Category Archives: Local

Hike #3: LaBarque Creek Conservation Area

(This is the third post of my Twelve Hikes, Twelve Months series.)

March’s edition of the Twelve Hikes, Twelve Months challenge took me to a truly new place. Until a few days before the hike, I had never heard of LaBarque Creek Conservation Area, a 1,200 acre park about an hour southeast of St. Louis.

As per usual, I discovered it while scrolling around Google Maps. This challenge has really put that unusual pastime to good use. I spotted a cluster of parks in northern Jefferson County, including LaBarque Creek, Young Conservation Area, and the Myron and Sonya Glassberg Family Conservation Area. I was curious to visit at least one of them, and LaBarque Creek ended up fitting the bill.

My friends Erica and Josh were game to join me for a nice Saturday morning hike. We met in the gravel parking lot at the foot of LaBarque Creek’s only trail. I say foot of, because this trail is a three-mile adventure in hills. If you conquer the trail clockwise as we did, you will find a nearly continuous gain in elevation on the first half. It made for a challenging and satisfying workout.

The trail travels in a loop through woods, along a scattering of short rock formations atop a ridge, over a stretch of exposed rock (possibly sandstone) leading to a cliff, and finishes by briefly touching the path of LaBarque Creek. It was scenic throughout, showing off a scrubby and rugged landscape. I couldn’t help but pause several times to photograph the surrounding beauty.

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Although spring had yet to touch the woods, the ground was coming alive with green. The views through the leafless timber, especially along the highest part of the ridge, were arresting.

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We crossed paths with a few hikers but mostly enjoyed having the trail to ourselves – one of the benefits of an early start. I burned through a water bottle easily from the strain of continuous hill-climbing. After reaching the trail’s highest point around halfway through, it was a delicious feeling to descend back into the valley on the second half of the loop.

The back half contained some of my favorite scenery, including some exposed rock, contrasting light and dark ground cover, and views of LaBarque Creek. Near the end, the trail also skirted someone’s property, so we got to observe horses grazing in a field to the left of the trail. The trail became a well-defined path etched into the hillside as we approached the bridge leading back to the parking lot.

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I was surprised to learn later, while looking into the history of the park, that it has only recently been designated as a conservation area. The land was dedicated in 2010, due in part to the work of a group known as the Friends of the LaBarque Creek Watershed.

It is wonderful that this glimpse of Missouri’s original landscape has been preserved for generations to enjoy. Go challenge yourself to the loop – and enjoy this example of the beauty and diversity of the Missouri landscape.

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Know Before You Go

Address: Valley Dr, Pacific, MO, 63069 (Detailed driving directions are provided on the Missouri Department of Conservation’s website.)

Admission: Free.

Facilities: Good sized parking lot, but no picnic tables or restrooms. The nearest city is Pacific.

Trails: LaBarque Creek has a single, looped trail around 3 miles long.

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Frozen Custard Season

When temperatures reach almost 80 degrees, it’s the start of frozen custard (and ice cream/frozen yogurt/shaved ice) season. Today was that day.

I would normally mark its arrival by going to some local place, but not this year. Today, I found myself instead in the St. Charles County area, exploring the trail system that meanders through the city of St. Peters.

Walking 3.58 miles in the heat (it sure felt hot) and windy conditions meant I drained the one and a half water bottles I had with me. So at the end, it only felt right to commemorate my survival with a frozen treat.

A Google search yielded several results, and I went with one I hadn’t heard of before – Deters Frozen Custard. It’s a family owned business that’s located off Highway 94 near Interstate 70.

I could have driven straight past it. The bright white building sits at the bottom of a hill, out of view from most of the other businesses lining Highway 94, but their cheery sign draws your attention.

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To my surprise, they offered both frozen custard and shaved ice. I wish I had taken a picture of the menu, because there are literally dozens of flavors to choose from.

Faced with decision paralysis, I asked the person taking my order for her recommendations. I ended up with the beauty below – an apple pie frozen custard sundae. Try saying that phrase ten times fast. It has vanilla custard, bits of apple and pie crust, pumps of caramel, and whipped cream and cherry to top it all off.

