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Explore area history and terrain through hiking

  • Published
  • By Garry Moon
  • 375th Air Mobility Wing Public Affairs
When the going gets tough, the tough get going. Or so it is said. Tough times are all around us these days and Air Force families are no different. Budget cuts and redesign of strategic air defense goals have caused base life to come under scrutiny like never before and Air Force families are looking for ways to cut corners and still enjoy the quality of life we have come to know.

One of the best and most economical ways for us to enjoy our families, get a good workout and not spend too much money is through the 375th Force Support Squadron's Outdoor Recreation activities. Hiking, biking, skiing, rollerblading, canoeing are healthy ways for a modern family to get fit, get in touch and work better as a team. A pair of sturdy shoes, a knapsack, a bottle of water and a few snacks are all you need for your own backyard adventure.

Before Christmas my wife and I made preliminary New Year's resolutions about staying fit, exploring the local area and working as a team. We decided that the day after Christmas we would select a local hike and go for it. We chose a moderate looking trail that meanders along river bluffs paralleling the Missouri River on terrain that Lewis and Clark would have traversed. In fact, in keeping with local history, we chose the Lewis and Clark Trail system that is part of Missouri's Weldon Springs Conservation Area.

The preserve encompasses over 8,359 acres and includes the spring for which Weldon Springs is named and provides a family friendly interconnected trail system suitable for most any age and fitness level. The Lewis Trail and the Clark Trail can be combined to make an enjoyable afternoon hike. The trails loop and converge allowing hikers to lengthen or shorten their hike according to their needs. Upland forests, bottomland glades, river bluffs and rocky escarpment are all a part of this varied and unique terrain.

The area is largely untouched from the time that Lewis and Clark would have seen it in 1804 and the river bluff views are the same, affording sweeping vistas that range from the I-64 bridge to Tavern Rock Bluff where Meriwether Lewis came close to ending the iconic journey that helped define our country. Legend has it that Lewis went up the bluff to explore and that upon slipping in his moccasined heels, came close to falling to his death some 300 feet to the river below. Our day hike journey was compelling but not nearly as death defying.

We arrived at the parking area on a drizzly, gray day and a cool but pleasant 36 degrees. Not shy and pretty hearty, we were an eager and bright eyed pair. The first thing that catches your eye in the parking lot of the Lewis and Clark Trailhead is a trail description sign that reads 'Trail length, 8.2 miles, Please allow five hours to complete.'

My wife and I are experienced hikers but we had gotten a late start that day as it was the
day after Christmas and we had been making merry just the day before. The parking area was a muddy mess as we located the trailhead and off we went. No turning back now.

The first quarter mile began with gently rolling upland, a leaf strewn forest floor and comforting hardwoods of red oak, bitternut hickory, white ash and sugar maple. As we gained mileage through a shallow hollow the trail grew soggy. A greasy, slippery and sticky mud that defied the traction our lug soled boots tried to provide. We are used to hiking in snow, scree and sand but this earthy viscous composition was like nothing I had experienced. As we were walking we were also skating along an incline that is not precipitous but just enough to make you conscious of where you place your foot with every step.

The drizzle and slippery mud continued for a couple of miles as the trail gave way to wooded peaks above clear hollows that provided excellent views of the forest in the leafless, motionless monotone colors of winter. As we made our way the miles melted away with our usual quick pace and before we knew it we were at the junction of the two trails. Now we had to decide whether to continue on the Lewis Trail or shorten our day hike with a quick return to the parking area via the Clark Trail. We were anxious to see the river from the escarpment and so we veered south onto the Lewis Trail towards the Missouri and the rocky river bluffs, which added three miles to our adventure.

Here the trail wound through upland meadows with excellent habitat for deer and wild turkey. The sharp contours of the geography told us that we were drawing close to the river and the deciduous vegetation increased with fine examples of black oak, shagbark hickory and 100 foot elm trees. We marveled at the diversity of tree species that we had encountered in such a short time.

Reaching the summit of a particularly steep incline we were rewarded with spectacular river views from a rocky outcrop hundreds of feet above the mighty Missouri River. It was about this time that the steady misting rain turned into a hard and persistent sleet. We are generally content in all sorts of weather and as I hiked I turned my head upward to catch the ice pellets on my tongue. The coolness was a comfort to my tiring body.

The river bluffs are magnificent and provide a fine place for a trail lunch and excellent photo opportunities. Several outcrops provide vistas in different directions and intriguing views of expansive river bottom, but they also signal that the end of the hike is near. Soon the trail turned back towards the parking area and the promise of warm dry clothes and a hearty meal.

The final river view is a state maintained outcrop that was actually visited by Lewis and Clark and is a mere half mile from the parking lot and trailhead. This view is easily reached and can provide a glimpse into the trail system without the time or dedication needed to hike the entire trail.

Weldon Springs Conservation Area is a gem of natural beauty and Missouri history. About a 45 minute drive from Scott Air Force Base, the area is conveniently accessible from Highway 94 near Defiance, Mo., and provides outdoor recreation possibilities for families and individuals of all skill levels.