Recently my husband and I went exploring at a local state park near where we live. Castlewood State Park, which sits nestled in a bend of the Meramec River, is a mere 15 minutes from our front step. I had been to the north section of the park once before, this spring, but at the time it had been far too muddy to hit any unpaved trails. This time was different.
The weather was set to be beautiful. Mid 70s, a little breeze, sunny, and most importantly, dry. I made sure to do my research before we left, because on my previous trip I had glimpsed how popular Castlewood is, and how crowded the parking lots can be. I wanted to make sure we knew exactly where we were going and which of the many trails we would explore.
Our choice for this trip was Lone Wolf Trail.We didn’t know much about the trail, except it was a manageable couple of hours and had some pretty great views of the Meramec. When we found the right parking lot and made our way to the trail head, it looked pretty nondescript. However, as we stepped onto the trail and looked ahead, our necks craned, following the path upward.
The 1.5 loop began with a straight uphill climb on a gravel path.
Since we had already made up our minds to do the trail, there was nowhere to go but onward and upward. From that section alone, we can both heartily recommend wearing good tennis shoes or hiking shoes. Thankfully, we both were, otherwise some of the loose bits of gravel could have been problematic.
We couldn’t see what lay beyond the fortress-like hill until we nearly crested it. However, the view on the other side was entirely worth the climb.
Our eyes were treated to the sight of the Meramec River, lazily flowing around a bend and into the trees. The sky was crisp, clear blue that crowned the forested bluffs and valley below. What a beautiful view. The photo above shows one of the first rocky outcrops we came across with such a view; it was just one of many along this section of trail.
After the initial cardiac climb, the trail almost completely leveled out, simply tracing a path through the trees and hugging the bluffs. We imagined it might be a little crowded, but on that part of the trail, we were almost always within sight of people. Many others had apparently also thought it was a nice day for a hike.We came across other couples, both young and old, groups of friends, parents with small children. Nearly everyone was out to enjoy the day.
When the sweeping vistas weren’t capturing my attention, I kept noticing other interesting, smaller scale sights along the trail. For instance, the neat ground cover pictured below. It seemed to love the shade provided by the towering trees. I wish I knew the name of it. At any rate, I couldn’t help but stoop and take a few closeups for future reference.
Along the trail, I also noticed a variety of wildflowers. I’m not sure my husband would have appreciated me stopping and photographing every one, but I did get one nonblurry shot of a pretty purple flower that popped up occasionally along the path.
We hadn’t been hiking long when we noticed something funny about the view below us. If you peered over the edge, you could clearly see train tracks, running right through the state park. It’s not something I had seen before in other parks I’ve visited.
One time when we looked down, we saw a band of hikers following the tracks. Perhaps they were lost? We weren’t quite sure.
But, as you can see, I could not get enough of the views. Lone Wolf Trail solidly delivered on that point.
In the photo below, you can kind of see what appears to be a shallow cave in the side of the cliff. It’s the kind of scene that sparks my imagination.
After awhile of hiking along the bluff, we came upon a boardwalk that began a slight descent. Again, there were several places where hikers could pause and stare out at the valley, pondering the beauty and nature around them. It reminded me of some state parks in northern Illinois (namely, Starved Rock State Park and Castle Rock State Park state parks) that have similar boardwalk and bluff views.
The wooden stairs also acted as a funnel. Hikers that had previously been (rather purposefully) walking a ways a part to give each group some privacy now had no choice but to enter the fray together. Soon, hikers going downward as we were all but disappeared. Instead, we kept coming across groups of hikers coming up. As you can see below, there wasn’t much room for two to walk abreast down the stairs. But they were solidly built.
About halfway down, I was looking to my right and saw a few overgrown sets of concrete steps. Who knows when those were constructed, or when they ceased being used. A lot of history surrounds Castlewood as far as its prior use as a summer retreat and party haven (there’s even a website dedicated to sharing stories from that era of the park’s history).
As the stairs continued a sharp descent, it was clear that we were soon going to be on the floodplain, right next to the Meramec.
However, we didn’t know we would go through a tunnel under the railroad tracks. Since the trail passes right through there, it’s probably how other hikers we’d seen from the bluffs had made their way to walking along the tracks themselves.The railroad is actively used, however, so I wouldn’t recommend following in their steps. We heard or saw at least two trains go through as we were hiking ourselves.
Crossing under to the other side of the tracks was like entering a lost world. Here, the trees and their spread canopies dwarfed the trees growing on the rocky cliffs now a hundred feet above us. Some had trunks so thick, one could only imagine they might be a hundred or more years old.
The trail here was composed of fine-grain dirt. There wasn’t a single trail, but rather a constantly undulating network of wider and narrower paths. As soon as a few bicyclists passed by us, it was clear the multiple paths probably formed from both hikers and bicyclists trying to navigate around each other.
Also at this point, we started wondering if we were still on Lone Wolf Trail. Luckily, my phone had fairly good signal, so I quickly searched for an answer. We had, in fact, deviated from our original plan somehow and gone off onto River Scene Trail, an aptly named path that thankfully headed in the general direction of our parked car. Getting ourselves back to Lone Wolf Trail would have required ascending the dizzying flight of stairs, so we just kept going.
As Lone Wolf had hugged the bluffs, so did River Scene hug tightly to the Meramec. We could often see clearly through the undergrowth and catch glimpses of various sandbars, embankments, and other curiosities at the river’s edge. I’m not sure how the river is for fishing, but a few years ago I went on a float trip down a section of it on a large raft (courtesy of Riverview Rafting). Although Castlewood is no longer used as a resort area, recreational use of the river lives on.
After around an hour and a half of hiking, we emerged from the woods along the floodplain. The trail didn’t quite end at our car, so we continued hiking along the road, back under the railroad (albeit at a less tunnel-like pass). The path before us was very clearly etched in the dirt. It reminded me of a rather unceremonious Yellow Brick Road.
But lead us right back to our car it did, and so concluded our first major Castlewood hike. According to the park’s website and several area maps, it’s clear we’ve only scratched the surface of what the park has to offer. There are all kinds of trails, through woods, up steep slopes, overlooking the valley, and venturing into the valley itself.
We will definitely be back soon.
Know Before You Go
Address: 1401 Kiefer Creek Rd, Ballwin, MO 63021
Hours: 7 a.m. to one-half hour after sunset, year-round (park gates open and close at these times).
Facilities: Several shelters, uncovered picnic areas, and restrooms are available.
Trails: For a list of hiking trails and trail descriptions, the Missouri State Park’s website is a good source.
History: Also visit the Missouri State Park’s website for an overview of the park’s history and general information.