3 Great Hikes to Take with Kids in St. Louis
We chatted with Author Kathy Shrenk about the best hiking trails to take with kids in St. Louis. Read on for her top three picks for outings this season. For more great hiking info, check out her recently released book “Best Hikes with Kids: St. Louis and Beyond.”
- Greensfelder County Park, Eagle Valley Trail
“Plenty of shade on the Eagle Valley Trail makes this a great choice in the heat of summer.” – Kathy
About the Hike
DIFFICULTY: Moderate to difficult
LENGTH: 3.6 miles loop
HIGH POINT: 910 feet
ELEVATION GAIN: 650 feet
NOTES: Trails inaccessible for wheelchairs and strollers; bathrooms and water available seasonally at trailhead; trail is popular with equestrians
From Interstate 44 in Eureka, take exit 261 (Allenton Road and Six Flags). From the exit ramp, turn right (north) onto Allenton Road. About a quarter mile from the freeway be careful to keep all the way to the left to stay on Allenton Road and avoid entering the Six Flags parking lot. Drive about two miles and park in the trailhead parking lot.
On the Trail
This almost completely shaded hike is a great choice for a hot summer day. It’s beautiful year round, with wildflowers in the spring and a lot of color in the fall, and in the winter the leafless trees make for easier wildlife spotting and observation of geologic features. Eagle Valley Trail presents many ups and downs and a variety of scenery to keep everyone interested. There are numerous beautiful trails at this 1734-acre park, but this one provides a wonderful sampling of what the park has to offer in less than 4 miles.
From the parking lot, follow signs for the Eagle Valley Trail downhill and straight ahead, and then at 0.1 mile turn right to start your hike on the Eagle Valley loop. You are immediately surrounded by a dense, mixed oak forest. At first you can meander gently downhill, but the trail gets steeper as you go. A series of tight switchbacks starts around mile 0.3, as the trail drops steadily into a valley. Watch for the trail to get more rooty and rocky here.
The forest thickens as you hike deeper into the valley. The path widens along the creek at mile 0.7. Stay straight at the trail junction at mile 0.9, and at mile 1.2 cross Scenic Loop Road; watch for the blue Eagle Valley Trail signs. Here the trail becomes level and flat for a bit as you continue strolling beside the creek. Around mile 1.5, notice fences and boards that equestrians use for horse jumping and agility.
As you get farther into the valley, watch for exposed rocks along cliffs. The valley is also rich with wildlife and sprinkled with wildflowers in the spring. At mile 1.7, turn left at the trail junction and sign. The trail remains flat as it meanders through the valley, veering this way and that with the creek.
At mile 2.1, stay left to keep on Eagle Valley Trail. The trail starts to go uphill here and gets steep at times. Use the occasional breather to take in the view to the left (east) and behind you.
Reach the top of the hill at mile 2.4. This is a somewhat tricky section of trail; the signs can seem to point downhill and to the right toward an unmaintained trail, but make sure to turn left and go up the hill.
On this section of the trail you approach the horse trail parking lot, so watch for equestrians, and remember to yield by keeping all hikers to the right side of the trail. Continue to follow the signs for the Eagle Valley Trail past the equestrian parking and campground before returning back to the trailhead parking lot.
- LaBarque Creek Conservation Area
“When it’s extra-hot, head straight to the splash zone instead of hiking the whole loop. Just a quick scramble from the trail takes you to a series of pools for getting good and wet in the heat of Missouri summer.” – Kathy
About the hike
LENGTH: 3 miles loop
HIGH POINT: 810 feet
ELEVATION GAIN: 400 feet
NOTES: Inaccessible for strollers and wheelchairs; no bathrooms or water
From Interstate 44 in Eureka, take exit 264 for State Route 109 and turn left (south). Drive 2 miles, and turn right (west) onto State Highway FF. Drive 4.6 miles, turn left onto State Highway F, and immediately turn right onto Doc Sargent Road. Drive 0.9 mile, and turn left onto Valley Drive. Drive 0.1 mile to the parking lot.
On the Trail
Summers in St. Louis can mean weeks at a time when it just feels too hot to hike, if you can’t manage to hit the trail at the crack of dawn. This hike is the perfect antidote. In just more than a mile of mostly shaded hiking, you can reach a tributary of LaBarque Creek that forms a series of pools perfect for splashing, playing, and catching tadpoles.
The entire 3-mile loop features gorgeous scenery and is only forty-five minutes from downtown St. Louis, or thirty minutes from the West County suburbs. Hikers will find a mix of evergreen and deciduous woodlands, along with a lovely pool and seasonal waterfall.
From the parking lot, take the bridge across the creek and head right. The trail follows the creek and then begins to head uphill. At about a third of a mile, the trail splits. The loop is signed clockwise, so head left for this loop. (If your goal is to get to the pool as soon as possible, head right and follow the well-marked trail for 0.7 mile.)
