Fall Hiking

Fall. Is. Here!

No doubt about it- the air is getting crisp and this weekend I noticed the leaves beginning to change. I love me some summer, but I welcome the gorgeous changes fall brings. This fall, honestly, I’m a little bummed. I have some obligations that have changed around my custody schedule and we don’t have the kids at the same time so our events and calendar have been bumbled around. It’s something that can be hard to adjust to- do we do the thing with just the one child, just the three children, and/or the things we typically do on our own we won’t do because we don’t want to give up a moment with any of the kids. It’s a balancing act and this fall, it feels like there’s no balance.

BUT! There is still hiking, of course. Fall hiking can be the best- some of those nasty bugs are gone, the trees put on quite a show, and the weather is perfect.

I have in the past published some detailed hikes for the fall season- some of my favorite hikes- and you can find them here:

Ha Ha Tonka

Starved Rock

Taum Sauk

World Bird Sanctuary

A few more recommendations that I haven’t fully written up but have lots of opinions on:

Elephant Rocks– the famous state park in Iron County, MO. The giant granite boulders are spectacular any time of year, but the foliage around here is incredible in the fall and the views of the surrounding St. Francois mountains blanketed in oranges and yellows make it even more glorious.

Cuivre River– Close to home, this state park in Troy, MO is like a taste of the Ozarks near St. Louis with those dolomite glades, bluffs, and rivers running through it all. There’s even a lake with a trail around it- beautiful foliage!

Pere Marquette– You wanna talk about bluffs? Let’s talk about Pere Marquette. We always get up there in January for the eagle sightings and festivities, but this Illinois state park is worth the drive in the fall. Take the ferry over, enjoy the sights and sounds, and end with a river-side meal for a fabulous day trip.

Johnson Shut Ins– not just for summer fun, you know! This Black River shut in is breathtaking in the fall, surrounded by an incredible show the old hills put on.

Let me know where your fall hiking takes you and be on the look out for some fall hike write ups from me! Our hiking year ends on Thanksgiving, so I will publish our hiking year recap then as well!

Washington State Park

A couple weeks ago, we visited the delightful Washington State Park. We have visited there to hike before, but I haven’t camped there maybe ever or at least since I was like ten.

We went with my parents, which means we bring our tent and they bring their camper. Which means my oldest son and my girl child sleep in the AC while my youngest and my stepson sleep in the tent with us- by choice!

Washington State Park is not in Washington state and it’s not in Washington, MO. It’s in Washington COUNTY, Missouri between De Soto and Potosi off 21. It’s a very easy and close drive to St. Louis, but you feel like you’re a world away. Typically we go much further away to camp, so this was kind of nice.

The big draw to Washington State Park was the pool. Well guess what. They closed the pool the week before. Okay, but there are lots of other cool things to do here! There are some really cool hiking trails such as the 1000 Steps Trail, there are swimming and fishing and floating opportunities on the Big River, there are petroglyphs to view, and beautiful stone structures built by the African American Civil Conservation Corps nearly a hundred years ago.

Despite all that Washington State Park has to offer, Nick was disappointed to find out on the way there that we were not visiting his beloved Current River. He ended up having a good time, but not before some initial heartache.

The campground was very nice, but was not near anything cool. There was a playground there for the kids, and we did a lot of scootering around at the campground.

I was really excited to get my dad out to do the short walk to the petroglyphs with all of us. It was very HOT, but my kids enjoyed seeing the petroglyphs. I swear, I have taken them here about twenty times, and every time they forget we were ever there and it’s like a whole new experience. They enjoyed the petroglyphs and exploring the rocky glade. These rocky glades are very typical in the Ozark landscape, especially in the St. Francois mountains. I love them. They are dramatic and beautiful.

Speaking of dramatic and beautiful, the hiking in Washington State Park offers amazing views of the surrounding hills and the Big River below. We also got to explore and see those stone structures.

