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Snowy Days a Prime Time for Hiking

December 8, 2011

It’s coming. In fact, it may be here by the time you read this.

Some folks treasure the start of trout season. For others, it may be baseball’s opening pitch in spring. For me, one of the grandest days of the year is when I awake to a blinding sun reflecting off the first snowfall of winter. Prime time for a hike.

I want mine to be the only human footprints in the forest, seen along with the tracks of deer and other local residents. I want to be out in it while the trees and shrubs are still stacked with fluffy snow that will soon scatter with the wind or melt in the warmth of the sun.

A powdery snow is best, although a little icing adds a sparkle to the landscape, like someone hung the branches with precious gems.

I usually go solo. Cajun, my dearly departed yellow Lab, used to be my preferred hiking partner. Once, he spotted a dozen turkeys that were moving black dots at the end of a long, open field. The snow was a foot deep, but he bounded through it like an antelope. The only sound was his wheezing breath as he chased the impossible dream of catching those birds.

Any path will do, as long as there is forest, maybe a little frozen water, and solitude.

Most state parks have hiking trails of varying lengths. In late fall, I discovered two new ones. The Chinquapin Trail at Big Sugar Creek State Park, in the far southwest corner of the state near Pineville, goes for 3.8 miles through open woodlands, following a dry creek lined with huge white slabs of rock (like a sculpture garden).

At Bothwell Lodge State Historic Site, near Sedalia, the Radiant Trail rambles for three miles through fields and forest along a bluff where John Homer Bothwell loved the view so much, he built a castle-like home.

You’ll need layers of clothing, waterproof boots and sunglasses. I pack a balaclava, a fleece hood that leaves only the eyes exposed, in case of nasty wind chills. I recently discovered the magic of chemical warming packets for your hands and feet. They’re cheap, most outdoor shops carry them, and they’ll keep you cozy for up to six hours in any weather.

Hiking in Missouri is best after the first freeze chills down the poison ivy and chases off the nuisance bugs. If I want a taste of the outdoors in summer, my exploring is done by kayak on the state’s bounty of beautiful streams.

Hikers enjoy a winter outing at Castlewood State Park.

Last winter, the first snow found me heading to Castlewood State Park along the Meramec River in west St. Louis County. I was late. Another set of footprints preceded me as I started out on the River Scene Trail.

The 3.25-mile trail offers the biggest bang for the buck in the St. Louis area. It follows the river, then climbs wood steps at the site of an old tourist resort to come back along bluffs that look down on the river valley. Both banks are parklands. The quiet of the sparkling scene was broken only by the horn of the occasional freight train chugging through.

Animal tracks criss-crossed an open field, where smaller critters burrowed beneath the snow, out of sight of the raptors and other hungry predators. Dozens of Canada geese gathered on a gravel bar across the river; the valley resonated with the honking of arriving and departing flights.

Ice had formed on the Meramec and chunks were carried downstream by the river’s flow. At a slight bend, the ice floes crashed together, creating a noisy jam.

The brilliant red of a male cardinal looked like a Christmas ornament in a snow-stacked shrub. A sweeping shadow in the snow belonged to a lone bald eagle that flew low overhead to check out the geese and other potential prey below.

On an overlook on the bluff, I was surprised when a large black dog wearing a red bandana bounded up. It was followed by a group of men whom I recognized as veteran hikers at Castlewood. They were using trekking poles to negotiate the rocky, snow-covered trail.

I stepped aside to let them pass. The last in the lineup said, “It’s beautiful up here, but cold.”

He was right on both counts.

With a little luck, the sun will do its job and the snow will not outlast its welcome, leaving a clean canvas for the next wintry adventure.

Written by Tom Uhlenbrock, Missouri Department of Natural Resources, Division of State Parks

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