St. Francois State Park, Missouri
By Joel Raeber
Posted September 2011
One hundred fifty years ago this month, the Civil War came to Missouri. The Battle of Wilson's Creek in August of 1861 near Springfield, Missouri, marked the beginning of the Civil War west of the Mississippi. To help celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, here is a trip to a little-known Missouri camping destination with Civil War connections.
The area around St. Francois State Park, located approximately 60 miles southwest of St. Louis and about 60 miles northeast of the Wilson Creek battlefield, played a small part in the Civil War history. When the Civil War came to Missouri, it divided many families. pro-Confederate politicians passed an Ordinance of Secession, and the Confederate government recognized Missouri as the 12th Confederate state in 1861.At the same time, pro-Union Missouri legislators met in Jefferson City and declared the state's loyalty to the Union. Missouri had two governments and representation in both the U.S. Congress and the Confederate Congress.
For the next 3 1/2 years, the state was the scene of fierce fighting, mostly guerrilla warfare, with small bands of mounted raiders destroying anything that could aid the enemy. By the time the war ended in 1865, there had been so many battles in Missouri that it ranks as the third most-fought-over state in the nation.
The heavily forested Pike Run Hills area of Missouri, where today’s St. Francois State Park is located, was once a refuge for Civil War outlaws. One popular legend local residents tell stories about is Sam Hildebrand, a guerrilla fighter who joined the Confederacy to avenge the death of his brother by the Union’s Missouri Militia. Hildebrand was known to hide out in a cave in what is now the park.
Today, these same forested hills, ridges, and hollows in St. Francois State Park serve as a natural refuge from modern life. RVers can choose from more than 100 campsites in two large loops within the park. There are 47 basic campsites and 63 sites with electric hookups. The campground is heavily wooded but mostly flat with modern restrooms, hot showers, laundry facilities and a dump station. Many of the sites are pull-thru with gravel drives and have fire rings. Campsites may be reserved year-round; however, water is not available in the park from November through March.
The park’s history reflects the role it played in the area’s local heritage. The first settlers in the area came to work the many lead mines around the park. Although the park land was explored for minerals and some surface mining was done, no significant deposits were found. Some of the place names in the area also give an idea of a different cultural heritage. Residents can still remember the moonshine stills that flourished in Mooner’s Hollow. Coonville Creek, which runs through Mooner’s Hollow, was a good source of cold, clear water, one of the most important ingredients for making good moonshine.
The park is rich in natural history as well. The Coonville Creek Wild Area includes the forested ridges and hollows of the Pike Run Hills, which are covered with white oak, black oak, shagbark hickory and dogwood. Small springs and wet meadows feed this Ozark stream. Many rare plants, more common to areas farther north, grow in the moist, sheltered conditions.
There are four hiking trails in St. Francois State Park. The trails leading through Mooner’s Hollow and Pike Run provide access to this wild area. All the trails are moderate with rolling hills and some rocky stretches.
Overnight backpacking is available on the 11-mile Pike Run Backpacking Trail, which runs through the wilderness area. Campfires are prohibited, and no water is available along the trail. Backpackers should plan to bring a cooking stove and drinking water. Pike Run Trail is also available to equestrian users. Bicycles and motorized vehicles are not permitted on the trails.
The Big River forms the southern boundary of the park. Towering dolomite limestone bluffs overlook the river and grassy forest glades occur on several of the south-facing slopes. This slow-moving Ozark stream is ideal for family canoeists, and easy access to the Big River makes St. Francois State Park ideal for canoeing and floating. The river also adds its own hazard, and all campers must have an immediate means of motorized transportation in case of evacuation due to flash flooding which can occur with heavy summer thunderstorms.
Fishing is available along three miles of Big River that flows through St. Francois State Park. Smallmouth bass, catfish and sunfish are most commonly caught. Both the Big River and Coonville Creek are shallow and easily waded most of the time, and both streams have easily-accessed banks within the park.
St. Francois State Park is home to a rich diversity of native plants. Spring offers carpets of bluebells, while bright displays of maple, hickory and oak foliage light the park in fall. Some areas of the park are being restored to pre-settlement open woodlands with prairie grasses and wildflowers.
For animal lovers, the park offers a chance to see owls, hawks and numerous songbirds. Collared lizards, beaver, bobcat, and coyote are also frequent visitors.
This part of Missouri offers RVers numerous recreational opportunities. Within an hour’s drive of the park, RVers can find six additional Missouri state parks and six Missouri state historic sites, including the Wilson Creek Battlefield. Another local attraction is the well-known scuba diving facility at Bonne Terre Mines, with cave diving. Metropolitan St. Louis, with museums, attractions and restaurants is also about one hour’s drive from the park.
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