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Bushwhacking Hawn Park


Al Agnew

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Hawn State Park, only a few miles from my house, is one of my favorite places to hike. I've been visiting it since before it was even a park, back in the early 1960s with my parents. My dad's uncle lived near Pickle Spring and actually owned part of the land that now makes up Pickle Spring, and Dad spent a lot of time with him when he was a kid, and roamed all over the whole Pickle Creek watershed. Pickle Creek starts out near Pickle Spring, and runs through Hawn Park to run into River Aux Vases near the eastern edge of the park.

It's gorgeous country, and very different from much of the Ozarks. The Lamotte sandstone, the oldest sedimentary rock formation in Missouri, covers the park, and the Lamotte forms many interesting outcrops, including high bluffs and isolated rock masses towering over the otherwise gently rolling to steep hilly country. In other areas, such as Pickle Spring, it also forms box canyons with waterfalls up to 80 feet high, but in Hawn Park the box canyons are much smaller.

Geologically, the Lamotte sandstone is beach and shallow sea sand. Somewhere around 1.5 billion years ago, what is now the St. Francois Mountains with Hawn Park lying at their eastern edge were being formed from extensive volcanic activity. Much of the igneous rock of the St. Francois Mountains are ancient lava, magma, and ash flow tuffs. By the Cambrian period, sea levels had risen, leaving the volcanic knobs of the St. Francois Mountains as an island mass in a shallow sea. The Lamotte eroded off these knobs to settle around their edges and in the sea around them. When you pick up a handful of sand along Pickle Creek, you are picking up fragments of those incredibly ancient volcanoes. The Lamotte was formed in the neighborhood of 520 million years ago, as the seas continued to rise and cover the beach sand, depositing layers of limestone atop it, with the pressure cementing all that sand into stone. There was a lot of sand to cover, because in many areas, the Lamotte is up to 500 feet thick atop the igneous rock.

Hawn Park today is known for its trails, as well as the beautiful campground and picnic area along Pickle Creek. There are three big loop trails, and a shorter trail the runs up the creek through the shut-in above the picnic ground where the creek has carved its way downward through the ages until it reached the granite of the St. Francois Mountains.

I've hiked all the trails many times. But I like to explore off the trails. While the trails go to some of the most spectacular parts of the park, there is a lot of very interesting country that they don't reach. There was once a network of old logging roads throughout the park, and I've hiked along all of them. These days, they are barely traceable, mainly noticeable only because in many places the old roadbeds are a foot or two lower than the ground around them.

Today, I decided I needed some exercise before the Superbowl. Mary was feeling under the weather due to a bad cold, so it would be a solo hike, and Hawn Park was my destination. In less than 10 minutes I was parking at the lower end of the campground in the walk-in campsite parking lot. There had been two cars at the trailhead parking lots, and nobody in the campground.

There are no trails downstream from the campground, and there's a lot of country that is part of the park. There was once an old road leading downstream, crossing and re-crossing the creek before winding up the hillside to the south to reach the dividing ridge between Pickle Creek and River Aux Vases. The old road led first to a big bottom field that was the only good-sized piece of cleared land along the entire length of Pickle Creek. I'd hunted that field for Indian projectile points before it was a part of the park and was still being plowed occasionally.

I crossed the creek, balancing on rocks in a fast riffle, followed the creek downstream, and crossed it again to reach the old field. It is now grown up in pines up to 8 or 10 inches in diameter, along with cedars and river birch. At the lower end of it is a big, overhanging bluff with a huge slab of rock lying at its base where the creek swings in against it, and an obvious hollow in the bluff where the slab came from...and a crack that leads you to believe another huge slab could go at any time. I get a funny feeling when I walk beneath it, and tend to hurry through. It could be another hundred, thousand, or ten thousand years before that slab drops, but then again, it could be tomorrow.

The creek winds through the sandstone, with a bluff at the outside of every bend and a very narrow bottom, rising gently into the hills on the inside. My goal for the day was to go all the way down Pickle Creek to the confluence with River Aux Vases. I was carrying a topo map, and a couple bluffs below the old field, I noticed a narrow, steep hollow coming down to the creek from the south. I checked it on the topo map, and noted that it came off a large knob atop the divide ridge. I have an old topo map from 1906 that shows some of the old roads, and I'd marked them on the more modern map I was carrying. As I said, I'd been on all of them, but I realized that I'd never been atop that knob, because the road along the ridge went around it rather than over it. So I started up the hollow to climb that knob.

The knob tops out about 260 feet higher than the creek, and it was long, steep hike to the top. It's ringed by a ledge just below the top that is as much as 20 feet high in some places, but it was easy to find a gap in the ledge to reach tthe top. There was still fairly thick, large timber atop it, and there wasn't much of a view, but at least I could now say I'd been on top.

From there, I followed the knob as it elongated and dropped down to the level of the divide ridge. It would have been about a mile from there to Wild Hog Bluff, a really interesting "chimney rock" that sits atop a bluff line along River Aux Vases, towering another 50 feet higher than the 50 foot cliff, but I'd been to Wild Hog Bluff many times, so I continued to follow the ridge, heading for its terminus where River Aux Vases and Pickle Creek combine.

The ridge crosses over to private land, and I came to a fence, with two tree stands in sight, set up right on the park boundary. It's still a long way to the nearest house, and since it was well past bow season, there was little chance of anybody knowing I was back there, so I continued, finding an ATV trail that had obviously not been used since the last rains, going the way I was headed, following what had been a road in 1906. The trail led past the barely visible rock foundation of a house that had been shown on the 1906 map, with an open cistern, 6 feet down to water that looked deep. Falling in that cistern would probably mean death, by myself as I was. The opening was small, and the cistern widened as it went down.

