Get rugged in the suburbs.

Ten minutes into a hike on the Lewis and Clark trail along the Missouri River in suburban St. Louis, I notice something is missing: noise. All I hear is the crunch of leaves under my feet and the occasional bird. After a minute or two, a plane breaks the silence. That pattern repeats itself for the duration of my hike. The intermittent silence reminds me why I love this trail: it offers a rugged and beautiful hike, particularly so for being in the middle of a major metropolitan area. It is 33.6 miles from the St. Louis Arch, smack in an ever-growing county of 414,000, less than a mile from a suburban high school and somehow, after getting far enough down the trail, I feel disconnected from all of that.

The Lewis and Clark trail near St.
Credit: Matt Crossman

The trail map looks like a figure-eight drawn by someone with terrible penmanship. The Clark trail (5.3 mile loop) is the bottom half, the Lewis trail (8.2 miles) is the top. If you want to do the Lewis trail, you first must do half of the Clark trail to get there, and then turn when the trail does. Stealing an observation from a friend: The figure-eight design gives the trail versatility because you can trace the eight, or part of it, in so many different orders—clockwise short, counterclockwise short, clockwise long, counterclockwise long, and then mix and match—clockwise the short part, counterclockwise the long part, etc.

The trail offers seasonal variations, too. In the winter, when the leaves are down, you can see deep into ravines and have the satisfaction of having climbed up from there. In the fall, an ombre of red, orange and yellow forms a striking canopy. In the spring, the forest dances with new life. In the summer, you have to go early or you'll roast.

You can't go wrong with any combination in any season. My preference is to tackle the Clark trail walking counterclockwise in the fall. That gets you out of earshot of the highway quicker. It's also a better way to go with young children who can't do the whole thing, because the first part is flat, wide and smooth, and you arrive at an overlook of the Missouri River after a little more than a mile. That rewards you and the kids and offers an ideal excuse to turn back. After that first overlook, the trail immediately becomes more challenging.

Lewis and Clark trail sign near St. Louis, Missouri
Credit: Matt Crossman

Both the Clark and Lewis loops are difficult enough to feel like a workout, but they are not so strenuous as to be inaccessible, as their popularity proves. On weekends with nice weather, you will have a hard time finding a place to park. On my most recent visit, a December day with temperatures in the low 40s and the threat of rain, I counted two dozen cars in the lot.

 A sign at the trailhead says the trails will take 3 hours and 5 hours respectively, but those are exaggerations, in my experience. A child could do Clark, I think, though I confess I can't prove that. Every time I take my kids and their friends there, they spend so much time exploring off trail that we never get around to finishing.

The highlights, undoubtedly, are the overlooks of the Missouri River. You watch from high above as it rolls along, bubbles showing the channel, languid as ever, on its way to merge with the Mississippi River 45 river miles to the east and New Orleans and the Gulf of Mexico much farther south.

Lewis and Clark trail along the Missouri river, near St. Louis
Credit: Matt Crossman

How to Access the Trailhead

Plug in Lewis and Clark trailhead or 7394-7398 MO 94, St Charles, MO 63304 into Google maps. The trailhead is on the east side of MO 94 a few miles south of Interstate 64.