The 1000 Steps Trail is a trail that was built by that same African American CCC Company. They built the trail and its many stone steps up the ridge, as well as stone shelters only accessible via the trail.

The trail is pretty rugged. It is about a mile and a half long, but it shares a trailhead and part of its trail with the Rockywood Trail, so you can easily spur off, which we did.

If you are going to bring small children- our smallest on this hike was four years old- I would recommend keeping a close eye on them. It is very uneven and steep both up and down, and you are going down alongside of a steep ridge.

We began at the trailhead by Thunderbird Lodge. We went along and then straight up the hill via some of those stone steps. We went early in the morning, but it was going to be a hot August day, so lots of water breaks. The stone shelter along the way was perfect for a magical little break. The kids loved the idea that these steps and shelter were built so long ago.

Now when I say steps, it’s not like stairs. It’s large flat stones that were laid in the 1930s. So many of them are broken, and much of the trail is not steps at all. So don’t expect a staircase, because it is not.

The stone shelter is not the top, but it’s close. We continued to the very top where we hung out at a very pretty shelter with a fireplace that looks great for a family gathering. Then we continued on along the top of the ridge. Then it was time to descend.

Going down is always harder than going up. It takes more concentration and can be more physically demanding, even though going up might feel more difficult. This is the part I supervised Jimmy on the most.

We made it! The older three kept talking about how much they LOVED this trail, especially Lucy. I think they enjoyed the challenge of it and the beauty. It does feel like a magical forest.

We then walked all the way along the bottom of the ridge not far from the river back to our car. I was proud of these buddies!

If you follow me on Facebook, you saw the terrible faces of Jimmy throughout the hike. I take pictures pretty quickly on these hikes and don’t necessarily pay attention- I just kind of hope for the best. Anyway, hilariously, I got about eight pictures of Jimmy looking decidedly unhappy this particular day. He had moments of joy as well, but it was funny looking back at those pics.

Later that afternoon, we took them swimming in the river. There were plenty of people there, but it wasn’t crowded. We had lots of space. Closer to dinnertime, several groups were taking out a bit upstream from their floats.

This beach area is mostly rocks and sand. The river is very shallow here- the kids could walk across easily and not even be waist deep. There is rock and then the other side is a tall bank of dirt, which Nick enjoyed making into mud and getting exceptionally dirty. You can count on him for that! 🙂

The kids really enjoyed the beach time. And so did we! I love sitting my camp chair in the water and hanging out- don’t you??

We then returned to camp for dinner, fire, and s’mores. Early bedtime because everyone was beat!

We had a great weekend at Washington State Park and will definitely visit again.

Congaree National Park with Kids

Congaree National Park was an absolute treat.  I am always looking for National Parks to visit on our trips, and I came across this one about halfway between Charlotte, NC and Charleston, SC.  Perfect!  As I started researching, I found that it is regarded by many as one of the most underrated national parks in the system.  It really offers a lot more than you might expect from a national park with virtually no roads through it! 

The park is located near Columbia, SC.  It is some of the tallest deciduous forest on Earth and the largest intact expanse of old growth bottomland hardwood forest remaining in the southeastern United States, according to the NPS.  

We opted for hiking as our choice activity, as we only had a few hours for our stop.  But you can canoe, kayak, and camp here as well.  There are even canoe trails!  They offer frequent ranger-led activities too, and a great junior ranger program, which we did while we were there.  

We started with a picnic at the picnic area outside the visitor center which was as fun as it looks here- hah!

Attitudes improved once they had some food and got amped about the cool hike! It’s amazing what a little food, rest, play, and water will do for a person.

We did the Boardwalk Loop Trail which had a really cool “tour” pamphlet associated with it.  You can also get this digitally if you prefer.  It was super informative!  Between that and our Junior Ranger activities, we learned a ton!  🙂  While planning this trip, I read that the boardwalk floods from time to time, so check before you go.  We also spurred off on another trail- I think it was the Bluff Trail.  Gorgeous!

