Meramec State Park is a great place for a winter hike

By Bill Cooper
    Meramec State Park, near Sullivan, is a hikers dream come true. More than 13 miles of hiking trails, from easy too difficult, are available for those adventurous souls who would rather walk in nature’s beauty than become a couch potato.

    My 12-year-old grandson, Ronnie Austin, came to visit over his Christmas break from St. Charles school district. His best buddy, Nick Besancenez, tagged along. Our trio has hiked, camped, fished, and floated a number of weeks away in the Ozarks over the last few years.
    I generally have an outdoor agenda planned for the boys when they come to visit. They expect it and often quiz me about the next planned outdoor adventure. They were equally excited when I announced we were going to hike Hamilton Hollow in Meramec State Park. During the planned hike we would visit the remains of Hamilton Iron Works and Green’s Cave, which boasts one of the largest cave openings west of the Mississippi.
    We filled a day pack with numerous snacks, water and of course, the all-important TP. Youngsters burn up a lot of energy and 12-year-old boys, in particular, can devour enormous amounts of food. They are always hungry.
    We began enjoying the beauty of Meramec State Park immediately. Positioned along the Meramec River, the park is home to some enormous river bottom tree species including a wide variety of oaks, sycamores, and maples. The leafless trees stood in stark contrast to winter’s gloom, like so many gigantic skeletons on the horizon.
    I never pass up an opportunity to educate while outdoors. I pointed out that the giant white trees with peeling bark were sycamores. The boys were more fascinated that this old tree species was around in the days of the dinosaurs. Like a few other tree species that evolved to bloom before pollinators emerge, sycamores are pollinated by the wind, usually beginning in late February.
    By the time we arrived at the trail head near Hamilton Iron Works, the boys had been in the truck long enough and were anxious to hit the trail. Area signs indicated that a mere one-half-mile trail looped around the iron works. The trail offers a variety of views of the partially tumbled iron furnace as well as remnants of other structures that once stood in this vast wilderness business enterprise.
    The boys were particularly awed by the immense size of the sandstone blocks from which the blast furnace was constructed. Discussions of the time involved in mining, sculpturing, hauling, and lifting such massive stones into place brought to light the ingenuity of the frontier craftsman who once worked here.
    After completing the short hike around the iron works, we caught the trail blaze heading down Hamilton Creek. The trail itself, like several in Meramec State Park, are not signed nor maintained. The idea is to give hikers the sense of bushwhacking cross country.
    I had read several reviews about Hamilton Hollow Trail prior to attempting it. Reviews ranged from horrible to excellent. Most bad reviews came from hikers who attempted the trail in the summer. It follows the creek bottom for most of its length. Summertime vegetation would be dense and include lots of both multiflora-rose and greenbrier, both of which will leave you bleeding in short order. Ticks are an issue in hot weather as well.
    We had little difficulty following the trail, because vegetation had died back and the trail trace remained visible for the most part. The trail may be difficult to follow for inexperienced hikers because it is not an established, maintained tribal as such. In some areas a multitude of paths flare off from the main trail, simply because individuals desired to cut off a few yards, or avoid an obstacle. One must maintain a sense of general direction and follow the creek to reach desired destinations.
    After one-half mile, cross the creek again to the left side. A valley opens from the left, and the trail enters an old overgrown pasture. At the end of the pasture, six-tenths of a mile from the trailhead, a track towards the left leads to Hamilton Cave. The entrance is gated to protect bats, but it is an interesting sight.
    Shortly after returning to the trail, cross the creek again at eighth-tenths of a mile. Pratt Spring is on the left and flows from under a short bluff. It is a neat stop with a spring branch covered in watercress.
    After another creek crossing, you’ll find an old homestead at 1.5 miles. Trails flare out across the creek bottom as hikers have taken different approaches across the overgrown pasture. Here you will find Homestead Spring with remains of an old well house. Beavers have a small dam across the tiny spring branch creating a small pond.
    We explored around Homestead Spring for a good while and paused to eat our snacks and drink a bottle of water. We let our imaginations wander as we pondered what life must have been like for the people who lived here so long ago and so far away from the nearest settlement.    
    At 1.9 miles Hamilton Creek enters the Meramec River. We fell just a bit short of it because we lingered at the spring. The boys were ready to head back but vowed to make the entire hike to Green’s Cave on our next adventure.
    Maps for Hamilton Hollow are not well marked. Experienced hikers rely on GPS and other applicable apps such A good topo map would be accurate as well. We’ll be hiking other area trails in the future. We’ll keep you posted.
    EDITOR’S NOTE: Bill Cooper is an award winning outdoor writer and inductee of the National Fresh Water Fishing Hall of Fame as a Legendary Outdoor Communicator. He is the host of the Living the Dream Outdoors Podcast, which can be found on most social media platforms. He lives in rural St. James and can be followed at outsidealways.