25 hiking trails within a two-hour drive of St. Louis

Credit to http://projects.stlmag.com/stlhiking

The phrase “flyover country” conjures flat stretches of grassland, dotted with cattle and cornfields. In truth, the Midwest offers far more character, with the Ozarks rivaling the Appalachians and Smoky Mountains in some stretches. Here in St. Louis, we’re fortunate to have all the conveniences of a major metro area and no shortage of picturesque retreats in our big backyard. In this guide, we highlight—in no particular order—a handful of trails within a two-hour drive, from the state’s tallest mountain to its highest waterfall. (OK, that’s just one of the hikes.) We hope this feature will serve as a jumping-off point, encouraging you to get out and see the many other scenic spots that are just waiting to be explored.

➜ Also, don’t miss our online guide to the region’s best parks and nature reserves.

Photo by Dru Wallace 

▲ Castlewood State Park  

Trail: River Scene Trail

Distance: 3.25 miles

Difficulty Level: Moderate

Of all the great trails at Castlewood, River Scene has the most spectacular views of the ancient Meramec River Valley. Poets say the park’s “castles” are the bluffs themselves, crenellated by wind and rain. On this trail, you emerge from the forest, climb up to those bluffs for a panoramic view, and hike along their edge for about a mile, your breath caught by one scenic overlook after another. Then you descend wooden stairs and hike past the ruins-porn of Castlewood’s years as a glamorous Art Deco resort. You pass through the railroad tunnel (trains carried flappers in their feather boas and gentlemen with their sterling hip flasks), then emerge into sunlight and turn left, toward the river. No more steep inclines; you’ll hike along the river, then follow Kiefer Creek Road back to the trailhead.

Photo by Andres Hevia

▲ Klondike Park  

Trail: Lewis & Clark and Hogsback trails

Distance: 1.7 miles

Difficulty level: Easy

The name Klondike conjures gold-hungry forty-niners panning amid snow-capped mountains. In truth, the community’s miners once harvested silica sand from the bluffs near the Missouri River. Today, the white cliffs near Quarry Lake, in the heart of the St. Charles County park, are the most telling evidence of the site’s former life. Though the park’s trails are a favorite of mountain bikers, there are two notable paths for hikers: the paved 3.02-mile Lewis & Clark Trail (wrapping around the lake and running from a boat ramp at the park’s eastern edge to the Katy Trail at its southwest side) and the unpaved 1.16-mile Hogsback Trail (a more challenging scenic path, looping through the woods on the park’s eastern half). For nature lovers, the entire 250-acre park is a gem.

Queeny Park

Trail: Hawk Ridge Trail

Distance: 4.4 miles

Difficulty Level: Easy

We owe thanks for Queeny Park to Edgar Monsanto Queeny, who was a horseman and naturalist as well as CEO of a chemical company. At the Mason Road entrance, turn left. Once you’ve passed the barn, stables, and erstwhile dog museum, you’re officially on the trail. One mile in, you cross Owl Creek and pass the Twin Lakes. Next come the clover and alfalfa fields, then “the edge,” its wild cherry and sassafras a habitat for birds and bunnies. When you reach Weidman Road, walk on the shoulder, then pick up the path again at the edge of the woods. Once you’ve passed the lake and marsh pond, you’ll head uphill…and arrive where you began.

Don’t Forget

Powder Valley Conservation Nature Center

Trail: Hickory Ridge Trail

Distance: 1.2-mile

Difficulty: Easy

Sight: Scout for wildlife with the tykes

Meramec State Park

Trail: Wilderness Trail

Distance: 8.5 miles

Difficulty Level: Moderate to advanced

There are shorter trails in Meramec State Park (six, to be exact, with Walking Fern and Deer Hollow leading to Fisher Cave, where tours are available). But after driving an hour, you’re in the mood for a nice long walk, so you opt for the park’s longest trek, moving counterclockwise from the trailhead. The South Loop is 6 miles, and the North Loop’s 4 miles—but the extra walking is worth it, with the northeastern corner passing the trail’s most scenic spots, including a bend overlooking the Meramec and Copper Hollow Spring, which flows from the mouth of Copper Hollow Cave, at the bottom of a 50-foot cliff. On the way back, you’ll make a gradual ascent before coming back down through Campbell Hollow, where small streams and rock formations provide a satisfying end to a half-day hike.  

