Big Oak Tree
Points of Interest:
• See big trees that once covered large areas of the Bootheel.
• See and hear interesting and colorful wetland birds like the prothonotary warbler.
• See plants and animals of the Deep South like bald cypress right here in Missouri.
• Enjoy the cacophony of frogs and toads on warm spring evenings.
Natural History: Big Oak Tree Natural Area is a remnant of the vast bottomland forests and swamps that once covered the Mississippi Lowlands region of Missouri. Today the natural area and state park stand out in stark contrast to the miles of drained row crop lands surrounding them. The park, often called “The Park of Champions,” has a tree canopy averaging 120 feet tall with several trees more than 140 feet tall. This natural area is home to big trees! The state park has one national champion and two state champion trees. An 80-acre section of the natural area contains an old-growth bottomland hardwood forest that is also a designated National Natural Landmark.
In floodplains, the timing, frequency, and duration of flooding and soil saturation determine the type of natural community. At Big Oak Tree you can witness how slight changes in topography and elevation create major changes in the plant and animal communities. A visitor can walk from an infrequently flooded bottomland hardwood forest dominated by oaks, hickories, and sweetgum to a frequently flooded swamp of bald cypress trees while only going down in elevation by three feet!
Parts of the Big Oak Tree Natural Area evoke the feeling of being in a place farther south like Louisiana, where swamps dominated by bald cypress, water locust, swamp chestnut oak, and overcup oak are more common. Birders can see a number of bottomland forest and swamp bird species including the prothonotary warbler, Mississippi kite, wood duck, barred owl, tree swallow, hooded warbler, and pileated woodpecker – 150 species in all. The area is also home to 42 reptile and amphibian species including the green treefrog.
Big Oak Tree Natural Area harbors 10 species of conservation concern, including many southeastern species such as the swamp rabbit, bald cypress katydid, and finger dogshade Most of these species are at the northern edge of their range, but were common throughout the Mississippi Lowlands of Missouri in 1800. With the destruction of most of their habitat, places like Big Oak Tree, though small, are important refuges for the conservation of Missouri’s southern coastal plain natural heritage.
Big Oak Tree State Park was dedicated in 1938. The campaign to save the “Park of Champions” became a reality after funds were raised by local citizens to purchase a 920-acre buffer around the 80-acre core of old growth bottomland forest.
From East Prairie, head east on Highway 80. Turn right (south) onto Highway 102 and go approximately 10 miles south from the junction of Highway 80 and 102. Turn right (west) onto Highway RB. Follow signs into the park and drive to one of the trailheads. Two hiking trails traverse portions of the natural area. A 1.25 mile Boardwalk Trail leads into the swamp. The 1.4 mile Bottomland Trail leads visitors past many of the “big oaks” of Big Oak Tree Natural Area. Hunting and fishing are not permitted.