Ozark Hikes Near St. Louis
Let’s hike into the winter woods. You might huff and puff and wonder why you’re out in the cold freezing your rear end off. But if you keep going, if you push on, you will warm up and the brilliant snowflakes will caress your face. So, let’s go! Why should we spend money we don’t have sitting in a restaurant paying way too much for unhealthy food when we could be deep in the woods enjoying spectacular views along Ozark river valleys and ridges?
I often go alone. When I’m tired, I slow the pace and wander. When full of energy, I race, run, ascend ridges, weave off trail in and out of woods, leaves cushioning the forest floor. Sometimes I thank God that I’m alive. Being grateful is part of being happy. Going alone into the woods is exhilarating. Going with others is no less satisfying, especially if people know when to talk and when to keep quiet. Serious conversations eventually intertwine with rising humor and a punch line. Inevitably someone will stumble and just as inevitably someone will ask, “Have a nice trip?” My British friend might add, “Tally ho!”
Come with me to my “backyard” of trails along ridges and bluffs, rivers and streams, meadows and glades. I live about 20 minutes southwest of St. Louis, near highway 141 and 44, on the edge of the Missouri Ozarks. My house sits on a ridge overlooking the Meramec RiverValley. Within five minutes to a half hour from my front door are some of my favorite spots. But no matter where you live – Houston, Philadelphia, New York – if you do a quick search, you will find a new path leading from your lounge chair, begging to be explored.
So why shout through the din in a crowded restaurant when you could be listening to the crack of a branch breaking in the wind, falling under the weight of snow and ice, or the rustling of leaves in the glistening sunlight? Or the fabulous summer greenery on a narrow path as you bike past tall wildflowers to a place only you can feel, the surging joy? Why not sit on a boulder tipping back a microbrew and munching on cashews? Better than any plate full of cheese fries and screaming toddlers in high chairs. We don’t need to spend money to live fully.
Castlewood State Park
When Castlewood gets crowded on good weather weekends, I often remark, “What are all these people doing in my public park?” But it’s crowded for good reason. Miles of trails wind along the Meramec River and rise up along the bluffs offering scenic views far up the valley. According to Wikipedia, the Meramec River “is the is one of the longest free-flowing waterways in Missouri, draining 3,980 square miles while wandering 218 miles from headwaters...to where it empties into the Mississippi River.” A sandy beach stretches for about a mile where people launch kayaks, fish, swim or just lounge about. (It’s also a place where ill-informed swimmers regularly drown, so pay attention to the “Deadly River” signs and stay clear of the deep water.) Castlewood used to be a resort town between 1914 and 1940 and you can still see foundations and walls from that era. The trails are perfect for running, bicycling, and of course hiking.
I love this area because I encounter only a few people on weekends and often nobody during the week. The trailhead is next to Kraus Farms Equestrian Center on Hillsboro Road so you will see lots of beautiful horses, but as a hiker you don’t have to worry about stepping in it. Horses are not allowed on the approximately three miles of trail up the valley and back along a ridge where the Losing Stream disappears into a rock, always a fun puzzle. Excellent quick access to what often feels like wilderness, especially in winter, and if we get even the slightest bit of snow, Forest 44 makes for great cross-country skiing.
This park is popular because it is in St. LouisCounty surrounded by homes and businesses, near the intersection of Manchester and Weidman roads. It’s great for running, walking and hiking, cross-country skiing when there is substantial enough snow. Various trails range from a mile or so to over six. All trails are wide enough for park vehicles and therefore great for groups who want to chat it up the whole time.
Rockwoods, south of Eureka off highway 109, is one of Missouri’s oldest conservation areas; I’ve been rock climbing, hiking, running there since I was a teenager, so it must be old. In winter, from one of many Rockwood ridges, you can see the often out-of-place white ski runs of Hidden Valley Ski Resort in the brown hills. My favorite trail currently is the Lime Kiln Trail, so called because an old kiln marks the trail head. I remember, in my early twenties, climbing up the kiln, before it started crumbling and was fenced off. My friends and I also rock climbed at a picnic area and along highway 109. (See Missouri Bluffs.) Apparently around 1945, Tom Horbein also climbed at Rockwoods. Horbein is the famous mountaineer from St. Louis who reached the summit of Everest with Willi Unsoeld via the never-before-attempted and suitably dangerous west ridge. Rock climbing at Rockwoods unfortunately is no longer allowed. Regardless, it remains a premiere area for hiking and, as its name implies, it has many glorious rocky wooded trails. (I’m not at all sure what “reservation” implies. Area reserved? Watch out for Native Americans? Recommend with reservations? Always found the name odd.)
La Barque Creek Watershed
South of Eureka, along highway FF, several conservation areas are excellent for hiking and exploration. This thirteen square-mile watershed is home to Young, Glassberg, and La Barque Conservation Areas, all of which have excellent trails of various routes and glades, creek access, ridges, views and valleys.
Young has two ponds and a trail that run along La Barque Creek near its confluence with the Meramec River. I’ve caught bass and bluegill with my fly rod in the creek and ponds. They aren’t that big, but fun nonetheless. The creek can accommodate about one person fly fishing. One trail leads deep into the woods about five miles or so, but a shorter loop is available that takes you through an old stand of pine.
Glasburg is the newest area, and the main trail follows an old road up to a bluff that overlooks the Meramec. It has a man-made lake with a short trail around it. The main trails are one way for now, but my brother and I easily bush-wacked to form a circle.
La Barque trail runs along the upper reaches of the creek to a “high point” of about 800 feet. Once I was hiking with my son and neighbor when we encountered my brother and his son coming from the other direction. Normally, we’re more coordinated, sort of.