The divide ridge ends in four fingers, and each finger is wide, with no real way to recognize the finger that leads to the confluence. According to the map, it was the second finger from the left, but it was very difficult to tell, in the thick forest, exactly which way to go. A compass would have helped. But I guessed correctly, and came to a point overlooking the confluence, 80 feet below. It wasn't easy to pick my way down stairstep ledges to stream level.

The confluence itself is on park property; at some point as I was coming down those ledges I'd crossed it. And it's a beautiful place, with River Aux Vases coming out of a bend with a bluff just upstream in its narrow canyon, With a bluff looming over the junction, and Pickle Creek coming down its own thickly forested canyon to meet it. Both streams were flowing about the same amount of water today; in mid-summer, River Aux Vases flows about twice as much water as Pickle Creek at the junction.

My map showed the united stream following a big bend, flowing north, then around to the south. The high ridge on the inside of that bend is narrow. I could climb the bluff at the confluence, reach a saddle between two knobs, and look down to the "river" on the other side, with the dividing ridge at the saddle being little more than an eighth of a mile in width. The park boundary roughly follows the top of the ridge.

I reached the saddle, finding the boundary was marked by an ATV trail and another string of tree stands. I was 70 feet over the river on the upstream side, 80 feet above it on the downstream side, and the view downstream was quite a change from what I'd been seeing. The valley opened out, with wide, cleared bottom fields, and another big bend with towering, pinnacled limestone bluffs along its outside. No more sandstone, and there's a reason for that. It's at this point that River Aux Vases crosses the Ste. Genevieve Fault, one of the major geologic structures of the Ozarks. The Lamotte sandstone at the surface where I stood lies more than 1000 feet below the Gasconade Dolomite of Ordovician age, 60 million years younger, that forms those pinnacled bluffs downstream. That means that the land where I stood had risen more than a thousand feet at some time. Geologists believe that the fault is part of the major uplift of the whole Ozark region, and that faulting happened at two distinct periods, once in late Devonian time, 375 million years ago, and again when the Ozark Dome rose in Pennsylvanian time, around 300 million years ago. The Ste. Genevieve Fault System is connected to one of the continent's major fracture patterns, running to the east through Illinois and Kentucky toward the Appalachians.

I followed the ridge from the saddle out toward the end of the bend as it rose in a final knob 120 feet over the river before dropping precipitously into one of the narrowest portions of the canyon, right where it ends. Just as you start to drop off the knob, a wide power line swath comes across the river, over the knob, and crosses the river again, running through the cleared bottom below to climb the dolomite bluff downstream. It's a wide open view both up into the sandstone canyons and down into the farmland.

I dropped down along an old road bed to the apex of the bend, where there is a massive sandstone bluff along the outer edge of the bend and a deep pool beneath it. This last, narrowest bit of the sandstone canyons of River Aux Vases suddenly opens out to bottom fields a quarter mile wide at the end of that bluff. The park boundary is the power line, so I was again on private land at this point. I suddenly realized that I'd made a slight miscalculation. I'd crossed the River Aux Vases to get to this point, and now I'd have to either retrace my steps to re-cross the River Aux Vases above the confluence and then cross Pickle Creek to be on the same side as my vehicle at some point, or else figure out how to cross the twice as big River Aux Vases here.

I walked up the creek to the riffle at the head of the deep pool. There was a nice group of stepping stone rocks going most of the way across, but a five foot wide tongue of foot deep water at one point that looked impossible to jump across and land teetering on a rock not much bigger than my foot. Then I had an idea. I found two rocks that were just small enough that I could lift them, and carried them one at a time out to the tongue of water, dropping them into the tongue and making a much easier stepping stone path. I crossed the channel without getting my feet wet.

Then I hiked back up to where the power line crossed. My intention was to hike along the base of the bluff and around it to follow the power line up the ridge and away from the steep land along the creek. But I soon found that the base of the bluff was nearly impassible. There was a narrow notch leading up the bluff, and I climbed it to the top of the bluff, right where the power line crossed it, giving me another open, impressive view.

I walked up the power line. Here I had two choices. I could take the power line all the way up to Bauer Road, a gravel road that would take me to within just 3/4ths of a mile from my vehicle, where I'd have to come off the high ridge that the road follows and pick the right hollow to lead me directly to the car. But the last quarter mile of the powerline is entirely on private land, and I knew there was a house somewhere near where the power line reached the road. I believed I knew who owned this land, and that if they were there they'd be okay with me traipsing across their land, but I wasn't entirely sure. My other choice was to follow the power line a ways, then cut cross country, staying below the cap rock cliff that lies below the top of the road ridge and mainly staying on park land, crossing several hollows near their heads, where they weren't very steep, and finally reaching the hollow that led down to the car. That's what I did. That cap rock cliff is anywhere from 10 to 40 feet high, and in one spot there was an isolated rock off the edge of the cliff that looks to be a part of the cliff that got separated. It's a good 20 feet tall and 30 feet wide, an impressive erosional remnant.

I picked the right hollow, and emerged exactly at my car. Looking at the map, I figure I'd hiked about five or six miles total, mostly through untracked woodland. I'd gone up 270 feet in elevation from the creek to the first knob, then gradually dropped almost 200 feet to the end of the divide ridge, then 90 feet to River Aux Vases, back up 110 feet to the knob on the end of the bend, back down 120 feet to the creek, then up the bluff and power line 280 feet to where I started across country below the cap rock, and finally dropping abou 150 feet to the car. The hike had taken me about 4 hours. It was a nice way to spend a sunny, cool Superbowl Sunday.

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