Fort Belle Fontaine is a park owned and operated by St. Louis County and it is truly a hidden gem. It is just a short drive from the City and is nestled along the banks of the Missouri River. Since the park shares an entrance with the Missouri Hills Campus of the Missouri Division of Youth Services, visitors will be asked to stop at the guard station and sign in. The guards were very friendly. Just let them know that you are there to hike and they will even give you a trail map. The park was the site of the first US military fort west of the Mississippi River when it was established in 1805. The fort was the starting point for many western and northern explorations and even a staging area during the War of 1812. While nothing from the original fort still stands, the park has informational signs along the trail explaining the significance of this area. The fort was abandoned in 1828 when the remaining soldiers were relocated to Jefferson Barracks on the Mississippi River. The parking lot of the trail is to the left, before you reach the campus. We parked here and started out on the trail. The trail is a 3 mile loop around the property and starts out as a rock road through an open prairie.
After looping your way partially around a small pond, there will be an informational sign on your left. The trail enters the woods here. There is a barricade in the path of trail to block motor vehicles, but just walk around it. After descending a small hill, there is a small stone building to the left with a nice view of Coldwater Creek as well. The trail continues to parallel Coldwater Creek for some time. Be sure to take the little side paths off of the main trail for some beautiful views of the creek. The creek actually starts near Lambert International Airport and is one of the larger streams in the County.
**I recently learned that Coldwater Creek could be contaminated. While it is beautiful at this location, I would recommend not playing in the creek. The trail strolls leisurely through the woods on a mostly wide and flat path. The trail will turn to the right and begin to follow the Missouri River. During the 1930’s, the park was a summer retreat for many people. The Works Progress Administration built several buildings and other structures to attract visitors. First Lady Elanor Roosevelt even visited the site in 1936. The first stone ruin that you will encounter is the old stone fireplace built into the side of the bluff. One of the structure that still stands is the bath house. The stone ruins are beginning to crumble and decay which creates an eerie feel. The most notable feature of the park is the Grand Staircase. The WPA built this to carry visitors from the top of the bluff down to the valley below.
If you climb the entire multi-level staircase, you are rewarded with a view of the Missouri River. There is also parking and a picnic area at the top in case you do not want to hike the 3 mile trail and just want to check out the staircase.
The trail gently climbs back to the top of the bluff and then you can walk along the road back to the parking lot. You can find more information on the park from the St. Louis County Park’s website and you can also obtain the trail map below.