Tag Archives: trails

Phantom Forest and Bittersweet Woods

Every once in awhile, I pull up Google Maps and scroll my way through various areas near St. Louis, watching out for green squares that may indicate the existence of a park. This is how I stumbled across Phantom Forest and Bittersweet Woods.

Both patches of forest are conservation areas, and they’re located one mile south of Manchester Road (also known as Highway 100), the east-west artery that connects West County with St. Louis.

These parks caught my attention awhile ago. When I first spotted them on Google Maps, I had no idea how two small, oddly shaped conservation areas had wound up in the middle of a suburb. They’re just a few miles from my home, and each time I drove past the Barrett Station Road intersection on Manchester, I thought about exploring them.

Recently, I got my chance.

It was the middle of the week, and I came home one evening with the itch to get out and wander; to explore something. It happened to coincide with one of my husband’s evenings off, and although it was hot and muggy outside, he willingly obliged my desire to drive out and explore these two conservation areas.

We parked at the Phantom Forest Conservation Area, which is accessible off Barrett Station Road in Des Peres. The area has its own small lot. There was one other car aside from ours, but we ended up having the trail all to ourselves.

The entrance to Phantom Forest Conservation Area.

The trail going into the woods was covered in wood chips and gradually turned into a skinny dirt path. Although small, the surrounding woods were beautiful, filled with a variety of tree and plant species.

The area had obviously remained untouched for years. As you can see below, trees towered overhead, and sunlight filtered through the dense canopy.

A sunset view from the trail running through Phantom Forest Conservation Area.

Soon the trail split, and we followed the fork to the right up a steep hill. Near the top, we passed a few benches and found a plaque that explained the origins of the park. The stone monument explained, “The Missouri Department of Conservation acknowledges the gift by Claire L. Moore of this thirteen acre natural area, an oasis for all to enjoy. This conservation area has been named for the comic strip hero ‘The Phantom,’ for which Ray Moore was the original cartoonist.”

My husband, an aficionado of many comic book series, immediately got the reference to The Phantom. I myself had to do some reading up to find out more about the park donor.

A monument atop a ridge explains the origins of Phantom Forest.

After enjoying the view and retracing our steps to the main trail, we continued on until the woods abruptly ended. The trail continued on, but we found that it led right behind the fenced backyards of multistory houses.

I spotted a lady who was gardening in one of the enclosed yards and called to her, asking if the path was private or open for walking. She walked right up to the fence and talked with us for several minutes, explaining that the path linked Phantom Forest with Bittersweet Woods. It turns out she was the liaison between the neighborhood and a conservation officer who tends to both patches of woods and maintains the trails. Her two dogs ran around energetically while we talked, and she added that she walks them daily on the trail. Before we headed on, she also let us know about the existence of a small patch of prairie on the other side of the houses.

We briefly left the trail and wandered up into the neighborhood to look at the patch of prairie she had mentioned. I looked up some of the flowers later, and it looks like the prairie was filled with coneflowers and a delicate purple flower called bergamot. (And since I’m not as knowledgeable about flower identification, feel free to comment and correct if I’m wrong here.)

Miniature patch of prairie in Des Peres neighborhood.
Hillside covered in prairie plants and flowers.

After admiring this prairie oasis, we returned to the trail and walked through Bittersweet Woods, which at 10 acres, is slightly smaller than 13-acre Phantom Forest. The trail was a little wider and covered in wood chips, but its elevation varied greatly as we ascended a few big hills. In the distance, we could spot the backyards of many large homes that abutted the woods.

The entrance to Bittersweet Woods Conservation Area, which adjoins Phantom Forest.

Daylight started to fade as we followed the connecting path back into Phantom Forest. We picked up the pace. We followed the trail to the right instead of left (where we came from), and this time it was pretty flat, and we hiked through the lowland section at a good clip.

It wouldn’t be an adventure without a good obstacle, though, would it? When we were almost back to the parking lot, we spotted two male deer sporting antlers who were blocking our path. One casually walked into the woods and continued to graze, while the other just stood there, occasionally looking over his shoulder at us. We weren’t going to walk right into it and possible provoke it, so we stood there. After a few minutes, we almost turned around and retraced our steps, but at last both deer crossed the trail and continued foraging elsewhere.

