St. Louis Area Campgrounds with Easy Access to Heart-Pumping Adventures

Wednesday March 24, 2021

By Mark

By Brad Kovach

We all know that camping can be a grand adventure on its own. But maybe you’re the type of outdoor enthusiast who likes to work up a sweat between evenings spent around the fire. Here are six scenic camping destinations that offer exhilarating daytime activities just a few steps from your tent.

The 21 campsites here are backcountry primitive, but rock climbers are a hardy bunch. That and the 120 bolted routes of all grades (5.3 to 5.13) waiting within a one-hour drive of St. Louis make this hidden gem a local sport climber’s dream. Each campsite can host up to six people and has multiple tent sites and a fire ring, but not much else, so pack accordingly. When it comes to getting vertical, you can expect moderate face climbing with textured holds — spiced with overhangs, cracks, and towering spires. End the day with a dip in the Big River, which flows by the bottom of the 3,600-foot-long escarpment.

You can tube, kayak, canoe, or stand-up paddleboard down the Current River year-round using one of the park’s outfitting partners. Float from four to eight hours, depending on your chosen distance, then kick back at the campground (with both full-service and walk-in sites), inside one of 13 homestyle cabins, or at The Betty Lea Lodge, which boasts breathtaking views as well as conveniences like the Creekside Grill and Sinking Creek Mercantile. The park also features 4+ miles of hiking and mountain biking trails, a kids’ adventure playground and splash pad, and a 2-mile paved pathway for leisurely strolls.

As the home of Fleet Feet St. Louis’ annual Quivering Quads and Timber ‘N’ Trails races, Cuivre River State Park has a strong pedigree of off-road running. The terrain is wild, rugged, and rolling — a bit of Ozark flavor in northern Missouri — offering a fun and challenging setting for trotting through the woods. In all, more than 30 miles of trails wind around the 6,400 acres here. The park offers basic and full-service campsites, plus platform sites equipped with large, four-season, canvas tents. Those needing a little extra space will want to check out the family and group areas.

This 10,860-acre tract in Mark Twain National Forest surrounds Council Bluff Lake, which in turn is surrounded by a storied trail that has hosted numerous mountain bike races over the years. Though only 12 miles long, the intermediate-level route is notorious for zapping legs with its steep climbs and rocky, rooty single-track. It also connects to the Ozark Trail if you fancy a longer ride. On-site Wild Boar Ridge Campground offers single-family, group, and walk-in sites, available for tents and RVs. Each is equipped with a table, lantern post, and campfire ring or circle with grill. Accessible vault toilets and drinking water are provided. Electricity is not.

No visit to this multi-activity park would be complete without a naturalist-led tour of Fisher Cave with hand-held lights. From its low, narrow streamside passages to its huge caverns, Fisher offers one outstanding subterranean scene after another: petrified bear claw marks, otherworldly cave wildlife, and an array of calcite deposits ranging from intricate hellectites to massive, 30-foot-tall columns. For camping, Meramec State Park has basic, electric, electric/water, and sewer/electric/water sites, as well as group tent areas. The Fireside Store and Grill has a selection of goods for camping and fishing, and tasty pub-style food for when nothing is biting.

There’s a reason it was voted a top state park in our most recent Terrain Readers’ Choice Awards. Hawn is gorgeous, peaceful, and has some of the most scenic hiking trails around, including 12-mile Whispering Pines, 4-mile White Oaks, and 2-mile Pickle Creek. A trek here invites views of rare rock formations, lofty old-growth trees, wildflowers, and sandy-bottom creeks. This park offers basic and electric campsites, along with some secluded walk-in sites. Services include showers, water, and a laundry. Hawn also is popular among dedicated twitchers, who flock to the park for its variety of birds.