St. Louis has plenty of urban amenities, but sometimes it's nice to get outside the city and enjoy nature. State parks near St. Louis offer a wide variety of landscapes, scenery, and activities to meet all of your outdoor needs. So the next time you're looking for a fun way to spend the day, consider making a trip to one of these great parks.
Johnson's Shut-Ins State Park is one of Missouri's most popular and unique outdoor destinations. Most visitors come to swim and climb in the namesake shut-ins along the Black River. The creation of the shut-ins began more than a billion years ago with strong volcanic eruptions. Today, that cooled volcanic rock protrudes from river bed creating an area with hundreds of waterfalls, chutes and deep pools for swimming. The volcanic rocks are smooth and slippery, so water shoes are a must for safe climbing. For those who prefer to see the beauty of the shut-ins but not swim, there is a walkway to an observation area above the river.
Johnson's Shut-Ins State Park also offers overnight camping for both tents and RVs, picnic areas for day visitors, and a three-mile hiking trail. There is also a visitors center and a general store. The main gates to the park open daily at 8 a.m. On the busiest days (weekends in the summer) the park can reach its capacity and there will be a line to get in. It's best to arrive early to ensure you get a spot.
Johnson's Shut-Ins State Park is located along Highway N near Lesterville, Missouri. It's about a two-hour drive from downtown St. Louis.
Pere Marquette State Park is an 8,000-acre nature area near the confluence of the Mississippi and Illinois Rivers. The park is a popular option any time of the year with a variety of activities to fit the season. In spring and summer, Pere Marquette is a top destination for hiking, biking, and horseback riding. There are about 12 miles of hiking trails and 20 miles of equestrian and biking trails. Fishing and picnicking are also popular warm-weather options. In fall, the park is a great starting point to see the changing leaves along the Great River Road. And in the winter, visitors flock to the park to see the thousands of bald eagles that migrate to the area.
If you're planning a weekend or overnight stay, the Pere Marquette Lodge has top-quality accommodations inside the park. The lodge has 72 guest rooms available in its main building and in smaller private cabins. The main lodge also has a restaurant, winery, conference center, gift shop, indoor pool and exercise room.
Pere Marquette State Park is located along Highway 100 near Grafton, Illinois. It's about a one hour drive from downtown St. Louis.
The miles of trails are the top draw at Castlewood State Park along the Meramec River in St. Louis County. The nearly 2,000-acre park has eight trails for hikers, mountain bikers and horseback riders. For the best views, take the River Scene Trail to the top of the limestone bluffs and see a panoramic view of the Meramec River valley 250 feet below. The trail does have a steep climb at the beginning but is doable for almost everyone. Parents will want to keep a close eye on their children during the one mile stretch at the top of the bluffs.
Castlewood State Park also has a large playground for children and 50 picnic sites with tables and charcoal grills. There are no designated swimming areas in the park, but there is an access ramp for small boats, canoes, and kayaks. Fishing is another popular activity with bass, bluegill, and catfish among the top catches.
Castlewood State Park is located off of Reis Road in Ballwin, Missouri. It's about a 40-minute drive from downtown St. Louis.
One visit to Onondaga Cave State Park in Crawford County and it's easy to see why Missouri is known as the Cave State. Missouri has more than 5,500 underground caves created millions of years ago by volcanoes, rushing water and sediment deposits. The park offers two guided tours to see the beauty of the stalactites, stalagmites, and flowstones that cover the caves. The Onondaga Cave tour lasts a little more than an hour. It follows a one-mile lighted pathway through the natural beauty of the cave. The Cathedral Cave tour is a lantern tour that lasts about two hours. The tour starts with a 30-minute walk to the cave's entrance.
Not all of the fun at Onondaga Cave State Park is inside the caves. There is also the 200-acre Vilander Bluff Natural Area. It has a campground for tents and RVs, picnic areas along the Meramec River and more than six miles of hiking trails with great views of the river valley.
Onondaga State Park is located along Highway H near Leasburg, Missouri. It's about a one hour and 20-minute drive from downtown St. Louis.
Mastodon State Historic Site in Jefferson County offers a history lesson with your outdoor adventure. The 431-acre park is known for its fossils of mastodons and other ice age animals that lived more than 10,000 years ago. The fossils were discovered in the 1800s and excavations have been underway ever since. Visitors can hike the half-mile Wildflower Trail to the area where most of the bones have been discovered. The park also has two other hiking trails. The Spring Branch Trail is an easy walk through the bottomlands. The trail is just less than a mile long and has a packed gravel surface that can accommodate strollers and wheelchairs. For more experienced hikers, there's the two-mile Limestone Hill Trail. It covers steep grades and rough terrain along bluffs and through woodlands.
Visitors to the park can also take in the Mastodon Museum to learn more about the history of the area. The museum has a full-size replica of a mastodon skeleton and other exhibits about the animals and Native Americans that lived near the site. The museum is open on weekends in the winter and daily the rest of the year.
Mastodon State Historic Site is located off Interstate 55 in Imperial, Missouri. It's about a 30-minute drive from downtown St. Louis.
You don't have to be interested in archeology to enjoy a day at Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site. The park has more than 100 earthen mounds spread out over 2,200 acres. The mounds were created by the prehistoric Mississippian people who built their ancient city in the area more than a thousand years ago. Today, the remains of this Native American civilization are considered so significant that the United Nations named the area a World Heritage Site. Visitors can walk the trails between the mounds on either guided or self-guided tours. Many visitors also like to hike to the top of Monks Mound. It's the largest mound on the site and offers great views of the Mississippi River Valley and the St. Louis skyline in the distance.
To learn more about Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site, make a stop at the Interpretive Center. The center has a life-size recreation of a Mississippian village. It shows how ancient residents built their homes, cooked their food and cared for their children. The center also has a gift shop and snack bar. The outdoor grounds are open daily at 8 a.m. The Interpretive Center is open Wednesday through Sunday at 9 a.m.
Cahokia Mounds is located along Ramey Drive near Collinsville, Illinois. It's about a 20-minute drive from downtown St. Louis.
Elephant Rocks State Park gets its name from the giant elephant-shaped boulders found on the site. The large pink-hued rocks are made from cooled red granite and formed more than a billion years ago. The rocks sit end-to-end in a similar formation to a train of circus elephants. Visitors can climb on and through most of the rock formations which come in all shapes and sizes. The largest of the boulders is 27 feet tall and 35 feet wide.
For those who wish to see the rocks from more of a distance, there is a one-mile paved trail for easy viewing of these impressive geological features. The park also has a playground and a number of picnic tables scattered among the giant rocks. There is currently no overnight camping allowed at the park.
Elephant Rocks State Park is located along Highway 21 near Ironton, Missouri. It's about a one hour and 30-minute drive from downtown St. Louis.
It's officially known as Edward 'Ted' and Pat Jones-Confluence Point State Park. But whatever you want to call it, this park has something you won't find anywhere else. It is the meeting point of North America's two biggest rivers. Follow the trail through the park to see the point where the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers merge together. The park has several outdoor exhibits that share the history of the rivers and their important role in the Lewis and Clark Expedition and westward expansion. The park is also part of a larger wildlife preservation area and is a great location for bird watching. Keep in mind, the park is located in the middle of a floodplain, so check the Missouri State Parks website for current conditions and closures due to flooding.
Confluence Point State Park is located off Highway 67 near West Alton, Missouri. It's about a one hour drive from downtown St. Louis.