With eight primitive campsites and plenty to explore in between, the aptly named Wilderness Trail in Meramec State Park is one of the best backpacking hikes in the state park system.
I headed out on the trail early one weekday in late fall when the last autumn colors were still hanging around. The hike ended six hours later after a long day full of caves, springs, sinkholes, woodlands, glades and river bluffs. Saw nary a soul along the way.
If I do it again, I’ll take more time to poke around and spend a night in the woods.
America’s State Parks is promoting First Day Hikes in 2015, challenging all to start the year healthy with a day on a trail. Missouri State Parks is taking part in the promotion again, and has earned the title of the “best trails state” with its bounty of nearly 1,000 miles of managed trails.
Meramec State Park, for example, has seven trails from which to choose. The Wilderness Trail is the longest at 8.5 miles, with the other six all less than 1.5 miles.
Bill Bryan, director of Missouri State Parks, said 570 Missourians participated last year for a total of 1,537 miles on park trails.
“We’re hoping to see even better participation this year as more people embrace the tradition of joining us for a First Day Hike,” he said.
The state parks participating in the First Day Hikes program with guided walks on Jan. 1 will list the trails and starting times on mostateparks.com.
BLAZING A NEW TRAIL
The first frost of fall is like a starting gun, signaling that pesky insects are gone. I was looking for a challenging hike that would blaze new trails.
Three of the best long hikes in Missouri are the Whispering Pine Trail at Hawn State Park, the Mudlick Trail at Sam A. Baker State Park and the 14.5-mile section of the Ozark Trail between Taum Sauk Mountain and Johnson’s Shut-Ins state parks.
The Wilderness Trail at Meramec State Park was new turf, and promised all the geologic treats found in the swiss-cheese karst topography of the Ozarks.
The 6,896-acre state park sits on the Meramec River and has more than 40 caves, including the spectacular Fisher Cave, which is open for public tours in season. The caves are home to hibernating bats, and are temporarily closed in the winter to prevent disturbance.
Because it is long and covers some rugged terrain, most hikers on the Wilderness Trail are backpackers who spend a night or two in the woods. Only experienced hikers should attempt to do it in one day. In the shortened daylight of winter, get an early start.
A REMOTE AREA OF THE PARK
Wilderness Trail is divided into two loops, with a connector in between.
“What’s nice is it has that little bi-cut that allows you to just do one loop as a day hike,” said Brian Wilcox, the park naturalist. “We do have people go out and do the whole thing in a day for a little eco-challenge.
“The trail is in the northern edge of the park, remotely away from the main hub of the park. People driving through the park, or taking a quick hike, you don’t have it up there in that area.”
Wilcox noted that two primitive campsites, equipped with fire rings, are located near the start so backpackers can arrive Friday afternoon and have a short hike in to set up camp for the night.
REVIVED BY FIRE
With a trailhead behind the park’s lower cabins, the trail started with a registration box to leave information letting others know where you are going, and when you expect to be back. Don’t count on cellphone service in the woods.
Within minutes, I was out of sight of civilization and following a small creek that held pools of water. Surprisingly, small fish huddled in the bottom of some. It was a bright, breezy day and the last leaves falling in the quiet of the woods sounded like a light rain hitting the forest floor.
Scarlet red sumac filled the understory beneath a canopy of mature trees. Purple asters and goldenrod were still blooming, and the pawpaw leaves were a brilliant yellow.
Wilcox, the naturalist, said the woodlands were kept open by a regimen of prescribed burns that mimicked the natural history of lightning fires and burns set by American Indians.
“It was put to flame by American Indians to bring in wildlife,” Wilcox said. “That helps to open up the understory, which allows sunlight to stimulate grasses and wildflowers.
“In turn, insects, ground-nesting birds and reptiles flourish, and they bring the predators like turkeys and bobcats and mountain lions and bears.”
The only wildlife at home today was squirrels, deer and birds, including noisy pileated woodpeckers drumming on snags. Christmas ferns, so-called because they will still be green when Santa comes, stood out in the brown of the leaf litter.
AN ASSEMBLAGE OF ORCHIDS
A sign along the north loop of the trail said it was entering the Meramec Upland Forest Natural Area, the most rugged and remote part of the park. The forest was rich with majestic trees, including oaks, hickories and sycamores.
“It’s a classic natural area, with a low impact from humans,” Wilcox said. “We find a good assemblage of orchids – seven to nine species. Yellow lady slipper’s orchids are tremendous throughout the area.”
A highlight was Copper Hollow, a hidden valley that featured a spring flowing from a cave at the base of a gray dolomite bluff. The clear, cold trickle through a stream bed of mosses and watercress offered the only reliable source of water along the trail, although it should be treated before drinking.
“The cave terminates at the back end with a spring pool,” Wilcox said. “You look into this crystal blue-green water that goes down, down, down.”
The cave is among those closed in the winter, and camping is prohibited in its arch-like entrance.
Copper Hollow was home to a small community in the 1850s, although the log buildings have long since disappeared.
“There was a copper mine up there just above Campsite No. 5,” Wilcox said. “They had a small stone furnace by the spring for melting the copper. You can see the slag – the waste material – spread throughout the valley.”
THE SPRING WARMUP
Climbing out of the valley, a peek through the leafless trees at the highest vantage point revealed the Meramec River sparkling far below.
The trail entered an impressive glade that wrapped around the top of the solar-heated, southwest-facing hillside. In the slanting rays of the afternoon sun, tall prairie grasses glowed russet amid a scattering of bleached boulders.
“That’s Cane Hollow Glade, it’s close to five acres,” Wilcox said. “We make sure the prescribed fires crawl into those areas. It allows the blackened soil to warm up naturally in the spring for the first wildflowers.
“You’ll get Indian paintbrush, Jacob’s ladder, Dutchman’s breeches, lots of violets. In June, you’ll get the coneflowers. And, of course, you’ll get butterflies and bees and other insects, followed by the birds.”
Sounded like an excellent reason for a return visit to the Wilderness Trail this spring. Next time I’ll bring a bedroll.
For more information, log onto mostateparks.com.
Missouri State Parks