Tag Archives: adventure

Hike #4: Southern Illinois State Parks

(This is the extremely belated fourth post of my Twelve Hikes, Twelve Months series.)

At the very beginning of last April, I set out on a day trip with my mom and sister to explore some of the lesser visited natural areas in southern Illinois. Many people familiar with the region think of mainstays like Giant City State Park and Garden of the Gods as worthy hiking destinations. However, if you’re interested in places a little off the beaten path, read on for highlights of that spring day extravaganza.

Ferne Clyffe State Park

We began our day at Ferne Clyffe State Park on the Big Rocky Hollow Trail. Located about a mile outside the town of Goreville, this state park is smack dab between interstates 57 and 24, making it easily accessible for day-trippers.

(Fun fact: Goreville sat in the path of totality during the 2017 solar eclipse, and will be close to, if not in, the path of totality during another solar eclipse on April 8, 2024.)

Big Rocky Hollow Trail is a wide, level path that cuts through woods in a small canyon until it arrives at a short waterfall. A different trail branches off early on and follows the rising bluffs to the right. In early spring, bits of vegetation and hardy flowers pop up among boulders and under the tree canopy. Rock faces are covered in springy, bright green moss. Walking among those boulders was an otherworldly experience for us. To lengthen our hike, we followed the path partway up the bluff and then returned to follow the main trail to the waterfall and back.

Dixon Springs State Park

About 25 minutes southeast of Ferne Clyffe is Dixon Springs State Park. While it does have a few hiking trails, we stopped off to use the park’s picnic facilities.

The almost 800-acre site sits on a rock face and was used as a health spa in the 19th century because of the seven mineral springs onsite. The remnants of a small community remain, including at least two old church buildings perched atop a hill.

We ate lunch at a picnic table right next to a beautiful stream, and spent some time exploring the immediate area and soaking in the lovely spring air. We crossed a bridge overlooking one of the springs and walked up to the site of the old settlement. Because we had packed our day with destinations, we then moved on to make the most of it.

Golconda

We couldn’t come so close to the Ohio River, just ten miles from Dixon Springs, and not go take a look at it. So we turned left out of the park onto Illinois Route 146 and drove into Golconda, a historic river town with a population of 2,000.

Main Street was absolutely lined with motorcycles that day. We kept going and parked near the Pope County Historical Society, across from the courthouse, and proceeded up the levee steps to peek at the mighty Ohio River.

The Pope County Historical Society was also well worth a visit. Rooms upon rooms tell the story of Golconda and the surrounding area. You can see varied collections exhibiting Golconda’s history, learn about the Trail of Tears, and spy the high water mark from the 1937 flood.

One other notable stop for us was The Chocolate Factory, a gourmet chocolate shop that opened in 1977 and is located across from Dixon Springs State Park. We made sure to stop in and pick up some homemade fudge as we headed westward once again.

Heron Pond Natural Area

To cap off our day of wandering, we headed to Heron Pond Natural Area to see some natural cypress swamp. A lot of people probably don’t realize that southern Illinois has such a gem – it was definitely my first time hiking through a habitat like that.

Heron Pond is located less than 15 minutes south of Vienna. The parking lot was rather remote, and then it was a good half mile at least before reaching the boardwalk that enters the swamp. We followed a dirt path (the Todd Fink Heron Pond Trail) that bridged a creek and then followed it. Turtles sunning themselves on the opposite bank plunged into the water as we walked by.

If Ferne Clyffe felt surreal, this place was even more so. The ground and cypress roots were completely covered in water, which was in turn carpeted with duckweed. Centuries-old cypress trees rose out of the water and towered upward, competing for sky and sunlight exposure. It was the kind of place someone could get lost in time just experiencing the silence.

This year, we hope to complete another similar day trip, picking out places we haven’t been and enjoying the arrival of spring. I encourage you to get out, wherever you are, and do the same.

Know Before You Go

Ferne Clyffe State Park

90 Goreville Rd, Goreville, IL 62939

Dixon Springs State Park

982 IL-146, Golconda, IL 62938

Pope County Historical Museum

112 N. Columbus, Golconda, IL 62938

The Chocolate Factory

990 IL-146, Golconda, IL 62938

Heron Pond Natural Area

Heron Pond Ln, Belknap, IL 62908

 

 

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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.

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.

 

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.

Approaching the Confluence: An Afternoon Near Alton

Itching for Adventure

For some time now, I’ve been getting the itch to do some more exploring outside of St. Louis. While the city and suburbs are interesting in their own right, something about my flatlands upbringing has forever engrained in me the desire to seek out open spaces and sweeping views. And my adventure last weekend quenchedeven if only brieflythat deep thirst.

