At Castlewood State Park, so named because of the rocky bluffs that give the appearance of a castle’s fortress, visitors take in stunning views from limestone glades while adventuring over some thirty miles of wooded trail.

Thirty miles of trails invite all kinds of recreation.
Photo Courtesy of Missouri State Parks

Imagine yourself back on the Fourth of July, 1922. Your family has planned a weekend vacation to a river resort not far from St. Louis. Early on Saturday morning, you arrive at the Missouri-Pacific station in Webster Groves where you load your supplies onto one of the special resort trains. Another car will carry the family canoe. After a short ride, the train unloads its reveling vacationers—up to ten thousand a weekend—at the several small resort depots along the Meramec River in western St. Louis County. 

Your family gets off at Castlewood Depot at the grand staircase that leads up to the big hotel and clubs; you are staying at the Castlewood. As soon as everyone is settled in, you all change into bathing suits and hurry back down the staircase to the bottom of the palisade bluffs, where you take a ferry across the river to the large sandbar downstream known as Lincoln Beach. The Meramec River is dotted with floating swimmers and canoes; the beach is covered with sunbathers and kids building sandcastles. 

Views are magnificent from the limestone glades and the bluffs known as the “castle fortress,” which likely gave one resort and thus the park its name. The park anchored the recovery of the lower Meramec River.
Photo by Scott Myers

You have just imagined the reality from 1915 to about 1940, when St. Louisans by the thousands flocked to the Castlewood area for weekends of canoeing, swimming, dancing, partying, and some gambling. After World War II, many of the hotels and clubhouses declined, and the natural beauty and recreational value of the lower Meramec River went unappreciated as the area became a kind of industrial dumping ground. 

Today, after decades of effort by citizens and government alike, much of the dormant potential of the river has been rediscovered. In 1975 Gov. Christopher Bond announced a plan to coordinate the recovery of more than a hundred miles of the lower Meramec River and formally designated it as the Meramec River Recreation Area (now known as the Meramec Greenway in its lower reaches). The centerpiece of this effort was and is Castlewood State Park. The park includes much of the old resort area, including Lincoln Beach and the site of the old Lincoln Lodge. The park also offers more than thirty miles of hiking and biking trails, eleven of which are open to horseback riders. 

A hike along the River Scene Trail leads one atop the white cherty limestone bluffs—the “castle fortress,” maybe the origin of the park’s name—where a truly majestic view awaits. Look south across the river’s floodplain into the wooded alcoves of Tyson Valley, upstream as the bluffs arc to the southwest or downstream as far as Fenton—a scenic panorama lies in every direction as the Meramec meanders in great loops, back and forth, across its valley. 

Across the river some 250 feet below—now grown up in willows—is the old Lincoln Beach, a sandy byproduct of the Union Sand and Gravel Company’s gravel-mining activity in the river upstream. Mounds of gravel and some remaining equipment, hidden by the bottomland forest, bear witness to the Meramec’s contribution to Missouri’s leading mineral industry—the Meramec alone has been the source of nearly a quarter of the gravel mined in the state.

Cottonwoods and also the uncommon green hawthorn grow along the river’s bank. Unfortunately, so does the prolific bush honeysuckle, public enemy number one in many parks in the St. Louis region and across the state. An invasive exotic species from Asia once planted by suburbanites for its form and attractive bright red berries, it has spread rapidly and competes with our native flora, often leaving the forest floor barren of other plant life. At Castlewood, park staff and volunteers have begun to confront the invasion with brute force. Armed with brush saws, loppers, and herbicide, they have begun to chip away at the green invader. Where bush honeysuckle is removed, the native flora eagerly returns, reclaiming the natural character of these Ozark Border forests and woodlands. 

On the south side of the river near the old community site of Morschels is a stand of native bottomland forest. Most such stands were long ago cleared away for agriculture or industry, but here at Castlewood, the visitor can still experience the feel of a mature floodplain forest with its silver maple, box elder, black willow, white ash, sycamore, huge cottonwood, slippery elm, and hackberry. By contrast, as you enter the park via Ries Road from the north, a beautiful drive along Kiefer Creek’s canyon-like descent, you pass through the more typical upland forest of the eastern Ozark Border, dominated by white oak, northern red oak, and shagbark hickory. If it is spring, the drive will be highlighted by the floral displays of the redbud and dogwood. The road descends these dissected hills and arrives in the park as the canyon widens into a relatively flat valley. 