The park is swamp and forest.  On the Boardwalk Trail, you will see the river floodplain, an oxbow lake, swampland, and hardwood forest.  It is incredibly diverse landscape over a few short miles.  The loblolly pines were our favorite thing to say on the hike, and we loved seeing and hearing lots and lots of birds and animals.  

We had visited Jean Lafitte National Park and Preserve in March, and it had swampland too.  The kids noticed similarities and differences to that one, and it was really fun to hear their observations.  Lucy said it looked like a fairy forest, and I quite agree. 

The kids all earned their Junior Ranger badges! They take this pretty seriously, and the activities were really great for discovering plants and wildlife on our hike.

It was a great way to spend the Sunday afternoon.  We followed it with pizza at a classic dine in Pizza Hut and then drove straight to the ocean- more about that here.  

Hughes Mountain

Hughes Mountain is a small “mountain” in the St. Francois that rises about 380 feet above the Big River valley below. It features a short 0.75 mile one way trail up to the top of the mountain- but there’s plenty to explore!

Hughes Mountain Quick Facts:

  • Located in the Irondale area off Hwy M- it’s easy to miss!!
  • There are no amenities (including no bathrooms), just a small gravel parking lot.

Hughes Mountain is one of my favorites. It is a very peaceful place for me. I go about once a season. It looks dramatically different in each season. The spring brings lovely wildflowers, the summer brings gorgeous greens as far as the eyes can see. The fall boasts gorgeous foliage, and the winter gives you gray tree trunks with the greens of the cedars and you can see the rock all around… I love it.

It is rarely crowded, and it is fairly secluded. You can sometimes hear road noise, but not much. It’s also located near some other gems, so it is a fun one to add on. But it can also be a destination in and of itself!

The trail is pretty easy- I have brought my kids with me on several occasions. But I have also brought adults who find it challenging. I would say it’s moderate- there are some rugged parts and obviously some elevation. It starts out as dirt trail, then you come across some rocks, then it’s dirt once more. If there has been recent rain, there’s a little run off.

The top of the mountain is beautiful rhyolite. It is pinkish and, being part of the St. Francois mountains, is ancient rock. It forms these hexagonal columns called the Devil’s Honeycomb, and it is super unique and stunning. The colors are always pretty, any time of year.

You have a view of the surrounding mountains from the top. Don’t stop when you think you have gotten to the top- keep going to see the spectacular view from the top!

Hughes Mountain is a serene place that will delight your senses. Let me know if you go- I’ll totally come with you!

Starved Rock in Late Fall

Starved Rock has been on my list for a long, long time. I finally visited and I have to say- it totally lives up to the hype! While I didn’t see all of it and another visit is surely in order, what I did see was incredible and I was grateful to take my time and enjoy the majesty of this gem.

Quick Facts:

  • Starved Rock State Park is located in Illinois about three and a half hours from St. Louis or an hour forty-five minutes from Chicago.
  • It is the most visited state park in Illinois!
  • Features 18 sandstone canyons among bluffs, streams, and waterfalls on the south side of the Illinois river, making for spectacular sights
  • Amenities include camping, a lodge and restaurant, a visitors center, trolley and boat tours, and many events throughout the year including guided hikes

We started our day (very) early. We missed our turn and ended up coming through a delightful little town called Utica. I imagine this is hopping in the summer or maybe just at a nicer time of day, but literally everything was closed. We will definitely visit next time we are in the area!

We started early with St. Louis Canyon trail. This was by far one of the most beautiful hikes I’ve done. We went early enough that it wasn’t crowded whatsoever. As we took to the trail, we encountered one grandma and a small girl and one bow hunter (!) and that was it. The hike took much longer than I had anticipated (more on that later), so by the time we were leaving the canyon, there were more people. (More on this later too.)

You can access the canyon via a trail that begins by the lodge, or you can hike up to this trailhead from the visitor center, or you can park off 178 and hike in from there. This is the shortest method, but you will truly miss out! The 3-ish mile trail is an out and back trail. From the lodge trailhead, you pass by five other canyons that are gorgeous as well. In spring and summer, some of these canyons feature dramatic running water and waterfalls. Some were wet on our visit though, and all were gorgeous and grand.