Confluence of Missouri and Mississippi Rivers

On that Friday afternoon, I had mentioned to a coworker that I wanted to go eagle watching sometime. I asked if she knew of any local hotspots. In response, she told me all about a beautiful area just north of St. Louis where the Missouri and Mississippi rivers meet. My mind began racing with possibilities. By that evening, I had laid the tracks for a Saturday jaunt up U.S. Route 67 into the Alton, Illinois area, for a day of fun and exploration. And what a day it turned out to be!

Seeking Out the Confluence

The first objective of the day was to navigate our way to a small park on the Missouri side known asget ready, this is a mouthfulEdward “Ted” and Pat Jones-Confluence Point State Park. It’s located at the tip of a talon-shaped piece of land bordered by the Mississippi and Missouri rivers.

From U.S. Route 67 just before the bridge into Alton, we hung a right, drove past one of the busiest looking gas stations in America, and continued past a visitor’s center and marshlands filled with migratory birds. Before the road took a sharp left, we turned right onto a bumpy, gravelly road that winds aimlessly for four miles before arriving at an equally gravelly parking lot. For all those concerned, there are restroom facilities available at this point. I’m sure some people would be thankful for them after the bumpy ride.

Confluence of Missouri and Mississippi Rivers

The weather was just favorable enough for the short walk through the treeline to reach the water. At this point, the wind seemed to converge from all directions, uninhibited by the open, frigid waters ferrying chunks of ice southward.

A dozen or so other brave souls were also out at the point. There were a few educational signs, an extremely tall pole commemorating the infamous flood of ’93, and a cement walkway that went further out to the edge of the water.

Sign from the Flood of '93

I ventured out to the very last rock connected to land and stared ahead. It was indeed a neat sight to see the slow-moving, albeit powerful currents of the two rivers colliding and merging into one.

Before we turned to head back to the cars, someone pointed out a lone eagle, soaring above the precise point of the confluence.

The Confluence of Two Great Rivers

Bar Food Extraordinaire at Fast Eddie’s Bon Air

After visiting the confluence, my stomach was growling for lunch. To remedy that, we headed into Alton to experience a local legend of a restaurant. Fast Eddie’s has been in existence since the 1920s, and since then it has expanded to seat nearly 400 people. (Be prepared for packed parking and to flash your ID at the door; patrons must be 21 to enter.)

Preparing Burgers at Fast Eddie's

I’m glad we were accompanied by people who had been there before. After you enter, you then need to snake your way behind a bar to join the end of the food line. Fast Eddie’s has a simple and inexpensive menu, and because of the simplicity, the line moves blessedly fast. You can grab a half-pound burger hot off the grill for $1.99. (Another tip: Come with cash, as that’s the only accepted payment method for food. ATMs are available, but you’ll likely get charged a fee for using them.)

The other half of the experience was finding somewhere to sit. The place was packed to the hilt with all kinds of people, which made for interesting people watching, but it complicated our efforts to find a table with four available chairs. We checked both the indoor and enclosed outdoor seating areas. We did end up finding a table and enjoyed tearing into our food and sharing in conversation.

Winding Down at Grafton Wineries

As the sun was setting, we followed Illinois Route 100, also called the Great River Road, north from Alton toward the smaller town of Grafton. The road tightly hugs the curves of the Mississippi to the left and gives way to the region’s rising bluffs on the right. The combination of scenery and sunset was spectacularly beautiful.

Sunset from Aerie's Winery

We reached our destination,  Aerie’s Winery, with enough light left to enjoy the view. The winery overlooks both Grafton and another confluence—of the Illinois and Mississippi rivers. Reaching it involved a steep ascent up several hills, but the view at the top was entirely worth it. It was the perfect place to relax, unwind, and enjoy some locally bottled wine.

Another Sunset View at Aerie's Winery

We also stopped by the Grafton Winery, which sits right off Main Street. The owner herself took care of our wine tasting and poured a sample of an item not even listed on the menu. She and her staff earned a lot of points in my book for their attentive service.

All in all, our experience in Grafton was the cherry on top of an exhilarating dayand that has only whetted my appetite further for exploring the area surrounding the Great River Road.

Know Before You Go

The following information was up-to-date as of the publication date of this blog post.

Fast Eddie’s Bon Air

Phone: 618-462-5532

Address: 1530 East 4th Street, Alton, IL 62002

Website: http://www.fasteddiesbonair.com/

 

Aerie’s Winery

Phone: 618-786-8439

Address: 800 Timber Ridge, Grafton, IL 62037

Website: http://www.aeriesview.com/winery/#aeries-winery

 

Grafton Winery and Brewhaus

Phone: 618-786-3001

Address: 300 West Main, Grafton, IL 62037

Website: http://thegraftonwinery.com/Winery-In-St.Louis/