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We did 52 hikes in 2021. Here’s what we learned.

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My husband and I are not the athletes we once were. But last year we completed the 52 Hike Challenge, hitting the trail about once a week for a little adventure.

My bad knees make running and even walking a challenge. But we love to get out in the woods and see new places. And now that our three children have grown and flown, our weekends are no longer filled with sports, scouts and school events.

Our hiking trips began to ramp up in 2020 when the pandemic meant going to places like restaurants and concerts was out. When my husband started posting pictures from our hikes on social media, we decided to shoot for 52.

I was aware of the 52 Hike Challenge, but I never looked it up to see if there were rules. (Check it out here if you’re interested in learning more about this movement. Or find it on Facebook, where there are local chapters and other hiker groups such as Missouri Trails.)

Here were our only rules:

• A distance of at least 1 mile but preferably 2 to 5 miles.

• 52 unique hikes; no repeats during the calendar year.

• No urban hikes, which meant we didn’t count walking in our neighborhood parks or the Missouri Botanical Garden. However, we made an exception for San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge — its uniqueness outweighed the fact that it was entirely paved.

Finding the hikes

We found inspiration for some hikes from articles that had run in the Post-Dispatch. Others we found in various guide books. Our main resource was AllTrails, a website and app. A free basic membership provides descriptions of more than 250,000 trails. Virtually every trail we hiked this year was listed on AllTrails, where you can find maps and directions, read other hikers’ reviews and track your own progress.

The majority of our hikes were less than two hours from home, but we did include hiking while on vacation. While visiting friends in Oregon, we logged our longest hike to date. It also happened to have both the highest elevation and the most elevation gain (7 miles total, from 5,000 to 7,000 feet.) You better believe we rewarded ourselves with lunch and a couple of Oregon craft beers after that one.

Lollipops and loops

The Oregon hike was on a “lollipop” loop, a term that means you hike out a ways, then begin a loop that will bring you back to the out-and-back portion, or the “stick” of the lollipop. In addition to lollipop trails, we became familiar with other trail shapes — out-and-back, loop and point-to-point. These are exactly as they sound but you should be familiar with the terms before getting started, as well as basic information about where you are going and what you should bring (definitely water and snacks, for starters).

Here are some of our favorites from this past year.

Trail Through Time

The signature double arch on the Trail Through Time at Pickle Springs Natural Area is a favorite of photographers.

Favorite trail in Missouri

For me, it’s a tie between the Trail Through Time at Pickle Springs Natural Area in Ste. Genevieve County, and Hughes Mountain Natural Area in Washington County.

The nearly 2-mile loop trail at Pickle Springs, though popular and often busy, is a wondrous example of Missouri geology with fantastic rock outcroppings, including a double arch, plus box canyons and waterfalls. Hughes Mountain is another geologic wonder — a large igneous knob that provides an impressive view of the surrounding countryside in all seasons. Though the trail is less than 2 miles out and back, it’s a bit steep but well worth the effort to reach the otherworldly rock formation known as Devil’s Honeycomb at the highest point.

Salt Lick Trail

The view from the bluffs on the Salt Lick Trail near Valmeyer shows the Mississippi River floodplains.

Favorite trail in Illinois

Near Valmeyer, in Monroe County, is Salt Lick Point Trail, which is definitely a challenge right off the bat. The loop trail, traveling counterclockwise, quickly ascends to the top of the bluffs overlooking the flood plain of the Mississippi River, with a distant view of the St. Louis skyline. But what goes up usually comes back down, and that is the case here. The descent was tough on my knees, but the trail finishes along the base of the bluffs, where huge boulders appear to have been strewn about haphazardly.

This year we have vowed to go farther south in Illinois to the Shawnee National Forest to check out hikes such as the Little Grand Canyon Trail, near Pomona. This 3.4 mile trail, which AllTrails users warned could be tricky in wet weather, had been on our schedule for 2021 but was canceled due to rain.

