Cliff Caves County Park

I took off work for a couple of days because my sister is due to have a baby any day now. We've been having some pretty cold, nasty weather now that we've finally hit December and winter is here to stay, so when I heard that the weather was going to be a balmy 43 degrees yesterday, I grabbed the opportunity. I'm still not used to the change of waiting until midday to go hiking to beat the morning cold, the opposite of summer where you get up at the break of dawn to beat the heat.

Cliff Caves County Park has been updated since the second edition of 60 Hikes in 60 Miles that I own. What I really want is the third edition that came out this summer, but I feel silly buying a new edition when I still have so much to go in the one I already have, and I need to check to see whether the hikes are all the same or if he's added new ones and taken away others. But for the very fact that so many of the trails have changed, I may request this as a present for the holidays.

Cliff Caves County Park, for instance, used to be, as Steve Henry describes, "A spaghetti bowl of trails" where "trails change as often as people explore new routes" (pg. 4-5, 2nd edition). It seems these days that the County Parks have attempted to tame this place. Informational sign boards now tell us there are three main trails; the River Side Trail (5.1 miles, easy and flat), the Spring Valley Trail (2-3 miles), and the River Bluff Trail (1 mile). I did not attempt the River Side Trail because I did not really have time for another 5 miles, and because it is so flat and paved, it seems more of a gym-shoes and shorts kind of trail for better weather. Being up next to the Mississippi was pretty neat though.

The Spring Valley Trail is the trail that seems to still be in the latter stages of being tamed. Helpful trail markers and signposts are everywhere now, with both helpful and unhelpful arrows. They seem to be attempting to work out just one main loop of the trail, but the trail's past that Steve Henry had described is still very clear. Trails that go this way and that, unmarked, are still very easily picked out as you walk along. Sometimes the signposts attempt to guide you with arrows but there still seem to be too many choices-- and then sometimes you come to a fork or a three-way split in the past where there isn't a sign post and you are forced to make a choice. Some trails have been blocked off badly with piles of sticks and logs in attempts, I would guess, to stop people from choosing these pathways. I started off on the same path as a trail runner (these paths seem wonderful for trail running, if I was into that sort of thing), and then somehow ended up crossing paths with the same woman three times, but heading in opposite directions. You were never quite lost though because you always see a road or some houses in a subdivision that backs right up against the trail at times. It would seem that this park is hard to tame! I often didn't know what direction I was heading, if I had picked the main pathway or not, or even if I had finished the whole trail or my mileage just because of the trail network that isn't quite all there yet.

Parts of the trail are a bit monotonous (or at least they are in the winter), but it was peppered with strange bits of beauty that make the trail worth it. Tim Burton-esque ponds with dead trees in it, standing on top of a valley looking down on a stream and road below you while the trees bend eerily inwards like a tunnel. I gave up on the feeling of being a bit lost and knowing that I would easily make it back to the parking lot in no time, I enjoyed myself.  The cave at the park is definitely the star. It seems that it has been closed off since 2009, which I was terribly disappointed by. Funny how one day I can be angry about peopled defacing ancient art in one post, but disappointed when I can't go into a cave for the same protective reasons (graffiti, endangered species, fragile ecosystems). I wish so bad that I could have come here a couple years ago, gotten a permit, explored the cave a little bit. But looking at the gated off cave has its own magic too. What a neat, wonderful place.

I also did the Bluff trail, which was shorter and slightly more straight forward (or so I thought). Saw a mountain biker, and the overlooks were indeed lovely. There are no fences to keep you from tumbling off the edge onto the train tracks below. The Mississippi Valley looked a bit gray because of the wintery weather while I was there, but it was still nice to sit and watch the barges pass in the distance. Finding my way back was a bit harder; I attempted to follow the signs and ended up once in a very large open grassy field with a signpost pointing outwards in no particular direction. I wandered the field for awhile before deciding the arrow must be pointing to a different outlet to the road near some houses. I wandered back, got a bit lost on the now winding trails, some signposted, others beaten out by what looked like horses. Overall, a fun trip that I'm sure I'll make again in time.

Little Grand Canyon and Piney Creek Ravine Nature Preserve

Had another four day weekend after taking some time off work, so while there was still some gorgeous weather to be had my Dad and I had to take advantage. We'd both been talking about how much fun we'd had together on our last roadtrip hike, so we decided this time to take another couple hour car ride down to southern Illinois to visit the Little Grand Canyon and Piney Creek Ravine Nature Preserve. The drive felt longer than last time because it wasn't all highway, but we did go through some wonderful little towns, including the Home of Popeye the Sailor Man!

