The rocky trail leading to the top of Evans Knob will get your attention, but the reward is a panoramic view of the wooded hills of hardwoods and pines – a mosaic of color in fall - that makes Hawn State Park one of Missouri’s prettiest parks.
The climb comes shortly after you begin hiking the Whispering Pines Trail, traveling clockwise. The trail, considered among the top hiking and backpacking trails in the state, is 9.75 miles long.
Runners-up are the 11-mile Mudlick Trail at Sam A. Baker State Park state park and the 13-mile section of the Ozark Trail that links Taum Sauk Mountain State Park and Johnson’s Shut-Ins State Park. Both are rugged hikes that can be done on a long day and as an overnight outing.
Missouri has been named the “Best Trails State” by American Trails, a national, not-for-profit organization working on behalf of the nation’s hiking, biking and riding trails. The award is presented every two years to the state that has made tremendous contributions to promote and improve its trail system.
Missouri's State Parks have more than 230 trails in 58 parks and historic sites. A guide-book for all of them, “Trails of Missouri State Parks,” is available for $20. It describes each trail and helps you choose a hiking trail based on your needs and skill level.
For veteran outdoors enthusiasts, the first frost of fall signals the start of the hiking season. Autumn colors are coaxed out and ticks and chiggers are chased away. The season runs through winter, when leafless trees mean better views of the landscape, and extends into late spring, when woodland wildflowers bloom.
Hawn State Park is about an hour-and-fifteen minutes south of St. Louis off Interstate 55, 20 miles southeast of Ste. Genevieve. On a crisp, sunny morning in mid-September, the purple asters and goldenrod were still in bloom, but the scarlet colors of the sumac and sassafras signaled the start of fall.
“A lot of people like Hawn because it has so many pine trees and lots of wildflowers,” says Ed Schott, the park’s superintendent. “In spring, we have the wild azaleas that bloom. In fall, it’s beautiful with the colors of the oaks and aromatic sumac and hickories. In winter, we get lots of ice sculptures in the canyons and on the cliffs and bluffs. Summer is nice, just bring your bug spray.”
The park’s geology includes sandstone bluffs, where ferns and mosses grow in the moist overhangs. Pickle Creek has carved through the sandstone down to bedrock, exposing blue granite that forms pools and chutes in the shut-ins.
The wildlife includes deer, bobcat, coyote and turkey, plus a variety of songbirds, including tanagers, indigo buntings and pine warblers.
“For people into birding, Hawn is an Audubon Important Area,” Schott says. “Fall seems to be a good time to hear owls, and we have plenty of raptors, including red-tailed hawks.”
The Whispering Pines Trail has two loops, forming a figure eight. The North Loop is about six miles, and the South Loop is about four. The paths on both loops often are softened by needles dropped from the stands of shortleaf pine and by sand eroded from the bluffs.
The South Loop follows the lovely River Aux Vases, with several spots where sand beaches below lush bluffs make for a perfect picnic spot.
“Some of the nicest parts of the Whispering Pines Trail are on the South Loop along the River Aux Vases,” Schott says. “It’s the most remote part of the park.”
For hikers who want a shorter walk, Schott recommends a two-mile loop that follows the bluffs, counter-clockwise, on the Whispering Pines Trail, then descends to cross Pickle Creek and comes back along its scenic shut-ins.
If you want a longer walk, connector trails join Whispering Pines, leading to the White Oak and Pickle Creek trails for a total of 17 miles. “Do all three, spend the night out on the trail, and you have a pretty good wilderness experience,” Schott notes.
The trails are open only to hikers and backpackers; no vehicles and no animals. Campfires are prohibited. The water quality in the creek and river is good, but should be treated before drinking.
Hawn’s campground has 50 sites; about half offer electricity. There is a shower house; five walk-in campsites in the woods; and a special-use site that accommodates 50 people. Because of its popularity in spring and fall, Schott recommends visitors reserve a camp site five to six months in advance.
Recently, I took a walk on Whispering Pines Trail, beginning at 10 a.m., and finished about seven hours later, with stops for lunch and photography. Schott described the hike as moderate, and said visitors should plan to be on the trail for eight to nine hours.
Asked for advice for first-time users, Schott replies: “Maps, daylight and bug spray.” With the arrival of the first frost, the latter element can be eliminated.
One more bit of advice: stop and listen, the pines really do whisper in the slightest breeze. The most important thing: have a good time in Missouri’s great outdoors.
For more information, visit MoStateParks.com.