Getting a breath of fresh air at St. Louis parks

Nancy Kranzberg

By Nancy Kranzberg

Of course, I hate the awful situation that we are trapped in, though I realize how fortunate I am. I count my blessings on a daily basis.

Usually, we take some sort of a trip in the summer and I don’t even think about a staycation, but, if nothing else, this pandemic has opened my eyes to looking at what we do have in St. Louis.

In my last commentary, I talked about how the arts, even though terribly compromised these days, are keeping me and many full of vim and vigor. Wow, I really don’t need to leave town. I took a look in my own backyard and am finding stimulation and excitement from what mother nature has given us to look at.

We have been visiting city and county parks, nature reserves and conservation areas from one end of our town to the other. We’ve crossed both rivers to enjoy incredible views and soak in the glories of nature. After all, nature is art.

Let’s start with the St. Louis County parks farthest south. Bee Tree Park was previously owned by Southwestern Bell company founder, Eugene Nims. In 1929, Nims hired the St. Louis architectural firm Maritz and Young to design a mansion for weekend retreats, which still stands. When the mansion went on the market, it was purchased by a group that raised funds to buy the land. Walston Chubb was the leader of this group and was involved with another group, which believed in preserving open space for the city. Eventually this group gave the land to St. Louis County for use as a park and what a park it is. There are incredible views of the Mississippi, a stocked lake, great hiking trails and more.

Cliff Cave Park, another St Louis County Park far south, is named after Cliff Cave, a natural cave located in the park that is historical and an archaeologic site. The park contains woodlands, wetlands and rocky hillsides, and is adjacent to the Mississippi River. It has three great trails for hiking and an active train track that runs through the park. The park won the “Best View of the Mississippi” award in 2009 from the Riverfront Times.

My favorite county park, Laumeier Sculpture Park, is not as far south, located in Sunset Hills. Founded in 1976, Laumeier is one of the first and largest dedicated sculpture parks in the country. Today, Laumeier is an internationally recognized, nonprofit arts organization that is accredited by the American Alliance of Museums and operates in partnership with St Louis County Parks. Projects and programs are supported by the Mark Twain Laumeier Endowment Fund, the Regional Arts Commission, the University of Missouri-St Louis, Missouri Arts Council and the Arts and Education Council of St. Louis.

In the opposite direction is Fort Belle Fontaine, about 20 miles north of the downtown. Built in 1805 under the direction of Lt. Col. Jacob Kingsbury, the fort was the first U.S. military installation west of the Mississippi River. The trading fort was an important gathering place for officers and enlisted men; native peoples and French, Spanish and American settlers, trappers and traders. Lewis and Clark visited the site on their way back to St. Louis from their famous trek west. The St. Louis County Parks Department manages this beautiful park with a view of the Missouri River.

The city of St. Louis has more than 100 parks for residents and others to enjoy. I won’t even say anything about Forest Park, which we all visit and recognize as our great queen. She is even larger the Central Park in New York City.

Tower Grove Park, designed in the gardenesque style by James Gurney Sr., has been designated a National Historic Landmark as one of the nation’s finest examples of a late 19th-century public park. The park is home to nearly 400 species of trees, bushes and flowering plants. It is a well-known birdwatching area, particularly during the spring and fall bird migration seasons. Part of the Mississippi Flyway, migrating birds rest in the park along their journey. Forty percent of North American songbirds and waterbirds use this route.

Carondelet Park ranks as St Louis’ third largest park. It boasts a beautiful boathouse, walking paths and all the amenities of a first-rate city park. Established in 1875, it takes its name from the former city of Carondelet (founded 1767), now a section of south east St Louis and worth a trip in and of itself.

Practically every municipality in the county has very special parks. Two of my favorites are Wild Acres Park in Overland and Blackburn Park in Webster Groves. Both have great walking paths. Wild Acres has a lake where it’s fun to watch children fish and Blackburn has a wonderful bird sanctuary off one of the paths.

We also visited nature reserves and conservation areas to enjoy the beautiful summer and early fall days. Shaw Nature Reserve in Gray Summit has 17 miles of hiking trails, allowing one to take a short walk or a long hike. It is an extension of the Missouri Botanical Garden, which of course we frequented, and we were thrilled to visit the fields of sunflowers at the Columbia Bottom Conservation Area at the Confluence of the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers.

We didn’t let the rivers stop us. We crossed both and enjoyed the scenery along Highway 94 as well as the Katy Trail. We also drove the Great River Road past Alton, which overlooks the Mississippi where it converges with the Missouri and Illinois rivers. Driving along this beautiful river byway, one can witness the masterpiece of nature with whistling birds, colorful trees, unique plants and etched river bluffs. Fall is an especially beautiful time of year to take these sights in.

Upon returning home each day, I felt comforted and satisfied that I had made great use of what still remains good in our city and the environs and in the world. 

For more of Nancy Kranzberg’s commentary, listen to KWMU (90.7) St. Louis on the Air the first Friday of each month at approximately 12:50 p.m. She also hosts a weekly Arts Interview podcast for KDHX (88.1), available at