Colorado in January: Driving, Hiking, and Gawking

In January of 2015, for New Years, I had the opportunity to visit the hiking and outdoorsy Mecca that is Colorado. It was a short trip, squeezed into the time between Christmas celebrations and when I had to return to my practicum site for the spring semester, and it was a beautiful and chaotic blur of events.

I wish that I could say that I remember everything about this trip, down to the very last little detail of our hike, but I can’t. I have some wonderful pictures and some big memories stamped into my mind and that’s all I can offer you. I have failed you as a blogger. I can, however, say that I can’t wait to return. I can’t wait to have a longer trip that is filled with backpacking and, my most recent pursuit, National Parks. I can’t wait to tell you about it.

Driving in the Mountains

On our second full day in Colorado, we set out for Silverthorne. It wasn’t necessarily the coolest place for hiking, but really, we just wanted to do a fair bit of driving through the Mountains. I can’t imagine my commute including these views. Do people really ever get tired of this?

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We got stuck in traffic, for a very long time. I found myself not caring. We saw mountain goats. That’s all I could ever ask for out of life.

Hiking in Silverthorne 

We hiked the Lily Pad trail in Silverthorne, a 1.36 mile hike (one way) that reaches 9,939 feet. Psha, less than three miles? I thought it would be easy, the trail description even said the difficulty was easy. After all of that moderate-difficult hiking I did in the fall, surely I could hike an easy trail in the mountains.

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I was not expecting, however, that this is the hill that it started with. Which wouldn’t be a big deal if we weren’t already at an elevation of nearly 10,000 feet. For some reason, my asthma didn’t like that. But the views were certainly worth it.

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Here’s the lake! Wait…Oh no! We’re going to have to come back when it’s not winter! What ever will I do?

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I loved watching people trudge past us in their snow shoes and cross country skies. It felt really legit.

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I can’t believe that people actually live here.

Gawking at Garden of the Gods

On our third full day in Colorado, we drove to Colorado Springs to check out the Garden of the Gods. We didn’t do any hiking here, but my inner geologist couldn’t go to Colorado and not see these neat formations.

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It was a very cold day when we went to the Garden. Silverthorne was cold, too, but our blood was moving. In Silverthorne, I never wore my gloves. At the Garden, I was bundled up (I do have to say, though, winter in Colorado seems much more bearable than our cold, wet winters in Missouri. As an added bonus, the dry air caused me to have a great hair day every day we were there). We packed a thermos of hot chocolate mixed with instant coffee. It kept our noses running, but also kept the day feeling warm and fuzzy.

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Can you imagine climbing these crazy rocks? That’s a thing that people get permits for and actually do, you guys. What an experience.

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I thoroughly enjoyed the higher views from the Garden. It was a totally different experience from being in the Mountains, but one that I enjoyed just as much. I love Missouri (most days), but there’s just nothing like this there.

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I can’t wait to go out West again. What’s next? Utah? Wyoming? Maybe I’ll get to Colorado again, the Black Canyon of the Gunnison has really been calling me. What’s a girl to do?

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Kayak Party!

Last summer I went on my first river trip with the boyfriend and some friends. We decided to go to the Current River for a two day trip, 22 miles with camping on the river overnight. The boyfriend owns a couple of kayaks and we thought it would be fun and cheap to take them out to the river with us. The problem is, we didn’t really have a vehicle to transport them in that also had room for three people. So, tragically, I asked to borrow my dad’s old roof racks from the 70s (he used to do some white water kayaking in a kayak that he made himself–people are just not that hardcore anymore). Obviously, we see where this is heading. The roof racks seemed to fit my car perfectly. I drove my car around for two days with them on it without any issues.

These issues, however, surfaced with the weight of two kayaks on them. I remember telling the guys over and over again, “Are they firmly on there? Check the racks, are they still tight enough? Check the kayaks again!” I was paranoid from the beginning, for good reason. The kayaks seemed rock solid. The racks seemed immobile. We left the boyfriend’s place (across the Mississippi from me, by the way) to park the car at my house for the night before leaving for a very early morning the next day. About 10 miles from the Mississippi, I decided to look up at the kayaks from behind the wheel for the billionth time and thought, “They’ve definitely moved back–OH *EXPLETIVE*!!!! (you can insert whatever word you want there, they all work).” The boyfriend firmly told me  to “CALM DOWN. Pull over. It’s going to be okay.”

That’s how I left my boyfriend sitting on the median of a busy highway with two kayaks at 11 o’clock at night.

There wasn’t much else we could do. He and the friend that was with us darted around the highway, grabbing the kayaks and the back rack that had slid off of my car. We had to leave the boyfriend on the highway while he waited for his brother to pick him up in his truck so that we could get to my house and finish getting everything ready for the weekend. The green kayak, playfully named Wobbles due to its inability to go straight, was hit by several cars and was perfectly fine (go figure, the cheap boat survives the Kayak Apocalypse). The blue Perception, however, wasn’t so lucky.

