Tag Archives: nature

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.

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.

The Katy Trail

My Introduction to the “Katy Trail”

For the duration of my time in St. Louis, I have been continually intrigued by a certain “Katy Trail.” It started with driving down highway 364 turned 94 to head to wine country near the small towns of Defiance and Augusta. What begins as a 10-lane divided highway with a 60 mph speed limit eventually whittles down to a 2-lane, often 45 mph or below speed limit due to constant twists and turns through the hilly Missouri countryside.

Leaving the suburbs through this route is like traveling along a literal backwards passage of time. You have to keep transitioning one lane to the left as the miles wear on, because civilization gradually dedensifies and almost falls away entirely.

Starting out around Maryland Heights (approximately a third-ring St. Louis suburb), the scenery looks almost nothing like the “wild yonder” 20 minutes to the west past the bridge over Interstate 64. Here, the rings of suburbs surrounding the core of St. Louis cease, and the road narrows from four lanes to two, and the trees close in on both sides as you continue your trek out into the country.

Although Defiance and a plethora of wineries stand only 15 minutes away by this point, the drive seems much longer than that. Once you slow to the country-town speed limit and wind your way through the steep left-rights of some of Defiance’s streets, you’ll notice several gravel lots that seemingly adjoin the junction of biker bars in the middle of Defiance.

Looking closer, you’ll realize that not only are the lots mostly full, but the majority of the vehicles packed in those lots are equipped with bike racks. And the individuals teeming out of those lots will almost certainly be heading straight into the treeline.

Neon Clad Walkers on the Katy Trail

As you pass by, you’ll notice that, no, these individuals aren’t headed to some strange wilderness camp, but they’re all going on a half-size looking gravel road. This is an unmistakeable sight. One quarter of said individuals will be outfitted with sweats of various kinds, and the other three quarters will likely be donning all shades of neon that have thus far been discovered (I must be one of the aforementioned people… see the picture above).

Finding the Right Access Point

That was my first exposure to the Katy Trail. Since then, I’ve done a lot of reading up on it (see links at the bottom of this post). Most of the park (if not the entirety of it) is an old railroad bed transformed into useable trails for walkers, hikers, and bicyclists. The park spans more than 200 miles, with countless access points scattered through much of Missouri.

With so many options for where to start, where exactly does one start? For me, the answer was right out my back door. Well, almost.

Several of my friends use the Katy Trail access point in Defiance, but for me that can be a long drive. Driving across the Missouri River on 364, though, I began to notice a good-size parking lot on the west side of the river by the highway. Once I even exited at the nearest ramp and drove around until I found the parking lot. But it wasn’t until this summer that my fiance and I finally returned to that spot and made that our entry point into the world that is the Katy Trail.

I highly, highly recommend it.

Katy Trail in the Shade

The Katy Trail Experience

It was a balmy, late summer afternoon when we started out on our walk. The parking lot is elevated high above the actual trail, so those wanting to access it have to take a series of switchbacks right by the base of the bridge crossing the Missouri. It was fun going down, but I think you can guess how I would later feel about going back up.

With the choice of either turning right toward St. Peters or left toward St. Charles, we turned right and headed for the area that looked like it offered more shade. That’s something to watch out for–although much of the trail is shaded, it would be unpleasant to be caught in a wide open section on a blistering hot and sunny day.

Our walk lasted about four miles. We kept going all the way until the trail crossed a section of road, and we decided the shade of the trail we had already covered was more inviting than what lay ahead. Wise decision. And what a neat section of trail! It’s very flat and accommodating to different skill levels, whether you’re an endurance runner or just want to ride a bike for leisure.

Peek of the Missouri River from the Katy Trail

The section we chose to cover had sweeping vistas of the river at times, butted up against nice houses (for HGTV lovers such as myself), and cut through interesting tracts of different types of nature. If one hour is all you have, it’s a nice, immersive experience without straying too far from the parking lot.

More Info

For general information about the Katy Trail, the links below can be a good starting point. I wish you the best of luck on discovering your own Katy Trail adventure!

http://www.bikekatytrail.com/

http://mostateparks.com/park/katy-trail-state-park

http://www.traillink.com/trail/katy-trail-state-park.aspx

Extra Tidbit

This year, St. Louis is celebrating its 250th year of existence! To mark the momentous occasion, artists all over the city have erected fully decorated cakes in parks, near public monuments, in important buildings, and in other areas to highlight the diversity of all this city has to offer. Guess what we found right in the parking lot? Take a look!

Happy Birthday, St. Louis!