6500 Government Drive, Forest Park
Saint Louis, MO
The John F. Kennedy Memorial Forest consists of approximately 90 acres of varied habitat in the southwest corner of Forest Park. Before European settlers arrived in Saint Louis this area consisted of timberland until Saint Louis expanded. In 1876 Forest Park was created and most of the trees for which the city's new park was named were cleared for park development. More trees were cleared in 1904 to make room for the Saint Louis World’s Fair. A small wooded area in the southwest corner was spared but was treated carelessly. It became a dumping ground for debris from the Fair and for trash from area residents as well. It also suffered from the invasion of non-native plants, changed the entire ecosystem. By the time the forest was named after President John F. Kennedy in 1964 it was in a sad state.
In the 1990s a major effort was initiated to reverse the forest’s decline. The Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC) and the Kennedy Woods Advisory Group removed invasive plants. They also thinned the tree cover that hampered the growth of new oak and hickory saplings. In recent years, the city of St. Louis, the MDC, and volunteers began a more ambitious ecological restoration. Using data from less disturbed woods, they introduced long-absent tree and understory plants, which in turn encouraged the return of long-lost animal species. Today the Kennedy Forest consists of three distinct habitats. Of the 90 acres, 13 acres south of Wells Drive are what can be called an urban park habitat with mown grass and picnic areas. There are “islands” of forest south of Wells Drive and combined with the forested area north of this thoroughfare, there are approximately 68 acres of timberland. Interspersed along the northern edge of the forest is the oak savanna restoration project which encompasses nearly 9 acres of this rare and endangered habitat.
In the timberland visitors will find wildflowers like wild geraniums and trilliums that now carpet the forest floor, as well as an endangered shrub - the northern arrowwood. Acorns find enough sunlight to germinate and grow into new oak trees. Indigo buntings and bluebirds - Missouri's state bird - have returned to nest in the trees after a long absence. Visitors will find a number of bluebird boxes situated throughout this area which encourage the bluebirds to nest here. So many bird species rely on the Kennedy Forest that the National Audubon Society has designated it an Important Bird Area. Volunteers and staff continue to remove invasive plants and to thin overgrown timber (mimicking the work of natural fires) every year.
The oak savanna is one of the rarest ecosystems on earth - a transitional zone between prairies and woodlands. Oak savannas dotted North America for thousands of years, but more than 99% of this type of habitat is gone. They were cleared for farms and ranches, or declined with the end of natural fires (which rejuvenated the native plants). Along with prairies, oak savanna's are among the most endangered ecosystems in the world. Until just a few years ago the northwest corner of the Kennedy Forest was a clearing of non-native grass and oak trees with few wildflowers or native plants. The oak savanna's rebirth began in 1999, when a few dozen volunteers known as the Kennedy Woods Advisory Group stepped up. After removing non-native plants, they hand-scattered 100 pounds of seeds of native grasses, herbs, shrubs, and flowering plants. Over the years, these plants have taken hold and today more than 100 savanna plant species form the basis for a thriving restored ecosystem. Periodically the savanna is be subjected to a controlled burn which revitalizes the area. The native plants have deep roots and can survive the fire, while invasive and non-native species are eliminated. Long absent savanna animals are returning and as well as migratory birds and insects that rely on this rare restored refuge to stop to feed on the wealth of seeds and other food.
The Kennedy Forest is crisscrossed with a network of trails of all sorts. Some trails are wide and paved to accommodate both pedestrians and bicyclists. Other trails are wide gravel trails that give visitors a more natural experience. One of the most important trails is the John F. Kennedy Trail, commonly called the Boardwalk. This trail, which is just under a 1/2 mile in length, was built to ADA specifications. The trail zig zags along a gentle slope through the forest with wooden boardwalks traversing the small ravines and gullies. There are 16 benches situated along the trail as resting stops. The trail starts from a picnic shelter with barrier free parking. Another path that is barrier free runs from Skinker Avenue near the first bus stop north of Clayton Avenue through the oak savanna to behind the Art Museum. This path measures about 3/4 of a mile although a rough patch exists half way from the edge of the park to the Art Museum. Please note: This path can be difficult to access as there is no barrier free parking nearby. Parking can be found close to the path's entrance on Skinker Avenue near the first bus stop shelter north of Clayton. While there is no barrier free parking spots a barrier free entrance to the Park's sidewalks can be found at the intersection of Skinker and Rosebury Avenues. This is about 1/10 of a mile north (1 block) of the sheltered bus stop and does require dealing with traffic.
The Kennedy Forest is home to approximately 30 resident birds during a given season including Red-tailed Hawks, Barred Owls, a variety of woodpeckers, and assorted songbirds. Birds such as the Indigo Bunting and American Goldfinch call the forest home during the summer and are replaced by birds such as the White-throated Sparrow and Dark-eyed Junco who like to winter in the area. Although they are there it is unlikely to see all the resident birds during one visit as you need to be at the right place and right time to catch a glimpse of the more uncommon residents. In April and May the forest becomes very active during the passerine migration as over a dozen different warblers as well as orioles, thrushes, and tanagers take advantage of this oasis of nature. A complete birding list can be obtained at the Dennis & Judith Jones Visitor and Education Center situated on Grand Drive on the north side of the Park just southeast of the Missouri History Museum.
Visiting the John F. Kennedy Memorial Forest in Forest Park
Forest Park is open from 6 am to 10 pm, although it is not recommended visiting the Kennedy Forest after dark.
There is no charge to visit the John F. Kennedy Memorial Forest in Forest Park