Lone Elk Park

Trail: White Bison Trail

Distance: 4 miles

Difficulty: Moderate

Here’s the tricky part: You have to drive through the bison territory at Lone Elk Park, but you can hike the White Bison Trail, a loop that goes deeper into the park. Bring your camera or fancy phone: You’ll see elk (far more than the lone one that gave the park its name; the herd’s up to 17) as well as deer, hawks, wild turkeys, herons, ducks, geese, and—from a comfortable distance—bison. Leave Fido at home for this one, and keep a respectful distance from the elk, lest they gore you. (It happened twice last year.)

Courtesy of Missouri State Parks

▲ St. Francois State Park 

Trail: Mooner’s Hollow Trail

Distance: 2.75 miles

Difficulty Level: Moderate

At one time, moonshiners gathered in the hollow to craft hooch, using ice-cold water from the spring-fed Coonville Creek. Today, a path in St. Francois State Park named for those liquor lovers, Mooner’s Hollow Trail, winds beside the picturesque Ozark stream. A footbridge at the trailhead foreshadows the trail’s defining feature: the creek, which winds alongside the trail for a mile before the two cross. There, you can sit on a boulder and look upstream, admiring a serene pool and series of cascades. Afterward, continue along to a ridge near U.S. Highway 67, where a glade offers inspiring views to the south, before returning to Mooner’s Hollow and, eventually, that familiar footbridge. (Looking for a longer trek? Try the 10.25-mile Pike Run Trail, on the park’s east side.) 

Photo by Haley Gaertner

▲ Taum Sauk Mountain State Park 

Trail: Mina Sauk Falls Trail

Distance: 3 miles

Difficulty Level: Rugged

Taum Sauk goes to extremes: At 1,772 feet above sea level, Taum Sauk Mountain is the highest point in Missouri, and Mina Sauk is the state’s tallest waterfall, dropping 132 feet over three ledges. Before you even start your hike, climb the lookout tower for a panoramic view of the St. Francois Mountains. Then, from the top of Taum Sauk, take the rocky, rugged Mina Sauk Falls Trail. Once you cross the first of four glades between the peak and the falls, look to the west for jaw-dropping scenery, and when you reach the top of Mina Sauk Falls, have your camera ready. From there, you’ll loop back up the mountain, but the Ozark Trail section of the trail continues down the valley, heading toward Johnson’s Shut-Ins. 

Babler Memorial State Park

Trail: The Dogwood Trail

Distance: 2.2 miles

Difficulty Level: Moderate

In the heart of Babler, Dogwood Trail climbs several inclines and winds down into a lush valley, so you’re spanning about 300 feet in its ups and downs. Start at the shelter on Guy Park Drive, and cross Equestrian Trail before reaching the Dogwood loop. (You’d best bring a map.) Heading north, begin your first ascent. Toward the end of the loop, watch for a path to Babler Spring, tucked beneath a 20-foot outcropping. Along the way, you’ll see, of course, dogwoods—the whole park glows with them in spring. 

Don’t Forget

Hughes Mountain Natural Area

Trail: Devil’s Honeycomb Trail

Distance: 1.5-mile

Difficulty: Easy

Sight: The otherworldly rhyolite formations at the summit

Valley View Glades

Trail: Valley View Glades Trail

Distance: 2.5 miles

Difficulty Level: Easy

A 225-acre gem in Jefferson County, Valley View Gladesoffers just one trail, but it’s worth the trip, taking visitors through wooded hollows and wildflower-filled fields. The trail winds through a forest, passing small waterfalls and streams when conditions are right, and continues to weave in and out of the glade, offering inspiring vistas and passing an array of grasses and wildflowers. An overlook near the trail’s end provides one final glimpse of the land’s namesake. 

