For nearly 100 years, Shaw Nature Reserve has provided a naturally beautiful and bountiful getaway in Gray Summit, Missouri. It was established in 1925 as Shaw Arboretum when the Missouri Botanical Garden purchased five farms outside of smoggy St. Louis as a refuge for its renown orchid collection, which was languishing in the coal-darkened climate.
The reserve’s role has evolved since its inception. Early on the garden harvested and sold timber and orchids to help offset operating costs. In the 1970s and 1980s, Shaw Arboretum focused on restoration ecology, native plant horticulture and conservation. In 2000, its name changed to Shaw Nature Reserve to more accurately reflect its function of inspiring responsible stewardship of the environment, educating visitors, and restoring and protecting natural habitats.
Today, the reserve spans 2,400 acres and offers outdoor enthusiasts a scenic escape from the city’s concrete jungle. A 14-mile trail system winding through the reserve is an inviting setting for hiking and exploring the extensive prairie, wetlands, glades and woodlands. The trails vary in surface and distance, from pavement to dirt and from less than 1 mile to a few miles.
Upon entering, stop at the visitor center and pick up a guide/trail map. This offers the easiest way see which habitat each trail traverses, points of interest and amenities throughout the reserve. You’ll also be able to see which trails you can connect to customize your experience. A total of 21 landmarks identified and described on the guide/trail map range from period houses to sheltered picnic areas with modern conveniences.
A short walk from visitor center brings you to the Nature Explore Classroom. Kids and kids-at-heart will enjoy learning through play on the natural and manmade creations. Journey into the Sense of Woodland toward Pinetum Lake and check out the Elf House and the fire tower lookout. To the east, the path connects to Wolf Run Trail, a 1-mile loop that ventures out to Wolf Lake.
About 1 mile south of the visitor center is Bascom House, built in 1879. Stop in to check out seasonal displays of what you can see in the rest of the reserve. This also makes a great entrance to the Whitmire Wildflower Garden, which showcases Missouri’s native plants and landscapes — rock, prairie, water and woodland. It’s a favorite spot of staff and visitors during the spring and will celebrate 25 years of existence in 2018 with live music every Saturday in June.
Adjacent to the Whitmire Wildflower Garden is the Brush Creek Trail. This 0.75-mile path acts as a north/south artery of the reserve’s trail network and connects the Bascom House to the Maritz Trail House. Branching off from Brush Creek Trail is Prairie Trail, which meanders 0.75 miles east through the prairie, past Pot Hole Lake and ends at the Henry Shaw Gardenway Bus Stop. This structure was built in 1939 and was moved to Shaw Nature Reserve in 2002. It serves as a trailhead for hikers venturing further east onto the gravel-topped prairie and wetland trails.
When you reach the Maritz Trail House, continue to the Wildflower Trail for a 0.75-mile loop that winds through woodlands that are home to a variety of spring wildflowers. You’ll also pass through Long Glade and traverse a bluff along the edge of the Meramec River flood plain. Another trail extending from the Maritz Trail House is the Goddard River Trail: a steep and rocky 2.5-mile loop through glades and forests toward a gravel bar on the Meramec.
Whichever trail (or trails) you choose to explore, be sure to stop and marvel at the wildflowers and native plants along the way. The reserve is truly a naturalist’s dream.
From downtown St. Louis, take Interstate 44 West to exit 253 in Gray Summit. Turn left at the exit, cross over I-44 and turn right onto Route 100. Shaw Nature Reserve is a quick left at Pinetum Loop Road.
If you’re coming from St. Charles, make your way to Interstate 270 South, merge onto I-44 West and then follow the above directions. Coming from Jefferson County? Take Interstate 55 North to I-44 West and follow the above directions.
Hours: Open seven days a week from 7 a.m. until sunset
Length: 14 miles total; individual trails of less than 1 mile to 2+ miles
Type: Directional and loops
Surface: Dirt, gravel and pavement
Best use: Hiking, running, walking, biking
Parking: Available at visitor center, Bascom House, Bus Stop, Maritz Trail House and dedicated spots along Pinetum Loop Road
Amenities: Parking, picnic areas, scenic overlooks, one-hour guided tour, classroom/conference facilities, restrooms and water
Author: Nick Brennan is a contributor to Terrain Magazine and a mountain bike geek.
Photos: Courtesy of Shaw Nature Reserve.