We still went on our trip and had a great time and some other adventurous/traumatic events occurred. But I’m not here to talk about those times right now, maybe I will on another occasion. Instead, I’d like to share a rough outline of the Perception’s rebirth along with our first kayak outing of the season.

Kayaks don't really work so well on highways, friends.

Kayaks don’t really work so well on highways, friends.

As you can see, the kayak took some damage. It wasn’t anything that totally retired it, but it was put out of commission until April of this year. I gave it a name, the Road Warrior, in the hopes that the event would give it a little mystery when we cross paths with other people. I mean, it fits, right? And would you not be curious if you met someone on the river who claimed their kayak was named the Road Warrior?

The Road Warrior

It got busted up real good.

So the boyfriend was determined to fix the Road Warrior before this summer, which was great news for me. No one really fits in the Road Warrior beside me–so hey, I get to bum a kayak all the time. I helped him find a kayak repair kit that looked promising, and luckily, it worked wonders. The kit that was used was sold by the Urethane Supply Company, and can be found here.

I won’t get too thorough with the details of repairing it, since I only observed and got in everyone’s way so I could take pictures. But these pictures and captions give a rough outline of it. They used a heat gun along with the welder that came with the kit, and I highly recommend that anyone who uses this type of repair kit do the same.

The Road Warrior

The plastic that was a lost cause was cut away, making a clean space for mending.

The Road Warrior

A metal screening was placed over the cracks to provide scaffolding using a small welder from the kayak repair kit.

The Road Warrior

The task of melding the plastic to the kayak begins!

The Road Warrior

The patch, before sanding and smoothing!

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Ain’t he a beaut?

The Road Warrior turned out pretty fabulous! I’ve been out on him (that’s right him) three times since the repair, and it’s a solid patch.

The Road Warrior

Better than new! I hope people see this beautiful repair and think that I was up to some gnarly kayaking.

We took Wobbles and the Road Warrior out to Silver Lake in Highland, IL, not too long after this repair. A new kayak, one that is much fancier than the others, made this trip as well. The boyfriend bought a 13’6″ Wilderness Tsunami Kayak during the Alpine Shop’s big kayak/canoe sale in the Spring. For half price! A little wear from trial runs is no big deal for that steal. It’s a real nice kayak that I really dislike using because of its size. I’m told that the rudder on it is great, though.

He named it, even though I said it had to earn a name. Big Red. I guess it’s fitting.

Seriously, this thing is too big for me to get in in one shot from the dock.

Seriously, this thing is too big for me to get it in one shot from the dock.

We took our friend out with us, which was his first time on a kayak. He unfortunately has only experienced Wobbles, because, well, Big Red is boyfriend-sized and Road Warrior is me-sized. He has learned to tame the Wobbles quite well, however.

Why does one person need three kayaks? No arguments here, though...

Why does one person need three kayaks? No arguments here, though…

It was a fine day for kayaking, and got me back into the water after the yet unexplained events of last summer.

Road Warrior and Big Red

Big Red

Get out and kayak, folks. I mean it.

Meramec State Park: Wilderness Trail

We hiked this lovely trail back in October. In fact, we hiked this trail the weekend after we hiked at Taum Sauk Mountain. I’m well aware that it is now April, and there aren’t many excuses for this. I had written the majority of a post for it in December, but whaddya know? I’ve returned to a missing draft. Obviously, much of this hike is a bit hazy to me now, so I apologize in advance for an abbreviated post. But I still have many great pictures to share and some basics to give you.

Meramec State Park is a massive park in Sullivan, Missouri. There are a wide variety of activities to participate in, including hiking, canoeing, kayaking, cave tours, camping, swimming, and fishing. The Wilderness Trail, its longest trail, explores many kinds of terrain and winds through the Meramec Upland Forest Natural Area.

Upon arriving at this trail, we were greeted with the usual trail summary as well as a bear warning sign. This sign is not unusual to see in the Ozarks, and it’s nothing to be particularly worried about. However, every time the boyfriend and I see this sign, we have the same conversation…

What's that? Be Bear Aware?

What’s that? Be Bear Aware?

Him: “Bear Aware? Yes. This is it. We’re going to see a bear today.”

Me: “No, we’re not.”

Him: “But I want to see a bear. We’re going to see one.”

Me: “I don’t want to see a bear. We better not see one.”

Him: “Just a little one!”

And we’ll go on the hike and enjoy ourselves, but at some point he’ll look off into the woods a say, “There’s a bear up there. I can feel it. I want to see the bear!”

We did not see a bear on this day. Instead, we enjoyed a wonderful hike through a forest in full-on fall. The trees were vibrant oranges and yellows and the sounds of leaves rustling and falling was enough to make me want to just sit there and forget about school and work for a while.

Every good hiking trail needs a tree covered in fungus.

Every good hiking trail needs a tree covered in fungus.

Tall trees bursting with color fill the park.

