It’s usually quite early when I begin my day at the place that’s become my de facto backyard. Tower Grove Park, in St Louis, Missouri, is the jewel many visitors don’t even realise exists. That’s just fine by me. I prefer it quiet.
When my husband and I moved to the area two decades ago, we adored the historic homes, the comradery among neighbours, and being within walking distance of excellent culinary options, thanks to the many immigrant-owned restaurants along our stretch of South Grand Boulevard.
But the park? It was the clincher. Above anything else, Tower Grove cemented our relationship with this little slice of south St Louis, and I spend nearly every morning marvelling at its beauty.
Central Park in New York City might be better known, but I’m here to tell you, Tower Grove Park has it beat hands-down.
My regular 4-mile runs take me all the way around the 289-acre rectangular parcel of land. From my house, the park is just four blocks away. Passing through a grand limestone and ornamental wrought-iron gate, I enter a new world: a lush, gorgeous refuge in the city.
My happy place.
Tower Grove Park was entrepreneur Henry Shaw’s passion project. The English transplant pined for his homeland’s country gardens as he made a new home in America. First, Shaw built what would become the world-renowned Missouri Botanical Garden, opening it in 1859. Shaw then donated adjacent acreage to the city, with the express purpose of creating a public park. He led its design from plantings to pavilion construction, towering entrance gates, gorgeous picnic grounds, and of course, the paths perfect for strolling. When Tower Grove Park started welcoming visitors in 1872, it was the place to see and be seen in St Louis.
Today, it maintains elegant, Victorian-era charm at every turn. My typical morning run takes me through stands of shady cypress, flowering magnolias and towering oaks. Heading west, I’ll jog by small stone cottages originally built for groundskeepers and alongside bold bronze statues of Shakespeare and von Humboldt. Near the park’s inner corridor, the Turkish Pavilion comes into my sightline about a mile in. You can’t miss it. Of the park’s 32 historic shelters, it’s arguably the grandest, its striped top resembling a giant peppermint candy.
Visitors to the Fountain Pond feed the ducks, fish for crawdads, and admire the water lilies. If I need a break to catch my breath, I’ll keep my eyes on the water long enough to spot turtles as they pop up for air or sun. If I remove my earbuds, I’ll hear the deep croaks of bullfrogs. On especially lucky days, I might get a hummingbird buzz-by, as the tiny avian powerhouses sip nectar from nearby flower beds and planters. I always stop to sniff the delicate, sweet scent of the reachable waterlilies near the shoreline. These quiet, reflective moments help me reconnect with nature while I’m in the city, gifts for which I’m grateful.
Continuing west, prairie grasses and wildflowers — certainly a more natural look — mix and mingle with carefully manicured flower beds. Birders with their binoculars routinely gather here, spotting up to 200 different species during peak migration in the spring and fall.
Looping now back to the east, I spy the small limestone house where Jeff lives. He tends to Moonshine, the park’s Clydesdale, and Sheffield, its miniature pony. Often, I’ll see the horses munching away on hay in their pasture. Occasionally, Jeff will walk Sheffield throughout the park, ensuring they both get their steps in.
There are other animals, of course, who reside in Tower Grove. I’ve seen deer, raccoons, and once, even a pair of silent, stealthy coyotes. Today, a red-tailed hawk swoops in on some prey, leaving chattering, alarmed squirrels in its wake.
The last bit of my route takes me past the Piper Palm House, once a plant conservatory, now an incredible special events venue. The Director’s Residence, a pretty mishmash of neoclassical and Italianate architecture, was supposed to be the first of many villas that would line the park’s boundaries, but the plan stalled. Today, it’s a reminder of the families who lived there in service to this remarkable green space.
As I power to the top of Tower Grove’s last rather steep hill before exiting and heading back home, I feel a deep sense of gratitude despite my fatigue. This beautiful nature break is always an invigorating start to the day, and I’m so fortunate to have it just steps from my home. While I run this route regularly, there’s always something new to see, smell or hear.
You just have to pay attention.