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Enjoying the fall on foot

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Oct. 28, 2010 - For me, one of the best ways to enjoy the best of fall -- colorful leaves, crisp air, golden light -- is on foot. At that slower pace, you're less likely to miss that walking stick hiding on the side of the path or the sunlight dancing on the waters of a stream or the perfect red maple leaf floating to the ground.

We're lucky to have a number of parks in and out of the city where fall's showy display can be appreciated. Here are some favorites. Bring good walking shoes and a camera.

Elephant Rocks State Park

Trail: Elephant Rocks is hardly one of Missouri's secret gems. On the balmy October Sunday afternoon we visited, all the parking spaces and picnic tables were taken by the time we arrived at 1 p.m. Families, couples, church groups were everywhere to be seen.

The main trail is the one-mile, paved Braille Trail, which accommodates the blind, the disabled in motorized wheelchairs and just about anyone who wants a pleasant stroll in a beautiful environment. Markers, with Braille and raised lettering, point out nearby objects of interest.

The Braille Trail is the park's spine, from which other dirt paths jut off to allow more adventuresome exploration, into the woods and among the rocks. After all, you can hardly have a park studded with gigantic granite boulders and not expect kids -- or adult kid wannabes -- to climb on, around and through them.

The highlight, of course, are the Elephant Rocks, so called because the 1.5 billion year-old boulders resemble, if you squint, a chain of pinkish pachyderms. Wooden steps lead up to the top of the granite outcropping, making the Elephant Rocks area relatively accessible for most. Some braver, and surer-footed, visitors made their way from a close-by scenic overlook by climbing and jumping from rock to rock. The Elephant Rocks are impressive and dramatic -- as is the view -- and it's well worth it to sit back for a moment and enjoy the scene. If you look carefully, you'll see some 19th century grafitti, names and dates etched into the rock.

A deep quarry lake, complete with jutting rock overhangs, also makes a peacefull spot to stop and relax. The day we were there, the fall foliage was the most vivid in the trees around the quarry lake.

Finally, off the main trail is a 450-feet-long, level spur that heads to the ruins of an old engine house, built in the 1890s, where trains were repaired. You can still see the remains of train tracks in the ruin. (The trains were used to haul rock out of the quarry.)

Refueling: The early bird gets the worm, in this case, picnic tables. Some tables are nestled among the rocks. The attractive small town of Caledonia is at the juncture of 32 and 21. It has a "general store," with antiques, old-fashioned glass cannisters of penny candy and gourmet coffee. Next to it is a barbecue place and across the street is an ice cream parlor.

Getting there: Take Interstate 55 south to exit 174B and onto U.S. Hwy. 67 south. Continue to the Leadington Hills/Highway 32 exit. Stay on 32 until it deadends at Highway 21. Go south on Highway 21. The park entrance is on the left. The trip is between one and one half and two hours long.

Hours: 8 a.m.-8 p.m., April through October; 8 a.m.-5 p.m., November through March.

Admission: free

Hawn State Park

Trails: It's hard to miss the Overlook Trail (1/4 mile). It's right near the Hawn state park office. This short, interpretive trail makes a good introduction to the park; it has markers with information about the pine forests and sandstone formations. The path winds to an overlook of Pickle Creek valley, but really I didn't see much besides the trees.

The Pickle Creek Trail, which may just be the most scenic, starts just beyond the attractive picnic area and children's playground. The trail follows Pickle Creek for a mile: You can then turn back and retrace your steps or join the longer Whispering Pines.

A mile in, a mile out -- no sweat, I thought. Well, it's not difficult, but it's also not quite as easy as it may sound. Yes, the trail is basically level, with only minor elevation, as it basically follows the creek. But it is also quite rocky, and tree roots criss cross the trail. At points, where the creek has spilled over, it's muddy and slick. Of course, that didn't deter the kids who still ran, leapt and otherwise had an adventure.

Even with the kids, this trail felt so peaceful; Pickle Creek really did burble. And along the way, plenty of spots -- rocky outcroppings -- beckoned hikers to sit, listen to the babbling creek and watch the sun-dappled water or the granite boulders half hidden in shadow.

The 10-mile Whispering Pines trail is actually composed of two loops: the six-mile north loop and the four-mile south loop. While we didn't have time to do the whole thing, I did start off on the south loop, just to see what it's like.

Except for the steady upward incline, the trail is easier than the Pickle Creek. The path is wider, less rocky and without many of the tree roots that are so easy to stumble on. Befitting its name, soft pine needles littered the path. The trail was quiet, fewer folks were on it than Pickle Creek. It led up and along a ridge. Right now, the trees still had enough leaves to obscure what looked like spectacular views, but the hilly vistas must be wonderful in winter when you can see for miles.

Refueling: The picnic area is quite lovely and includes a pavilion and scattered picnic tables. But Hawn state park is also close to Ste. Genevieve and the wineries that make up the nearby Route du Vin.

Getting there: Interstate 55 south to Exit 150, Ste. Genevieve. Exit onto Highway 32 and go west 11 miles to Highway 144. Turn left onto 144 for 4 miles. From St. Louis, it's about a 90-minute drive. Highway 32 is a scenic, winding rural road.

Hours: 7:30 a.m. to 9 p.m., March 15 through Nov. 14; 7:30 a.m. to sunset, Nov. 15 through March 14.

Admission: Free

Shaw Nature Reserve

Trails: Shaw Nature Reserve has 14 miles of trails, many of which intersect and take visitors through contrasting environments. I like to start at the Bascom House, built in 1879, mostly because I enjoy wandering through the wild, colorful gardens adjacent to the house. (Non-hikers can sit in a rocking chair overlooking the gardens or check out the exhibit indoors.)

It's very easy to join the 3/4-mile Brush Creek trail from the wildflower garden. This trail winds through the tall prairie, golden in the fall, and past the Sod House, built by the nature reserve's staff, and a faux teepee. The path continues to the Maritz Trail House, a shelter with picnic tables, water and restrooms.

At the Maritz Trail House, hikers can head off in several directions. I frequently take the heavily wooded 3/4-mile Wildflower loop trail. One of its highlights is a boardwalk, which snakes through a neon-green swampy glade. No matter the time of year, I often see deer along this trail. Fortunately, they seem much more accustomed to seeing me -- or any human -- and just wander away.

From this trail, a spur connects hikers to the Goddard River Trail and ultimately to a gravel bar along the Meramec River. In summer, kids and adults wade in and cool off. In fall, though, it's enough to skim a few stones and turn around.

Refueling: The nature reserve has areas with picnic tables, but the picturesque town of Washington, on the Missouri River, is just a short drive away.

Getting there: Interstate 44 to exit 253 at Gray Summit. Turn left, crossing over the interstate. Turn right at the intersection (at the Phillips 66) and go 50 yards to the large iron gates on the left side of the road. Shaw Nature Reserve is about an hour's drive from St. Louis.

Hours: 7 a.m. to sunset year-round; the Visitor Center is open from 8 a.m to 4:30 p.m., weekdays and 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., weekends. The Nature Reserve is open every day, but the Visitor Center is closed on some major holidays.

Admission: Free to members of the Missouri Botanical Garden; $3, adults; $2, seniors; children under 12 free.

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