Tall trees bursting with color fill the park.

There were a couple of small caves throughout this park, all of which were off limits. The White Nose disease has taken a large toll on the bat population in Missouri. In an effort to prevent it from being shared between different bat populations, many Missouri parks require a permit to explore caves. It is also for this reason that it is suggested that people do not go from one cave to the next when checking out areas that are not necessarily owned by parks (for example, when floating certain rivers in the Ozarks).

We stopped by one of the caves along the Wilderness Trail to take a break. This cave was at the bottom of a large, wall-ish cliff. A small creek seeped through it and trickled around rocks and the air was nice and cool.

A cave along the trail cooled the air around it, but was off-limits due to the White Nose disease the has affected countless bats in Missouri.

A cave along the trail cooled the air around it, but was off-limits due to the White Nose disease that has affected countless bats in Missouri.

The cave and its creek made a great place to stop and enjoy the scenery.

The cave and its creek made a great place to stop and enjoy the scenery.

The trickle of water along with the sound of falling leaves made for a tranquil moment.

The trickle of water along with the sound of falling leaves made for a tranquil moment.

I truly wish that my camera could accurately portray how beautiful everything was. I’m not sure that I’ve ever seen such bright fall colors in my life before this hike.

Woah, is that a stock wallpaper from Windows XP? Nah, just Missouri!

Woah, is that a stock wallpaper from Windows XP? Nah, just Missouri!

Aside from the colors, my favorite part of this hike was the variety of terrain and tree populations through this park. We spent a good portion of this hike in covered forest, but suddenly found ourselves in open glades. More than ones, I found myself looking around, hoping to see a lizard warming itself on the dark rocks. And it truly would have warmed itself! It was an abnormally warm, beautiful day.

What an unusually hot day for late October!

What an unusually hot day for late October!

Glades along the trail in the warm afternoon sun.

Glades along the trail in the warm afternoon sun.

We eventually found ourselves in cover again, and kept on hiking. Near the last quarter, we had a flashback to the Whispering Pines Trail! Pine needles and cones carpeted the floor, and I craned my neck back to glance up at the tall pine trees. I’m not sure there’s a better smell in the world than pine forests. Unfortunately (or fortunately, perhaps, as we were getting pretty tired by this point), this section of the hike did not last long.

Where did these pines come from?

Where did these pines come from?

I highly recommend this park to people who don’t get out of the city and suburbs very often. There are a ton of trail options here, making this park great for leisure hikers and serious hikers alike. Maybe next October, we’ll have an abnormally warm day again and you’ll want to see the colors.

Summary and Tips for Potential Hikers

Park Map: Meramec State Park Map, Wilderness Trail Map

Wilderness Trail

Blazed in orange, 8.5 miles

Tips: The Missouri State Parks website has labeled this trail “rugged” and does not recommend it to beginners. I found that it was the length more than the terrain that was difficult. I found my ankle to be somewhat sore by the end of the hike. As usual, I recommend wearing a good pair of hiking boots. This trail is fairly popular, but it still becomes difficult to follow in autumn when the leaves have fallen, making it very important that you stay aware of your surroundings and know your whereabouts. The caves along the trail were off limits during my hike due to the White Nose disease among some bat populations, and I suspect that they still are. Signs will be posted by caves to inform hikers of any limitations.

Miles hiked this day: 8.5

Miles hiked of goal: 27 (Pre-Winter)

An Update to My Goal

I’ll admit, it was a bit naive of me to have taken on a project like this during this point in my life. School is, and should be, my main concern right now. It’s also fair to mention that when you’re in your early twenties, a lot of your time is spent becoming an “adult” as well as helping your friends to either do adult things (i.e. moving out of the house) or celebrating their adult things (i.e. drinking a little too much at their wedding receptions).

Does this mean I’m not going forth with this project? Not at all. In fact, I want to expand this project. Winter is here, which means that I won’t be able to do a ton of hiking. However, I may be writing entries about the equipment I use (or want to use), the resources that I use (or want to use), or other things about the outdoors that interest me (have you all seen the Oru Kayak? It’s a kayak that folds up. Who wouldn’t be interested in that?).

In the meantime, I’m going to make a new goal and start my miles over. I’m not sure what it’s going to be yet, but currently I’m going to keep it about the same as my previous goal. That means it’ll probably be 60 miles before summer hits. I might move it up to 100, but we’ll see.

I’m still proud of the progress I’ve made and I’m looking forward to seeing more of the beautiful parks that Missouri has to offer. I hiked the Wilderness Trail at Meramec State park in October, and I’ve been working on that post (I had it mostly finished in December, but somehow the draft is completely gone now…). That hike was 8.5 miles long. I also hiked another 2.65 miles at the Mastodon State Historic Site, but chose not to write about it because it’s a rather short trail that I frequent often–but I’m still adding it to my total!

Final miles hiked: 29.65 (almost halfway, right?)

