Fall is hands down my favorite time to hike. The oppressive heat and humidity have subsided. The bugs are mostly gone. Rain and thunderstorms are few and far between. Those reasons alone are enough to make me jump for joy in my puffy vest and knit hat as I click my boot heels together at the trailhead. But that’s not all — fall foliage makes the season even greater for hiking.
A couple words of caution: just because there are fewer bugs doesn’t mean they’ve all vanished, so make sure everyone checks for ticks after the hike. If you’re going out in the afternoon or evening, bear in mind that the days are getting shorter fast, so make sure you have extra layers of clothing and a flashlight or headlamp in case you make a wrong turn and end up in the dark. As always, pack a first-aid kit, water, and extra snacks, and tell a trusted person where you’re going and when you’ll be back.
Above all, enjoy the colors. These hikes are all great any time of year, and there are many more trails that’ll take your breath away when the leaves are changing. But these are all extra special in the crisp, cool air.
This park near Augusta, Missouri, hugs the cliffs above the state’s namesake river. The trails aren’t long, but you get big views quickly, and then a walk through mixed hardwood forest that features some of the best colors around. Start out on the straight paved path and it’s only a 10th of a mile up the hill to the overlook across the Missouri, with spectacular colors visible for miles. Walk east on the trail along the cliff, then head down the hill on Hogsback Trail. You lose the views across the river, but you’ll be surrounded by trees in a riot of yellows, oranges, and reds.
Giant City State Park
Illinois has its share of spectacular colors, too. Giant City State Park is a bit of a trek — it’s just south of Carbondale, Illinois — but the combination of the dramatic cliffs and boulders adds a spark of drama that makes it worth the trip. There are two short hikes here — Trillium Trail and Giant City Nature Trail — with gorgeous and fascinating scenery. The first time I hiked this trail, I lost count of how many times people in our group looked around and cried out, “this is amazing!”
Salt Lick Point Land & Water Reserve
This scenic spot is also in Illinois but only a 40-minute drive from St. Louis. There are several trails here, and you can combine them to get 3 or 4 miles of hikes through colorful hardwood forest and views across the Mississippi River Valley. The drive south along the river from St Louis is lovely, as well. While you’re there, consider checking out the nearby town of Valmeyer. It was devastated in the 1993 flood, so instead of rebuilding in the flood plain, they moved the whole town up the hill, 400 feet above the river. You can drive through the abandoned streets near the river and then go up to see the new town.
Hawn State Park
Rushing creeks with shut-ins, sweet campsites, and enough trails to keep you hiking for days — that’s Hawn State Park. Take the Whispering Pine Trail up to the top of the hill. The spot is less than a mile from the parking lot at the campground (there’s a playground there, too, if you’re hiking with kiddos) and on the way you’ll get your first views of vistas with lots of trees changing colors. Head down the hill toward the Pickle Creek Trail and look for picturesque boulder piles in the creek. Trails branch out in almost every direction, with color-changing trees mixed with evergreens along every path.
Don Robinson State Park
If I had to pick a favorite state park, this might be it. Even though overnight camping is not allowed, I adore it because it’s just so beautiful and only about 40 minutes away from most of the St. Louis area. Take a quick trip around one of the 2- to 4-mile loops or combine them for a longer outing. The variety in this park is astounding, from the views at the trailhead across a multi-colored canyon, to the sandstone cliffs of the La Barque Creek Trail, to the flowing creek scenes and wooded environs of the Sandstone Canyon Trail.
Author: Kathy Schrenk is a contributor to Terrain Magazine.
Featured Image: Cascades through the canyon at Don Robinson State Park by Greg Matchick.