- Cool historic stone projects built by the WPA during the Great Depression
- The Grand Staircase is the highlight. A massive and once ornate structure that I would have loved to see in its heyday.
- 2.6 Mile trail that takes you by the historic structures, the Missouri River, a nice creek, and through prairies
- Interesting signage along the way to provide historical information and context (but the signs could use a refresh as they were often faded and cracking)
- Very easy hike (except for the grand staircase). Trail is mostly flat or gently-sloped, wide, and gravel covered. Not sure I really see that as a highlight but lots of people seemed to like that aspect in the reviews I read.
- Very popular site in many of the reviews I read. I visited in winter and it wasn’t really my thing but I do want to come back in late Spring and give it another chance.
- Nice views of Coldwater Creek and its monolith of limestone.
- In the Spring and Summer, there are loads of wildflowers and butterflies.
- Everything felt quite run-down and poorly maintained to me. I know many people see these as historic ruins but, to me, they have a lot of unrealized potential and I found that disappointing
- Wayfinding signage was definitely lacking. It wasn’t at all clear where to park or where to go. We just kind of wandered around at times and ended up in not particularly attractive places like loading docks. Consider using an app like AllTrails to help you figure out where to go.
- The natural aspects of the hike were particularly underwhelming to me. Bush honeysuckle and Kudzu (both invasive species) have run rampant and, in general, it seemed to me like it was the worst possible mix of massive human impact and a complete lack of care.
- In many places, the stones of the grand staircase are covered in a mix of dirt/mud, moss, and mildew and therefore can become very slick.
- Coldwater Creek has a really jaded history in terms of radioactive runoff and other concerning pollution. I don’t recommend swimming or wading in it.
- Sections of this may sometimes flood in the Spring if the water gets high on the Missouri River.
Fort Belle Fontaine has two important historical pasts. The first being, the fort was the first U.S. military installation west of the Mississippi River. The trading fort was an important gathering place for officers and enlisted men; Native peoples; and French, Spanish and American settlers, trappers, and traders. But the majority of the structures from those days have been completely wiped out by the shifting of the Missouri river.
Second, the site was a large project within FDR’s Works Progress Administration (WPA) in the 1930s. The WPA built a grand staircase down from the bluff along with a number of other structures from limestone on the property. The Grand Staircase is certainly an impressive feat both in terms of scale and craftsmanship. I can appreciate the tremendous effort involved in building it. It seems like at one time, it was really nice. But, for me, it, and most other structures at this place just felt unnecessarily run-down. I found myself thinking of all the ways it could be better.
I know for some, they really like exploring the “ruins” but for me, it’s really just not that old. Europeans would giggle at us if we told them something only 90 years old was “ruins”. With a nice powerwash, some landscaping work, filling the ponds, and fixing the things that are broken, the grand staircase could still be truly spectacular, but instead, it’s all being left to rot. And that bums me out.
Natural areas and the trail
Beyond the run-down historic structures, many of the natural aspects of the area were very underwhelming to me. Whoever maintains this seems like they are more at war with nature rather than working with it. The trail is mostly a wide and flat with overly aggressive clearing of it. There is massive overgrowth of bush honeysuckle and kudzu, both invasive species that take over if not handled properly. Everything seemed to be at the worst possible state between heavy human impact and a complete lack of care and maintenance. It lacked the beauty of a truly natural area and didn’t have the redeeming qualities of a well-manicured setting.
But there is certainly plenty of natural beauty here as well. Coldwater creek is very beautiful as you get further away from the Missouri River. There are nice prairies and meadows with a lovely wetland pond. Lots of interesting things to see and explore. I just think they need major shifts in their approach to managing the grounds and it could be much nicer.
Where to go
When you get to the site, you will need to stop at the guard post at the entrance but they generally just wave you through. Wayfinding signage is extremely lacking. The hiking aspect of the site seems like it is largely an afterthought. Park in the small lot on the first road to the left after entering. To find the longest – and most scenic – route, keep to the left as you come to “crossroads” along the way, even if there are gates across the paths. Ignore the gates. The gates are to prevent vehicular traffic. If you pass the canine training area (the site also serves as a Juvenile Detention Center and a K9 (dog) training facility where you can sometimes see the dogs being trained), take the narrow asphalt path up the slight hill on the left just past the building to get back on the more scenic trail. If you end up at the small school, the trail continues behind the school. Construction materials hide the entrance to the trail. As you walk close to Cold Creek, watch for overgrown ruins in the woods. Also numerous ruins of WPA structures near Grand Staircase.