A pleasant walk through 145 acres of pristine woods. The Conservation Department advertizes Englemann Woods as, "a rare remnant of old-growth Missouri River hills forest" (see the entry on their natural areas site).
It's surprisingly close to St. Louis, just over the St. Louis-Franklin County line, maybe twenty minutes from Six Flags. See the Conservation Department's site for their usual first-rate directions and information.
Google also has Engelmann Woods located:
It's all paved road the parking lot, which is gravel (per the usual standard for Conservation Areas). The parking lot is rather small, however. So I expect that finding a spot could be a little tough on fall weekends, when the colors peak.
The trail is very short, a mile and a half, along a ridge, down into a creek bottom, then back up to the ridge and back to the car. In winter, it should be easy enough to wander around in the bottom, looking for especially large trees. But in summer, it's a jungle.
I saw some trees which were as big as any that I've seen in the Ozarks. This giant was maybe four feet in diameter, and the vine running up its side was six or eight inches across. In other words, the vine was bigger than any vine I've ever seen, never mind how big the tree is.
And I did seem some shagbark hickories which were as big as any I've seen anywhere. Usually shagbarks are a foot or so across, if they're big at all. But there are a bunch at Engelmann Woods that are easily twice that size, that reach, to be exact, "will you look at that" size.
Before I get too carried away, let's be sure to note that big trees in St. Louis--inside the city limits--are not exactly rare. And protected forests in the Ozarks--in the back of Hawn State Park, or along Taum Sauk Creek, or in a dozen other places--are maturing quite nicely. So big, old trees and thick, mature forests are not exactly rare in Missouri.
Engelmann Woods difference--its appeal--seems to rest on two points. First, the underlying soil seems to be remarkably intact. Even on the sides of ridges, where normally I would expect the ground to be gravel and chert, the soil is thick enough that very little rock shows. In fact, I was struck at how little rock was exposed. Which, I think, explains trees like this:
And Englemann Woods is one of the few places where I've actually had the feeling that I'm under a forest canopy:
In other words, even though it isn't dramatically different from what we might find in other places in the Ozarks, Engelmann Woods is different enough to surprise visitors, and to transport them not to another place, but to another sense of a place that they perhaps know a little too well. Anyone who has spent anytime at all outdoors in Missouri understands the deep woods in late spring and early summer, before things have started to dry out, and before the heat has driven birds to roost until evening. The peculiar light of such a day, light filtered through a full but still fresh overhead of leaves, is as distinctive as a the cool, slanting blue of a clear winter afternoon.
Engelmann Woods has all that, the same light, the same astonishing emergence of summer (it shouldn't be astonishing, since it happens every year, but each year it seems like more and more of a shock). But it has an extra little something, the high canopy, a big tree around every bend, that makes the all those familiar things new again. Since it's done so much for late spring, I can't wait to see what it does for the other seasons.