PART 1 – An outing without the kids
Seems the last several years it has been very difficult trying to plan an outdoor adventure here in the midwest over Spring Break – mainly due to the weather. Last year for 600-miles in all directions the weather was calling for cold snowy and icy weather. We thought we had a small window of opportunity south of St. Louis to squeeze in a few days of camping at Johnson Shuts-In before the front moved through – we were wrong. The front showed up a few days early and after surviving a night in 25 degree temps, the family decided a quick trip up to my parents in St. Louis and an Imo’s Pizza sounded pretty good. Fortunately we did squeeze in a short hike at Johnson Shut-In’s and Silver Mines before we had to leave.
This year I pulled together three separate plans in an effort to get ahead of mother nature, which included Estes Park, Wichita Mountains in Oklahoma and our priority – backpacking in southeast Missouri. One week out and the weather looked promising for us to go ahead with taking our boys on their first backpacking trip!
Whispering Pines Trail
…a tale of two VERY different days.
Caroline and I opted to do this trail by ourselves and leave the kiddos with the grandparents. A little time away from the kids sounded pretty good and it would give us a chance to have two days of uninterrupted conversation as well as dust off our backpacking skills so we don’t look like complete idiots to our kids.
By all accounts this trail is one of Missouri’s most scenic with many clear streams diverse forest and great views. Located within Hawn State Park, and a short hour and half south of St. Louis, it did not disappoint.
We arrived at the Park around 11:00 after driving down from St. Louis. The Wilderness Trail parking lot was already full but the adjacent lot for the Pickle Creek Trail still had several several spots available. This area of the park was well maintained with a playground situated among tall pine trees as well as a nice picnic shelter.
We loaded up our packs and were on the trail by 11:30. We chose to do the trail in a counter clock-wise direction as suggested in Steve Henry’s book “St. Louis: 60 Hikes within 60-miles” – this turned out to be a blessing and a curse as our pace was much slower than anticipated because of all the scenic spots along Pickle Creek to stop and take in this beautiful scenery. The first 1/2-mile you spend climbing above Pickle Creek to several great scenic overlooks before descending back down to the creek.
The trail then follows Pickle Creek for the next mile and half at which point the trail turns east and wanders through an amazing Pine forest. I can only imagine this section is what gave the trail it’s name. After about a mile the trail turns south again and climbs another 100-feet to the high point of the trail. We were rewarded with a great view of the adjacent hill tops and valleys. A large stack of sandstone blocks made for a great spot to sit and grab a bite to eat. We ran into the campground host who was hiking the trail with his wife and friends. He was a great source of information and was adamant that we stop and camp at Backpack Camp 2 – we were hoping to make it to Camp 3 but it was not meant to be given the slow pace for the day. And based on the campground hosts description we would soon be rewarded with a campsite set among tall pine trees situated next to a small creek – that sounded perfect!.
After a short hike down from the high point we came to the start of the southern loop of the trail. At this point you can choose to stay on the 6-mile Red Loop and return to the trailhead or continue on with the southern blue loop. As planned we continued on the southern loop and made it to Backpack Camp 2 at about 4:00. We really didn’t cover much ground but it was one of the most enjoyable days of hiking I have had in a long time. Caroline and I had a chance to brainstorm several business ideas and generate ideas for our next adventures. It wasn’t long before we arrived at our campsite. We crossed the narrow stream and walked maybe 20 yards to the campsite and made quick work of setting up our tent.
Before making dinner we decided to hike back down the trail to take a closer peek at a small waterfall and pool of water we saw on the way in. It was a beautiful setting and we spent plenty of time taking pictures and appreciating the wonderful day we just had.
Back at camp we dined on Backpacker’s Pantry freeze-dried Vegetable Stew with Beef and herb mashed potatoes. We both agreed the Stew sucked and was waaay to watery. Thankfully the potatoes were pretty good and really saved the dinner. After dinner we retreated to the tent to read a bit and discuss the weather situation for tomorrow. Thankfully we had a cell signal and were able to pull up a weather report – it didn’t look good. It would appear tomorrow would be the exact opposite of what we experienced today.
The hourly forecast showed that starting at midnight the temps would start falling as would the rain. We decided our best window of opportunity was to get up at 4:45 AM while the temps were still above freezing, eat a quick breakfast, tear down the tent and hike out in an attempt to get back to the car before the sleet/snow started and the temps dropped below freezing. With that decided we both grabbed our books for a little reading before getting some sleep. But WAIT my headlamp doesn’t work – not only can I not read my book but my hike out tomorrow is going to be pretty interesting in the dark. Then it hit me – I have my “10 Essentials” bag with me and low and behold it contained an extra “working” headlamp. Problem solved – unfortunately for Caroline my 10 Essentials didn’t contain another book as she just realized the book she brought is one she has already read. Oh well, we both needed to get to bed early since we have an an early wake-up call.
The 4:45 alarm came WAY to soon – it was pitch black and we could hear a steady rain on the tent. I volunteered to head out to get the bear bag down while Caroline started to heat some water for coffee. After splitting a bagel w/ cream cheese and finishing our coffee we packed up our bags, tore down the tent and headed down the trail. Thankfully the trail is well worn with white blazes on trees marking the way as it was still very dark outside. We opted to backtrack from where we came and catch the WC3 connector back to the trailhead as this would be the shortest route out and would be familiar territory.
The connector appeared to be an old dirt road and passes Backpack Camp 1 – which on this morning contained at least eight tents from a Boy Scout troop. Caroline wanted to make zombie noises as we passed but I convinced her that we should just talk quietly so that they knew the walking sounds they heard outside their tent belonged to humans and not some other animal invading their campsite. It was at about this point in the hike that we were able to turn off the headlamps as a diffused light started to glow behind the grey clouds. After an 1-1/2 hours we made it back to the trailhead. We still had to drive back to St. Louis but not before rewarding ourselves with a stop at the Sunny Street Cafe in Arnold, MO. It was at this point that the snow started to come down and we both smiled as we sipped hot coffee and ate our breakfast knowing that getting up early was the right choice.
We will definitely be going back to do this trail with our boys in the fall. And for those that live in St. Louis I would highly recommend this park as a great day trip.