A deer standing on the trail in Phantom Forest.

Overall, Phantom Forest and Bittersweet Woods are two little gems of wilderness in an otherwise tamed and developed area. They gave me a glimpse of what this part of Missouri looked like when it was blanketed in woods.

Know Before You Go

Address: 2660 Barrett Station Road, St. Louis, MO 63021

Hours: Sunrise to sunset.

Facilities: None. Use the bathroom if you need to before you hike here.

Trails: If you hike through both Phantom Forest and Bittersweet Woods, it’s under 2 miles. For more detail, take a look at this map from the Missouri Department of Conservation.

General Info: Also visit the Missouri Department of Conservation’s website for an overview of the park’s history and general information.


Castlewood State Park: A Photo Tour of Lone Wolf and River Scene Trails

Recently my husband and I went exploring at a local state park near where we live. Castlewood State Park, which sits nestled in a bend of the Meramec River, is a mere 15 minutes from our front step. I had been to the north section of the park once before, this spring, but at the time it had been far too muddy to hit any unpaved trails. This time was different.

The weather was set to be beautiful. Mid 70s, a little breeze, sunny, and most importantly, dry. I made sure to do my research before we left, because on my previous trip I had glimpsed how popular Castlewood is, and how crowded the parking lots can be. I wanted to make sure we knew exactly where we were going and which of the many trails we would  explore.

Our choice for this trip was Lone Wolf Trail.We didn’t know much about the trail, except it was a manageable couple of hours and had some pretty great views of the Meramec. When we found the right parking lot and made our way to the trail head, it looked pretty nondescript. However, as we stepped onto the trail and looked ahead, our necks craned, following the path upward.

The 1.5 loop began with a straight uphill climb on a gravel path.

Start of Lone Wolf Trail

Since we had already made up our minds to do the trail, there was nowhere to go but onward and upward. From that section alone, we can both heartily recommend wearing good tennis shoes or hiking shoes. Thankfully, we both were, otherwise some of the loose bits of gravel could have been problematic.

We couldn’t see what lay beyond the fortress-like hill until we nearly crested it. However, the view on the other side was entirely worth the climb.

Meramec River Bluff View

Our eyes were treated to the sight of the Meramec River, lazily flowing around a bend and into the trees. The sky was crisp, clear blue that crowned the forested bluffs and valley below. What a beautiful view. The photo above shows one of the first rocky outcrops we came across with such a view; it was just one of many along this section of trail.

Meramec River Bluff View

After the initial cardiac climb, the trail almost completely leveled out, simply tracing a path through the trees and hugging the bluffs. We imagined it might be a little crowded, but on that part of the trail, we were almost always within sight of people. Many others had apparently also thought it was a nice day for a hike.We came across other couples, both young and old, groups of friends, parents with small children. Nearly everyone was out to enjoy the day.

The River Valley from the Bluffs

When the sweeping vistas weren’t capturing my attention, I kept noticing other interesting, smaller scale sights along the trail. For instance, the neat ground cover pictured below. It seemed to love the shade provided by the towering trees. I wish I knew the name of it. At any rate, I couldn’t help but stoop and take a few closeups for future reference.

Ground Cover along Lone Wolf Trail

Along the trail, I also noticed a variety of wildflowers. I’m not sure my husband would have appreciated me stopping and photographing every one, but I did get one nonblurry shot of a pretty purple flower that popped up occasionally along the path.

Wildflowers along Lone Wolf Trail

Nathan Standing on Bluff

We hadn’t been hiking long when we noticed something funny about the view below us. If you peered over the edge, you could clearly see train tracks, running right through the state park. It’s not something I had seen before in other parks I’ve visited.

The Bluff, The Railroad, and the River

One time when we looked down, we saw a band of hikers following the tracks. Perhaps they were lost? We weren’t quite sure.

Nathan Standing on a Bluff

But, as you can see, I could not get enough of the views. Lone Wolf Trail solidly delivered on that point.

Nathan Standing on a Bluff

In the photo below, you can kind of see what appears to be a shallow cave in the side of the cliff. It’s the kind of scene that sparks my imagination.

