JEFFERSON CITY — After heavy flooding in 2019, visitation to Missouri state parks rebounded last year as scores of people isolating during the pandemic sought the great outdoors.
Visitation last year rose to 21.1 million, according to state figures published Friday.
That’s the second-highest number recorded in the past 20 years, state records show. In 2017, an estimated 21.6 million people visited Missouri parks.
With many other activities nixed because of public health orders, visiting state parks became a popular option last year, said Mike Sutherland, director of the division.
“Especially in the spring and mid-summer, folks didn’t have a lot of other activities to do and so they wanted to get outside, wanted to do some activities where they could social distance in a responsible way,” he said.
“We saw a lot of new visitors coming to Missouri state parks, along with traditional visitors who have come in the past,” Sutherland said. “Those two things combined really led to high visitation (last year).”
Some parks on the outskirts of metropolitan areas were among the hottest destinations, Sutherland said.
For instance, at Castlewood State Park, in west St. Louis County, there were 781,767 visitors last year, up from 593,212 in 2019, when a bloated Meramec River led to a decline in visitation.
Visitation at Castlewood last year was the highest recorded since 2016, when there were 796,000 visitors.
At Don Robinson State Park in Jefferson County, a more recent addition to the state’s park system, there were an estimated 113,806 visitors last year, up from 77,500 the year before.
“They didn’t ever have to worry about the parking lot being full before, and this year it was full frequently,” Sutherland said.
Visitation to Rock Bridge State Park, on the southern edge of Columbia, ballooned to 709,000, up 40% from 2018, when the park logged nearly 507,000 visits.
Indoor attractions in the capital city, meanwhile, suffered amid the pandemic.
Visitation to the Missouri State Museum in the Capitol fell 67% in one year, to just 108,000 visitors.
Visitation to the Governor’s Mansion, closed to visitors for much of the year, took a nosedive, dropping 85% from 2019, with just 3,800 visitors last year.
Because admission to Missouri State Parks is free, total visitation to the state’s parks is only an estimate.
In 2019, park visits dropped to an estimated 18.5 million — the first time since 2015 that annual visitation fell below 20 million. But heavy flooding that year, which closed numerous parks and portions of the Katy Trail, was a factor in the decrease.
Jack Suntrup • 573-556-6186 @JackSuntrup on Twitter email@example.com
Don Robinson State Park
Length • 3.9 miles (Sandstone Canyon Trail)
More info • mostateparks.com/park/don-robinson-state-park
Overview • Nestled in the upper LaBarque Creek watershed in Jefferson County, this popular park features sandstone box canyons, shelter caves, cliffs, glades and upland and bottomland forests.
Diane Williams, 65, of Chesterfield, said the stunning trails in the park never disappoint. There is a loop around the lip of a canyon and a trail that goes down into the canyon. "It's almost like a worshipful experience," she said.
Pickle Springs Natural Area
Length • 2-mile loop
Overview • This may be the trail with the most bang for its buck. Within its 2 miles, located near Ste. Genevieve, Missouri, hikers will encounter scenic hills and hollows, rock formations, overlooks, a canyon and a spring.
Jacqueline Bettale, 59, of St. Louis, said she has seen incredible ice formations and icicles this time of year. One of the most popular trails in the state, it is far less crowded in the winter, she said.
Hawn State Park
Length • 6.3 miles (Whispering Pines short loop)
More info • mostateparks.com/park/hawn-state-park
Overview • Nature enthusiasts frequently cite this state park as one of the best among many gems in the state. Even the Missouri State Parks site describes it as one of the most significant and scenic landscapes in Missouri with hills of stately pine and oak trees, sandy-bottom streams and sandstone canyons and cliffs.
Dan Zarlenga, spokesman for the Missouri Department of Conservation, says the variety of the terrain, with many different trees, streams and scenic views makes it a must-see.
Length • 2.9 miles (Lime Kiln Trail)
Overview • Among the forested hills of this park near Glencoe, hikers will also encounter steep-sided hollows, a historic mine and quarry sites, a spring and a bubbling creek, which may be frozen in the winter.
Emma Klues, vice president of communications and outreach at Great River Greenway, hiked here when there was a blanket of ice and snow over it. "It felt like a totally different world." The densely packed woods felt completely immersive, she said.
