MDC Places to Go: Engelmann Woods Natural Area provides a palette of spring wildflowers

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Saint Louis
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FRANKLIN Co., Mo. — Rue anemone, false rue anemone, spring beauty, phlox, celandine poppy, flowering dogwood, violets—it’s a living field guide of spring wildflowers.  And a good cardio workout.

The Missouri Department of Conservation’s (MDC) Engelmann Woods Natural Area is located just south of the quiet community of St. Albans, nestled in the Ozark-like hills of Franklin County.  At only 148-acres in size, it’s a relatively small area.  What it lacks in quantity, it more than makes up for in quality.

Engelmann Woods is an excellent example of a rich, old-growth forest.  It’s one of the last examples of an ecology that once covered the uplands adjacent to the Missouri River.  The north and east-facing slopes are especially diverse, where loess soil deposits have accumulated over time to a thickness of several feet.

Some of the most prominent trees are red oak, white oak, white ash, basswood, and sugar maple. The largest trees can grow three feet in diameter, 100 feet tall and approach a stately 200 years in age. Look for pawpaw and spicebush in the bottomlands, and chinkapin oak with flowering dogwood and serviceberry on the drier west- and south-facing slopes.

Engelmann Woods provides an excellent hiking trail approximately two miles in length, all natural surface, which enables hikers to fully explore the area.  While not overly long, the path traverses some invigorating height variation as it meanders along ridges and down into creek beds.  GPS units typically indicate between 200-300 feet of total elevation change.  It’s definitely enough to get the heart rate up, especially if hiked at a brisk speed.  Yet taking the trail at a slower pace with its modest length can still make for a more relaxing walk.

What stands out in spring is the incredible array of wildflowers.  The higher, drier portions of the trail are adorned with spring beauties and blue phlox.  Both blue and yellow violets also make an appearance.  Descend a little further and rue anemone and false rue anemone start becoming plentiful.  Upon reaching the bottomland, hikers will frequently notice the quaint, yellow celandine poppy, and perhaps white trillium, bell wort, and the occasional dogtooth violet.  You might even catch a Jack-in-the-pulpit.  Come in May to seek out elusive May apple blossoms hiding under their green umbrellas.

April and May are the best times to visit for wildflowers; the assortment will vary depending on the timing of the trip.  In autumn, Engelmann Woods displays spectacular fall colors.  And during colder months, ice formations on the tree branches add to the stark winter beauty of the still forest.

As one might guess, an ecosystem that creates such a diversity of plant life harbors a vast collection of fauna too.  Salamanders hide in the moister parts of the woodland.  And as Engelmann lies along the Missouri River corridor, birdwatchers can spot migrating warblers during spring.  Pileated woodpeckers frequent the large snags and tree cavities. Bird enthusiasts should bring binoculars and a bird guide or mobile app.  And photographers will find a multitude of compositions and subjects.   Because the site is a designated state natural area, hunting is not permitted.

Engelmann Woods Natural Area is located three miles east of Labadie on Route T. From the Highway 100/Route T (St. Albans Road) junction in Wildwood, take Route T west approximately six miles.  Drivers should be sure to check signs carefully to stay on Route T at the St. Albans Road split off.  Engelmann Woods is accessible year-round from 4 a.m.-10 p.m. each day.  Visitors should be aware that the parking lot is small, so it might be best to carpool if going in a larger group.

Get more details about Engelmann Woods Natural Area and down load a trail map at