Taum Sauk Mountain State Park: Mina Sauk Falls Trail

I’m all too aware of the fact that it’s been too long since I’ve hiked. Surprisingly enough, senior years of college are full of weddings and obnoxious amounts of homework. I’ve also had a little bit of a set-back with an old ankle injury making an appearance during the last couple of hikes I’ve been on. But I have a new ankle brace and the only thing stopping me from hiking from now until winter is myself! It’s time to buckle down and enjoy the crap out of nature!

Taum Sauk Mountain has been on my list for a while now, as it’s home to the highest point in Missouri as well as the tallest waterfall in Missouri. This hike was also a bit of a “test run” for my new ankle brace. It’s a difficult trail, but it’s only three miles long. I’m happy to say that the brace worked out quite nicely! I even rolled my ankle on a rock and was okay for the remaining two miles or so. We had planned to go to Hughes Mountain afterwards to do a 1.7 mile hike and see Devil’s Honeycomb (which has been on my list for a long time now, polygonal columns or bust!), but we wound up having a rather nice time eating sushi with friends instead. Next time!

Overall? This was a wonderful hike. I didn’t think that Hawn State could be topped, but Missouri continues to surprise me every time I go hiking. My boyfriend, a native of Illinois, has termed Missouri a “little Colorado.” I can’t say I’ve been to Colorado, but I can definitely argue that Missouri does not suck as much as people claim it does. It’s a beautiful state full of a wide variety of terrain. On this trip alone, we saw a waterfall, beautiful rocky glades bursting in color from the turning leaves and wildflowers, trees of all shapes and sizes, and rhyolite.

Oh, the rhyolite. Nothing brings out the sliver of science in me like igneous rocks.

Try as a might, I just couldn't get a picture that did the rhyolite justice.

Try as a might, I just couldn’t get a picture that did the rhyolite justice.

Are you justiced yet, rhyolite? No? Well, I know the truth.

Are you justiced yet, rhyolite? No? Well, I know the truth.

For those of you wondering why I’m nerding out over some rocks, you’re just going to have to trust me that it’s really cool. It’s exposed, it was all over the place, some of it was pink, some of it was purple, and I wanted ALL of it. I thought this was going to be a lovely stroll halfway down and back up a mountain, but it was so much better.

I digress, I completely skipped the highest point in Missouri.

Hanging out on the highest point in Missouri.

Hanging out on the highest point in Missouri.

It was pretty neat. It’s not crazy high (1,772 feet above see level) but there was a nice paved pathway to this point to make it accessible for everyone and a neat rock to stand on top of to really be able to say you’re at the top. I’m ready to go stand on some more states’ highest points now!

After taking pictures on the tallest point, we headed to the Mina Sauk Falls Trail head, which is where the trail becomes unpaved. Mina Sauk Falls Trail is a loop, and we chose to the take the right side of the loop first. I’m very glad we made this decision, because this side of the loop was a bit brutal. It was very steep and rocky, but the glades and views were so pretty that you’ll stop caring. There are no bluffs to look over, as I’m accustomed to, but this hike is so high up and has so many clearings that you can see out into the distance for miles. This gave view to the beautiful hills characteristic of the Ozarks.

A wonderful view of the rolling hills and the trees changing color.

A wonderful view of the rolling hills and the trees changing color.

It won’t come as a surprise to many people that I know that I was more interested in the glades than I was with the views. They were gorgeous! Filled with rhyolite and other rocks poking out the ground and carpeted by long green, yellow, and brown grasses, they were a sight to behold. Wildflowers of all kinds lined the trail through glades, despite the cold snap Missouri had gone through recently. In my opinion, we couldn’t have picked a better day to hike. Everything was changing colors, the sun was bright, and the sky was blue as could be.

Check out dem rocks in dat glade.

Check out dem rocks in dat glade.

Wildflowers lined the trail through the glades.

Wildflowers lined the trail through the glades.

After hiking through glades, winding our way down steep hills, and rolling my ankle on a loose rock once, we started to hear Mina Sauk Falls. At first, all we heard were dogs barking happily and people talking, but when we listened closely, we could hear the water.

Is that the top of a waterfall, or what?

Is that the top of a waterfall, or what?

Mina Sauk Falls is not monstrously impressive in the way of water flow–at least, not on this day. There was a bit of flow, since most of Missouri had experienced about a week straight of rain just a few days previously, but it was not hoppin’. If you look up pictures of Mina Sauk Falls on Google, you will find something much more impressive than what I am showing you. However! I thought the rock formations alone were enough to make Mina Sauk Falls pretty darn cool.

Before taking a break for a snack, we decided to explore the top of the Falls. We found ancient rocks, pools of water, and this crazy big spider that didn’t care even a little bit that we were up in its business taking pictures.

A giant spider--which the internet tells me is a dark fishing spider--that is egg-filled and hardened after once losing a leg (seriously, this spider didn't give a crap).

