Tag Archives: exploring

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.

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!

Thornhill Estate at Faust Park: This Photography Lover’s Best Kept Secret

If you like photography—whether you’re an amateur or seasoned professional—you likely have a favorite spot or two for whipping out your camera whenever you get the chance. I am no different.

Just a few months after moving to St. Louis, I stumbled across a location that I’ve come back to time and again—with friends and by myself, for my own engagement and wedding photos, and even recently to try out my first ‘real’ big girl camera. Every time I return, I know where to head for reliably beautiful backdrops. And so far, it’s never failed that a different aspect of this place has captured my attention and imagination, whether I’m in front of or behind the lens.

This place is Thornhill Estate. Tucked behind Faust Park in Chesterfield, Thornhill is where Frederick Bates, Missouri’s second governor, called home.

The estate is comprised of a stately white house and a collection of well-preserved barns and other outbuildings, all perched atop a sloping hill at the end of a long gravel drive. Dotted with features like rows of mature trees, a period vegetable garden, and an open expanse of field, the grounds are filled with photo opportunities from end to end.

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A front view of Gov. Frederick Bates’ house at Thornhill Estate.
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A side view of Gov. Frederick Bates’ home at Thornhill Estate.

According to a site history I found from St. Louis County Parks, Gov. Frederick Bates had the house constructed around 1820 in a style inspired by homes from his native state of Virginia. Shown above, one feature of the home (when viewed from the front) is a symmetrical floor plan.

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Behind the house are several small outbuildings, a garden, and not pictured, a small family burial plot.

 

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A line of old, mature trees separates the field from the grounds surrounding the house.

I first discovered Thornhill while exploring Faust Park with a good friend. After walking around the front of the park outside the Butterfly House, a popular attraction Faust Park is known for, we drove through the roundabout skirting the Butterfly House to see what else we could find. As we started down a gravel drive that appeared to be an extension of the park, we almost questioned whether we were entering private property. But as the beautiful farm came into view up the hill, I realized we had just stumbled upon a gem of a historic site. A sign at the wood fence separating the property from the parking lot confirmed that it was okay to explore.

I’m pretty sure my friend and I had the entirety of Thornhill to ourselves during that initial visit—and that’s something that has struck me every time I’ve gone back. There are typically not many people there. This scarcity of visitors adds to the appeal of this unique location as a backdrop, or the main attraction, for some serious photography, because there is no competition for the best vantage point or frustration of needing to crop or edit people out of your photos.

After I got engaged, one of my best friends agreed to come to St. Louis and do an engagement session for Nathan and me. We ended up doing two locations: the Gateway Arch (which is where we got engaged), and Thornhill Estate. I must say, Sarah Jacquel Photography did a pretty good job.

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One of my favorite photos from our engagement session took place in front of the very barn that captured my heart the moment I laid eyes on it. Photo credit @Sarah Jacquel Photography.

We got some beautiful images in front of the dark wood barn that I admired so much the first time I saw it, as well as other locations throughout the property. It was fall, so the field beside the house offered another gorgeous backdrop. On a side note, every season is an ideal time of year to visit Thornhill. In autumn, the golden color of the field makes for an awesome background, and in June, the edges of of the same field are filled with soft purple flowers.

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An engagement photo in the field beside the main house at Thornhill Estate. Photo credit @Sarah Jacquel Photography
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Purple flowers show up at Thornhill in late spring.

When Nathan and I got married in 2015, we went back to Thornhill after the reception for a special photoshoot with our wonderful photographer, Woven Bone Photography.

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One of the many beautiful images from a special wedding session at Thornhill Estate. Photo credit @Woven Bone Photography

Once again, we got some photos in front of the dark wood barn, as well as the front of the house, and other locations around the property. And like almost every time I’ve been there, we barely encountered anyone. That made it much easier to relax and be ourselves, which I think showed through in our photos.

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Sitting on the front steps of the house at Thornhill Estate. Photo credit @ Woven Bone Photography

For me, Thornhill is an oasis from a busy and fast paced life. It’s easy to get caught up in the minutiae of the everyday. This place forces me out of that. I never expected I’d end up living and working in a larger metropolitan area, so it was an unexpected treat to find this undisturbed piece of land—and slice of history. Each step into the property takes me further back in time and allows me to wonder and marvel at the beauty around me. I’ve always left feeling refreshed… and mentally planning my next Thornhill visit.

So all of this is to say, if you’re in St. Louis and looking for a good location for a photo op, you now know my personal favorite and best kept secret. Feel free to share some images if you get out that way!

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Know Before You Go

Address: 15185 Olive Blvd, Chesterfield, MO 63017

Hours: 7 a.m. to a half hour past official sunset.

Facilities: Bathrooms are available near the front of Faust park by the playground area. There are some picnic tables on a hill behind the main house (pictured above).

Trails: The Governor Bates Trail (named for the governor who resided at Thornhill) is just over a mile long and begins at the estate. It’s rated as difficult (as of this post, I haven’t yet hiked it).

General Info: If you’re a thorough explorer, you could spend over an hour poking through the nooks and crannies of the Thornhill grounds. The rest of Faust Park offers a variety of attractions, like a historic village, playground, the Butterfly House (which is managed by the Missouri Botanical Gardens), and the Carousel.

 

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.

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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.

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

 

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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.