On the first day of Spring Break 2011 I headed east to one of the oldest and largest state parks in Missouri, Bennett Spring. A larger and less photogenic sibling to Roaring River State Park, this one also features a natural spring, brown and rainbow trout fish hatchery, lots of anglers, CCC improvements, and hiking trails. Bennett Spring has five times the flow of the one at Roaring River.
The day started with a breakfast biscuit at McDonald’s and then the familiar drive east on miserable US 60 to Vinita, then angling northeast on I-44 toward Lebanon, Missouri. I turned off onto the new south bypass of Springfield, which continues to expand on its southeast side. I had lunch at Romano’s Macaroni Grill and then headed back on I-44 to Bennett Spring State Park.
In 1837 the Brice family moved into the area and James Brice built the first grist mill. Peter Bennett built a mill shortly thereafter and married Brice’s daughter. The Bennett mill was the most successful in the area, which by 1900 was a popular fishing spot. 40,000 mountain trout were introduced into the spring and Brice Inn was opened. The last mill at Bennett Springs operated from 1900 to 1944, used as a saw mill, electricity generator, flour mill, and later as a fish food grinder until it was destroyed by fire. Its raceway was the first trout-rearing pool. The state bought the spring, community of Brice, and surrounding area to form one of its first state parks. The CCC developed most of the park between 1934 and 1937 by renovating and enlarging the hatchery, building cabins, roads, hiking trails, water fountains, shelter houses, a dining lodge, and an arch bridge that crosses the spring branch. The similarity to Roaring River is striking and continues to this day, with a newer park store built in the same style as the new one at Roaring River.
My primary target was the longest trail in the park. I drove past the spring creek which had folks fishing all along the shores and out in the water. Parking at the trailhead at the southern end of the road, I set out on the 7.5 mile Natural Tunnel trail which runs southeast to a 300-foot-long natural tunnel carved by a creek through the dolomite.
It was warm and sunny as I hiked through bare trees alongside and across rocky creek beds. Descending a narrow ridge of dolomite, I could see a bit of rocky bluff projecting from the forest ahead. At the base a stream had carved its way along a bluff and then finally broken through at a weak spot. I ventured down a rocky creek bed to see the eroded bluff. Later I reached a section of a creek where I could see more dramatic dolomite erosion and a tiny cave above the water. The sides of the spring hollow were covered in trees, except for the stripes made by a couple of natural gas pipelines, reminding me of the stripes across Osage Hills State Park near home.
Approaching the natural tunnel, there was a narrow cave in the hillside. Then I saw the wide entrance of the tunnel. A stream had encountered a ridge of dolomite and wrapped around it long ago. Swirling water at the turn had slowly eroded the ridge until it broke through to form an S-Shaped tunnel 296 feet long, 16 feet high, and 50 feet wide. Dolomite is calcium magnesium carbonate and slightly water soluble. (Not to be confused with Dolemite!) Along the bluffside approach to the tunnel, I was disappointed to see that previous visitors had stuck some water bottles into small holes in the face of the rock. I wished I had a carry bag so I could extract them and walk them to the nearest trash can over three miles away.
I had brought along a flashlight upon the urging of a guide book, but I found it was not needed. Stepping into the first curve of the tunnel I could see the light streaming from the exit. After posing for a self-portrait, I used rough-and-tumble stepping stones someone had kindly placed in the waters of the creek to make my way to the far end. There I was puzzled to see huge broken slabs of reinforced concrete across the tunnel mouth. What foolishness was this? It turns out that in 1964 the park decided to cap the tunnel and form an upland lake. But after a heavy rain the water broke through and the stream resumed its natural course. I wish they’d bothered to haul away their mess. From atop the failed seal I shot a panorama of the tunnel’s mouth and then another panorama inside the tunnel.
Backtracking to where the trail looped, I followed the other side past the Jenkins family cemetery, which dates back to 1840. Crossing a wide creek bed, I admired a large stone. EveryTrail said I had ventured 8.7 miles in four hours. I have a gift for extending trails – this time I’d added 1.2 miles to the nominal trail length.
There were still a couple of hours of daylight left, so I drove past the CCC gauge station to the Nature Center and hiked another 1.5 miles along the Bridge Trail to the Bluff Trail, although the upper section of the latter was poorly marked and difficult to discern. The picturesque CCC bridge with the water streaming over the dam lured me over to admire the arches and watch the fishermen. Back at the car I was washing up and putting on a clean shirt and shoes when the park siren wailed, signaling the end of the fishing day.
I drove into Lebanon for a tasty dinner at La Tolteca before returning home, looking forward to a few more days of hiking later in the break.