St. Louis County Parks: Cliff Cave Edition

Did you know that the St. Louis County park system has at least forty parks? You’d have to visit one just about every weekend for an entire year to experience them all.

While I’m not quite up to challenging myself to that (at least not in 2016, with the year being two-thirds over already), I’ve consciously been trying to explore more parks and build a better internal map of the recreation opportunities this area has to offer.

One that I ventured to this summer is Cliff Cave Park. Situated in the southernmost part of the St. Louis metro region, it hugs the curves of the mighty Mississippi River. As its name suggests, the park boasts towering bluffs, and somewhere in it, a cave that I haven’t laid eyes on yet.

My husband Nathan and I drove there on a whim one Saturday afternoon, and not being the best dressed for prolonged outdoor activities, decided to stroll along the loop north of the main parking lot and pavilion (see the map above), rather than venturing on a several mile long loop in another part of the park.

From the parking lot, we could see the park’s namesake cliffs extending to the south. Atop the cliff right overhead, the roof of a residence was slightly visible, as well as several rows of well tended grape vines. With an abundance of sunshine and being situated on a rocky, mineral rich cliff, I could imagine the conditions creating an excellent terroir for the grapes.

1646
Rows of grapes grow atop a bluff facing the Mississippi River above Cliff Cave Park.

Little did I know, those grapes would have greater significance the more I learned about the park. By the pavilion and restrooms, a covered sign shared information about the park’s history, trails, and ecosystem. Before opening to the public in 1977, the site of Cliff Cave Park passed through several owners, and its uses included a failed winery venture, a spring fed pool, and a marina. The railroad also went through the area, which to me helped explain the long, flat stretch of ground in an otherwise rocky and cliff-covered environment.

1647
A sign near the main pavilion shares tidbits about the park’s past for visitors and history-buff-park-lovers alike.

 

1651
A map of the park’s trails and amenities, which include a spring, several overlooks, and access to the Mississippi River.

After perusing the park’s background, we started off on the freshly blacktopped path toward the river. From the path, several skinny dirt trails crisscrossed down the embankment to the river’s edge. The sight was too much for me. I veered straight off and followed one to the river and soaked in the view. I hadn’t been so up close and personal with the Big Muddy since an adventure to the confluence of the Mississippi and Missouri rivers nearly a year and a half ago.

1663
A view of the Mississippi River facing the Illinois shoreline.

While I didn’t know it then, as I was standing right by the river, there’s a chance I may have been in Illinois. If you take another look at the map of Cliff Cave Park at the top of this post, you’ll see that the Illinois state line technically doesn’t end at the Mississippi—in some stretches, it crosses over and eats up bits of land we’d typically imagine as being Missouri. Interesting fact of the day, huh?

1672
Looking back from the river’s edge, several skinny dirt trails lead from the main path down to the shoreline.

We both enjoyed the view and eventually trudged back uphill to rejoin the path. For about a mile or so if you follow it north of the parking lot, it offers additional views of the Mississippi (further upstream, we caught sight of a barge making its way down the river) before looping back through a wooded area that almost resembles a swamp.

1676
A spiky looking flower growing along the trail at Cliff Cave Park.

Overall, it made for a nice walk on a humid summer afternoon. And at a mere 25 minutes from Busch Stadium and the rest of downtown, it’s an easy escape to get back in touch with nature.

1677
A flat, paved trail follows along the Mississippi River.

I’m really hoping to return again soon, this time with hiking gear, so I can explore the southern loop trail that leads to several overlooks. With the flat terrain and nicely finished path, it’s also ideal for runners and bikers looking for a change of scenery.

See you there soon!

 

Know Before You Go

Address: 806 Cliff Cave Rd, St. Louis, MO 63129

Hours: 8 a.m. to a half hour past official sunset.

Facilities: Bathrooms available, as well as a picnic shelter that can be reserved.

Trails: The main trail, known as the Mississippi River Trail, is an approximately 5 mile paved loop, in the flatlands right next to the Mississippi. For more information, including videos that highlight each of the park’s trails, head on over to the St. Louis County Parks and Recreation website.

General Info: Visit the Great Rivers Greenway website for some great information to plan ahead for a visit. The St. Louis Post Dispatch also did a thorough review of the Mississippi River Trail.

 

Advertisements

Phantom Forest and Bittersweet Woods

Every once in awhile, I pull up Google Maps and scroll my way through various areas near St. Louis, watching out for green squares that may indicate the existence of a park. This is how I stumbled across Phantom Forest and Bittersweet Woods.

Both patches of forest are conservation areas, and they’re located one mile south of Manchester Road (also known as Highway 100), the east-west artery that connects West County with St. Louis.