A giant spider–which the internet tells me is a dark fishing spider–that was egg-filled and hardened after once losing a leg (seriously, this spider didn’t give a crap).

Rocks and pools near the top of Mina Sauk Falls.

Exploring the rocks and pools near the top of Mina Sauk Falls.

After we were happy with our spider-gawking and rock-hopping, we worked our way halfway down the falls to claim a spot while we had a snack and drank more water. Looking down from this point, you can see where the Taum Sauk Section of the Ozark Trail continues onward toward Johnson Shut-Ins State Park (14.5 miles away). We breathed in some fresh air, enjoyed the moment, and people watched.

Boy, did we people watch. I thought we were going to have to rescue some teenage girls from the bottom of the rocks. Guys, I’m super serious, don’t climb on these rocks without wearing the proper shoes. Cowboy boots are not proper shoes for climbing around on large rocks. Thankfully, the girls made to the bottom without getting hurt and, as far as I know, made it back to the top without getting hurt. We just stayed on our rock and offered advice when we thought it was needed!

The upwards view from our break spot.

The upward view from our break spot.

The downward view from our break spot.

The downward view from our break spot.

After our break, we made our way back up. This was the closest I’ve ever come to rock climbing (the boyfriend thinks that he’s going to get me into climbing–I just say, “I’m afraid of heights…we’ll see”), which went a bit clumsily in my chunky hiking boots. But we made it back up without any incident! From here, it was an uphill hike back to the highest point. For a mountain, this uphill hike wasn’t too bad (I’ve definitely taken on worse hills)! The people who were walking up the side that we came down seemed to have a much harder time of it. I would have loved for this hike to have been longer. My hope is that, next time, we’ll be doing some or all of the section of the Ozark Trail (Taum Sauk Section) that continues on to the Shut-Ins.

What have I learned on this hike? Never assume that a trail will be totally covered. This hike was a lot more exposed to the sun than I’m used to, and I was sure that I was going to get sunburned. I’ve also been thinking to myself that I should pack some trail marking tape. This way, we’d be able to explore a little bit more off the trail and if we ran into the same scenario that we did at Hawn State Park (walking down an apparently fake trail and getting totally lost when it ends), I could tie off the fake trail so that no one after us makes the same mistake. My new brace worked out well, so our next hike will be longer.

Summary and Tips for Potential Hikers

Park Map: Mina Sauk Falls Trail and Taum Sauk Section of the Ozark Trail

Mina Sauk Falls Trail

Blazed in red, 3 miles

Tips: I cannot emphasize the importance of proper shoes enough for this hike. This is an extremely easy trail to slip and injure yourself on. It’s very rocky and has many steep inclines. Bring plenty of water for this trail–it may only be three miles, but it is a mountain (albeit, a Missourian one) and you will definitely want to do some exploring. Parts of this trail can entail water crossings if it has been raining a lot, so take caution. Parts of this trail can be hard to follow when the leaves start falling, so keep your eyes peeled–but remember that help probably isn’t far away if you get lost, it’s a popular trail!

Taum Sauk Section of the Ozark Trail 

Blazed in green and white “OT” signs, 35 miles (14.5 between Taum Sauk Mountain State Park and Johnson Shut-Ins State Park)

Tips: I have great hopes that I will one day be able to provide tips for this hike! I would love to do some backpacking on this trail.

Miles hiked this day: 3

Miles hiked of goal: 18.5/60

Hawn State Park: Whispering Pines North Loop

I rained off and on Saturday morning, but by some stroke of luck, it stopped long enough for a six mile hike in the Ste. Genevieve area.  Boy, am I glad that it did!  This was my first time hiking in Hawn State Park and it was a real treat.  We fully intend to return to it in the Fall or Spring and hike the full Whispering Pines Trail.  As it were, we only got to hike the North Loop because of the rain and a severe lack of sleep the night before.  We were worried about starting so late in the day, but it worked out quite nicely.

The North Loop starts on a strong note with a wooden bridge that crosses the Creek–right away I knew that I was right to look forward to this hike.   The water was clear, cutting through sandstone and lined by wildflowers, trees, and other plants.  The trail continues through flat and hilly grades.  For the first time, I experienced hiking on sandy trails–what a bizarre feeling!  The pine trees that give the trail its name are everywhere, standing tall and strong.

The pines that give the trail its name stand tall.  Their bark reminded me of old shingles.

The pines that give the trail its name stand tall. Their bark reminded me of old shingles.

It wasn’t long before we came to the first overlook.  It’s no where near the most breath-taking overlook, but it’s always nice to have a hill rewarded by a view.  The boulders and cliffs, which appeared stacked upon one another, were by far my favorite part of this view.  After admiring the rock and the vegetation surrounding us, we moved on.  Before long, we heard rushing water.  We took a short trail down to the water and found, in our opinions, the best part of the hike.

Pickle Creek flows clear through sandstone.

Pickle Creek flows clear through sandstone.