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The front had a small seating area with tables and wrought iron benches. I sat at a table while enjoying my sundae, and watched the cars go by. Business picked up right at that moment. Older couples and younger families began arriving in droves and lining up to get their orders in. Everyone stood or sat around while updated oldies hits cycled through the sound system. It was a nice atmosphere for a first warm weather treat.

So there you have it. If you’re looking to mark the start of your frozen custard season, you have my recommendation and two thumbs up for Deters.

 

Know Before You Go

Address: 755 Friedens Rd, St Charles, MO 63303

Hours: Check out Deters’ Facebook page for updated hours.

Cash or Debit: Both. I’ve been to some frozen custard/yogurt places that only take cash, so it was nice to see they also accept cards.

Hike #2: Lincoln’s New Salem State Historic Site

(This is the second post of my Twelve Hikes, Twelve Months series.)

February’s hike took me thirty minutes north of Springfield, Illinois, to Lincoln’s New Salem State Historic Site. This little gem lies two miles immediately south of Petersburg, a community of around 2,300, that hugs the west side of the winding Sangamon River.

Before I go any further, I must add an unfortunate disclaimer that this post is rather rather lacking in photos. My camera died en route to this Springfield adventure, so I’m stuck with a few older photos showcasing a different New Salem trail in its full-fledged-summer-foliage glory.

The main attraction of New Salem is the historic village, a replica of the community that Abraham Lincoln spent time in during some of his formative years in the Springfield area. During warmer months, the village fills up with reenactors and educational events for families and children. The site is especially popular for school field trips – I should know, I’ve been there on one. On this particular day, though, my sisters and I were just looking for a good hike to stretch our legs.

We parked in the large lot up the hill from the main park entrance, in a spot furthest away from the visitor center. With my sister’s canine companion in tow, we started down a couple mile loop through the woods. It starts off downhill, crosses a creek, and begins a loop that varies greatly in elevation. It was a brisk day, but not too cold for a February late morning/early afternoon. The sunlight poured down on us.

After cresting a steep hill, my sister Becky showed us the Bale cemetery, a small family plot still intact from around the 1800s. The park has nicely preserved the space, fencing it off, keeping the monuments in good repair, and placing a sign that shares some of the history of the family at  rest there. We stopped a moment to read the headstones and admire the view – the cemetery sits atop a hill overlooking woods and the Sangamon River.

A short distance down the trail, we also walked by the remnants of a chimney and foundation of a small building, possibly an old home. It was hard to tell when exactly the building was originally built, but it had certainly languished over the years until all the materials except stone were gone. At any rate, it wasn’t identified by any marker or sign, so we explored it a bit and then moved on.

The trail came close to the park entrance and then began to loop back uphill. It was definitely a more brisk hike than the Shaw Nature Preserve. Although it had less variation in scenery, the cool sites we came across, like the cemetery and old foundation, made it an interesting hike nonetheless. It’s always nice to go for a walk in the woods, and a warmer than average February day is especially ideal, with the lack of bugs that might otherwise populate the trail.

Unfortunately, my younger sister and I had to take off after completing the hike, so there wasn’t time to explore another trail that day. However, there are several other paths to explore – one leads from near the visitor center down to a covered bridge that crosses Rt. 97/123. Another starts on the other side of the highway (closest to the river) and follows an abandoned road all the way to the river. On a visit last year, we saw a few snakes moving through the vegetation at the river’s edge. A network of other trails crisscrosses all throughout the park, making it an interesting place for repeat visits.

Come to learn about the life and times of Abraham Lincoln, and stay for a hike or two – and while you’re at it, maybe even a bit of theater.

 

Know Before You Go

Address: 15588 History Ln, Petersburg, IL 62675

Hours: Hours/days of operation change seasonally – check out the park’s website for more information.

Admission: Free. There is a suggested donation of a few dollars to tour the historic village.

Facilities: The visitor center has restrooms, as well as the campground adjoining the park.

Trails: Several miles of trails crisscross the park – some up by the village, at least one across the road close to the Sangamon River, and others accessible nearby.

General Info: New Salem has a variety of offerings – the historic village, hiking trails, a campground, and a popular outdoor theater. It’s a beautiful place to visit, especially when all these activities are in full swing.

 

Flowers & Weeds, a Cherokee Street Gem

This past weekend, my friend Melissa and I checked out Cherokee Street for the very first time.