The Little Grand Canyon is somewhere I've been wanting to visit for a long time after reading about it in 60 Hikes in 60 Miles, and it did not disappoint! The drive there feels so out of the way that you can't imagine that other people will even be there (there were a few other cars, but we only saw two other people on the trail the entire time, heading back up to the parking lot)-- the road is so twisty and turny and full of farms and street names that don't exist. It was a very windy day, but sunny and still warm enough that I could get away with a couple layers (t-shirt, long-sleeved shirt, and a fleece). We took the trail counter clock-wise as suggested by Steve Henry, and this was definitely the right choice. Not only did it save the views and the easier hiking for the end, but when climbing back up some of the rocks I couldn't imagine trying to go DOWN that way! At first the trail had me a bit scared-- it was paved, something I don't really enjoy while hiking. But within just a few minutes, the trail turns into rock and starts switchbacking you down into the canyon (or whatever you want to call it). Once you flaten out, you are faced with a pathway between the rocks jutting up around you, turning into a steep pathway that requires quite a bit of climbing to get down to the bottom. The rocks were very slippery too, from both water and from all the fallen leaves. There were a few steps cut into the rocks here and there, but it wasn't always the best way to choose. Dad and I had fun scrambling around the rocks, trying not to slip and fall, and treating it like a puzzle to be solved.

After hitting the bottom, you walk in the flatlands under the cliffs for awhile, stepping over creeks and admiring the sheer awe of the rocks rising up beside you. The trail is fairly well marked, but the leaves did often make the trail sometimes hard to follow at times. The scenery is absolutely gorgeous. Eventually you have to climb back up to the level you started at, and this was slightly more challenging than climbing down. Once again, the steps aren't always the easiest choice, and I did quite a bit of climbing on hands and knees as I slowly made my way up. After that you walk along the cliff edge for quite a big before being treated to a few really lovely views of the valley, with the Missouri bluffs less than 10 miles in the distance. The trail seems to climb uphill forever for awhile, and certainly makes you work at it! The end of the trail evens out into a long pleasant walk in the woods before panning back out into pavement before hitting the parking lot. Absolutely BEAUTIFUL hike, and though it was only 3.6 miles long, the trail has challenging moments that give you a work out.

Piney Creek Nature Preserve was a bit of a disappointment, but not a bad hike in the end. About 2.25 miles in length, it's a fairly straightforward trail with mostly woods, and a few rocky areas for a bit of diversity. During a different time of year, though, I know that there would be streams and waterfalls which probably would have made the tail much more exciting. The trail is marked somewhat well, but has certain areas that are hard to follow and where the signposts have warped (not to mention the leaves, as usual, making the trail hard to pick out under your feet). It was a nice cool-down hike after the Little Grand Canyon. What the trail does boast is the biggest display of prehistoric rock art in southern Illinois. The problem is that there hasn't been much preservation measures taken so that any prehistoric art is almost impossible to pick out-- not to mention that the face of the wall is so full of graffiti and name carvings that if you DO think you see a prehistoric pictograph, you have no idea if it is real or fake. As a history buff, I find this sad and disappointing. This is not to say that I did not enjoy the trail. It was a lovely little walk in the woods, and the knowledge that there had been ancient rock art here is a really cool thing to think about.

Weekend Walks

The beautiful weather is sticking around into November, though it's awfully cold in the mornings, and then slowly warms up during the day. It's absolutely my favorite weather. Today was actually pretty warm, with a strong sun to bring the temperature up to nearly 70.

No actual hikes done this weekend (though I had considered it), but I did do some walking. Yesterday did the Hickory Ridge Trail at Powder Valley-- this has two loops, one of which is about half a mile and one which is about a mile and a half. It actually gets a little confusing on which part of the trail you are on, but as far as I know it was the longer loop. Powder Valley is gorgeous this time of year, and this trail was really lovely. All the trails at Powder Valley are paved, but it's always kind of amazing to see this beautiful little wooded area hidden away in the middle of an urban area. The walk was relaxing, the views were lovely, and there's just enough incline here and there to keep you busy.

Today I also went back to Queeny Park to do the Hawk Ridge trail of about 4 miles. It was fairly busy (being the middle of the afternoon instead of the earlier morning when I've gone before), but not so much that it was unenjoyable. Even though a lot of the trees have lost their leaves, there is still just enough color here and there. I don't think Queeny Park could ever really be unattractive. I went with my roommate, who keeps me in check a bit. Not only is she more in shape than me to begin with, but she is also taller than I am (not a hard feat, I admit), so I have to quicken my own strides to keep up with her longer ones. I never liked running, but a good brisk walk is something I do enjoy. I felt really good afterwards, and even though I didn't get any real hiking in, I felt good that I had managed to get out a little to enjoy this gorgeous weekend. Once November hits, I kind of live each weekend like it could be the last nice one we have for months. I'm glad the sun and fall weather is sticking around though!

