By Kathy Schrenk
Photos courtesy of Kathy Schrenk/Mountaineers Books
As a fan of the outdoors, you know how hiking makes you feel — refreshed, upbeat, connected with nature and with yourself. Hiking can have similar benefits for kids. They need exercise every day for their physical and emotional health, and research shows that a walk in the woods is better for cognitive restoration than a walk in an urban environment. Add to that the social benefits of family time in nature without screens and its obvious why hiking with kids is a great idea.
The best way to get kids hiking is to get them to the trailhead. The earlier you start, the better. If your kid has been hiking for as long as she can remember, she is less likely to question or complain when you tell her it’s time to hit the dirt. She understands that hiking is a thing your family does.
Once you’re on the trail, food is a great motivator: “If you hike to the top of the hill, you get a piece of chocolate bar.” And make sure they’re comfortable. Remember a hat to keep off the sun, layers if it’s cold, and bug spray. Plus, some non-candy food options like nuts, granola bars or dried fruit to keep tummies full and energy high. The “Ten Essentials” — navigation, sun protection, illumination, first aid, fire, knife, nutrition, hydration, extra clothes and shelter — apply for kids as well as adults.
The best way to motivate kids to hike that I’ve found is to give them buddies to go with. Not long after I moved to St. Louis in 2013, I started a group on Meetup.com for hiking families. Even kids who aren’t crazy about the activity quickly forget that they are tired when they find someone with whom they can talk comic books or collect sticks. And sometimes that someone is a dog — so don’t forget about Fido!
Hikes in the region can be loosely grouped into four areas: In and Around St. Louis, East of St. Louis (Illinois), North and West of St. Louis, and South of St. Louis. Chances are there’s an outstanding option not far from where you live.
In and Around St. Louis:
Bluff View Park is close to Interstate 44 and Route 109 in Wildwood yet seems to fly under the radar when compared to nearby attractions like Castlewood State Park and West Tyson County Park. The hike on the namesake trail is a 5-mile out-and-back if you follow it from the top all the way down to Al Foster Trail and the Meramec River, but you only have to go a half-mile through some woods to reach a lovely overlook.
West Tyson County Park in Eureka is less popular than Castlewood but can still get crowded on nice weekends. It’s worth a trip for the rugged and woodsy paths, and the views during the winter. It has several trails of various lengths and difficulties; my favorite is Flint Quarry Trail. It’s just under 3 miles long, with lots of up and down and some rocky sections, but it goes through some beautiful forests and valleys.
Lime Kiln Trail at Rockwoods Reservation is a challenging yet rewarding trail in Wildwood. It’s gorgeous and will make you think you’re deep in the Ozarks, with all the hardwood and geologic features of that famous region. This hike is also just under 3 miles. If you need something easier, the Rock Quarry Trail at Rockwoods is very pretty.
East of St. Louis
If you’re willing to drive a bit, southern Illinois has some of the most spectacular hikes in the region. Giant City State Park in Makanda features the Giant City Nature Trail, where you can walk through narrow gaps between boulders that look for all the world like city streets carved by ancient humans. Combined with the Trillium Trail, you’ll find your neck more than your legs will be sore from staring up in wonder at all the magnificent sites.
Southern Illinois also features some of the best preserved local examples of native rock art. The well-marked and signed trail makes the gallery easy to find once you get to Piney Creek Ravine Natural Area in Chester. (The trailhead itself is off the beaten path and will take some patience to find, but it’s worth the effort.) The looped hike wends in and out of a shallow river valley and includes beautiful views of cliffs and forests.
Salt Lick Point Land & Water Reserve has a variety of trails, so you can make an easy ramble out of it or hike up the steep hillside to the vista over the Mississippi River. The area is on top of old mining operations, and you can see evidence of it in intriguing cuts out of the cliff and boulders that have fallen near the trail as a result. While you’re in the area, check out the nearby town of Valmeyer, which moved 2 miles up the hill after the town was devastated by the 1993 flood.
North and West of St. Louis
Cuivre River State Park in Troy is a little taste of the Ozarks in the northern part of the region. The northern half of the Lone Spring Trail loop is only moderately difficult and showcases a variety of environments. You can take a side trip to a peaceful lake, there’s a backpacking camp that makes for a good snack break location, and there’s a spring where you can treat water. (It’s just about the perfect spot for a beginners’ backpacking trip).
Klondike Park is an example of how lucky residents of St. Charles County are with regard to their recreational areas. Just down the road from Augusta, the park features a spectacular view over the Missouri River, an old silica sand quarry and an easy hike through deciduous woods. It’s one of my favorites for fall colors.
The Lewis and Clark Trails in Weldon Spring Conservation Area are two of the most popular in the region. This is another location with wonderful views from atop bluffs looking over the Missouri River. There are two trail lengths: 5 miles (Clark) and 8 miles (Lewis). The 5-mile trail doesn’t have any steep parts and offers a variety of forests, vistas and river valleys to explore.
South of St. Louis
Don Robinson State Park in Cedar Hill is the newest in a string of beautiful parks south of Eureka. It opened in January 2017 and quickly became a favorite of local hikers. Its cliffs, valleys, creek beds and rocky paths make it a wonderland to discover. Go in winter if you can to check out the ice falls.
The Trail Through Time in Pickle Springs Natural Area near Farmington may be my absolute favorite in the whole region. It’s a moderately difficult 3-mile loop that is packed with amazing discoveries around each turn. You’ll experience the best rock scrambling around and even more spectacular ice falls than Don Robinson. This is another one that’s a bit hard to find, but it’s worth the trip.
Taum Sauk Mountain is the highest natural point in Missouri, and Taum Sauk State Park in Ironton is also home to the state’s tallest waterfall. The trail to Mina Sauk Falls is beautiful, but challenging. There are fantastic vistas across the St. Francois Mountains. If you’ve got a group of hardy hikers that want an adventure, hike down the trail past the waterfall to Devil’s Tollgate, a huge rock formation along the Ozark Trail on the way to Johnson’s Shut-Ins State Park.
Kathy Schrenk’s Best Hikes with Kids: St. Louis and Beyond is designed to help your children experience nature for themselves in a fun and active way. It includes 82 routes specifically selected to appeal to kids, from toddler to grade-schooler, with reasonable distances (not more than 5 miles), doable elevation gain (less than 1,000 feet) and an emphasis on trails in St. Louis and St. Charles counties, as well as across the Mississippi River in southern Illinois. The book can be purchased at mountaineersbooks.org.