Located in South City, this historic shopping district stretches for blocks and overflows with antique stores, boutiques, and also duly noted, an abundance of Mexican restaurants. Since it was late afternoon, we cruised the length of the famed street and decided to stop in at one place in particular – Flowers & Weeds.

The shop bills itself as a “floral studio, urban flower grower, and greenhouse.” And it thoroughly lived up to those expectations.

The entrance was flanked by antique carts laden with flowers. As we stepped inside, the interior opened up like a Pinterest-lover’s dream. Neat stacks of patterned pots; rows upon rows of succulents and small cacti; figurines and other treasures hidden among planters and terrariums; dressers spilling over with greenery. Everywhere I looked was inspiration overload.

We wandered around until just before closing time, taking in everything from the table full of air plants to the terrarium-making station to a cat curled up in what I imagine must be its favorite spot. Within the next several weeks, the outside of the greenhouse will also fill in with an abundance of annuals, perennials, vegetables, and other plants, as area St. Louisans gear up for gardening season.

In honor of it being the first week of spring, I just wanted to share some photographs of this lovely shop and inspire your inner green thumb. Take a look (click any photo to scroll through a gallery), and head on over to check it out for yourself in person! You won’t regret it.

 

Know Before You Go

Address: 3201 Cherokee St, St. Louis, MO 63118

Hours: Open Tuesday – Sunday

Website: www.flowersandweeds.com

Why I Look Forward to Going Back: I can’t wait to return for a girls’ outing to make our very own terrariums! No appointment needed – just stop by during business hours, and they’ll set you up at a workstation at the rear of the shop. You can bring your own container or use one of the beautiful vessels available there.

Fun Fact: Flowers & Weeds is a completely women-owned and run business. Check out this video, where you can meet the owner and see her in action.

 

Hike #1: Shaw Nature Reserve

(This is the first post of my Twelve Hikes, Twelve Months series.)

My first official hike in 2017 took place on an unusually mild January day at the Shaw Nature Reserve, located just forty minutes from downtown St. Louis.

Though not intentionally planned this way, Shaw Nature Reserve turned out to be the perfect kickoff to my year of seeking new hiking adventures. This place is a quintessential St. Louis experience—a wild extension of the Missouri Botanical Garden that owns and operates it.

Within its 2,400 acres are 14 miles of networking trails that meander through a veritable treasure trove of habitats, including prairies, glades, and woodlands. The Botanical Gardens began acquiring the land in the 1920s, and over the years has transformed the private reserve into a hiking destination and preservation tool for Missouri’s unique landscapes.

Be forewarned that since it’s private, there is a small entrance fee unless you’re already a Garden member. My friend Erica had a pass, so we met up and she checked us in at the visitor center right at the park entrance.

Then we parked further back in the reserve and began our hike outside a stately brick home. I learned later that it is known as the Bascom House.

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Originally built in the late 1800s, it has been restored and maintains regular visiting hours. Had I known that then, I would have tried to detour us through the house before we hit the trails. I find old homes, and architecture in general, quite fascinating. But instead we walked on past it, leaving me curious for another visit.

From the Bascom House, we followed a meandering path that connected to the Brush Creek Trail, a more established trail that leads toward the Meramec River. I was surprised when we came upon a fenced off area in the woods that we could only access by letting ourselves through a gate in the so-called “deer exclusion fence.”

The wooded trail we continued along soon opened into a wide space rippling with golden prairie grasses. It was a beautiful sight.

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At the top of the long, grassy hill stood a few structures reminiscent of the settler days in the 1800s. We passed by a large teepee structure and spotted a miniature sod house. To our surprise, the door to the sod house wasn’t locked, and we peeked our heads in. A rich, earthy scent filled the interior, which was comprised of a single room no more than a hundred square feet.

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After lingering around the sod house, we continued through the open prairie and reached the next tree line, which was also the location of the Maritz Trail House. This large shelter is accessible by a long driveway extending from the Bascom House. The parking lot outside the shelter was empty, so the driveway must not have been open (It turns out it doesn’t open until April).

