Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Washington State Park, Missouri

Formal entrance station to Washington State Park
Having been given a break from campground hosting at one Missouri State Park, the S.O. and I naturally decided to spend one of our days off by checking out another. Washington State Park is located north of the community of Old Mines on Missouri Highway 21, which means it's real close to St. Louis. It's got to be a madhouse in the summer, especially when Washington has something for everyone, or close to it. Hiking trails, campground, swimming pool, fishing, picnicking, you name it. They even do boat rentals. About the only things missing are bike and equestrian trails.

And, in addition to the recreational stuff, it has History, both ancient and modern. It has Civilian Conservation Corps constructed structures (lots of them) and it has petroglyphs. Indeed, the park is one of the few places in Missouri where pre-European contact rock carvings have been found in the state. The CCC-constructed structures have an additional layer of significance; the only African-American CCC camp in Missouri was at Washington State Park.

Interior of interpretive center.
Because this park is so close to St. Louis, I have no doubt it is incredibly busy in the summer. Even on a rather gray day in October, there were a good number of people there. The day use area parking lots are extensive, and there are a gazillion picnic areas scattered throughout the park. The picnic areas are nice -- the tables are spread far enough apart that even on a busy day you're not going to feel too crowded.  We decided to do a short hike, the 1.5 mile long 1000 Steps Trail, and encountered a number of other hikers both coming and going. The trail loops around from the Thunderbird Lodge and climbs a fairly steep slope that takes you to a scenic overlook and also past the formal entrance to the park. The trail was laid out by the CCC in the 1930s and takes its name from the rock steps that the CCC workers installed. Time has taken its toll on those 1000 steps, but some sections are still intact.

That trail reminded me that the next time we decide to do a hike, I either need to be wearing my Tevas or my hiking boots. The shoes I had on just didn't feel right, probably because they've got the orthotic insoles and I don't wear them often enough to get used to them. The orthotics are supposed to position my feet in a way that prevents under-pronation, but as far as I can tell, all they do is make me feel like I'm walking on rocks barefoot. Which probably explains why I avoid using them, which in turn means I never get used to them and my feet will continue to under-pronate. But that's a digression. . .

1000 Steps Trail
The park information describes the trail as "rugged." I'd tend to agree. At least half the trail is either steep uphill or steep downhill, and the 1000 Steps are no longer 1000 Steps -- and even when they do still look like steps, the spacing is a bit odd with the rise too short in some places and too tall in others. You definitely need to watch your footing, and a hiking staff is a good idea, especially for the vertically challenged. It was a nice walk, though. Long enough to feel like an actual hike, varied enough to be interesting, and challenging enough in places to work up a bit of a sweat -- although someone younger and in better physical condition than me might disagree with that last part.

We were curious about the petroglyphs so after we finished the hike we went looking for them. There are two locations in the park that are easily accessible to visitors. We only visited one. It was interesting. Two things amazed me about the petroglyphs we saw: one is the fact that anyone ever found them to begin with. The carvings are not large, and there isn't any contrast between them and the rock they're carved into. It's possible that at the time they were carved, the Native Americans doing the work rubbed charcoal or colored soil into the carvings to highlight them, but if they did no trace of that remains. The other amazing thing is that they're still discernible at all. They're carved into limestone, a notoriously soft rock that weathers easily. I couldn't help but marvel that they'd survived centuries of exposure to the weather. They're under cover now, but that's a pretty recent protection.

What the steps for 1000 Steps Trail originally looked like.
I was also amused to see that the most common item carved into the rock was, to put it euphemistically, a "female fertility symbol." People are people, after all, regardless of time period or location, and people do tend to obsess about sex. I've often thought that a lot of the ancient petroglyphs are simply the result of guys getting bored and doing the equivalent of carving on a schoolroom desk or scribbling on a bathroom wall. No deep ritualistic meaning or religious significance, just the usual human behavior in a different medium. I took an anthropology course years ago where one South American's mythology was described as being basically nothing but raunchy stories and dirty jokes -- but isn't that true of most mythologies? Some just phrase the dirty jokes a little more elegantly than others.

And, speaking of graffiti and the human tendency to want to leave a mark, any mark, we noticed that the roof at the overlook shelter had been reshingled recently. From the underside, you can see that several boards were replaced. They already have graffiti scrawled on them. No female fertility symbols, though, at least not yet.


  1. I'd have to take a u-haul trailer with me to haul my ass back down.

  2. Check out Maine parks for hosting - would love to have you all up here.
    the Ol'Buzzard

  3. I'd love to do Maine, but we like summers in the U.P. too much. Any hosting we do has to be during the Fall, Winter, or Spring. I'm guessing the open season for Maine parks is pretty short.


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