But not all has been well with sparkling little Kiefer Creek, so inviting for play on a hot summer day. It is downstream from an area of rapid urbanization along and south of Manchester Road that causes intense storm-water runoff. That and leaks from antiquated septic systems of clubhouses, since converted to year-round homes, can result in bacteria levels in the creek during high flows that exceed safe levels for swimming. Missouri Coalition for the Environment staff discovered that data collected by the US Geological Survey showing extremely high bacteria concentrations in the creek had not been used to evaluate water quality in the park—because the data had been collected just upstream from the park on a stream segment that had never been classified by the state. This proved to be a particularly egregious instance of a larger problem of unclassified streams on which the coalition had been working for years. Thus was born the Kiefer Creek Watershed Restoration Project. 

Volunteers plant native bottomland trees in a bend of Kiefer Creek to help restore an eroding bank and to demonstrate conversion to native species.
Photo By Lorin Crandall

Funded by a series of grants from various sources beginning in 2010 and involving multiple public and private partners, an expanding group of coalition staff, interns, and stakeholders developed a watershed plan, which included land stewardship and riparian restoration projects. Volunteers from the coalition, St. Louis Audubon Society, Master Naturalist chapters, and corporate partners began to remove invasive species, restore riparian vegetation, and monitor bird and animal populations in the park, as well as work with upstream landowners.

In comparison with nearby watersheds where urbanization had occurred earlier and problems were far more advanced, there was hope for Kiefer Creek, which turned out to be one of the few remaining watersheds in the St. Louis region that was still functioning with a semblance of normality. If the group could reach local decision-makers and citizens with a case for smarter development policies and funds for watershed improvements, might they yet be able to arrest the degradation and improve the watershed and the park? It seemed worth a try, and the coalition and its partners began the task, committed to carrying on into the future.

It is the valley of Kiefer Creek within the park that was the section first opened to the public and is still today the heart of the park. It was once part of a large estate assembled by David Ranken from a sprawling collection of private parcels adjacent to the hotels, clubhouses, and boathouses of the Castlewood development. The Ranken holdings had more than once fueled state park speculations—beginning in the 1930s when the Lake Meramec Association proposed a dam near the river’s mouth to create a twenty-mile-long lake for urban recreation. None of the proposals came to fruition, and the area continued to decline.

Finally in 1973, when parcels from the estate were offered for sale, a new citizen conservation group, the Open Space Council of St. Louis, recognized the possibility of creatively combining funding from various sources for a park. Through a large bequest to its foundation, the council was able to help the state acquire two of the tracts—nearly 1,100 acres— for more than $1.3 million, half of which came from the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund. The land was transferred to the state in 1974, and during the next decade, ten additional tracts were added to the park through the continued efforts of the Open Space Council and the park division. The council also organized an annual Operation Clean Stream, continued now for more than four decades, to engage hundreds of volunteers each August in removing tires, refrigerators, industrial castoffs, and flood debris from the banks and bed of the river. 

The success story at Castlewood and the vision of a Meramec Greenway prompted the addition to the Meramec corridor of other open-space lands acquired by the state and by counties, municipalities, and private institutions. More than 50,000 acres of such lands have been protected along the Meramec, including Robertsville, Route 66, and Don Robinson State Parks. Though progress slowed in the 1980s with the decrease in federal matching funds for recreation lands, a citizen initiative in 2000 for a one-tenth percent sales tax for the even larger vision of a Great Rivers Greenway, of which the Meramec is a part, breathed new life into the effort. Approval by voters in 2013 of another initiative to increase the tax an additional three-sixteenths percent gives hope of even more progress, especially when coupled with the remarkable volunteer efforts the river and its parks have inspired.

The dream of a greenbelt along more than a hundred miles of the lower Meramec with both public and private recreation facilities and interconnecting trail systems still lives and thrives. And Castlewood State Park is still the anchor of the effort.

Feature image by Scott Myers.