White Rock Nature Preserve

Trails: White Mine and the North and South Ridgetop trails

Distance: 2 miles

Difficulty Level: Moderate

The preserve’s 306 acres were bought in 2010 in a precedent-setting joint venture by two nonprofits. Untouched for years, the land had become a safe habitat for threatened or endangered species, from wooly buckthorns and cerulean warblers to the common striped scorpion to the increasingly scarce coachwhip snake. If you’re still game, begin on Bluff Road, 2 miles south of the original (flooded-out) town of Valmeyer, Illinois, and walk north to the first private road, then east on that road to the trailhead. At the gate, you’ll begin a steady climb to Madeline’s Rest, where you’ll see the closed entrance to the old White Mine. From there, the trail climbs to the North Ridgetop and South Ridgetop trails, both leading to hill prairie overlooks, and watch eagles soar. Now retrace your steps; the trail does not loop.

Photo by Joe Sikorski

▲ Don Robinson State Park 

Trail: Sandstone Canyon Trail

Distance: 4 miles

Difficulty Level: Moderate

Opened to the public last January, Don Robinson State Park, in Jefferson County, is still new to most of us, but its rock formations are centuries old. Start on a paved trail leading to a picnic shelter before the path gets interesting, running along the ridge of a sandstone canyon above LaBarque Creek. It continues past caves, cliffs, and glades and through dry woodlands with twisted oaks. Spring scatters wildflowers, and its rain creates waterfalls (and mud, so make sure to wear boots with good traction).

Cliff Cave Park

Trail: Mississippi River Trail

Distance: 5.1-mile loop

Difficulty Level: Easy

It’s said Cliff Cave was a riverside tavern, then a hideout for horse thieves, then a meeting place for Confederate sympathizers… Now it’s a gated enclave for the Indiana bats of Cliff Cave Park, so give them their privacy and head up a gently sloped path and across a trestle bridge to the stunning new river outlook on the bluffs. Then walk back down to the lower overlook and pick up the Mississippi River Trail, which loops through the floodplain bottoms. Later, try the shorter River Bluff and Spring Valley trails, which climb and twist. Cliff Cave Park has a bit of everything: woodlands, rocky hillsides, flat grassland, and a pond whose frogs sound like an orchestra tuning up. Afterward, picnic at the Riverside Shelter, which has a great view of tugboats and barges.

Photo by Brendan Finnerty

▲ Creve Coeur Park

Trail: Lakeview Loop

Distance: 3.8 miles

Difficulty Level: Easy

At Sailboat Cove, follow the trail north, with the lake on your left. At the lake’s north end, the trail will turn to the left, just past a fishing inlet. Instead, turn right and take the paved spur to a spillway, where there’s a train trestle, a popular hangout for herons and egrets. Walk back to the trail and continue around the lake. At the south end are an island and a blind for watching migrating ducks gather at the lee of the island. Continue around the lake, dipping into the woods below the bluff, where you’ll trade the lake breeze for the shade of oak and hickory trees; the soft green of persimmon, sassafras, black cherry, and spicebush; and the company of wild turkeys. The trail breaks out of the woods at the Dripping Springs waterfall.

Mark Twain National Forest

Trail: Bell Mountain Trail

Distance: 12 miles

Difficulty Level: Moderate

Bring plenty of water and wear boots. You’ll be in the rugged 1.5 million–acre Mark Twain National Forest, climbing to 1,702 feet at Bell Mountain—where the view will silence any complaints. The trail’s about 30 miles south of Potosi in the St. Francois Mountains, so considering camping at the summit and waking to a sunrise view, then trying another (shorter) hike before heading home. One possibility: the nearby Huzzah Conservation Area, where you can take the Ozark Trail 5 miles from Onondaga Cave State Park to the Courtois River for a swim and a picnic.

