One of the first white men to explore the rugged Ozark hills of the far southwest corner of Missouri described it well.
“A tall, thick and rank growth of wild grass covers the whole country, in which the oaks are standing interspersed, like fruit trees in some well-cultivated orchard, and giving to the scenery the most novel, pleasing and picturesque appearance.”
Henry Rowe Schoolcraft, who visited the area in 1819, was describing a landscape known as a savanna, where hardwood trees and pines are widely spaced, with wildflowers, shrubs and grasses growing beneath in a park-like setting. Pioneers drove their wagons under the big trees.
Savannas, which once covered 13 million acres of Missouri, have largely disappeared. McDonald County’s Big Sugar Creek State Park, named for a tributary of the Elk River, was established in 1992 to preserve one of the best remaining examples of savanna in the state.
Because of its rarity, more than three-fourths of the park’s 2,082 acres have been designated the Elk River Breaks Woodland Natural Area by the Missouri Natural Areas Committee.
“Natural areas represent the best example of a specific type of landscape,” said Dusty Reid, superintendent of Big Sugar Creek and nearby Roaring River state parks. “Big Sugar Creek State Park has the best example of upland oak savanna on public lands in the state.”
Big Sugar Creek, a stream popular for floating and fishing, starts near the Arkansas state line and runs by the park’s southern boundary. The creek flows south and west into the Elk River watershed. Most Ozark rivers drain north and east into the Missouri and Mississippi rivers.
Because of its distinctive watershed, Big Sugar Creek and its tributaries contain aquatic species not found elsewhere in Missouri, including the Neosho Madtom and northern crayfish. The park boasts 345 types of plants and 134 species of birds in its unique landscape.
The mission of Missouri State Parks is to preserve rare natural resources like that found at Big Sugar State Park, and also to provide recreation. The park does that with its 3.1-mile Ozark Chinquapin Trail, named for the Ozark Chinquapin tree, one of the park’s notable species.
“It is one of our more remote parks,” Reid said. “But I was at a conference that showed us as an urban park, because we’re so close to the cities of northwest Arkansas, which contain more than a million people.”
“We get more day use than some parks. Mostly it’s hikers and nature photographers.”
A big buck
Eighth Street in Pineville becomes a black-top road that runs along the creek to the park. Reid led the way on a hike on the Ozark Chinquapin Trail, which loops through the park’s natural area.
We took the trail’s connector, which splits the middle and heads into the heart of the savanna.
Goldenrod and prairie aster bloomed in the areas beneath the trees, which are kept open by prescribed burns that mimic the natural history of fires from lightning strikes and burns by Native Americans and early settlers.
“We’ve been having prescribed burns since the mid-1990s,” Reid said. “The park has really responded well to the fires.”
The trail went up and through the forest, then returned along a steep draw decorated with Christmas ferns on its north-facing slope. At the bottom, the trail followed a dry creek bed of bone-white stone slabs and ledges.
Reid had been pointing out the scratching in the leaf litter and the rubbings on saplings left by deer. A doe darted up the hillside, followed by a large buck that made a ruckus as it climbed a ledge and fled through the forest.
“Boy, that was a big rack,” Reid said of the impressive antlers. “From what we’ve seen today, the big scrapes on the ground, you can tell they’re in rut.”
Fishing can be spectacular
After the hike, we ventured across a large field that is park property to see the frontage on Big Sugar Creek. The park is in its planning stages, and Reid said it may add a river access.
The Elk River is popular with floaters, and can be crowded on summer weekends. Big Sugar Creek, Indian Creek and Little Sugar Creek are smaller tributaries that can provide a quieter experience when water levels are sufficient.
The rivers are the lifeblood of the area. In early days, mills were built along the creeks at towns like Cyclone, Jacket and Mountain. Many mills were burned during the Civil War. The quaint town of Jane is one of the best preserved today.
Private outfitters, some offering rental cabins and campgrounds, serve the visitors who show up for the water sports.
“Big Sugar Creek is easy to wade, so the fishing holes are easily accessible,” Reid said. “The fishing, especially smallmouth bass, can be spectacular.”
By Tom Uhlenbrock
For more information, visit www.mostateparks.com, or call Roaring River State Park at (417) 847-2539.