Fort Belle Fontaine is a St. Louis County Park steeped in history. This site was established in 1805 as the United State’s first military installation west of the Mississippi River. The fort took its name from a nearby spring named “Belle Fontaine” which means “beautiful fountain” in French. Lewis and Clark camped near this site at the start of their famous expedition and also stayed at the newly established fort and trading post on their return in 1806. The fort served as an important stop for the members of the military, Native Americans, trappers, explorers, and early settlers.
The original fort was located below the bluffs and suffered from erosion and flooding. The first fort location is now located below the Missouri River’s current channel. The fort was moved to the top of the bluffs in 1810. Deterioration of the fort and shifting military needs lead the fort to be abandoned by 1828 and the soldiers relocated to the new military post at Jefferson Barracks.
In the 1930s, the area below the bluffs became a popular summer retreat. The Works Progress Administration (WPA) built a number of stone structures. The remains of these structures can be seen throughout the park and along the hiking trail. Several kiosks along the path tell about the history of the site.
Lewis & Clark Interpretive Trail at Fort Belle Fontaine
- Length: 3 miles round trip.
- Difficulty: 2 out of 5. The trail is mostly wide and flat. Climbing up and down the many stone stairs of the Grand Staircase is the only difficulty
- Scenic Value: 5 out of 5. The stone structures and ruins are impressive
After entering the park, the main parking lot and trailhead for the 3 mile loop are off the left with a sign. (You can also drive straight ahead if you just want to visit the stone staircase and skip the full hike.)
Starting at the trailhead, the path curves left and up a slight incline. Keep to the left at the fork as the right leads to a K9 training area. There isn’t a whole lot to see at first as it passes through a prairie area and small lake.
At another junction, head left again past the gate and follow the trail into the woods.
Soon the ruins of a stone structure will appear above the creek.
I’m not sure what this structure was, but it is a cool place to explore. Sadly, some vandals have left their mark.
From here the path parallels Coldwater Creek as it passes through the woods. While the creek may look inviting, this is one you may want to avoid splashing in. Coldwater Creek is known to be contaminated with radioactive runoff. While there have been clean up efforts completed, I’d recommend staying on the bank.
After passing the outlet of Coldwater Creek into the Missouri River, the trail starts to pass by several other ruin sites. First is the remains of an outdoor fireplace.
Next are the elaborate bathhouse ruins from the recreation days. This is a really neat area to explore.
A picnic area is located further down the trail. A fountain once ran here and filled the surrounding pool around the picnic site.
The most impressive of the stone work can be seen at the Grand Staircase. Here several flights of steps climb to an overlook with a great view of the river. A sign is also located near the overlook to commemorate Lewis and Clark’s visit to the area.
From here you can continue back down the steps and follow the path as it travels past the river a short distance before turning back through the woods and the road. Or you can walk the road from the overlook as it passes a stone gazebo.
Follow the road back to the parking area and trailhead to complete your hike for a 3 mile loop.
Things to know:
- The park is open from 8 a.m. – 30 minutes past sunset
- The address is 13002 Bellefontaine Road, Saint Louis, MO 63138
- The park is also a campus site for the Missouri Division of Youth Services. When entering the park, you must stop at the guard station. They will take your information and direct you where to park.
- A trail map can be found here.