Sunrise hike at Lewis and Clark trail

Today I did something I've always *wanted* to do, but was either too nervous and/or lazy to actually try. It was the perfect weekend too-- still somewhat warm (well, not warm, but not too cold to be bogged down with winter gear) and the last weekend before the time change that would have pushed sunrise back an entire hour.

That's right! I finally did my "catch the sunrise" hike today! Even though my original plan was to get up by 4/4:30am, I ended up pushing it back to about 5am because I've been having some sleep issues lately. I was packed and ready to go the night before, so all I did was get dressed and grab a few waffles to eat on the drive there. It was pitch dark still, and I had to stop along the way to get gas and use a bathroom (separate trips, unfortunately), so I actually got to the trailhead a little later than planned.

The first thing I noticed was how *dark* it was. Turning my car off made everything go quiet and dark. When I stepped out of the car (I was the only person in the parking lot), I noticed how many stars there were! It's incredible how every time I get out of the city, I remember how beautiful it is to see the stars. Stargazing is another thing that just makes me truly happy. So I stood in the parking lot looking up at the stars for a good while after getting my things together. It was pretty cold, so I was glad to have my fleece, hat, and gloves. I also had stolen my roommate's little lantern flashlight, not really meant for the outdoors, but it was the best I could do on short notice. The moon was about half full, so there was also a bit of light from the moon as well.

It was interesting how quickly it got light. The first peeks of twilight happen far before the sun actually rises. Slowly the woods became less dark and scary and more bright with early morning light. There was actually one hiker on the trail ahead of me (he had been parking when I went back to the car to get my hat). I had tried my best to stay a good distance away from him mostly because I know that I don't like someone tailing me on the trail (and also there are too many stories about hikers and axe murderers. Next time I take someone with me). Eventually, however, I ended up catching up to him at the first mile marker because it ended up we were both trying to do the same thing-- make it to the best lookout point in time for sunrise. We talked and walked the rest of the way to the overlook together: he told me about the sunrise hikes he did often and where he went to school, and it was actually really pleasant. Whoever you were, Hiking Man (I forget your name now), thanks for the pleasant morning conversation and unofficial morning tour of the trail.

Seeing the sun rise over the horizon from a bluff overlooking the Missouri River is an experience I won't easily forget. First came the very first peeks of color, which had been reflecting off some of the clouds for a good deal of time before the actual rising of the sun. Then, the very top of the sun peeked out over the horizon. It's amazing how FAST it actually happens, that you can actually watch the sun physically rise from obscurity into view. I took about a million pictures, all of which look mostly the same but I can't bear to get rid of them because it is like a flip book of the sunrise. I stayed there for nearly 40 minutes after the sun actually rose, just watching the colors and the  changing of position, and the river below. After I finally got myself moving again, I finished the Clark trail (decided on just  the 5.3 mile option today) exhausted by extremely happy. I can see myself doing more sunrise hikes in the future!

I know the pictures aren't great: I don't have a good enough camera or good enough knowledge on how to take pictures in that kind of lighting. Hopefully one day I will!  I am sure I will post most of the pictures, no matter how alike they all are, at facebook: hiking album on facebook

Creve Coeur Lake

I didn't do nearly as much hiking as I wanted to during my week off, but the trip to Johson's Shut Ins was totally enough to make up for that. I did do a walk at Creve Coeur Lake today though. I took the main Lakeview loop for most of the way around, probably 3.5 miles or so, and also added on the Mallard Lake loop for an extra 2.6 miles. Even though it was a good length, the paved trail and level ground makes for a really nice walk that is best for exercising. I kept up a good pace most of the time (except when I stopped to take pictures), but I did slow down for the pedestrians only section of the Mallard Lake loop, where suddenly the trail became more gravel and the surroundings quieter and peaceful. I even saw two deer during this section. Creve Coeur Lake is a place I really like to go when I need some exercise but don't feel like driving out to do a big hike.

Day Trip: Elephant Rocks State Park & Johnson's Shut Ins

Taking advantage of an absolutely beautiful day off, my father and I took a road trip about 2.5 hours away from St. Louis to go see some natural wonders of Missouri that, despite living here nearly all my life, I have never seen. This included Elephant Rocks State Park and Johnson's Shut Ins. I took over 100 pictures there, and tried to narrow it down to about 50 for the facebook photo album. There was just something about this place that was just intensely beautiful, especially in fall.