Dem rocks.

Dem rocks.

I'll take this in backyard, thanks.

I’ll take this in my backyard, thanks.

Okay, last one.

Okay, last one.

Just kidding.

Just kidding.

It was a really lovely site.  The water was clear and shallow, running over flat stone.  We took a few minutes to enjoy it, watching crawdads swim around and hide from us in stones (I missed the grand-daddy of crawdads, apparently) and walking ankle-deep in the water.

Who cares that it's already 3:00 and we've got 5.5 miles ahead of us?  You've got to live life while you can.

Who cares that it’s already 3:00 and we’ve got 5.5 miles ahead of us? You’ve got to live life while you can.

With heavy hearts, we headed back to the trail and followed it through a stream crossing.  On the other side, we found the choice to take the connector trail to the South Loop, take the Pickle Creek Trail, and a little further along connect to the White Oaks Trail.  Keeping with our plan, we stayed on the North Loop.  The trail followed the Creek for a while, every now and then crossing tributaries or leading away.  We saw a great deal of wildflowers near these streams, bright pops of color against their green surroundings.  We stopped many times to “awwe” over tiny lizards or snakes.

If you have a hard time with steep grades, I wouldn’t recommend this hike.  It’s a real cardio workout!  Like a fool, I left my inhaler at home, but I powered through and took breaks as needed!  But the scenery is really worth it if you can handle it.  For a little while, the trail took us away from the creeks and through long treks of pine forest.  It seems apparent that this trail would be a poor location during a storm, as we often saw blackened tree trunks.  I am aware that many Missouri parks use controlled burns to maintain sites, but I’m not sure if this is one of them.  Either way, it was amazing to see how strong these trees really are.

Part way through this hike I found myself asking, “Are we near a highway?  I think I hear cars.”  Then we realized, no, it’s the wind in the trees.  Dare I say it?  The pines were whispering.  We took a moment to pause and listen to them.  As a person who grew up in the suburbs, used to the constant sound of traffic, it was a really amazing experience.  To be surrounded by nothing but nature, to hear the trees talk and the birds warning each other about the two strangers coming through, was astounding.

It's like something out of a brochure, isn't it?  I wish my camera could do it justice.

It’s like something out of a brochure, isn’t it? I wish my camera could do it justice.

I feel a bit cheesy now, but I think the experience deserved some provolone.  After what seemed like non-stop hills, we reached an overlook and realized just how far up we were.

At highest point of the trail, there's nothing but trees as far as the eye can see.

At highest point of the trail, there’s nothing but trees as far as the eye can see.

Did we reach this point on our very own two feet?  Thanks, quads of steel.  We left the view after a moment of awe and trekked on.  It was shortly after this that we got lost.  It was while lost that I remembered seeing nothing but trees as far as the eye could see and thought to myself, “Holy Hell, why don’t I have a compass?  Why is my phone almost dead?”  We managed to find our way back to what was apparently a fake trail and then found the red blazes again.  Keep your eyes peeled, because sometimes you realize that other people wander off the trail and it’s scary when their trail suddenly disappears.  We missed a turn up into the rocks.

By this point in the trail, I’ll admit, I wanted the parking lot desperately.  My legs were itching from wading through overgrown portions of the trail, if I had to swat another gnat away from my ears one more time I was going to punch a tree, and, seriously, did this horse fly have me confused with someone who killed its entire family or what?  There came a point on the last leg that we came extremely close to the camp grounds and could hear the RVers having a good time and thought, “By God, we’ve done it,” but then the trail was like, “Haaaaa, just kidding!” and led us away, uphill.

We did come to the wooden bridge we started on eventually, and I remember saying, “Alright, let’s soak our feet in the creek now,” but we returned to the car instead.  With our shoes and socks off and the AC blasting, we headed back home.

“Good couples get dirty in the woods together.”  It’s okay if you want to use that quote, I won’t mind.

What have I learned?  No matter how mad at the bugs you get, it’s always worth it.  Bring a compass, make sure your phone is charged (for good measure, put it on airplane mode so the battery isn’t drained while it searches for a signal), and start early so you can do all of the stopping that you want.  My extra inhaler is going in my pack permanently along with a bottle of bugspray.

Summary and Tips for Potential Hikers

Park Maps: Whispering Pines Trail, Pickle Creek Trail, White Oaks Trail

Whispering Pines Trail, North Loop

Blazed in red, 6 miles

Tips: Bugspray, bugspray, bugspray!  Or, even better, hike this trail anytime other than summer.  We would have enjoyed this hike twice as much if we hadn’t been busy swatting gnats and horseflies away.  I thought for sure the bugspray was in the trunk!  I’d also recommend wearing pants–another bonus for hiking it in cooler weather.  Many parts of this trail are a bit overgrown and pants would have been nice.  If you’re like me and have weak ankles, I’d recommend wearing boots.  There are many rocky parts on this trail that mandate careful footing.  Try to pay special attention to the blazes.  We got near-panic lost at one point on the last third of the hike when we were supposed to go up toward the rocks, but continued straight on what appeared to be the trail (which, of course, disappeared after a bit).  There are a couple of creek crossings, so take care when the water is high or it is raining.

