New state park is a ‘botanical garden’ Print E-mail
Wednesday, 12 April 2017

One man’s gift has preserved unique natural landscape

By Tom Uhlenbrock
Missouri State Parks

The view is spectacular from the highest point in Missouri’s newest state park, where the late Don Robinson built his home.

A picnic shelter and overlook with rocking chairs now welcomes visitors to pause and inspect the rugged  landscape.

“I can’t think of any other overlook in Jefferson County where you can look out 360 degrees and not see another house,” said Ron Colatskie, a natural resource steward for Missouri State Parks who grew up and lives nearby.

Colatskie recently led a tour at Don Robinson State Park that started at the top of the highest hill and descended into the labyrinth of box canyons. Robinson had named the area Green Gulch because of its verdant display of lichen, mosses and Christmas ferns.

The park opened in winter, which is a great time to visit the park’s 818 acres because the leafless trees offer a better look into the canyons cut by small streams that form the headwaters of LaBarque Creek. The creek supports 42 species of fish and is the most pristine in the Meramec River watershed.

When the forests and glades green up in spring, the park becomes a botanical garden, with some 524 species of vascular plants, in addition to more than 100 species of mosses.

“What is really special is the contrasting communities,” Colatskie said. “The canyons harbor very wet environments with rare ferns and mosses, but just above are the desert-like glades, where you’ll find species like prickly pear cactus.”

Don Robinson State Park features two hiking trails and a paved walking trail that take visitors through its unique terrain.
Located just 20 minutes south from the Highway 109 exit off Interstate 44 at Eureka, Missouri, the park is a wild sanctuary amid the booming development at the southwest corner of the St. Louis area.

The LaBarque Creek Conservation Area is on the park’s northern boundary, and the two combine to form designated natural areas that total almost 2,000 acres. Natural areas represent some of the best, and last, examples of Missouri’s original wild landscape

“I would argue it’s the highest quality natural area around St. Louis,” Colatskie said. “The box canyons are the real gems of the area.”

The park will be for day use only, and has two trails that show off its steep hills and deep valleys. Don Robinson’s wood-and-stone house, with a widow’s walk to take in the view, is the only remaining structure, alongside new restrooms.

The LaBarque Hills Trail is a 2.4-mile loop that takes hikers along the backbone of the park’s western ridge. The Sandstone Canyon Trail is a 4-mile loop that follows a ridgetop along the upper edge of a sandstone canyon. There also is a half-mile paved ADA trail.

“Everybody’s awestruck by these canyons,” Colatskie said. “What also attracts people to the park is the escape from the growing urban communities that surround it.

“The majority of the LaBarque Creek watershed is publicly owned, which is incredible considering the real estate values. This is one of the few sites that wasn’t subdivided up.”

Promoting ‘wildness’

Although Robinson lived alone in the house, and never married or had children, he enjoyed entertaining on summer weekends and built a large swimming pool, with a high dive, for his guests.

His business was in Kirkwood, Missouri, where he manufactured and sold a spot remover called “Off.” He often appeared on late-night television in commercials promoting the product.

In an interview at his hilltop home in 2010, at the age of 83, Robinson said his main goal was to keep the land intact for future generations to enjoy.

“The most depressing thing I’ve ever had to do is worrying about what to do with this place,” he said. “I’m used to putting things together, not writing the last chapter.”

He had been visited by several agencies interested in his property, ranging from the St. Louis office of The Nature Conservancy to the New York Botanical Garden.

Doug Ladd, the Conservancy’s top botanist, had visited the land and praised its “unique diversity.”

“Beyond that, it’s incredible scenery on the doorstep of St. Louis, winding, steep-sided sandstone canyons, trickling springs, moss mats. (It is) scenery you normally don’t associate with the Midwest,” he said.

Robinson ultimately chose to leave the land to the Missouri Department of Natural Resources when promised it would become a state park.

When he died in March of 2012, Robinson’s gift of land included a trust fund to help in its management.

“Don wanted to limit development and highlight the natural aspects of the land,” said Colatskie, who first met Robinson when he shopped at a grocery store where Colatskie worked as a young man.

“He really promoted the wildness of the land,” Colatskie said. “I think he’d be impressed with what we’ve done with it.”

A gravel path leads from the overlook parking lot a short way to a grove of trees at the top of a nearby knoll. A park bench sits before a granite headstone that says, simply, “Don A. Robinson.”

“Don was always adamant that he would become a permanent feature of the landscape once he passed away,” Colatskie said.

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Last Updated ( Thursday, 27 April 2017 )