Columbia Bottom Conservation Area

Trail: Columbia Bottom Conservation Area Trail Loop

Distance: 9.2 miles

Difficulty Level: Easy

Take Confluence Trail from the visitor center to the confluence overlook, then follow the recently reopened 2.5-mile River’s Edge section. Forested edges break through to river views at regular intervals, and the trail loops back to the viewing platform, a perfect vantage for the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi rivers.

Pere Marquette State Park

Trail: Goat Cliff Trail

Distance: 2 miles

Difficulty Level: Moderate

Start at Pere Marquette’s historic lodge, where you can pick up a trail map. Then set out along the 1.5–mile Goat Cliff Trail, the park’s oldest path, which passes ancient rock formations and boasts three scenic overlooks, including McAdams Peak—the park’s most breathtaking spot—as its grand finale. Take the Ridge and Dogwood trails back to the lodge, where you can relax with a drink at the on-site winery or by the grand fireplace.

Cuivre River State Park

Trail: Cuivre River Trail

Distance: 11.25 miles

Difficulty Level: Moderate

Visitors often flock to Lake Lincoln, in the heart of the Lincoln Hills, to swim. After you’ve taken a dip, hike along the park’s eponymous (and longest) trail. It’s divided into two loops: the 4-mile North Loop and the 7.25-mile South Loop. The former winds beside Big Sugar Creek, and the latter offers a scenic stretch along Frenchman’s Bluff, overlooking farm fields near the Cuivre River. Once you’ve finished the hike, cool off in the lake.

Salt Lick Point Land & Water Reserve

Trail: Salt Lick Point Trail

Distance: 1.8 miles

Difficulty Level: Moderate but steep

Heights make you woozy? This 594-acre reserve in Monroe County has several gentle flat trails. But if you want a view, Salt Lick is worth the climb. Only 1.8 miles—but most of it vertical—the trail shoots straight up the bluffs to the Point, so high that you can see all the way over to the St. Louis skyline. Turn, and you’re looking out on a patchwork of the Mississippi River’s rich floodplain farmland, stitched by railroad tracks. The good news: It’s all downhill on the way back.

Don’t Forget

Shaw Nature Reserve

Trail: Prairie Trail

Distance: 0.75 mile

Difficulty: Easy

Sight: 70-plus types of wildflowers

Weldon Spring Conservation Area

Trails: Lewis and Clark Trails

Distance: 8.2 miles

Difficulty Level: Moderate

Just west of the Nuclear Waste Adventure Trail (yes, you read that correctly) at Weldon Spring, you’ll find the trailhead for the Lewis and Clark trails, which wind through the tree-lined hills to the limestone bluffs overlooking the Missouri River. The Lewis Trail is an 8.3-mile loop, or you can take the Clark Trail cutoff for a shorter jaunt of 5.3 miles. The most scenic stretch is along the trails’ southernmost reaches, where several spurs offer stunning river views.

Photo by Ashley Fleming

▲ Elephant Rocks State Park

Trail: Braille Trail

Distance: 1 mile

Difficulty Level: Easy

It’s as if a giant brought back souvenirs from France’s Pink Granite Coast, plopped them down in the St. Francois Mountains’ most scenic spot, and lined them up on parade. A curious sight, Elephant Rocks is among the state’s most famous natural landmarks for a reason. These massive rocks form a natural playground of sorts for all ages. The state’s first trail designed for people with visual and physical disabilities winds past landmarks with such fun names as Fat Man’s Squeeze and The Maze. A onetime railroad engine house also harks back to the land’s former life as a quarry, with that famous granite contributing to the Eads Bridge, our city’s streets, and the state capitol.

Photo by Ashley Fleming

▲ Rockwoods Reservation

Trail: Lime Kiln Loop Trail

Distance: 3.2 miles

Difficulty Level: Moderate

Erected more than 150 years ago, the Lime Kiln Loop Trail’s 40-foot-tall namesake towers above the trailhead at Rockwoods, where you can learn about its past life as a mining community and the land’s dramatic restoration. This trail is (fittingly) the rockiest of the park’s six options, with several steep climbs, as well as scenic rock outcroppings and a spring along the way. For a considerably longer hike, consider taking the 10-mile Green Rock Trail to Greensfelder County Park and Rockwoods Range, where you can explore even more trails.

