Missouri boasts many state parks that offer a variety of activities, geographic scenery, and events. In West Saint Louis County, there are two great state parks that aren’t just fun to visit, but are also free to visit. Despite their close proximity to each other, they have a lot of differences, even in terms of natural surroundings.
Castlewood State Park is located in Ballwin, Missouri. It is a popular destination for locals because it offers a nature getaway only about ten minutes from restaurants and shopping. Ballwin is a fairly populated area, but Castlewood offers relaxing picnicking, hiking, biking, and fishing.
Castlewood is open from 7am to a half-hour after sunset each day. One of the great things about Castlewood is that there is no entry fee. So, you can visit Castlewood and all it has to offer for no cost whatsoever. There are parking lots throughout the park, but the main parking areas are in the front of the park near the park office, playground, and picnic shelters. There are also small parking spaces throughout the road that leads through the park at picnic areas and open spaces.
For me, the best part of Castlewood is the variety of scenery you can take in. Castlewood is located on the Meramec River and Keifer Creek runs through the park into the river. There are also old railroad tracks and wooded areas. You can go through the park and see a variety of natural landscapes.
One of the popular activities at Castlewood is picnicking. Castlewood offers many places to picnic. There are two picnic shelters in the main area that can be reserved for a fee. But, there are over fifty picnic tables located throughout the park that don’t cost anything. Personally, I like to just take a blanket and picnic in one of the open areas-that way you don’t have to worry about fitting enough people at your table and you can go straight into playing a game of catch, tag, or frisbee. Also keep in mind that if the shelters are not reserved, you can use them on a first come first serve basis. No matter what, on a pretty spring or summer day, Castlewood is a beautiful place to eat lunch or dinner.
My favorite thing to do at Castlewood is hike. They have a variety of hiking trails that offer a glimpse into the different landscapes. A few of the trails go through the hilly wooded area in the center of the park, but the bests trails go up on the bluffs overlooking the Meramec River. And, if you’re in good shape, there is a longer hike that takes you up to the bluffs, then down to the banks of the river. These trails are peppered with wildflowers in the spring and summer and have a beautiful view of the fall foliage in autumn. They have maps of all their trails on the Missouri State Park website and at the small park office at the front of the park. Staff is usually seasonable, but personable and well trained and can answer any questions you might have.
Castlewood is also a popular destination for bicyclists, as some of the trails allow for mountain bikes. Most of the trails are more difficult to navigate so would require an experienced bike, but there are parts of the trails, easily accessed, that are relatively flat that many families choose to bike on.
Though I have not done it, many people also fish and boat from Castlewood in the Meramec. You can access the river from a launch area in the park, but no vehicles are allowed-you must carry all watercraft in and out. There is no fee, so this is good for those looking to canoe or kayak. There are also multiple places along the banks of the river that allow for fishing.
Overall, Castlewood is a great place where many locals spend an afternoon when the weather is nice. Castlewood is open year round, so if you don’t mind the cold you can also go hiking in the winter. Even though it’s not quite as pretty, many people enjoy the view from the bluffs without leaves obstructing the view or seeing what the river looks like in the winter.
Dr. Edumund A. Babler State Park, known simply as Babler, is located in Wildwood, Missouri-a twenty minute drive from Castlewood State Park. As you drive towards Babler, you see less and less of the buzz of traffic, businesses, and people. Babler still isn’t in the middle of nowhere, there are a few schools and residential areas nearby, but it’s not near a commercial thoroughfare like Castlewood.
Babler is larger in size and scale. First of all, there is a visitor’s center that hosts a museum, a theater, a small giftshop, and a year-round naturalist along with seasonal staff and volunteers. All employees give off the aura of friendliness and helpfulness and the center is very welcoming. There is a small museum with stuffed animals, a fish tank, and changing displays. You can get maps of the park and have any questions answered. There are also bathrooms and water fountains. There is parking at the visitor’s center, as well as throughout the park. The park office is open daily from 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. year-round. In terms of the park as a whole, they have different hours for different seasons. From November through March, the park is open from 7 a.m to 6 p.m. From April to October the park is open from 7 a.m to 9 p.m.
Another thing that Babler offers that Castlewood does not is camping. Babler has a campground that offers both electric and basic campsites. During the summer, the seasonal naturalists offer weekend programs on a variety of subjects from animals to night hikes. These programs are great for families.
Also unlike Castlewood, Babler has a very rich history and as such when you drive into the park you will see a large statue to your right. This is a statue of the park’s namesake, Dr. Edmund A. Babler. Dr. Babler was a doctor that often treated the poor. His brother donated the land and named it after his brother. The statue is in the middle of an open field that is usually populated by Frisbee players or kite flyers.
Like Castlewood, Babler offers a variety of trails and natural landscapes. The Virginia Day trail is at the front of the park and has both a long and short loop. This is in a wooded area and is full of wildflowers in the spring. The Dogwood trail is the most difficult and long trail. It is very hilly and goes across the horse trail. The Hawthorne is my favorite trail. In the middle there is a rock bluff where you can lookout over the street and farms below and in the distance. There is also the Woodbine that gives a look at the creek. All of the hiking trails are well taken care of by maintenance staff and are fun to hike again and again.
Along with the hiking trails, there is a paved bike trail great for families with small children on bikes. There also is a horse trail that goes throughout the park. There are no longer stables at the park, so you have to have your own horse and transport it to the park to participate in horse riding on these trails. Since there aren’t many places to do this in the West County area, the horse trail is very popular.
Along with Castlewood there are picnic shelters that can be reserved throughout the park along with picnic tables scattered throughout the park. Babler is much more wooded than Castlewood, so there aren’t very many open areas to picnic on a blanket. Still, the picnic tables are usually in smaller secluded areas, which is very nice if you don’t want to be eating around a bunch of people or be bothered by people playing catch or Frisbee.
Babler has a multitude of other areas, some of which are owned and run by the local school district rather than the park. There is a pool and a group camping area run by Rockwood School District. Areas run by the park include their rustic baseball field (mainly just a backstop) and playground.
One of the best things about Babler is that it is big enough so that even when it is busy, you do not feel crowded-you can always find somewhere that is quiet.
Both state parks in West St. Louis County are incredibly enjoyable. Castlewood is great for doing something-hiking, fishing, or even just playing. Babler is good for hiking and playing as well, but also offers some quieter solitude. Both are popular with the locals because of their natural beauty, their price (free!), and a way to feel in tune with nature even though you’re only a few miles away from a busy town. Should you live in or visit West St. Louis County, you should definitely consider making a trip to either of these state parks.