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From there, we picked up the Goddard River Trail loop, which circled through woods, glades, and a sandbar along the Meramec River. My favorite part by far were the open glades. I would love to see them again in spring, when they’re teeming with flowers, all different types of plants, and songbirds.

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We also encountered some of our first fellow hikers in the woods, who appeared to be enjoying the morning by bird-watching.

About halfway through the loop, the trail abruptly disappeared by the Meramec River. Fortunately, Erica had hiked this section before and knew to skirt part of the shoreline via the sandbar until the trail picked up again. While we were at it, we wandered to the river’s edge and I took a good look at the solemn currents etching the water’s dark surface. With each step back toward shore, the sandy gravel produced a satisfying crunch, crunch beneath my shoes.

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Upon finding the trail again, it followed close to the river for a while among large, towering trees. It reminded me of Castlewood State Park, where a trail similarly hugs the riverside under a canopy of ancient looking trees. We stopped for a few pictures beside a tree with a particularly impressive girth. When we ran into a park employee cleaning up the trail nearby, I asked him about the age of the tree, and he estimated at least 100 years old, if not older.

We only ran into one other person on the back half of that loop, a trail runner who we ran into a few more times. A series of steep hills led us back up through the woods, and eventually we made it back to the large swath of prairie. The downhill hike from there felt so good after tackling several switchbacks earlier in the trail.

We took a slightly different path to reach the car again, which led to a boardwalk over a small pond with an ethereal looking gazebo situated next to it.

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Overall, we hiked a solid three or four miles in a few hours out on the trails. It was a great start to the hiking season, if I do say so myself.

Know Before You Go

Address: 307 Pinetum Loop Rd, Gray Summit, MO 63039

Hours: 7 a.m. until sunset. For more information on visitor center hours and Bascom House hours, check out the Botanical Garden’s website.

Admission: $5 general admission, $3 admission for students, seniors, and children, and free for Garden members. The reserve doesn’t permit pets.

Facilities: Bathrooms are available at the visitor center, near the Bascom House, and at the Maritz Trail house shelter.

Trails: Shaw Nature Reserve has about 14 miles of interconnected trails. For trip ideas, view the complete trail map or this list of trail runs (complete with water/bathroom stops) put together by the Botanical Garden staff.

General Info: Some assorted tidbits… The visitor center doubles as a gift shop and bookstore, which I plan to check out next time. Aside from hiking trails, other activities like wagon rides take place at certain times of year. The Botanical Garden also promotes gardening and other educational activities through the reserve. See the website for Shaw Nature Reserve for more information, including activities and upcoming events.

Twelve Hikes, Twelve Months

This year, I’m trying something different. Instead of setting lofty, opaque resolutions that I have little hope of following through with, I have settled on a singular, concrete goal.

Every month, I will hike somewhere new.

Whether a new park, or simply a trail I haven’t explored before, I have challenged myself to extend beyond my familiar favorites – Creve Coeur Lake, Queeny Park, and Castlewood State Park, for instance.

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These St. Louis staples I have walked and hiked numerous times in the past three years. This year, I want to renew my spirit of exploration and push the boundaries of my mental map.

It’s time to explore more thoroughly to the south, west, and north. Although I consider myself a Missourian now, I haven’t seen much of the state outside St. Louis. And while I don’t know how far (literally) I’ll go in pursuing my goal, it will prime the pump for more adventures, road trips, and seeing my adoptive state up close and in person.

I hit the mark in both January and February, and will need to follow up with posts about those outings to Shaw Nature Reserve and New Salem State Park. I’m ticking off March tomorrow, going to explore a conservation area I spotted on a map earlier this week. It will be good fun with good friends, and two very sore legs thereafter.

Whatever you’re focusing on in 2017, I hope it’s a success. Lay out your goal, a plan of action, and just stick with it.

Happy trails.

An Accidental (Mis)adventure at Blackburn Park

Sometimes, life needs a dose of spontaneity—and that’s exactly what my friend Stephanie and I got ourselves into recently when I casually posed the question, “What if we just turned left at the next stoplight?” We had just finished eating lunch and were driving back from a nondescript diner in South County that I had wanted to try for awhile. A little disappointed from that experience, I was feeling restless.