Whispering Pines Trail, South Loop

Blazed in blue, 3.75 miles

Tips: Can be accessed via connector trail near beginning of North Loop, or can be added to the North Loop about halfway through the North Loop.  Further tips may be given on a later post.

Pickle Creek Trail

Blazed in green, .7 miles (one way)

Tips: Can be used as the first portion of the North Loop by starting at the Pickle Creek Trail trail head and connecting with the North Loop by Pickle Creek, or can be hiked as a point to point trail.  Further tips may be given on a later post.

White Oaks Trail 

Blazed in yellow, 3.75 miles

Tips: Can be accessed via two connector trails along the Whispering Pines North Loop or at the park entrance at the end of 144.

Miles hiked this day: 6

Miles hiked of goal: 15.5/60

Castlewood State Park: River Scene Trail, Stinging Nettle Loop, and Cedar Bluff Loop

I decided to begin this project with a park that is well known and loved by many people in the St. Louis Metro Area: Castlewood.  Located in the suburbs, Castlewood is a popular place for trail runners, mountain bikers, and family outings.  But many people don’t realize the massive amount of hiking that we have access to from this park.  In the main park alone, there is 11 miles worth of trails, but another 10 miles are available just a short, slightly illegal, walk away.

If you’ve ever been to Castlewood, you’ve heard the historic spiel about the park already.  You know that between WWI and WWII, Castlewood was a party destination.  People would come by the thousands during the summer via car, train, and boat, in order to swim, canoe, dance, drink (illegally, those fiends!), and just have a swell time.  It’s hard to see it now, but this place was a hotbed of activity.  If you keep an eye out during your hikes, you’ll see the remains of a grand stairway and old houses.

But that’s not why people come here these days.  People come for the view.

Every time I bring someone to Castlewood for their first time, I take them up what must be my least favorite hill in the County (at least, so far).  It’s technically the beginning of the Lone Wolf Trail, but its proximity to a parking lot makes it the start of the River Scene Trail for most people.  It’s long, it’s steep, and it’s covered in loose rocks.  I huff and I puff with whoever I hike with, assuring them the whole way up that the view will be worth it and that it’s best to just keep going.  You don’t really want to lose your momentum, do you?

Eventually the hill is over, and you’re greeted with the edge of the bluff.  There are better look out points than what’s at the immediate end of the hill–but after all that work, you don’t want to wait.  Catch your breath and look out.  I won’t say that the Meramec is the most beautiful river in Missouri–it’s not even close–but it’s home.  From the top of the River Scene Trail, you can see the Meramec winding its way through the land.  On the other side of the River is more park land, so you can see trees, and more trees, and more trees, and it’s wonderful.  Sure, you can still see buildings in the distance.  But what do you want?  We’re still in St. Louis County, afterall.

The view from the bluffs of the River Scene Trail at Castlewood State Park.

The view from the bluffs of the River Scene Trail at Castlewood State Park.

As you continue along the trail atop the bluffs, you’ll go through trees and minor inclines and declines.  Now and then the trees will clear out and you’ll have a new, wonderful view of the River below and sometimes see and hear a train speeding by along the tracks below.  My favorite overlooks are the ones that aren’t railed in.

Appreciate the rocks!  Stand on them and feel like you're king of the world!

Appreciate the rocks! Stand on them and feel like you’re king of the world!

Eventually, you’ll reach a set of wooden stairs.  Get used to these stairs–in fact, become best friends with these stairs, because you’ll be on them for a while.  Personally, I always start on the giant, rocky hill, just so I can go down these steps instead of up.  You won’t see over the bluffs once you’re on these stairs, but you’ll get to spend some time in the woods.  As you near the end of the steps, you’ll see another set of stairs–the grand stairs of yesteryear!  They don’t look like much anymore, but it always gets the wheels turning in my head and I wonder what this place was like when it was bumpin’.  At the bottom of the stairs, you’ll pass under the train tracks.

Cut under the train tracks via this (apparently) really old tunnel and get up close and personal with the Meramec.

Cut under the train tracks via this (apparently) really old tunnel and get up close and personal with the Meramec.

This is where we broke away from the River Scene Trail for a little while (or, a few hours, if we’re being honest).  Once you pass through the tunnel, there’s a path to the right.  There are yellow poles and signs warning everyone…No traspassing!  Private Property!  Property of Union Pacific Railroads!…right by the side of a  wide open, well packed, and busy pathway.  Now, I’m not saying we took this trail…but I am saying that we ended up on the Stinging Nettle Loop via some mysterious method.  My guess is that at one point this trail was not marked as off limits and was actually maintained by the park, but then they were told that this section was actually owned by the Railroad.  It’s about a quarter of a mile long, and connects to the Stinging Nettle Loop/Al Foster Trail.  My suspicions about this trail were confirmed by a wide open area with benches and trail markers near another set of warning signs.