View Down Meramec River Valley

After awhile of hiking along the bluff, we came upon a boardwalk that began a slight descent. Again, there were several places where hikers could pause and stare out at the valley, pondering the beauty and nature around them. It reminded me of some state parks in northern Illinois (namely, Starved Rock State Park and Castle Rock State Park state parks) that have similar boardwalk and bluff views.

The Boardwalk Begins

The wooden stairs also acted as a funnel. Hikers that had previously been (rather purposefully) walking a ways a part to give each group some privacy now had no choice but to enter the fray together. Soon, hikers going downward as we were all but disappeared. Instead, we kept coming across groups of hikers coming up. As you can see below, there wasn’t much room for two to walk abreast down the stairs. But they were solidly built.

Descending To the Floodplain

The Stairs Toward River Scene Trail

About halfway down, I was looking to my right and saw a few overgrown sets of concrete steps. Who knows when those were constructed, or when they ceased being used. A lot of history surrounds Castlewood as far as its prior use as a summer retreat and party haven (there’s even a website dedicated to sharing stories from that era of the park’s history).

Old Stone Stairs

As the stairs continued a sharp descent, it was clear that we were soon going to be on the floodplain, right next to the Meramec.

Heading Down into the Forest

However, we didn’t know we would go through a tunnel under the railroad tracks. Since the trail passes right through there, it’s probably how other hikers we’d seen from the bluffs had made their way to walking along the tracks themselves.The railroad is actively used, however, so I wouldn’t recommend following in their steps. We heard or saw at least two trains go through as we were hiking ourselves.

Tunnel Under the Railroad

Crossing under to the other side of the tracks was like entering a lost world. Here, the trees and their spread canopies dwarfed the trees growing on the rocky cliffs now a hundred feet above us. Some had trunks so thick, one could only imagine they might be a hundred or more years old.

The River Scene Trail
Trees and the Trail

Old Tree Trunk

The trail here was composed of fine-grain dirt. There wasn’t a single trail, but rather a constantly undulating network of wider and narrower paths. As soon as a few bicyclists passed by us, it was clear the multiple paths probably formed from both hikers and bicyclists trying to navigate around each other.

Also at this point, we started wondering if we were still on Lone Wolf Trail. Luckily, my phone had fairly good signal, so I quickly searched for an answer. We had, in fact, deviated from our original plan somehow and gone off onto River Scene Trail, an aptly named path that thankfully headed in the general direction of our parked car. Getting ourselves back to Lone Wolf Trail would have required ascending the dizzying flight of stairs, so we just kept going.

View of the Meramec from the Trail

As Lone Wolf had hugged the bluffs, so did River Scene hug tightly to the Meramec. We could often see clearly through the undergrowth and catch glimpses of various sandbars, embankments, and other curiosities at the river’s edge. I’m not sure how the river is for fishing, but a few years ago I went on a float trip down a section of it on a large raft (courtesy of Riverview Rafting). Although Castlewood is no longer used as a resort area, recreational use of the river lives on.

Crossing Under the Railroad Again

After around an hour and a half of hiking, we emerged from the woods along the floodplain. The trail didn’t quite end at our car, so we continued hiking along the road, back under the railroad (albeit at a less tunnel-like pass). The path before us was very clearly etched in the dirt. It reminded me of a rather unceremonious Yellow Brick Road.

Path Back to the Car

But lead us right back to our car it did, and so concluded our first major Castlewood hike. According to the park’s website and several area maps, it’s clear we’ve only scratched the surface of what the park has to offer. There are all kinds of trails, through woods, up steep slopes, overlooking the valley, and venturing into the valley itself.

We will definitely be back soon.

Tired and Happy Hikers

Know Before You Go

Address: 1401 Kiefer Creek Rd, Ballwin, MO 63021

Hours: 7 a.m. to one-half hour after sunset, year-round (park gates open and close at these times).

Facilities: Several shelters, uncovered picnic areas, and restrooms are available.

Trails: For a list of hiking trails and trail descriptions, the Missouri State Park’s website is a good source.

History: Also visit the Missouri State Park’s website for an overview of the park’s history and general information.

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!




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!