“We assume that everyone who comes out knows how to deal with everything that comes along with nature,” Burk said.
Burk said the park has had some problems with vandalism, including graffiti. The caretakers handle nuisances, but they don’t tolerate trespassing after hours.
“The sheriff is on speed dial,” Burk said with a smile. He knows there is nothing “high-tech” about the park but thinks guests prefer it that way.
“It’s not totally advanced, and I think that’s why I like it. There’s not a lot of ‘here, do this.’ You have to create your own trails, use your imagination and experience it for yourself,” Burk said.
Enjoying the scenery
Burk knows that the park will get more visitors soon.
On a recent sunny morning, the day after a downpour, Al and Doris Quevreaxes visited the park to check how high Silver Fork had risen. They parked in the lot with their windows rolled down, Doris reading a book and Al thumbing through the daily paper.
The Quevreaxes have been enjoying the park for several years, since they moved to a home off Dripping Springs Road north of Columbia to be closer to their grandson.
“The Pinnacles are an attraction for anyone who enjoys the beauty of nature,” Doris said.
Nature has always been very important to the Quevreaxes, who will celebrate their 50th anniversary next year. Until a few years ago, when Al was diagnosed with muscular dystrophy, they would hike the Grand Canyon every anniversary.
“We’re kind of limited in what we can do now, but we try to still get out as much as we can,” Al said. “We’ve hiked all over these rocks.”
Next, Al would like to tackle kayaking Silver Fork from the Pinnacles to where the creek flows along the backside of his property. Unfortunately, it’s only navigable after a heavy rain. Because the water was too shallow by the Pinnacles that Wednesday, Al said he would start floating a little farther downstream.
“We enjoy the park for its uncommonness,” Al said. “Where else can you go to find something like this around here?”
The park is a unique experience and a surprise to many visitors to Boone County. Courtney Allen of Eldon came to the park for the first time on April 8 with her 8-month-old daughter, Marley, her boyfriend, Schaffer Chapman, and his roommates.
“This place is pretty awesome,” Allen said. “The rocks are gorgeous.”
While her Chapman and his roommates climbed around on the peaks, Allen stayed with her daughter to watch from the opposite bank. Allen, Chapman and Marley plan to move to Columbia soon, and Allen said they’ll certainly visit the park again.
A past of transition, a future in trust
The Pinnacles property has a history of different uses. It was once the location of a sawmill. In the 1920s and 1930s small cabins on the land became speakeasies, and remnants of their foundations are still visible on the southwest side of the park.
In the 1940s and 1950s, several families owned the land and used it as a private club. By then the park was known as “The Sturgeon Pinnacles Club.” As the private landowners aged, the land was sold into a trust so it could be enjoyed by local youth for years to come.
“The land is held in trust until we dissolve it, so I believe the land will be held here indefinitely,” Burk said.