Hickory Canyons

Timing a trip to Hickory Canyons Natural Area in February netted this fantastic sight of a frozen waterfall.

Favorite winter hike

Among our hikes were several in extreme cold and snow that made some friends worry about our sanity. But think of it this way: as long as you are dressed properly, cold weather means no bugs, snakes or sweat. Plus the potential to see pristine snow-covered landscapes, ice-glazed trees, dripping icicles and frozen waterfalls.

That is just what we saw at Hickory Canyons Natural Area, northeast of Farmington. A snowy, quarter-mile out-and-back trail led us to an absurdly beautiful frozen waterfall where a climber was working his way up using ice axes and crampons. With the trail covered by snow, we wandered up the creek farther and found additional frozen waterfalls. Across the road, a 1-mile loop trail crosses a creek and leads past more cliffs and canyons.

Castor River Shut-Ins

The Castor River flows over pink granite boulders, creating cascades and natural pools. 

Favorite summer hike

On a hot day in July, there is no better place than the Castor River Shut-ins, part of the Amidon Memorial Conservation Area near Fredericktown. Think of it as a kinder, gentler Johnson’s Shut-Ins. Cool, clear water rushes over pink granite boulders, creating pools and cascades that feel heavenly when the summer sun is broiling. You can get there via a short, direct path, but we took the 1-mile loop that meanders through forest and glades — knocking down plenty of cobwebs along the way — to ensure we earned the reward of just sitting and soaking. We visited here mid-week when there were fewer visitors to compete for the natural pools.

Lower Rock Creek Trail

Lower Rock Creek Trail in the Mark Twain National Forest is remote but worth the effort.

More favorites along water

Also near Fredericktown is Lower Rock Creek Trail in the Mark Twain National Forest, probably the most remote trail we tackled in Missouri this year. We visited in early spring before the trees leafed out. A fairly level out-and-back — but unmarked — trail led us to remote, rugged Lower Rock Creek flowing cool and clear beneath towering bluffs. The trail from here is supposed to follow the creek farther upstream. We scrambled around as much as our knees and age would allow and even then, one of us wiped out on a slick rock. After that we were content just to sit with our snacks and enjoy the spectacular views before hiking the 1.5 miles back out. Be warned, just getting to the trailhead is an adventure. The one-lane dirt “road” leading there is one of the most rugged, rocky paths we’ve ever driven.

It’s hard not to give a shout out to nearby Millstream Gardens Conservation Area, which includes Tiemann Shut-ins on the St. Francis River. When we visited on a sunny, spring day the water was fast and wild and we watched several kayakers shooting the rapids. The hike from the parking area to the shut-ins is an easy, paved 1-mile path, but you can extend the distance by exploring up and down the river.

Mina Sauk Falls

Mina Sauk Falls at Taum Sauk State Park is the tallest waterfall in Missouri. 

Most strenuous

One of our more challenging hikes was Pickle Creek Trail in Hawn State Park. Combined with Whispering Pines Trail, this is a 2.5-mile loop hike that I would call rugged. It follows the lovely but rocky Pickle Creek and calls for strict attention to footing as you negotiate rocks, roots and downed vegetation. A late August hike here was humid and sweaty, so it was nice to take breaks creekside on shady, flat boulders.

The most strenuous hike we did in Missouri was Mina Sauk Falls Trail at Taum Sauk Mountain State Park, which includes the state’s highest point and its tallest waterfall. Ironically, it’s a cinch to get to the highest point — drive up the mountain, park your car and take a short stroll along a wheelchair-accessible trail to a plaque declaring the highest point in the state at 1,772 feet above sea level. Beyond, however, the 3-mile Mina Sauk Falls loop trail gets rough and rugged. When we visited in March, there was a lot of runoff from spring rains that made the trail even more treacherous. In some places we had to scramble over rocks on all fours, but the falls, which cascade 132 feet, and the long views of the St. Francois Mountains were stunning.