Don’t Forget

Amidon Memorial Conservation Area

Trail: Cedar Glade Trail

Distance: 2-mile

Difficulty: Easy

Sight: The breathtaking Castor River Shut-ins

Olin Nature Preserve

Trail: Beaver Falls Trail

Distance: 0.76 mile

Difficulty Level: Easy

Situated above the limestone bluffs hugging the Great River Road in Illinois, the 294-acre preserve is a pristine retreat with 300-plus native plant species and more than 150 birds, including migratory bald eagles. All of the Olin Preserve trails are relatively short; the longest is the 1.4-mile loop trail, which connects to the 0.76-mile Beaver Falls Trail, leading to the preserve’s must-see falls, at the northeast corner of the property. To the west, the Mississippi Sanctuary trails offer a hike past the smaller Creek Trek waterfall and to a scenic spot overlooking the river. 

Buford Mountain Conservation Area

Trail: Buford Mountain State Forest Trail

Distance: 10.5 miles

Difficulty Level: Advanced

Just 33 feet short of being the state’s highest natural point, Buford Mountain somehow flies under the radar (possibly because its neighbors include crowd-pleasers Taum Sauk, Elephant Rocks, and Johnson’s Shut-Ins). Those who seek it out, however, are rewarded with a spectacular view of southeast Missouri’s rugged landscape. It’s a mile-long ascent to the peak, at the first summit. The trail then follows a series of saddles, glades, and summits, with the highlight being the overlook from the fourth summit: Bald Knob, about 3 miles from the trailhead. After gazing out at the Belleview Valley and the St. Francois Mountains, you can turn back or continue along a loop before descending the same steep path that led you up the mountain. 

Courtesy of Missouri State Parks

▲ Hawn State Park

Trail: Whispering Pines Trail

Distance: 9.75 miles

Difficulty level: Advanced

Located near Ste. Genevieve, Hawn State Park is among Missouri’s most popular retreats for a reason, and this trail is one of them, offering steep climbs and dramatic overlooks, waterfalls and rock formations, birding and wildlife. The 6-mile north loop—with Pickle Creek and the park’s most scenic waterfall to the west and Evans Knob to the east—is more traveled than the 3.75-mile south loop, though a connector cutting through the heart of the north loop gets visitors to a quicker path to see a scenic tributary of the River aux Vases in the trail’s southeast corner. It’s also worth considering the shorter Pickle Creek Trail—and a stop at the nearby, lesser-known Pickle Springs Natural Area, whose 2-mile Trail Through Time passes fascinating rock formations and (of course) Pickle Spring. 

Don’t Forget

Washington State Park

Trail: Rockywood Trail

Distance: 6-mile

Difficulty: Moderate

Sight: The ancient petroglyphs in the rock outcroppings

Bee Tree County Park

Trails: Mississippi, Crow’s Roost, Fishermen’s, and Paw Paw 

Distance: 2.3-mile loop total

Difficulty level: Easy 

Start civilized, at the Tudor mansion. Out back, take the stone stairs down to a grotto and follow the path to the Mississippi Trail, which leads to the Chubb Shelter Overlook. Walk along the bluff on the Mississippi Trail, then take the Crow’s Roost Trail through a confetti of dogwood and redbud blossoms to the lake. Circle the water on Fisherman’s Trail, listening to the frogs’ spring chorus, and cross the footbridge. Check out the latest construction projects and admire the great blue herons. At the lake’s north end, branch off to enjoy more wildflowers, then come back to the lake and walk east to Paw Paw Trail, which leads back to Chubb Pavilion.

Further Trail Reading:

60 Hikes Within 60 Miles: St. Louis by Steve Henry; The Ozark Trail: Images of Missouri’s Longest Hiking Trail by Don Massey; Walks and Rambles in and Around St. Louis by Robert Rubright

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