Stephanie gamely took the bait, saying “Why not?” After all, we were driving on a thoroughfare that cut through neighborhoods teeming with unique, mid-century brick homes. We both enjoy random adventures and exploring neighborhoods, so the next left-hand turn would likely deliver on both accounts.

Oh yes, it did.

After traipsing down several side streets and gazing admiringly at row upon row of modest and beautiful houses, we took another left-hand turn. This time, instead of launching us into another neighborhood, we ended up parallel to what appeared to be, of all things, a park.

“Turn into the parking lot,” Stephanie insisted. Driving up to the sign, I saw it read—Blackburn Park. A moment later, something registered. “Blackburn Park! This is crazy! I was just looking at this on Google Maps the other day, and have really been wanting to come out here!” When I get excited, the feeling can be hard to physically contain. “I can’t believe we ended up here!”

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As we got out of the car, I realized an additional two things. One, my phone had very low battery, and my car charger was sitting on the kitchen table at home. And two… did I just hear thunder?

Undeterred, Stephanie spearheaded the exploration, starting by veering off the wide brick path that appeared to cut through the center of the park. On we went to inspect knobby old trees, stand under park shelters that more closely resembled Spanish-tiled villas, and watch two squirrels whirling around tree trunks, locked in an endless chase.

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Almost every time we hang out, something inevitably leads to a photoshoot. Since my phone has a higher quality camera, we pulled it out for several shots, warily watching the battery creep lower, but unable to resist the advantageous scenery around us. Since you’re seeing this post, you know we came away unscathed, and my phone battery eventually did recover. But in the moment, it added an extra bit of urgency and hilarity to the proceedings.

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A group of teenagers was hanging out in the center of the park, and I couldn’t help but think what an unusual sight it must have been to them when we spotted a Swallowtail butterfly and followed its erratic flight path, trying to take a picture before it disappeared in the tree canopy.

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Meanwhile, the column of clouds approaching from the west continued to climb higher. With the underbelly turning a dark shade of blue, I was getting a little nervous about being caught out in the storm. But on the playground we passed, kids continued to play and parents continued to watch. Walkers continued walking, and occasional bicyclists kept passing through.

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While taking a rest under one villa/shelter, a young mom approached and commented that she was inspecting the shelter for an upcoming birthday party for her child. “It’s a beautiful place for that,” we agreed. She lingered for a few minutes, sharing snippets of her plans for that day and details of the community pool, before resuming her afternoon errands. It was a breath of fresh air to meet a stranger in that random place, at that random moment, and share some bits of small talk. It reminded me of the good rooted deep in our neighborhoods, the togetherness and sense of community that perhaps helps form the backbone of society.

Right then, another roll of thunder jolted me to attention. “Let’s keep going,” I suggested, and Stephanie agreed.

Meandering down several paths, we got an overall good scope of the park. And it was beautiful. Everything I’d hoped to find when I examined the square of green from my laptop, just the week prior.

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The storm clouds were almost directly overhead now, threatening to release fat droplets of rain, and my phone battery couldn’t take much more excitement. So we descended a hill back into the parking lot, laughing at the adventurous misadventure that had just befallen us. I turned the engine on and directed the car back toward the street.

“Which way should we go?” Stephanie asked.

“How about that way. Past the stoplight and up over the hill. I was wondering what’s over there when we drove by earlier.”

 

Know Before You Go

Address: 394 Edgar Rd, Webster Groves, MO 63119

Hours: 6 a.m. to a half hour past sunset.

Facilities: There are two locations with restrooms in the park. Several shelters (which may need to be reserved ahead of time) and picnic tables are also available. There are tennis courts, a bird sanctuary (which we didn’t get to, but sounds neat), a playground, and other amenities tucked throughout its 38 acres.

Trails: There are paved walking paths throughout the park. See this map from the City of Webster Groves.

General Info: With walking paths, shelters, and loads of shade from mature trees, Blackburn Park is a very restful place to enjoy a birthday party or just walk and think. In 2012, the Riverfront Times highlighted Blackburn Park as the best birdwatching opportunity in the St. Louis area. Curious about its history, I found that the park was created when an inventor named Jasper Blackburn and his wife donated their land to the city of Webster Groves for the purpose of a park. There doesn’t seem to be much out there in terms of a good history of the park, so if you find more, comment and share below!