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The History of Hawn State Park

By: Clay Steward

Hawn State Park is located in Western St.Genevieve. The 4,956-acre park offers a special experience for anyone wanting to enjoy nature. Geology buffs come to the park to see the number of exposed rock types, hikers love the park for its amazing trails and bird watchers flock to the park for its variety of birds. The landscape offers a scenic and peaceful setting where visitors can camp, hike, picnic and enjoy nature. The park’s campground, beneath a canopy of lofty pines, includes both basic and electric sites. Picnickers can enjoy a quiet lunch at one of the many picnic tables that dot the sandy, pine-covered woodland floor. One of the best ways to experience the park is on its trails, which range from a short walk to an overlook area to an almost 10-mile-long backpacking trail that is considered one of the best in the state.

According to, St.Genevieve is the oldest incorporated community in Missouri, founded around 1735 by French Canadian explorers coming up the Mississippi River. Helen Coffer Hawn was a rural St.Genevieve county public school teacher who lived with her mother and brother in a rented cottage. She dreamed of creating a park to protect the landscape for the people and began acquiring tracts of land. Between 1932 and 1941, she successfully purchased 12 separate tracts. Hawn died in 1952. She willed nearly 1,500 acres of rugged hills and streams to the state.

The park’s Pickle Creek was said to be named for William Pickles, a settler from Illinois. Some historians believed Pickles purchased property in the area and paid for it by supplying lumber for the plank road, which was built and maintained from nearby forests of oak and pine trees. The 42 mile plank road linked the mines of Iron Mountain with the port of St.Genevieve. It carried lead, iron, cobalt, nickel, marble, granite and agricultural products. At times, 100 teams of oxen, mules and horses were making the five day trip and paying tolls at five gates along the way. The Old Plank Road, which paralleled the present Route 32. Ran along the northern boundary of what is now Hawn State Park.

The park is located in an area of the state where exposures of distinctive LaMotte sandstone bedrock create an unusual landscape with rounded sandstone knobs, canyon-rimmed valleys and vertical cliffs above clear, sandy bottom streams. The sandstone has a unique ability to hold groundwater which produces a concentration of rare and unusual plants in this region.

The acidic soil that has formed over this ancient sandstone supports upland woodlands of tall, straight shortleaf pine, Missouri’s only native pine tree. Mixed in with the pine trees are hardwood trees such as white oak, shagbark hickory and red maple. In the spring, the park bursts with color from the delicate pink and white flowers of the wild azaleas that thrive in the acidic soil. Because of the sandstone influence, many of the park’s 660 species of trees, shrubs, ferns and wildflowers can be found only in this area of Missouri.

Much of the park is in Whispering Pines Wild Area, a large tract set aside as wilderness and offering excellent opportunities for solitude, hiking, backpacking, bird watching and nature study. The majority of the wild area is covered with shortleaf pine, white oak, black oak and flowering dogwood. The wildlife is filled with turkey, white-tailed deer, racoons, eastern gray squirrels and broad headed skink.

The influence of the sandstone can also be seen in Pickle Creek and the River Aux Vases, which meander across the landscape, carving steep-sided valleys. In some places, the water cuts deep enough to reach the igneous rock forming spectacular shut-ins. In several areas, sandstone overhangs along the streams create a cooler atmosphere with nearly constant shade and moisture. Here, plants like rattlesnake orchid, hay-scented fern, partridge berry and ground pine, normally found in northern Missouri, thrive.

More than 20 species of native fish, including rainbow darter, striped shiner and silverjaw minnows, swim in the cool waters of Pickle Creek Natural Area. Pickle Creek winds its way for two miles through narrow and scenic sandstone valleys. The stream rushes over granite outcrops and shut-ins as well as sandstone and a banded crystalline rock that some geologists believe is a metamorphic gneiss rock. It is one of the few places in the state where such a diversity of rocks is exposed at the surface. The forests and woodlands along Pickle Creek are dominated by white oak, shortleaf pine and scarlet oak with flowering dogwood and low bush blueberry in the understory. The area supports an abundance of mosses, lichens and ferns such as cinnamon fern and royal fern. Since Pickle Creek’s nature is high quality and pristine, it has been designated an Outstanding State Resource Water.

The park also includes Botkins Pine Woods Natural Area, which features pure stands of shortleaf pine at the head of coves and on side slopes. The stand of mature shortleaf pines reach up to 80-90 feet and make the perfect place to look and listen for pine warblers in the spring and red-breasted nuthatches in the winter. LaMotte Sandstone Barrens Natural Area features sandstone glades and a dry sandstone forest characterized by shortleaf pine. Wildflowers that have adapted to living on the hot,dry conditions of the glade include lance-leaved coreopsis and yellow star grass.

With the diversity of birds and the habitats the park provides for those birds, the park is recognized as an Important Bird Area with the National Audubon Society. This global bird conservation program is designed to identify, monitor and protect landscapes most important to birds. The recognition acknowledges the global significance of Hawn State Park in the conservation of bird populations. The park’s varied landscapes provide homes to birds such as pine warblers, chickadees, owls, scarlet tanagers, blue-gray gnatcher, white-breasted nuthatch, black-and-white warbler, Louisiana waterthrush and northern parula.

Hawn State Park has four hiking trails which vary in length and experiences offered. They range from a short trail that serves as an excellent introduction to the park to Whispering Pines Trail, which is considered one of the best hiking and backpacking trails in the state.

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