“Wow, what a view!”
At some point, every outdoor enthusiast or lover of nature in general has uttered that phrase. Towering mountain tops, vast canyons, sprawling deserts, sunsets of a thousand colors spread over the sea — these are just a few of the places and moments worthy of such an exclamation.
While we might not have immediate access to any of those commonly cited “mega-views” here in the Midwest, the reality is there are spectacular sights to be seen and incredible vistas to be had right here in our backyard. Call them our Midwest mega-views, scenes completely unique to our region.
One just needs to know where to find them.
Lewis & Clark Trails (8.2 and 5.2 miles), Weldon Spring, Mo.
These popular hiking trails are widely known and well traversed for a reason — while great for hiking and trail-running, they also offer incomparable views over the Missouri River and the surrounding lowlands. The trails meander along karst limestone bluffs at the river’s edge, with several lookouts just steps off the trail. Take caution near the cliffs, as there are no guard rails or barricades. When the leaves are changing, the fall foliage is spectacular along these trails.
River Scene Trail Loop (3.2 miles), Ballwin, Mo.
Another well-known overlook trail is located in one of Missouri’s most popular state parks: Castlewood State Park in Ballwin. The River Scene Trail climbs along a ridge up to a series of bluffs and overlooks that provide great views of the meandering Meramec River. The trail is rugged along the ridge line, but the views are worth the climb, as platforms, park benches, and rocky outcroppings provide great places to take it all in. Eventually, the trail descends a wooden staircase and traces the river’s edge back to the start point.
Bell Mountain Loop (11.6 miles), Belleview, Mo.
About an hour and 45 minutes south of St. Louis along State Highway A, overlook seekers will find the Bell Mountain Wilderness. The 11.6-mile lollipop loop follows a section of the Ozark Trail before coming to a junction with the Bell Mountain Connector trail. Take a left on the connector and hike to the loop. At the loop junction, turn right to ascend to the top of Bell Mountain, where incredible views of rolling forested hillsides await. This is a primo overnight backpacking destination; find your nook nestled amongst the rocks, set up camp, and enjoy the show. Bell Mountain is perhaps the best place to view the sunset and sunrise in all of Missouri — the colors are incredible, and the view over the Ozark hills does not disappoint.
McAdams Peak Trail (1.9 miles) or Pere Marquette Outer Loop (6.3 miles), Grafton, Ill.
A short drive up the beautiful Great River Road (IL State Route 100) lies Pere Marquette State Park — 8,000 acres of wooded hills and river wetlands. The McAdams Peak and the Pere Marquette Outer Loop trails provide access to lookouts with sprawling vistas over the Illinois River as it makes its way towards its confluence with the Mississippi. If you visit during the winter months, you’re likely to see bald eagles soaring over the wetlands. During your visit, make sure to check out the old stone lodge and cozy up by the roaring fireplace here.
Chain of Rocks Bridge, St. Louis, Mo.
The Mississippi River Greenway starts near the Chouteau Landing just south of the Gateway Arch and makes its way north along the riverfront. Eventually, the greenway reaches the Old Chain of Rocks Bridge, one of the longest bicycle/pedestrian bridges in the world (5,353 feet) and an historic landmark along the famous Route 66. While it’s not a typical overlook, the sprawling bridge provides incredible views of the Mighty Mississippi in all her glory. The old water intake buildings (a.k.a. The Castles of the Mississippi, built between 1913 and 1915) stand watch over the roiling water from which the bridge gets its name. Depending on the water level, spectators may catch kayakers and canoeists running the Chain of Rocks rapid. The bridge connects the Madison County Confluence Trail in Illinois, proving access to miles of well-maintained recreational pathways.
Inspiration Point (0.7 miles), Wolf Lake, Ill.
Inspiration Point gained attention over the past year or so, having been featured as the subject of the Grand Prize-winner in the 2020 Terrain Magazine Photo Contest. While it’s a spectacular setting, this one takes some work, as it’s two hours and 15 minutes from St. Louis and most likely not the primary objective of the excursion. The short trail climbs steeply to a lookout point with sweeping views of the Mississippi River Valley and the expansive river bottom lands. It’s a great spot for bird watching, as the skies are visible for miles around. Expect moderate exposure during the climb and at the lookout, with no guard- or handrails.
Swimming Deer Trail (3.6 miles), Bonne Terre, Mo.
A bit further afield, overlook seekers should set their sights on St. Francois State Park. The park is located just north of Bonne Terre off Highway 67, about an hour south of St. Louis. The Swimming Deer Trail is a 3.6 mile “lollipop” loop, meaning there’s an access trail that connects to the circular section. If you turn right at the junction, you’ll climb up steeply to bluffs that look out over Big River, a decent-sized tributary of the Meramec. In springtime, the trail is swathed in wildflowers: bluebells, Dutchman’s Breeches, and yellow violets, among others.
Author: Nick Tilley is a regular contributor to Terrain Magazine.
Top Image: River Scene Trail at Castlewood State Park. (Brad Kovach)