The trail begins with a descent and right away you are treated with Aurora Canyon. Keep going for a beautiful trail through the woods, passing four more canyons. This trail is a bluff trail. I didn’t have trouble with the height at all after the Sac Canyon. The trail is wide and this gives me comfort. There is a boardwalk for a while as well which leads you to stairs around a ledge and down. This is where I personally had a lot of trouble. It was not scary at all, but the anticipation was causing me a lot of anxiety because you could not see the whole staircase. What an analogy for life, right?? Anyway, when I did finally make it down, I felt silly for getting so scared. It was really lovely. Then the trail descends further and down a switch back- this is a very beautiful part of the trail. The trail here is very sandy.

After this, the trail follows alongside the stream. There are parts that you are on a ledge, but it is again not scary. Then you enter the St. Louis Canyon itself. It is absolutely magnificent.

Beautiful sandstone bluffs rise all around you. There are great big boulders and you can hear the water falling over the ledge before you see it. There are some caves that are very tempting!

The waterfall is stunning, and it wasn’t flowing at max capacity when we were there, yet it was still gorgeous. We went early, so the sun was rising over the canyon wall. It was so special to be there.

This is a very popular trail- not the most popular in the park, but very popular. As I mentioned, we only saw the grandma with little girl and the bow hunter on our way in. They were on their way out. We spent ample time getting down to the canyon and exploring in the canyon. By the time we headed back, we saw many families and people hiking in. I was super proud of myself for making it down and up. It had been kind of a battle of me against myself, because my fear of heights did kick in a bit. But I ultimately won!

After this, I was super psyched to continue exploring. We stopped at the lodge to and grabbed a bite to eat outside on the bluff. (Indoor dining is closed at this time- FYI.). There is a small snack bar/cafe that offered some hearty choices like breakfast sandwiches and treats like fudge. There is a full-service restaurant inside also. The hotel portion of the lodge is open at this time, but we did not stay overnight.

After we enjoyed our bite on the bluff-top deck overlooking the Illinois River and Starved Rock itself, we descended to the visitor center. There is a trail from the lodge to the visitor center, but it was closed. The trail was closed, I mean, but also the visitor center was closed. There are public restrooms that you can access in the visitor center. There are also port-a-potties to use.

This is when things changed. The parking lot was very full. There were people everywhere. We weren’t sure if we should proceed or not. We grabbed our masks and headed to the trails. We knew that the visitor center is the trailhead for most of the trails in the park, so we thought surely with so many trails, things would thin out on the trails. They did for the most part. There were a couple places where we had to step back or aside to maintain distance. We waited our turn to get up close a few times, etc. People were very mindful and respectful.

We climbed Starved Rock, of course, because what trip would be complete without doing so. This is not really a “trail.” It is paved most of the way then you climb some stairs to get to the top where there is a boardwalk to explore the top. Really neat views of other bluffs in the park, the dam, and the river.

We then headed in to the other trails. A highlight for me was French Canyon. They say this is the most photographed canyon in the park, and I could see why. it is not as tall as St. Louis Canyon, but it is very gorgeous, serene, and peaceful. I was disappointed with the crowds at first, but I was actually able to really enjoy it. The sandstone has been worn down by the many many visitors this very popular park experiences. Once you’re in the canyon, it is absolutely breathtaking. We had to wait our turn, but we got it all to ourselves in the end.

After hiking for a while, we felt like it was too crowded to really enjoy. We left and headed to a nearby park I was really excited to visit, but it was only open to hunters. So then we headed to another one- Buffalo Rock- and we had a delightful time. More about that later, though!

Starved Rock is 100% worth the trip. It was really, really cool. I imagine with it being that busy on a late November Saturday, it probably gets real crazy in the spring and fall. We plan to return, so we will definitely let you know!