By Kathy Schrenk
Photos courtesy of Great Rivers Greenway
Don’t have time to get out to the backcountry? Try urban hiking, which is just a fancy way of saying hiking in the city. The St. Louis downtown is blessed with parks and public spaces crisscrossed with miles and miles of paved trails. Walk or roll through cultivated gardens and wild forests or past famous architecture and art at some of these sites.
Arch Grounds & St. Louis Riverfront (4 miles)
Seeing the Gateway Arch up close is always awe-inspiring. But head just a bit north or south of the grounds meticulously maintained by the National Park Service, and you’ll find hulking industrial buildings, graffiti-covered flood walls, and an unfinished sculpture park filled with artwork by the creator of City Museum.
Park near the Arch. To start with the sculpture park, known as Rootwad Park, walk north through the Arch grounds toward the Eads Bridge. Walk up 1st Street, under the bridge, and through Laclede’s Landing. 1st Street is closed to cars but walkable past Carr Street. Turn right on Ashley Street (a minimally paved roadway here) and follow the signs to the Mississippi Greenway (Riverfront Trail). You’ll pass the old Laclede Power Station and immediately recognize the Cassilly aesthetic if you’ve ever been to City Museum. Be aware for this northern section that redevelopment projects in Laclede’s Landing and near the park are ongoing, so roads and paths may be blocked intermittently.
Retrace your steps and walk south from the Arch. You can stroll along the Arch grounds or take the stairs or ramp down to the river. From here, you’ll walk along the Mississippi Greenway under the vehicle traffic and train bridges. You’ll start to see some impressive art along the tall concrete walls here, less than half a mile from the Arch. The displays change over time and you might see fish, space creatures, robots, or renderings of presidents. The “Mural Mile” officially starts at Chouteau and Victor avenues.
Forest Park West (3.5 miles)
No discussion of urban hikes in St. Louis would be complete without Forest Park. It’s one of the country’s great public spaces — even larger than Central Park in Manhattan — and houses some of the region’s top cultural attractions.
The visitor center is a good place to start a Forest Park adventure. To tour the west side of the park, head south past the tennis courts and then veer right toward Post-Dispatch Lake. You can walk around the lake or use bridges to access Picnic Island as you head toward Art Hill.
Veer left to take the path to the south of the art museum to access Kennedy Forest. This section of the park was set aside when Forest Park was established in 1876. Volunteers have been working in recent years to remove invasive species and return wildlife and birds here. Walk past the zoo and the south end of Post-Dispatch Lake, then head north to return to the starting point.
Forest Park East (3 miles)
The east side of Forest Park features a maze of little-used streets that wind through forests, meadows, and ponds. Head east from the visitor center along Grand Drive. A path heading straight east veers off Grand to follow the lagoon and wind through forests and past ponds once used to breed fish for food. The ponds are now maintained by the state conservation department.
Head south to walk past Steinberg Rink then west along Wells Drive toward the Korean War Memorial and the Jewel Box. From here, numerous paths and roads curve north past The Muny and The Boathouse to return to the visitor center. Maps are available online and posted at the park.
Tower Grove Park (3 miles)
Tower Grove Park was founded in 1868 as a gift from Henry Shaw, who had already established the Missouri Botanical Garden just north of the Tower Grove portion of his estate. It continues to be home to historically significant architecture and a selection of mature trees that would impress any arborist.
From Kingshighway on the west to Grand Boulevard on the east, the park is 1.5 miles long. Birders will want to visit the birding garden in the northwest corner. Music lovers can see busts of famous composers surrounding the Music Stand.
As of this writing, the streets inside the park are closed to vehicular traffic to allow pedestrians full use — a great opportunity to hike the park unimpeded while keeping socially distant.
Across the Mississippi River from downtown St. Louis, the Watershed Nature Center in Edwardsville, Illinois, allows hikers to view forest, wetland, and marsh environments with easy access for drivers and bikers thanks to its location on the Madison County Transit Trails system.
Two small lakes are the centerpiece of this 1.5-mile hike. Numerous short side trails jut off the main loop and lead to elevated platforms, an amphitheater, a waterfall, and the bikeway, among other features. The southern portion of the loop is paved, and the entire loop is stroller-friendly. The south side of the lake features a concrete boardwalk for a tour of the marsh.
What started out as an abandoned sewage lagoon has been transformed over the last 30 years into a haven for deer, turtles, and birds of all kinds. Interpretive signs along the loop explain the different kinds of wildlife you might see here.