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Well worth the hour drive from St. Louis, this clockwise loop begins at a gravel parking lot and heads east for 100 yards before splitting to begin the loop. The recommended clockwise approach heads downhill and turns east through a set of slot canyons toward a forest of formations known as “Cauliflower Rocks,” and past a set of head-high arches. Sub-surface seeping and sheer cliffs combine to create cool, damp conditions that encourage ice-age like species of ferns and mosses on this trail, but also beautiful displays of spring flowers. About a half-mile in, a sturdy wooden bridge crosses Pickle Creek for the first time.
The east end of the loop dips toward the 50-foot walls of Spirit Canyon at the half-way mark, but mostly traverses a forested trail sprinkled with a dusty layer of sand—it’s also flanked by poison ivy, so stick to the trail. Dome Rock and Owl’s Den Bluff overlook the forested valley to the west before the trail descends again to cross Pickle Creek near a delicately dripping fall. The observation platform at Headwall Falls is less than 0.25 mile from the trailhead and is a memorable stop before closing the loop.
-Mapped by Bill Yearout
- Distance: 3.4
Location: 37.801013, -90.301499
The gravel parking lot at the Pickle Springs Natural Area has space for about 15 cars, but no facilities or restrooms. The signed trailhead is on the lot’s east side.
Location: 37.801411, -90.300781
Turn left at this Y-junction just a few hundred feet from the trailhead to follow the 2-mile loop clockwise. Paper trail guides at the trailhead kiosk highlight the route’s features in this direction.
Location: 37.802947, -90.300952
Turning right about 300 yards from the trailhead, the path dips into a narrow canyon of sandstone called “The Slot” and follows the bottom of the canyon for several hundred feet.
Location: 37.8024261, -90.2999461
Winds past cliff faces and over sub-surface seeps that are perfect dark, damp and cool places for winter ice sculptures and impressive spring flower displays.
Location: 37.802241, -90.297684
Stop for photo ops at climb-worthy Cauliflower Rocks and the shaded Double Arch just up ahead.
Location: 37.802743, -90.297541
Near mile 0.6, the trail winds through boulders and tucks through “the Keyhole.” Continue winding downhill to the creek crossing.
Location: 37.8028754, -90.296663
There is a sturdy wooden bridge over Pickle Creek, enjoy listening to the water flow over the rocks before heading uphill. Though the sandy trail shows evidence of the areas geology, the next major formation is about 0.5 mile through the forest.
Location: 37.8003916, -90.2928436
Large open cliffs precede the contour of Spirit Canyon at mile 1.1. From here, the trail climbs 100 feet toward a valley-view outcropping in 0.3 mile.
Location: 37.801364, -90.295968
Dome Rock precedes Owl’s Den Bluff, a great place to climb and admire views of the forested valley below. Watch children carefully and use caution around the steep and accessible edges of the rocky outcropping. The trail loops north, then around the bluff toward the spring below.
Location: 37.801036, -90.297002
A bridge crosses Pickle Springs, the namesake feature of this 256-acre Natural Area that flows toward the Mississippi River.
Location: 37.800132, -90.299215
A short, wooden boardwalk and observation platform offer up-close views of Headwall Falls. After a spring rain, water pours over the cliff into the gorge.
Location: 37.801204, -90.300005
The understory opens as the trail cruises through Piney Glade just before the loop closes. Turn left to backtrack to the trailhead.
Location: 37.8014597, -90.3007802
The large trail map near the trailhead also has a box of detailed hike guides which explains the formations en route.
Location: 37.8017903, -90.3005254
This ledge alongside the trail near its start is a preview of the sandstone formations up ahead.
Location: 37.8028945, -90.3008607
Looking down into the upper entrance of the sandstone “slot”
Location: 37.8026444, -90.3005683
Beaches of a long-gone sea, the sandstone formations in, around and including the slot, have been carved by water and erosion over the eons. This cave inside the slot is one example.
Location: 37.8024177, -90.2999783
Winters low temperatures and cool, damp temperatures turn water seeping through the sandstone into cliff-side icicles.
Location: 37.802263, -90.2976286
Take some time to climb on and explore Cauliflower Rocks, from the top, there’s a great view of the forest below.
Location: 37.8021909, -90.2974623
It’s possible to walk through these arches as you continue on the trail toward Pickle Springs.
Location: 37.802725, -90.2974865
Location: 37.8003662, -90.2928758
The sandstone cliff faces of Spirit Canyon.
Owl’s Den Bluff
Location: 37.8013919, -90.2957618
The rocky top of the bluff is just off of the main trail but offers expansive views of the valley.
Location: 37.8011037, -90.2957618
Owl’s Den Bluff
Location: 37.801358, -90.2967596
A view of the bluff from the valley floor. You might spot other hikers on top of the viewpoint you just left.
Location: 37.8010232, -90.296942
Water trickling from a sandstone ledge into a pool at Pickle Springs
Location: 37.8001966, -90.2989054
Rockpile Canyon’s impressive rubble pile demonstrates the forces at work shaping this areas bluff, canyons, and crumbling sandstone bluff.
Location: 37.80015, -90.2991307