Hope for the best, but plan for the worst. That advice proved wise on a recent hike into one of the most pristine and scenic landscapes in Missouri – Mudlick Hollow at Sam A. Baker State Park.
The hike was in celebration of Missouri being named the “Best Trails State” by American Trails, a national, nonprofit organization working on behalf of the nation’s hiking, biking and riding trails. The award, announced in April, is presented every two years to the state that has made tremendous contributions to promoting and improving its trails.
The award recognized Missouri’s diverse trails and specifically recognized a project by Missouri State Parks to inventory and manage its trail system. The result was publication of “Trails of Missouri State Parks,” the first guide to hiking the more than 230 trails in 58 state parks and historic sites. The 422-page, full-color book is available at mostateparks.com.
The guide is the best place to start when planning a hike in a state park. Each trail is described according to mileage, uses allowed, estimated hiking time and special features, with an accompanying map. A visitor can pick a two- to three-mile walk in the woods, or a 10-plus-mile adventure into the backcountry.
Normally, I’d head to Hawn State Park, about an hours’ drive south of St. Louis in Ste. Genevieve County, when needing some trail time. The park has the beautiful Pickle Creek Trail, a short hike along a sand-bottom creek that winds between granite boulders sculpted by water, and Whispering Pines Trail, a 9.75-mile hike that shows off the park’s sandstone bluffs and stands of shortleaf pine.
But Hawn also is one of the most popular hiking parks in the state, especially in spring when its wild azaleas and lady-slipper orchids may be blooming. Fall color in the mixed forest of hardwoods and pines also is a must-see. I wanted a little more solitude and challenge amid my wilderness.
Although hiking with a partner is always a safer choice, I like to go solo, taking plenty of time to admire and photograph the scenery.
The late Edgar Dennison, the father of Missouri’s wildflower guides, once said: “It’s amazing, the older you get, the more things there are to stop and look at - especially when walking uphill.”
Amen to that.
Exploring a wild area
Sam A. Baker State Park, in southeast Missouri, is a splendid example of an Ozark setting, with sparkling Big Creek cutting through the park and emptying into the St. Francis River on its border. The park is in the St. Francois Mountains, one of the oldest mountain ranges in North America.
Like other parks, Sam A. Baker has a choice of trails. The Shut-Ins Trail follows Big Creek 1.25 miles through lush bottomland forest to a gravel bar with a perfect swimming hole. Mudlick Trail, on the other hand, is 11 miles up and down some of the most rugged country in the state.
The trail climbs from the Big Creek valley to the top of Mudlick Mountain. Most of the trail is in the Mudlick Mountain Wild Area, an undisturbed natural landscape of old growth trees, rare plants and deep ravines that drop to boulder-strewn streams.
Missouri has 11 designated wild areas in nine state parks. To qualify, an area generally must be more than 1,000 acres, and possess outstanding scenic values that have not been altered by development. Mudlick Mountain is the second largest, at 4,420 acres. In return, wild areas are carefully protected with stringent restrictions.
I’ve hiked the entire Mudlick Trail, and strenuous is an apt description. The trail, however, can be hiked in sections, and I was headed to Mudlick Hollow, a five-mile roundtrip that takes you into a deep valley cut by Mudlick Creek, which tumbles through blue granite boulders covered with mosses and lichen. The rare heart-leafed plantain grows among the ferns in the creek’s spray.
The forecast was for more rain, but that was part of the plan. Mudlick Creek would be flowing nicely, with all the little waterfalls turned into frothy whitewater. I wanted to photograph that spectacle.
A rumble, then rain
The morning dawned dark and cloudy, as predicted. After parking my car at the trailhead, I looked into the backseat and made a last-minute decision that proved a godsend. I was dressed in a hooded rain suit, and had camera equipment stowed in a sealable dry bag, but I grabbed a red-and-white golf umbrella before locking the door.
The trail ascends the foot of Mudlick Mountain to a ridge where the Civilian Conservation Corps built three stone-and-timber shelters in the 1930s. The three-sided shelters provide a panoramic view of Big Creek valley and the misty mountains beyond.
I was resting at the third shelter when the sky rumbled with rolling thunder and a steady rain began to fall. It would not let up the rest of the day.
Switchbacks led down the steep hillside to Mudlick Creek, which I could hear long before seeing. The hike requires four creek crossings on stepping stones, most of which were now submerged. The sturdy umbrella became a handy trekking pole for negotiating the slippery wade through the rushing water, and kept the camera equipment dry while photographing the waterfalls.
The trail along the creek soon became pools that I sloshed through. My feet were wet, but cold was not a problem with the temperature in the 60s. I had additional layers of clothing, and another poncho, in my backpack. I would not have attempted this adventure if the weather was chilly.
The trail along the creek came to the Fish Bowl, a deep and wide pool fed by a waterfall.
The hike up was not quite as rocky or steep, and at the top of the ridge I caught the Hollow Pass Trail back to the stone shelters. I detoured down the hillside, following a noisy waterfall all the way, to access the Shut-Ins Trail and head back to the trailhead.
Before leaving on the hike, I had talked to park personnel and given them my route, and expected finishing time. I was late by two hours, and soon received a call on my cell phone from a staffer checking on my whereabouts.
By then, I was enjoying the rain from the front porch of my cabin, and editing my waterfall photos.