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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.