Discovering Forest Park’s Quietest Corners
More than 13 million visitors frolicked in Forest Park last year. Many came for a festival—the park hosts everything from outdoor movies and theater performances to food festivals and techno dance parties—or to take in an attraction such as the Saint Louis Zoo, Missouri History Museum, Saint Louis Science Center, The Muny, Steinberg Skating Rink, golf courses, sports fields and playgrounds.
But the main reason the park exists is to give urban and suburban residents a place to simply relax and enjoy nature. The park’s 1,300 acres include nearly 170 acres of nature preserves, laid out in a connected corridor to allow wildlife to flourish.
This sounds like a lot of land—and the park feels huge, especially to first-time visitors—but in reality, its attractions and natural features (including an old-growth forest habitat, restored woodlands, tall grass prairies and wetlands) are packed into a compact area. The paved perimeter trail is only six miles long.
Still, there are plenty of opportunities to explore and seek adventure. Guided: St. Louis took its own voyage of discovery with Forest Park Forever, the nonprofit conservancy that handles day-to-day management of the nature reserve and partners with park’s other managers from the City of St. Louis and Missouri Department of Conservation. We explored the park’s quietest corners and best-kept secrets—and came away with these six favorites.
But first, a couple of travel tips for new visitors, especially those heading out on foot or by bike: Orient yourself ahead of time with the detailed, color-coded online map. After all, there are 30 miles of paths crisscrossing the park, with more added all the time—including several this fall when the Central Fields reopen after renovations. For specific coordinates to help you decide where you want to go (or to figure out where you are in real time), use the GPS-enabled trail map at forestparkmap.org.
1. Successional Forest
You have probably driven past this 20-acre woodland that fills the valley between Carr Lane Drive and McKinley Drive, just west of the Jewel Box. For 30 years, it’s been left to evolve in a way similar to the natural process of ecological succession, making it an important area for the forest stand improvement projects led by Forest Park Forever and its ecologists.
During the summer, the Successional Forest’s bottomlands fill with native plants, flowers and birds—but relatively few visitors, in spite of its central location.
The park’s Nature Reserve Team, which boasts two full-time foresters, and its 30 horticulturalists (including seasonal employees) get help each year from nearly 2,000 volunteers. Among their duties: Keeping a close watch on restored areas such as the forests and waterways to ensure that invasive species don’t gain a bigger foothold.
2. Picnic Island
Judging by the demand for rental kayaks, canoes and stand-up paddleboards, the park’s waterways—such as the one shown on the cover of Guided: DeMun + Forest Park—grow more popular every year. One of the favorite stops is Picnic Island (not to be confused with nearby Wildlife Island, which is a refuge for birds).
If you’re approaching Picnic Island by land from Langenberg Field, the suspension bridge is a picturesque entrance point, with Art Hill in the background and a rich array of seasonal foliage on all sides.
3. The Riffles
One of Forest Park’s most kid-friendly natural features is the area just north of the Lower Muny Parking Lot, known as The Riffles. By definition, riffles are “rocky or shallow parts of a stream or river with rough water”—which might be a little exaggerated in this case, since the ripple effect is very gentle and the rocks were clearly placed by man, not Mother Nature. But that doesn’t make this peaceful area any less charming for a lengthy, lazy visit.
As a side note, Forest Park’s original water feature, River Des Peres, was channeled into massive underground culverts below the city around the time of the 1904 World’s Fair. While the river is not going to be unearthed, above-ground aquatic improvements that mimic its original path are ongoing. Over the next 20 years, the Forest Park East Waterways Project will completely link the park’s waterway system, enhance habitats, increase biodiversity and provide additional recreational opportunities.
4. Kennedy Forest
Historically, Missouri’s forests were dominated by oak trees, which benefited from the fires that periodically swept through. This spring, for the first time ever, the Forest Park Forever crew was able to use controlled burns to maintain the ecological balance within Kennedy Forest. It was a notable moment for the park’s oldest section.
Dedicated in 1964 as the John F. Kennedy Memorial Forest, the 60-acre chunk of land in the park’s southwest corner is a prime location for viewing more than 100 species of migratory birds, along with several frog species that thrive in the fish-free wetlands that dot the forest. (Birdwatchers who tune in to National Geographic’s podcasts may soon catch an interview with a Forest Park Forever employee, taped earlier this summer.)
Kennedy Forest is so beloved that it even has its own cheering section, the Kennedy Woods Advisory Group. Each fall for 20 years, it has coordinated an invasive species removal day and recruited hundreds of volunteers to help. The group also led efforts to restore the eight-acre native plant savanna within the forest.
5. Prairie Boardwalks
A few hundred yards north of Steinberg Skating Rink, the landscape opens into a nine-acre restored prairie habitat, replacing what used to be a mowed field and parking lot. This is one of the prime areas for viewing wildlife, from monarch butterflies to turtles, bats, purple martins and mink. Like Kennedy Forest, the prairie also benefits from controlled burns to ensure that its biodiversity flourishes.
6. Victorian Footbridge
When it was built in 1885, this bridge became the main entry point for pedestrians, whether they were neighbors from the Central West End or tourists arriving at a nearby streetcar stop. A recent restoration has renewed its elegance and Instagramability, making it a popular place for photos. It’s located in the park’s northeastern corner, near other historic attractions such as the fountain installed in Round Lake in 1916.
Looking to ditch your car during your visit to Forest Park? Through Sept. 2, visitors can ride the Forest Park Explorer throughout the park for just $2 per adult or $1 for children, seniors and those with disabilities. Rides are free on Saturdays and Sundays. The buses run only in the summer, but bike and scooter rentals are available year-round. Find out more at the Dennis & Judith Jones Visitor and Education Center.
Images courtesy of Lisa Cichon.