In the clockwise direction, the trail goes mostly uphill, but the grade is gentle. Winter means views of the surrounding hills, while in spring and summer, forests of oak, walnut, and other native trees provide shade. Around mile 1.3 the terrain gets a bit rockier, as boulders dot the landscape. Watch for harmless garter snakes when the weather warms up. At mile 1.6, the trail reaches its southernmost point—as well as its elevation high point—and starts to curve back toward the north.
Just before the marker for mile 2, the trail crosses above the loop’s most popular feature—a pool and seasonal waterfall. Look for the spot where a smooth section of the rock cliff forms a slide, and scoot down the cliff of about seven feet to a plateau just above the creek. Some people like to bring a rope to tie around the tree near the slide to make this easier. Be extremely cautious here; send an adult down first to help kids make their way safely. Head to the right (northeast) between the creek and the cliff to where the small seasonal waterfall drops down. This is a great place for wading. Or, you can explore the canyon farther and look for small pools where kids can hunt for tadpoles and small fish.
From here the trail is mostly downhill. At mile 2.2 there’s another splash zone, as the trail dips into a small granite bowl with a seasonal stream running through it. This is a gorgeous spot for photos, with the contrast between the trees and the granite in the sunshine.
Once everyone is done splashing, continue on the trail another 0.5 mile to where the loop ends at mile 2.7, and retrace your steps along LaBarque Creek to the parking lot.
- Piney Creek Ravine State Natural Area
“Splash in the pools of the first river crossing or farther along the loop near the rock art to cool off.” – Kathy
About the Hike
SEASON: Spring, summer, fall
LENGTH: 2 miles loop
HIGH POINT: 580 feet
ELEVATION GAIN: 190 feet
NOTES: Inaccessible for strollers and wheelchairs; rocky trails can be dangerous when icy; no bathrooms or water
From Interstate 255 in south St. Louis County, drive southeast into Illinois, and take exit 6 to State Route 3 south. Drive 25 miles, and continue east on SR 154. Drive 19 miles, and turn right at SR 4. Drive 6 miles, and turn left (east) onto SR 150. Drive 2.5 miles, and turn right on Sparta Street, which turns into Rockcastle Road in 0.5 mile. Drive 3.7 miles, and turn right onto Wine Hill Road, then immediately left onto County Road 5. Drive 2.4 miles, and turn left onto County Farm Road, which becomes Murphysboro Road. Drive 1.7 miles, and turn right onto Piney Creek Road, which is gravel. Drive just over 1.5 miles, and turn left into the gravel parking lot with the sign for the natural area.
On the Trail
This hidden-away preserve is best known for a wall of prehistoric rock art that constitutes the largest such grouping in Illinois. But there’s much more to this hike than that: spectacular rock formations, diverse natural environments, waterfalls, and pools for splashing on a hot summer day.
Start by walking from the parking lot around the gate onto a wide path between two pastures. You’re likely to hear cows mooing on this quarter-mile straight and level path to the boundary of the preserve.
Head downhill to your first crossing of Piney Creek. Watch for the bright green posts that mark the trail, especially helpful at creek crossings and when the woods get thick above the ravine.
Just up the hill from the stream crossing, at 0.4 mile, is the start of the loop. Head to the right and walk the loop counterclockwise to see amazing rock formations created by the creek before you get to the human-created rock art.
The trail traverses the top of the ravine for nearly half a mile through forest that contains a mix of deciduous trees and native pine, which are rarely found in Illinois. Then the trail descends into the ravine for another creek crossing at mile 0.8. Take some extra time here to enjoy this remarkable spot, where dramatic rock formations and pools have been created by the bends in the creek.
The creek makes a sharp bend to your right here, and the trail heads uphill and to the left. Make your way about half a mile through thick forest before descending again and skirting the bottom of some cliffs. Take care if you get close to the cliffs; the wind creates deep piles of leaves here, and you may think you’re stepping on solid ground when your foot is actually about to sink into two feet of dried leaves!
Around mile 1.25, watch for the side trail to the rock art, on the left. Signs guide you a short way through the woods to the cliffs, where a large interpretive sign explains what some of the etchings and paintings signify. Historians believe that some describe religious visions, or convey information about events and land claims. Some are drawings, and others are carvings pounded into the rock using chisels and other tools.
European settlers discovered these beautiful and fascinating creations in the 1870s, and this became a popular place for outings. Unfortunately, many decided to add their own drawings to the walls, damaging some the centuries-old native work. Be sure to note that it is now illegal to deface the cliff and images, which are believed to be 500 to 1500 years old.
After you’ve taken in the ancient art, retrace your steps to the main trail. Once you are back on the Piney Creek Trail, completing the loop, you’ll need to cross the creek again, which might mean getting your feet wet, since the stream is wider and deeper here. Use caution, take your time, and enjoy the scenery. Less than a quarter mile later, you’ll leave the loop behind and head back to the preserve boundary and the parking lot.
Note: There’s likely to be a fair amount of mud in some parts of the hike, and the creek at one of the crossings can be up to your ankles, so be prepared with a change of clothes and dry shoes waiting in the car.