Elephant State Park was pretty amazing. We stayed on the main Braille Trail, which seems to mostly go around the perimeter of the main rock dome. Though we did see what seemed to maybe be another trail marked by blue cards on the trees, there didn't seem to be any signs or information nearby about what the other trails were. The trail itself was uneventful, all paved and even, but really interesting in the fact that the trail accomodates for any visitors with visual or physical impairments. The trail would sometimes take a short break for sightseeing like an old railroad engine house with a bit of track still left in it. The best part is definitely the trail when it leads up onto the rock domes of Elephant Rocks, overlooking piles of stones leftover from when the area was a quarry, or over the giant rocks that give the park it's name. Climbing over the giant rocks, squeezing through the narrow passageways, and overlooking into the Ozark hills was a brilliant experience, certainly worth it!

Johnson's Shut Ins, however, was the clear star of this trip for me. There aren't even words to really quite explain how overwhelming this place was. I've never seen an area quite like it. Usually during the summer, this area is full to the brim with the people who have come to swim and immerse themselves in the surging waters of the Shut Ins, but on this warm October day in the middle of the workweek, the park was mostly empty and the water was at a fairly low level. We first did the Shut-Ins trail. At first I was worried, because the trail is mostly just a boardwalk following the shut-in waters and rocks. We walked down the steps "at our own risk" and climbed over the rocks and water, exploring the shapes the rocks have slowly been worn into, how deep some of the pools were, how the water gushed out between the rocks below our feet in others. Then we  continued to follow the trail to the overlook, where the boardwalk ended and the  trail turned a sharp right. From this point on, the trail was all soil, rocks, and climbing. I have to say that the Shut Ins Trail was one of the more challenging trails I've done in a long, long time despite only being a few miles long!!! There was a lot of uphill climbing and carefully slippery downhill descents. While the trail was for the most part well marked, at one point it joins with the Ozark Trail leaving you wondering if you've accidentally strayed from your path. Parts of the trail actually demand that you climb up hillsides of rock into the glades, leaving your out of breath. There are parts of the trail, especially when you follow in the sand right next to the pools of the river, where the trail is somewhat overgrown, but worth it. We stopped to picnic for a snack at one of the pooling points of the river. The trail was completely empty (any other visitors had not gone down the rest of the trail) and sitting there on the rocks with the ozark hills all around you is the most peaceful and amazing feeling. Between the overlooks of the shut ins and the river, the glades in the hillsides, the deep woods and the rocky dirt trail, this trail was exciting and quite a work out!!!

After we made the whole loop, my Dad and I went back down in the shut ins to climb around the rocks, where we took off our shoes and relaxed by dipping our feet in the very cold rushing water! It was exhilerating and the perfect way to end a long hike. I can see how this area, when the water is higher and the sun is hot, can be crowded (people are actually turned AWAY from this park during the summer after it hits maximum content).  We finished the day off the the shorter Glades trail, which was not nearly as exciting as the first trail, but a nice quiet way to end the day after our lunch of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. This hike also did have a really nice overlook when it came up into the glades, especially with all the trees turning colors in the distance. Lots of gnats on this trail though, but that could have been the time of day/temperature/etc. By the time we were done, we were too tired out from all the sun to do the last trail, the Scour trail, which actually looked a bit challenging, but have no doubt that I will return to do this sometime, as well as check out all the other hiking in the area, like Taum Sauk Mountain! Dad and I also saw the old mine off of US 67, but it was closed.

Queeney Park (with photos this time)

I have the WHOLE week off from work!!! I'm hoping I can do a lot of hiking during that time. Yesterday my roommate and I took a 4.5 mile walk around the neighborhood, which felt really good.  My original plan for today had been to get up really early and try to catch the sunrise at Lewis & Clark trail overlooking the river, but I slept very badly last night-- I figured the time to do a 5-9 mile hike is NOT when you've only managed to grab four or five hours of sleep. So instead I reset my alarm and had a lovely breakfast with my father at the Bread Company, where I had a breakfast power sandwich, two cups of tea, and really nice long conversations with my Dad. Afterwards, I decided I better get some exercise anyhow and went back to Queeny Park for a walk.

Started out again on the Hawk Ridge Trail for most of the hike, but took a few detours on the .2 mile lake spur so I could get a look at the really pretty lakes where some people were fishing, which joined to the very end of the dogwood trail, which then met up halfway through the White Oak trail, which I took back to the Hawk Ridge Trail for the last bit of the trail. I even walked about halfway down the Fox Run Trail before turning back because I decided I was ready to head home and eat lunch. It was kind of nice to get a feel for the other trails at Queeny Park,  which were much clearer of horse dropping this time around, so they must be really good about cleaning it.