Hickory Canyons Natural Area
Length • 1.5-mile loop, split by a road
Overview • Near Hawn State Park, these secluded box canyons offer views of sandstone rock bluffs and cascading streams.
Zarlenga says he has admired the dramatic frozen icicles in the winter. If you visit soon after a big rain, the stream flowing over high ledges turns into a real waterfall, he said.
Lone Elk Park
Length • 3-mile loop (White Buffalo Trail)
Overview • This county park in Valley Park is home to bison, wild turkey, waterfowl, elk and deer. This popular trail offers frequent sightings of the wildlife. (Note: Dogs are not allowed in this park.)
Whitney Wood, 36, of Troy, Missouri, says she will hike with her 5-year-old daughter here and make a game out of looking for "surprises." She will create a scavenger hunt for her daughter to spot leaves, twigs, an acorn or animals like, goose, deer or an elk.
Pere Marquette State Park
Length • 9 miles on 10 separate trails
Overview • The confluence of the Illinois and Mississippi rivers is best viewed from this park's vistas. The drive on Illinois' Great River Road, with bluffs on one side and the mighty Mississippi on the other only enhances the experience.
Norma Klingsick, copy editor at the Post-Dispatch and veteran hiker, said the views here are less obstructed during the winter. On clear days you can see for miles. Plus, there's the added possibility of seeing soaring eagles during the winter.
Graham Cave State Park
Length • 2.5 miles (Indian Glade and Graham Cave loop)
More info • mostateparks.com/park/graham-cave-state-park
Overview • Fewer people visit this scenic state park in Danville, Missouri, which offers different trails featuring sandstone ledges, a waterfall, river banks, bottomland forest and the entrance of Graham Cave.
Miranda Fredrick, spokeswoman for Missouri State Parks, includes this park among her recommendations for winter hiking destinations. There is a range of natural features to view, and it offers trails accessible for multiple skill levels.
Fults Hill Prairie Nature Preserve
Length • 1.6-mile loop
More info • fults-nature-preserve.edan.io/
Overview • A hillside prairie offers bluff views of the Mississippi River Valley, 25 miles south of Columbia, Illinois.
Sara Lesire, 38, writes a blog in St. Clair County on which she posted a list of her favorite winter hikes. This is one of her favorites. The trail can get overgrown in the summer and more difficult to climb when it's hot. When you climb onto the bluff, there's an expansive view of the river and flood plain.
Cuivre River State Park
Length • 3.4 miles (Lincoln Lakeside Trail)
More info • mostateparks.com/park/cuivre-river-state-park
Overview • This park in Troy, Missouri, is one of the largest and most rugged in the state with 14 different hiking trails. This trail follows the entire lake shoreline. There are a few muddy and slippery spots, where a hiking stick or trekking pole may be useful.
Fredrick, with Missouri State Parks, appreciates its proximity to metro St. Louis, while offering an escape into the wilderness.
Length • 5 miles
More info • sccmo.org/690/Klondike-Park
Overview • Built on an old quarry site near Augusta in St. Charles County, the white silica sand around the lake creates the look of winter year round. The Hogsback Trail goes up to the bluffs and offers a scenic view of the river when the leaves have fallen off the trees.
Sarah Collins Hill, 43, of Manchester, said one of her family's favorite winter memories is walking the trail when the lake was frozen. "My kids discovered that when they threw the white silica rocks into the ice, they broke apart and made a high-pitched twanging sound. It reverberated almost like a steel drum. They were entertained for hours."
Castor River Shut-Ins
Length • .73 mile
Overview • This park in Fredericktown offers Missouri’s only known pink granite shut-ins, part of an igneous rock formation that is 1.5 billion years old. "Shut-ins" occur where a broader stream is shut in to a narrow canyon-like valley, according to the Department of Conservation.
Whitney Wood, 36, of Troy, Missouri, said pictures of this area do not do it justice. She was amazed by its beauty when she visited in the fall and is looking forward to seeing how the landscape changes after a snowfall or freeze.
Castlewood State Park
Length • 3-mile loop (River Scene Trail)
More info • mostateparks.com/park/castlewood-state-park
Overview • The most arduous part of this trail climbs up a steep incline to a series of bluffs overlooking the Meramec River. Hikers will take a long wooden staircase down to the valley below. The most relaxing part of the trail is alongside the river and the bottomland surrounding it.