These parks caught my attention awhile ago. When I first spotted them on Google Maps, I had no idea how two small, oddly shaped conservation areas had wound up in the middle of a suburb. They’re just a few miles from my home, and each time I drove past the Barrett Station Road intersection on Manchester, I thought about exploring them.

Recently, I got my chance.

It was the middle of the week, and I came home one evening with the itch to get out and wander; to explore something. It happened to coincide with one of my husband’s evenings off, and although it was hot and muggy outside, he willingly obliged my desire to drive out and explore these two conservation areas.

We parked at the Phantom Forest Conservation Area, which is accessible off Barrett Station Road in Des Peres. The area has its own small lot. There was one other car aside from ours, but we ended up having the trail all to ourselves.

1178
The entrance to Phantom Forest Conservation Area.

The trail going into the woods was covered in wood chips and gradually turned into a skinny dirt path. Although small, the surrounding woods were beautiful, filled with a variety of tree and plant species.

The area had obviously remained untouched for years. As you can see below, trees towered overhead, and sunlight filtered through the dense canopy.

1192
A sunset view from the trail running through Phantom Forest Conservation Area.

Soon the trail split, and we followed the fork to the right up a steep hill. Near the top, we passed a few benches and found a plaque that explained the origins of the park. The stone monument explained, “The Missouri Department of Conservation acknowledges the gift by Claire L. Moore of this thirteen acre natural area, an oasis for all to enjoy. This conservation area has been named for the comic strip hero ‘The Phantom,’ for which Ray Moore was the original cartoonist.”

My husband, an aficionado of many comic book series, immediately got the reference to The Phantom. I myself had to do some reading up to find out more about the park donor.

1199
A monument atop a ridge explains the origins of Phantom Forest.

After enjoying the view and retracing our steps to the main trail, we continued on until the woods abruptly ended. The trail continued on, but we found that it led right behind the fenced backyards of multistory houses.

I spotted a lady who was gardening in one of the enclosed yards and called to her, asking if the path was private or open for walking. She walked right up to the fence and talked with us for several minutes, explaining that the path linked Phantom Forest with Bittersweet Woods. It turns out she was the liaison between the neighborhood and a conservation officer who tends to both patches of woods and maintains the trails. Her two dogs ran around energetically while we talked, and she added that she walks them daily on the trail. Before we headed on, she also let us know about the existence of a small patch of prairie on the other side of the houses.

We briefly left the trail and wandered up into the neighborhood to look at the patch of prairie she had mentioned. I looked up some of the flowers later, and it looks like the prairie was filled with coneflowers and a delicate purple flower called bergamot. (And since I’m not as knowledgeable about flower identification, feel free to comment and correct if I’m wrong here.)

1217
Miniature patch of prairie in Des Peres neighborhood.
1222
Hillside covered in prairie plants and flowers.

After admiring this prairie oasis, we returned to the trail and walked through Bittersweet Woods, which at 10 acres, is slightly smaller than 13-acre Phantom Forest. The trail was a little wider and covered in wood chips, but its elevation varied greatly as we ascended a few big hills. In the distance, we could spot the backyards of many large homes that abutted the woods.

1226
The entrance to Bittersweet Woods Conservation Area, which adjoins Phantom Forest.

Daylight started to fade as we followed the connecting path back into Phantom Forest. We picked up the pace. We followed the trail to the right instead of left (where we came from), and this time it was pretty flat, and we hiked through the lowland section at a good clip.

It wouldn’t be an adventure without a good obstacle, though, would it? When we were almost back to the parking lot, we spotted two male deer sporting antlers who were blocking our path. One casually walked into the woods and continued to graze, while the other just stood there, occasionally looking over his shoulder at us. We weren’t going to walk right into it and possible provoke it, so we stood there. After a few minutes, we almost turned around and retraced our steps, but at last both deer crossed the trail and continued foraging elsewhere.

1232
A deer standing on the trail in Phantom Forest.

Overall, Phantom Forest and Bittersweet Woods are two little gems of wilderness in an otherwise tamed and developed area. They gave me a glimpse of what this part of Missouri looked like when it was blanketed in woods.

Know Before You Go

Address: 2660 Barrett Station Road, St. Louis, MO 63021

Hours: Sunrise to sunset.

Facilities: None. Use the bathroom if you need to before you hike here.

Trails: If you hike through both Phantom Forest and Bittersweet Woods, it’s under 2 miles. For more detail, take a look at this map from the Missouri Department of Conservation.

General Info: Also visit the Missouri Department of Conservation’s website for an overview of the park’s history and general information.