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Winter Wonderland

Jan 30, 2013

It’s hard for me to believe, but the Missouri Natural Areas System is 35 years old. This partnership of public and private conservation groups was set up to ensure that future generations get a chance to see all of the diverse natural landscapes that constitute our natural inheritance.

To celebrate this achievement, I plan to visit a representative sample of natural areas over the next few months and write about them for Missouri Conservationist Magazine. I plan to post updates on my progress, starting now!

I chose Clifty Creek Natural Area (NA) in Maries County for my first area visit, because it was Missouri’s first designated natural area. I also picked Clifty Creek because the geological features that make it so scenic are most visible at this time of year, before summer vegetation appears. And, I was hoping to see some of the ice sculptures that form during cold snaps.

Clifty Creek NA is owned by the L-A-D Foundation. The creek for which the area is named and its tributary, Little Clifty Creek, have joined forces over the millennia to carve out a natural bridge with an open span of 40 feet. This enormous stone arch is at the far end of a 2.5-mile loop trail through rugged, beautiful forest and glade country. Miniature springs seep from the two creeks’ steep rock banks throughout the year. This moisture supports a lush growth of mosses, along with maidenhair, Christmas and walking ferns. Some hillsides are blanketed in this extravagant growth. Naturally, wildlife thrives here. Birders can see dozens of species in a couple of hours just by following the trail through the area.

All this, combined with the area’s unique geology, make Clifty Creek a nature photographer’s playground. I dabble in nature photography, and it’s hard not to get beautiful results with this caliber of visual material to work with. If you enjoy the photos accompanying this post, consider visiting this or one of Missouri’s other natural areas. Start now. Each month produces its own set of wonders, and there’s little danger of running out of cool places to go.

The 184 sites in the Natural Areas System include the best – and sometimes the last – examples of Missouri’s original forests, prairies, glades, fens, swamps, caves, and streams, not to mention remarkable geologic features. All but 11 are open to public access, and most of those owned by MDC or the USDA Forest Service are open to hunting and fishing. For more information about Clifty Creek and other natural areas, visit


This photo shows the 40-foot open span of Clifty Creek's natural bridge.
Natural Bridge
Little Clifty Creek has cut a 40-foot opening in the ridge that once separated it from Clifty Creek. This is the area's signature attraction.


A disc of ice, suspended above the creek, trails icicles.
Ice Plateau
This disc of ice formed when the creek was high, then grew a beard of icicles when the water level dropped.


Another ice painting
Ice Painting
Another ice painting.


Close-up photo shows several lush fern fronds.
Fern Fronds
Maidenhair ferms die back in the winter, but a lusy growth of moss and ferns like these blanket some valleys at Clifty Creek Natural Area in summer.


A close-up photo shows details of the creek's frozen surface.
Frozen Ripples
Sometimes the cold seems to catch Clfity Creek's flow in mid-ripple.


This is another closeup of frozen creek water
Unique Ice Picture
Like snowflakes, no two ice paintings are alike.


Fire and Ice
Ice in Little Clifty Creek contrasts with the warm glow of a winter afternoon.


This is a close-up photo of ice in Clifty Creek.
Frozen Moment
Clifty Creek is a gallery of thousands of icy artworks in January.


Frigid winter weather sculpts bizarre architecture on seeping banks.
Ice Castles
Frigid winter weather sculpts bizarre architecture on seeping banks.


Photo shows intricate designs in frozen creek water.
Ice Art
A cold snap, during a period of falling water in Clifty Creek creates fantastic natural art.


Close-up photo shows walking ferns growing on a rock.
Walking Fern
Walking fern is just one of the interesting plants that grow at Clifty Creek. The area also has an abundance of wild hydrangeas.


Close-up photo shows hardy ferns thriving in a sheltered valley.
Christmas Fern
Some of Clifty Creek Natural Area's valleys are so moist and sheltered that ferns thrive there year-round.

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