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Favorite State Parks Near St. Louis, Missouri

Illinois River

Awhile back we went camping at one of Missouri’s state parks near Bonne Terre. We had camped there a few times in the past and not only enjoyed the hiking trails and fishing, but also got a chance to take a tour through one of the old lead mines in the area. There was one slight problem this time however: skunks. It seemed like the park had been overrun with them. At the visitor’s center where we checked in and paid our camping fee, there was a sign asking if any of the campers had experienced any unusual contact with the furry striped mammals. I didn’t pay very much attention to the sign until the sun started going down on our first night. We had cooked some food and had dinner, but afterwards we cleaned everything up and disposed of the trash properly in a large metal trashcan with a heavy covered lid that was up by the side of the road. At first we noticed one skunk perched on top of the can. We watched him sniff around and thought it was kind of cute. Before long he was joined by a companion and then another and another. Pretty soon they were everywhere. We thought of shooing them off, but then thought better of it. A skunk has never sprayed me, but I have been around dogs that have been and the horrible stench still lingers in my mind. We left them alone and they left us alone, but needless to say, we left the next morning for some potentially less smelly location. As we left, I remember seeing another sign that said black bears had returned to the area and I thought to myself that maybe they would eat some of the skunks. But they probably try to avoid them too.

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The state of Missouri has some 83 state parks. They offer a wide variety of activities for the entire family; everything from camping and fishing to boating, horseback riding, and hiking. Below are a few of my favorites. And none of them have a skunk problem, as far as I know.

Meramec State Park off Highway 44 near Sullivan is probably my favorite of all of the state parks. It’s certainly the one that I’ve visited the most. They have rental cabins with up to 5 bedrooms and most of them have fireplaces. The scenic Meramec River winds through the park and guided tours are offered at Fisher Cave. (Be sure to bring flashlights, hard hats are provided). The park is home to some 40 caves in all. We once rented a cabin there with a cave directly outside of our back door. It was a great place to go to take a break from the summer heat. There is a store that rents canoes and they will take you upriver, so you can float on back down. Historic Meramec Caverns, Jesse James’s hideout, is nearby.

Even closer to St. Louis is Washington State Park, on Highway 21, about nine miles south of DeSoto, Missouri. The cool thing about this park is all of the prehistoric Indian rock carvings that still grace areas of the park. The trail carries you past prehistoric carvings of Thunderbirds and other totem animals. Rental cabins with up to three bedrooms are available during the summer. The park has all of the usual amenities like a store, swimming pool, picnic sites, and shelters. Washington also has one of my favorite hiking trails: The Thousand Steps Trail. The trail is short but steep and winds its way up the side of a bluff with steps carved into the rock. Once you reach the top, there is a cave where you can sit and look out over the tops of the trees below you.

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My third favorite state park is over the river in Illinois. Pere Marquette is on Route 100 near Grafton, Illinois. I’ll have to admit that I haven’t done much camping here, but I love the great lodge with its giant stone fireplace and an excellent brunch on the weekends. The park is also a favorite spot to go in the wintertime to watch the eagles that return to the area each year. The bluffs along the Illinois River are spectacular, and make sure to check out the legendary Piaza Bird., whose image graces one of the bluffs. Local legend has it that the prehistoric bird swept down and carried people off before a brave Indian chief killed it.