Follow Devil’s Icebox Boardwalk over the 125-foot natural tunnels then descend a steep staircase into a dark, cool space that will send chills up your spine. Listen to the water running through the cave; when it evaporates, the heat leaves the sandstone and creates the cold ecosystem worthy of its name.
Devil’s Icebox is a well-known Columbia feature, but from the Eagle Bluffs Conservation Area to Capen Park, there are many more hidden gems positioned around town — all with historic origin stories and distinctive structures.
The Icebox itself
Missouri is home to more than 7,000 caves, says Roxie Campbell, the Rock Bridge Memorial State Park naturalist. Devil’s Icebox is a double sinkhole that leads to two caves. Downstream is Connor’s Cave, which is open to the public, and upstream is Devil’s Icebox Cave, which is closed to protect the endangered bats inside.
Devil’s Icebox Cave is the seventh longest cave in the state, with about six miles of mapped underground passageways. They’re made of Burlington limestone, a sedimentary rock that first formed in the Midwest about 300 million years ago. The fossilized remains of criniods, an ancient marine animal, still linger in the formations. The fossils are visible to the naked eye, but Campbell says that when exploring Connor’s Cave, "people should bring a flashlight and get their feet wet."
Connor’s Cave tours, available year-round upon request, self-guided tour instructions available upon request; Rock Bridge Memorial State Park, sunrise to sunset, 449-7402
Pinnacles of beauty
Roughly 250 million years ago, Boone County was submerged by a shallow sea that housed ancient creatures, according to the Missouri Department of Conservation’s website.
A few million years later, the rocky land is now a local park. In 1965, private donors and organizers from the MU Extension in Boone County turned the space into a park to encourage young people to join a community of exploration, says Phillip Burk, the board president of the Pinnacles Youth Foundation. Today, mountainous, ancient rock formations still cast shadows over the 77 acres, and fossils from the days Missouri was submerged in water remain in the bedrock of the Pinnacles.
The Pinnacles Youth Park, 8 a.m. to sunset, 449-7946
Eagle Bluffs protects and preserves
In the 1900s, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers changed the course of the Missouri River by straightening the winding waterway in spots. Its new path, along with levees built since the 1930s, cut off wetlands that had previously received water from the river. In the 1980s, wastewater was going to be piped from the city into the Missouri River, and a group of mid-Missourians banded together to fight this action, says John George, the wildlife regional supervisor of the Missouri Department of Conservation’s central region. This activism led to what is now the Eagle Bluffs Conservation Area.
Today, almost 90% of the Missouri’s original wetlands, some of the most productive ecosystems on earth, are gone. In the name of wetland restoration, Eagle Bluffs was created, and the land it sits on has morphed through the centuries.
As marshes decline across the U.S., so do various wildlife. Eagle Bluffs sustains biodiversity ranging from microscopic organisms to bird species, deer and other large animals, MDOC Wildlife biologist Brady Lichtenberg says.
"Every species has its own right to persist and be successful, and if you lose diversity, it’s because species are going extinct," Lichtenberg says. "We need to make sure we are using our resources wisely to manage the land for all species."
Eagle Bluffs Conservation Area, 4 a.m. to 10 p.m., 445-3882
From ocean to Capen Park
Capen Park’s 32 acres of land was once a tropical region just south of the Earth’s equator, submerged by a shallow sea. Around 400 million years ago, Missouri looked quite different, Campbell says.
The Burlington limestone that now exists at Capen Park, supporting Columbia’s active rock climbing community, was eroded by Hinkson Creek throughout the past millions of years to reshape the bluffs. The bottom layer formed first and the top last. The shallow ocean brought nutrient-rich sediment and a thriving ecosystem, and tectonic plate collision changed the land’s shape, and eventually, Capen Park was formed.
Capen Park, 6 a.m. to 11 p.m., 874-7460