COLUMBIA — Rock Bridge Memorial State Park is in the midst of a substantial trail project that has already rerouted portions of the park’s popular Devil’s Icebox Trail, which offers spurs to the park’s eponymous Rock Bridge.
About 300,000 visitors come to the 2,273-acre park every year, and Park Superintendent Jim Gast estimates that 80 percent set foot only on the Devil’s Icebox Trail.
Even this well-trod path poses some difficult stretches. A steep dirt and rock hill, edged by a shaky wooden railing, can be almost impassable after a heavy rain or snow. On this year’s warm Labor Day morning, a steady march of families scrambled up the rocky trail. A couple of parents labored under the weight of strollers.
The trail improvements came about after a slab of the Rock Bridge smashed part of the boardwalk last summer. Splintered cedar boards on a closed section of the trail still show the impact of the fallen slab. The park has made no effort to stabilize the natural feature itself.
“We decided that it was better to leave things natural instead of dynamiting or bolting,” Gast said. “It’s better to just reroute the trail.” Park construction crews have added a new set of stairs and opened up parts of Sinkhole Trail so hikers make a loop.
Construction scheduled for this fall will once again allow visitors to walk under the Rock Bridge. Because of safety concerns, the boardwalk will no longer run the length of the 125-foot, tunnel-like passage, but will stop about three-quarters of the way in. An observation platform on the opposite side of the bridge will allow hikers a look while keeping them a safe distance from any loose rock that may fall.
“We want (visitors) to have their views from both sides,” Gast said.
Rock Bridge has about 20 miles of dirt and rock trails and a half mile of boardwalk. This year marks the 20th anniversary of the park’s first boardwalk sections.
Once built, boardwalks are actually easier to maintain than more traditional trails, Gast said. Keeping a boardwalk in good shape depends mostly on replacing rotten boards, whereas ground-level rock and dirt trails are at the mercy of rain and foot traffic.
The park has applied for a $75,400 grant from the federal Recreational Trails Program to fill in boardwalk to the few remaining rock sections of the Devil’s Icebox Trail.
“Boardwalk will help prevent erosion,” according to a park grant application. The railings on these trails also “keep people where you want them to be,” Gast said. That, according to the grant application, helps in “protecting other areas in the vicinity.”
The total cost of materials for trail improvements since the rockfall has been $7,000. The Missouri Division of State Parks maintains four full-time construction crews that provide labor for projects such as this.
Funds for the construction materials for upcoming work will be drawn from the park’s $50,000 “catastrophic fund.” This pool, filled from the one-tenth of 1 percent Parks and Soil Sales Tax, is earmarked for capital improvement projects.
Rock Bridge itself “is not a big revenue producer,” Gast said. “In a good year, we’ll bring in $10,000.” This money comes from shelter rentals, cave tours and fee-based camping for nonprofit groups.
All income brought in from Missouri State Parks — from use fees, gift shop sales and educational tours — is funneled into the statewide User Fees Earning Fund. Money from this pool is then redistributed to all of the parks.
Rock Bridge has an annual operating budget of $30,214 in addition to a flat $3,500 for materials and repairs. The salaries for 10 full-time employees are not factored into these figures. The Rock Bridge park office and staff also manage 75 miles of the Katy Trail, Jewell Cemetery and Clark’s Hill.
Twenty-five percent of Rock Bridge’s budget comes from the User Fees Earnings Fund, and the remainder from the Parks and Soil Sales Tax.
Despite the $190,000-plus price tag for this trail project, Gast didn’t believe the improvements would draw a large number of additional visitors to the park. But he does anticipate it will make hikers’ walks more enjoyable and more accessible to those who might not otherwise be able to admire the park’s features.