STE. GENEVIEVE, Mo. – The pines really do whisper.
With the slightest breeze, hikers on the Whispering Pines Trail at Hawn State Park can hear the murmuring of the tall trees while walking on the path softened by fallen needles.
“We have one of the largest shortleaf pine stands in the state park system,” said Ed Schott, park superintendent for the Missouri Department of Natural Resources. “That’s a big draw for a lot of people.”
The arrival of fall does more than color the landscape for outdoor enthusiasts in Missouri -- autumn also signals the start of hiking season. Pesky insects disappear after the first frost. Leaves begin to fall with the coming of winter, allowing a better view of the wildlife and rock formations.
Hiking lasts into spring, when the woodland wildflowers awaken. When summer heats things up, nature viewing is best done from a float trip on one of the state’s cold, clear Ozark streams.
Fall is not only the prettiest season at Hawn, Schott said. It also is the busiest. Reserved camping sites fill up months in advance.
“After a good cold front, when ticks and chiggers are down, and color is looking good, the phone starts ringing,” Schott said. “A lot of people don’t realize how nice it is to hike here in the winter. You get a lot of ice sculptures – really big icicles – on the sandstone bluffs.”
The 10-mile Whispering Pines Trail is considered one of the best in the state for hiking and backpacking. That’s where I headed on a sunny fall day that was warm enough to consider a dip in Pickle Creek, which runs along the trail’s north loop.
The south loop follows the River Aux Vases, a stream that on a fall walk was a mosaic of red, yellow and brown floating leaves. Although the trail is popular, hikers can have it all to themselves on weekdays. Both loops are in the Whispering Pines Wild Area.
“The trail goes along the bluffs above Pickle Creek through Lamotte sandstone formations, then down along the creek through pines and oaks,” Schott said. “It has some elevation changes up about 150 feet to sandstone knobs that have really outstanding views of the park and surrounding area.
“The south loop is more remote. It’s managed for wilderness solitude and natural processes. There are very few signs of humans back there.”
The trail has three connectors that can either shorten or lengthen the hike. E-mail the park at [email protected] and Schott will send you back a trail map. If you don’t want a long hike, you can merely explore the pools and chutes of Pickle Creek.
“If people want to go out for a couple of days, they can take a connector to the White Oaks Trail,” Schott said. “You can hike 15 to 17 miles without repeating the same trail.”
Most state parks have a selection of trails.
At Bennett Spring, a popular trout-fishing park near Lebanon, you can warm up with a short hike that follows the spring flow as it feeds into the Niangua River. The leisurely tree-lined walk looks down on the pink-sided rainbow trout treading water in the reeds, ignoring the fly fishermen wading along the opposite bank.
The park also has the Savanna Ridge Trail, a 2.5-mile hike that loops along an open woodland. The park’s most challenging hike is the 7.5-mile Natural Tunnel Trail that leads to a huge open-ended cave that you can walk all the way through.
Some state historic sites also offer hikes.
At Battle of Athens State Historic Site, in the far northeast corner of the state, the Snow Trillium Trail is a two-mile loop that offers bluff-top views of the Des Moines River Valley. The trail is named for the white wildflowers that carpet the shaded woods in spring.
Another of the state’s longer trails is at Sam A. Baker State Park in southeast Missouri. The 11-mile Mudlick Trail showcases the ancient beauty of the St. Francois Mountains, one of the oldest exposures of igneous rock in North America.
The trail begins in Big Creek Valley, named for a lovely Ozark stream perfect for wading, and climbs some 1,000 feet to the top of Mudlick Mountain. There are three hiking shelters, courtesy of the Civilian Conservation Corps.
“It’s mostly a wild area that you’re hiking through - steep and rugged in places, but well taken care of,” park naturalist Michelle Soenksen said of the trail. “We do have some old-growth virgin woods back in there. And Mudlick Hollow, in the spring, has beautiful waterfalls and dark green pools of water.”
No. 1 hike in Missouri
The state’s serious hikers are celebrating the reopening in October of one of the most gorgeous stretches of landscape in Missouri – the section of the Ozark Trail from Taum Sauk Mountain State Park to Johnson’s Shut-ins State Park.
The 13-mile section had been closed for nearly five years because of the breach of the Taum Sauk Reservoir, which was followed by a severe wind storm that downed hundreds of trees.
The Ozark Trail has some 300 miles of trail filled with hills and knobs, valleys cut by spring-fed streams, bluffs dotted with caves and glades and savannas filled with wildflowers and grasses.
“It’s hard to understate how great this section is. You have 1.5-billion-year old mountains, igneous glades, springs, grand vistas, odd rock formations, and a swimming hole filled with natural flumes.
“If this author could only hike one trail in Missouri, this would be his choice.”