Rock Port, Mo. – For hikers who enjoy a challenge and new sights, unusual wildflowers are blooming atop Missouri River bluffs at the Brickyard Hill Conservation Area in Atchison County. Spring rains put prairie plants into bloom on the dry, steep, slopes. These loess hill prairie remnants in the state’s northwest corner are the only place in Missouri where several colorful species grow.
“Things such as bees, grasshoppers, mice and flowers – there’s a whole different sweep of flora and fauna on these loess hills,” said Steve Buback, a natural history biologist for the Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC).
For instance, bright red blooms on Indian paintbrush plants are familiar to hikers on prairies in west-central Missouri during late spring or early summer. But blooming recently at Brickyard Hill was downy painted cup, a close relative, but one with an alluring light green color. Nearby, hoary puccoon plants with orange blooms flowered atop the ridge, keeping company with the lavender blooms of locoweed. A prairie dandelion, a native with large yellow flower petals, pushed skyward on the hillside.
All these plants are rarely seen in the state and found only on the patches of prairie that survive on the highest bluff tops bordering the Missouri River valley. Some plants are found in other dry grassland locations such as western Kansas or Nebraska. And fragments of the loess hills pre-settlement ecology are found along the river in Iowa and Nebraska. But in northwest Missouri, the dry-land prairie plants are unique survivors in an ecology isolated by eons of evolution, climate changes, and human interaction on the landscape.
“Possibly these plants migrated from hill to hill over time,” Buback said. “It may be that they were once more widespread after the glaciers, or maybe it was a drier landscape, but they’re now isolated in these pockets."
Glaciers advancing across North America ground rock into fine powders. Prevailing winds from the southwest blew the powdery soil into deep deposits forming rolling hills. The Missouri River carved a deep valley and created bluffs along the loess hills. But also, loess soil is highly erodible, so wind and streams cut downward in the hills. A very rough topography resulted. The distance from the river’s flood plain to the top of loess hills can be up to 200 feet
A walk from the northwest parking lot at Brickyard Hill CA begins up a mild slope. But then, hikers must carefully look for footings and climb sharply upward. The erosion has cut some hills so ridge tops are only three to five feet wide.
Hikers looking westward from atop the ridge can see for many miles across the Missouri River valley to distant Nebraska hills. The view is a panoramic, wide open vista like one expects to find in the far West. Peer down at the ground and the dominant grasses and wildflowers are common to the shortgrass prairies further west.
“Almost all these species you would think of as western species,” Buback said.
MDC staff protects these fragile ecosystems on public lands and works in partnership with private landowners. Controlling invasion of the loess hill prairies by red cedar and non-native invasive plants is an ongoing effort. Visitors who do hike these hills should take care to not disturb plants and soil.
Brickyard Hill Conservation Area’s 2,252 acres also offers other natural habitats. Much of the area is forested. There are also some woodland areas with a mix of trees and grasses. The 13-acre Charity Lake has a boat ramp to serve anglers, and the area has primitive campgrounds.
For information on the Brickyard Hill area and maps, visit http://on.mo.gov/16VkCzl. The area is just off Interstate 29 and accessible via Route B and Route RA. Visit mdc.mo.gov for more information about loess hills ecology, or for assistance for private landowners.
Loess hill prairies offer a distinctive experience for those who enjoy nature’s variety. Just be prepared for an up-and-down hike, and leave no trace of your passing.