We went left on the Stinging Nettle Loop and followed the River for what seemed to be a very long time.  If there’s one thing I can say about the Stinging Nettle Loop, it’s that it is accurately named.  The path is lined by the plants, and the forested area, other than trees, is apparently nothing but nettles.  It’s beautiful and peaceful, and I can imagine that it’s even better when the nettles are flowering.

Nettles, nettles, more nettles...hey, trees!

Nettles, nettles, more nettles…hey, trees!

This trail is almost completely flat, and I highly recommend it to trail runners.  This was my first experience with stinging nettle plants, and I made the mistake of scrunching over to the side for a couple of runners.  Ah!  They do sting, and then they itch.  Don’t be like me–don’t scratch where they rub against you.

Unfortunately, the Castlewood map is not very clear and never warns trail-goers that they will run into the Sherman Beach Parking lot and that the Stinging Nettle Loop actually overlaps with the Al Foster Trail.  There was quite a bit of irritation and confusion when our well blazed yellow trail became a poorly blazed, hard to see green trail.  Keep going.  Eventually you will find the Cedar Bluff Loop, which is well marked on the Al Foster Trail, on your left.  We went under the tracks via some much shorter, much more slippery tracks than what we were used to on the River Scene Trail.

The Cedar Bluff Loop is blazed in brown (yeah, I know, brown?  Who’s idea was this?) and is more like the upper section of the River Scene Trail.  It doesn’t have any views of the River, but it’s peaceful.  We saw one runner during our time on this trail.  There are some tough hills, but alas!  There are benches at the top!  Wonderful, spectacular benches.

A peaceful and quiet trek.

A peaceful and quiet trek through the Cedar Bluff Loop.

Eventually, you’ll finish this loop and rejoin the Al Foster Trail.  From here, it’s a short walk back to where it becomes the Stinging Nettle Loop again and you have the option to return to the main part of Castlewood.

We finished the River Scene Trail, which follows the River down to the Castlewood beach–where you’ll find plenty of signs telling you that it’s all on you if you drown.  Personally, I enjoy the beach quite a bit.  When the River is low, it’s a large beach and the water is calm (as long as you stay on the beach! I do NOT recommend swimming anywhere else in the park–and I will always insist that children wear life jackets in rivers and are being watched closely).

What have I learned on this hike?  Sometimes park maps are wrong.  Sometimes park maps are really wrong and you end up hiking 1.5 miles more than you intended.  I also learned that the right shoes make a world of difference.  I wore a pair of tennis shoes, as my hiking boots are made more for cooler weather.  My feet were destroyed by the end of the hike and I worried about my ankles twisting often.

However, it was a nice hike overall and a great way to kick off my “training.”

Summary and Tips for Potential Hikers:

Park Maps: Castlewood State Park, Sherman Beach County Park (page 2, recommended for making sense of Stinging Nettle/Al Foster overlap)

River Scene Trail

Blazed in red, 3.25 miles

Tips: The top portion of this trail is hilly, rocky, and full of exposed roots–I prefer to wear boots so that I can appreciate the hike and worry less about my footing.  The lower part of this trail that runs along the River is flat, but can become very muddy and slippery.  If you want to do the full 3.25 miles, keep to the left when the trail splits on the bottom part and cross the open grassy area to rejoin the trail along the River.  Be aware that the steps and lower part of this trail will usually be closed when the River is up.

Stinging Nettle Loop

Blazed in yellow, 2.5 miles

Tips: I recommend wearing bug spray for this trail.  When passing or making room for oncoming runners, bikers, and hikers, do your best to avoid brushing up against the nettles.  If you do brush up against the nettles, do not irritate by scratching.  Use proper first aid treatment if nettle stings are severe.  This trail is flat and very easy, but becomes muddy and slippery in many places.

Al Foster Trail

Blazed in green, 1.5 miles (as part of Stinging Nettle, 5 miles for full trail)

Tips: Do not panic when you suddenly find yourself on this trail while taking the Stinging Nettle Loop.  The Castlewood State Park map does not show that part of the Stinging Nettle Loop is actually the Al Foster Trail.  I recommend using the Sherman Beach County Park map along with the Castlewood map to make sure you are on the right track.  Parts of this trail can become muddy and slippery.  Bug spray recommended.  Avoid nettles.

Cedar Bluff Loop

Blazed in brown (who’s idea was this?), 2.25 miles

Tips: I prefer to wear boots for this trail, as it is very hilly, rocky, and has many exposed tree roots.  Bug spray is recommended.  Parts of this trail can become very muddy and slippery.  Watch out for horse droppings (how’d they get a horse through those tiny tunnels?  The world may never know).

Miles hiked this day: 9.5

Miles hiked of goal: 9.5/60