Diane Williams, 65, of Chesterfield says the river here is more beautiful in the winter than the summer. It takes on more green and bluish hues rather than the brownish color when it runs muddy the rest of the year. The red of the clay in the bluffs also looks more vivid in the winter, she said.
Length • 3.9 miles
Overview • A hidden gem winds through old town Florissant down to the banks of the Missouri River. The entire route is paved, making it a good option for those looking for an easier and accessible hike.
Emma Klues, vice president of communications and outreach at Great River Greenway, says visitors can see into St. Charles from the lookout points by the river. "This major watershed in North America is awe-inspiring," she said.
TIPS TO PREPARE FOR WINTER HIKING
Charge your cellphone
Cold temperature drains batteries faster. Keep the phone near your body for additional warmth. Be smart about battery usage by dimming your screen, turning off push notification and using low power mode.
Share your location and timings
If you plan to hike alone, let a family member or trusted friend know where you will be going and the window of time you expect to return.
Take a map
Download or print out a map of the trail and park you plan to visit. The Missouri State Parks site offers maps of the trails in state parks. Make sure your hiking app is updated (AllTrails is a good one) and you have a reliable GPS. Paper maps are vital in areas with weak or no cell signal.
Layers are critical in the winter. Begin with a base layer that wicks sweat away from your body, a middle layer to keep heat in and an outer layer to protect against wind and rain. You should be able to adjust and remove layers to avoid getting too sweaty or cold. Don't forget a warm hat, gloves and a neck gaiter. Avoid cotton when hiking in the winter.
Wear the right shoes and socks
Invest in quality socks, such as wool hiking socks. Try on different brands of hiking boots to find the right fit and grip. Some trail conditions may require ice cleats, snow grips or snowshoes. Common injuries are from slipping and falling.
Pack a backpack
You can buy mini, pre-packaged kits with the essentials, such as first-aid supplies. It's also handy to have a place for water, snacks and a multipurpose tool or knife.
It's normal to feel less thirsty in cooler temperature, but hydration is just as important as in the summer. Carry water depending on your distance and location and use an insulated container to prevent it from freezing.
Plan your time conservatively
Remember the days are shorter, and it begins to get dark earlier in the winter. Build in extra time in case you get lost or make more frequent stops, so you can still return before dark.
Try out trekking poles
Using one or two trekking poles can help maintain balance and stability while hiking. A pole can also help gauge the depth of a water crossing is or the thickness of the ice on a frozen stream.
Check the forecast
Before heading out, check the forecast for your intended destination for the duration of time you plan to be there. Trail conditions will change as ice or snow melts later in the day.
Watch out for trees
Towering, snow-covered trees are magnificent to behold, but be careful around trees loaded with ice or snow. Loose or broken limbs can fall and injure or even kill hikers. Take a minute to look up when you stop to catch a view. Also be wary of standing near large icicles, which may be melting and at risk for falling.
Think about the ride back
If you want to avoid tracking mud into your car after a hike, bring a change of shoes or lay down disposable bags. If you are hiking with a dog, you may want to bring an extra towel for your pet.
It's useful to keep extra snacks on hand that won’t freeze easily, such as nuts or chocolate.
Use the bathroom before heading out
Check in advance if restrooms are open and available in the park you are visiting.
Use sun protection
Don’t forget to apply sunscreen before heading out, even when it is overcast. Sun protection is required year-round when spending any time outdoors.
It can be difficult to regulate body temperature when hiking in the cold. If your layers are too heavy while walking, you may start sweating, which can freeze and make you even colder. Consider saving warmer layers for when you stop to rest, enjoy a view or take a picture.
Know the signs of hypothermia
If you or a hiking buddy start shivering or getting confused or forgetful, get to shelter or warm up immediately. Hypothermia can quickly become dangerous.
Keep a light source
Have a small flashlight in your backpack in case your hike ends up longer than planned or you get turned around. If you plan to hike at night, it may be worthwhile to get a headlamp to keep your hands free.
Have a mask handy
Even a disposable mask can keep your nose and face warm. It can be easily pulled down or up if passing people on a narrow path.
If your nose runs in the cold regardless of how much you bundle up, pack some tissues. Or if your lips dry out quickly, carry a lip balm.