Young Conservation Area

Virginia bluebells are an early spring bloomer at the Young Conservation Area.

Favorite spring hike

The 2.5-mile Taconic Loop at Young Conservation Area in Jefferson County is a shady trail along LaBarque Creek where on Easter last year loads of spring wildflowers such as Virginia bluebells and Dutchman’s breeches were blooming and beavers had clearly been at work. I wish we had brought our lunch and a blanket because there were several appealing spots along the creek to stop and dip our toes. The trail crossed the creek several times and meandered up into a piney forest for a stretch. At one point, we crossed under a high, crackling power line, which was a bit disconcerting.

Don Robinson

The Sandstone Canyon Trail at Don Robinson State Park is a favorite for its cavelike canyon. 

Favorite fall hike

A perennial favorite for us and many others is the Sandstone Canyon Trail at Don Robinson State Park near Cedar Hill. Try to visit during the week to avoid crowds. This is a 3.9-mile loop trail, but we took the connector trail about halfway through to cut off about a mile. That was OK, because the main draw here is the canyon. Hikers can cross over a creek to visit the cave-like floor of the canyon, a real treat in wet weather. Our visit was just as fall colors were beginning to appear. From the parking lot, there is a view of wooded hillsides that was a mosaic of greens, reds, oranges, browns and yellows.

Henry Lay Center

A little-known gem is the Henry Lay Center near Louisiana, Mo. A 5-mile trail wanders through woods and around a lake, with stops at two dozen sculptures, such as the "Three Sisters."

Favorite hidden gem

St. Louis University’s Henry Lay Center for Education and Arts in Louisiana, Missouri, features a sculpture park, a kids’ story woods and a graveyard dating to the 1800s. A 5-mile gravel path leads through forest and meadow and around a large lake, with stops at some two dozen sculptures. Westward Journey, with life-sized bronze settlers, a wagon pulled by mules, and a wagon master on horseback was my favorite. Don’t miss the Three Sisters on an island in the lake, reached by a wooden bridge.

Beaver Falls

Beaver Falls at the Olin Nature Reserve in Godfrey, Ill., was just big enough for a person to walk under. 

Favorite new-to-us hike in St. Louis area

The 2.5-mile Beaver Falls loop at the Olin Nature Preserve in Godfrey takes hikers to the top of bluffs overlooking the Mississippi River and then down into a valley, where a small stream drops over a series of rocky ledges. The largest is called Beaver Falls and was just big enough for a person to walk under. It was flowing nicely when we were there, but I imagine it would be dramatic after a good rain. The well-marked trail included some steep ups and down but was not busy, though we did have to wait for a wild turkey to cross our path. A sign pointed out Hob Hollow, said to be a significant point on the Underground Railroad. The preserve is closed during the winter months, except for special events, to help protect its trails.

Bluff View Trail

Hikers on Bluff View Trail are treated to views of the Meramec River. 

Favorite critter sightings

I loved the bronze horses and dogs at the Lay Center, but two critter sightings in 2021 stand out: a lone elk just hanging out in the parking lot near Blue Spring on the Current River, and two albino deer running through the forest near Bluff View Trail in Wildwood. The latter trail begins at Bluff View Park but can also be accessed from the Al Foster Memorial Trail. From the overlook near the start of the trail, there are nice views of the Meramec River. Midway through our hike, we were surprised to catch sight of three deer — two of which were all white. The sighting was particularly surprising given the number of trail runners and cyclists using the trail.

For birding, we nearly always have luck at Shaw Nature Reserve in Gray Summit, no matter the season. There are so many trails winding through prairie, forest, wetlands and along the Meramec River that we went twice in 2021 and did not repeat any. The summer brought sightings of indigo buntings and summer tanagers and lots of wildflowers. According to the Great Missouri Birding Trail, Shaw’s diversity of native plants, plus ongoing habitat restoration, makes it one of the best native environments for birds in the area.

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