Mooner’s Hollow and Swimming Deer Trails
St. Francois State Park is a hidden gem tucked in the forested Pike Run Hills. Less than an hour drive from St. Louis will bring you to this delightful park which boasts several trails, a crystal clear stream, a campground, and the Big River for boating activities. This quiet oasis contrasts with a colorful past history of outlaws ranging from Civil War guerrilla fighters who hid in caves to moonshiners operating illegal stills. This park has slightly smaller crowds than some of the other nearby parks such as Hawn and Pickle Springs, but that just makes hiking all the more enjoyable.
Mooners Hollow Trail
- Length: 2.8 miles
- Difficulty: 3 out of 5, some moderate up and down hills and one steep hill near the end. Several creek crossings that may be tricky after a lot of rain. Trail is impassable during high water.
- Scenic Value: 3.5 out of 5. There is a nice waterfall at the halfway point.
The first trail that you come to after following the winding entrance road is the Mooner’s Hollow Trail. This 2.8 mile trail is considered to be the most scenic and also probably the most popular. The trail is named after the moonshiners who used to operate here using the cold and clear water of Coonville Creek to make their brew.
The trail starts by crossing a bridge over Coonville Creek then turning left to follow the creek through the hollow. The trail follows gradual grades up and down small hills as it parallels the creek for about a mile. Sometimes the trail climbs down right next to the creek for a nice view as it bubbles along downstream. At another point the trail opens into a large glade with a nice overlook of the valley.
After about a mile the trail comes to a crossing across the creek. After making your way across, look to your right for a small footpath off the main trail behind a small wooden fence. Follow this path a short distance and you will be rewarded with a lovely view of a cascading waterfall.
After taking your fill of this peaceful spot, retrace your steps back to the main trail. From here the trail moves away from the creek as it winds throw the woods. There are several climbs up and down hills including one fairly steep grade up to a glade not far from the end of the hike.
After a few more small water crossings the path once again parallels the creek until it returns to the parking lot and picnic area. Take some time to enjoy the beauty of Coonville Creek and give the kids some time for wading or rock chucking.
Swimming Deer Trail
- Length: Website says 3.1 miles but we clocked 3.5 miles from the spur behind the shower house. Around 3 miles if hiking from the trailhead at the campground. When the campground is closed you can still walk through the campground to access the trailhead or park at the shower house and take the spur.
- Difficulty: 2.5 out of 5, One short and mildly steep climb up stone steps to the bluffs. Other hills are moderate.
- Scenic Value: When the bluebells and other wildflowers are blooming this trail is 5 out of 5. Other times of year a 3 out of 5. It has several nice overlooks of the Big River.
The Swimming Deer Trail is not as crowded as the Mooner’s Hollow Trail but this trail is the true star of the park in April. Around mid-April a large portion of the trail is blanketed by a stunning display of Virginia bluebell flowers. Photos just do not do the view justice and make this trail a must see in the spring.
Starting from either the spur or the trail head in the campground, the trail quickly enters the rich floodplain soil of the Big River where the wildflowers flourish. Other than one set of of steps heading down towards the river bottom, the hike to the flowers is mostly easy and fairly level. You also don’t have to hike far to reach this stunning site.
Bluebells bloom on both sides of the path as the trail continues to parallel the river.
The trail will come to a fork for the loop portion of the trail. We choose to go right first and hike counterclockwise. The path will follow the river and then turn to climb a set of stone steps up the bluffs above the Big River.
From the top of the bluffs, there are several spots you can get a nice view of the river below. Use caution with small children along this section although the trail stays a safe distance from any drop offs.
The trail continues to follow the river from above for about a mile. At several points other wildflowers may be popping up to add even more beauty.
As the trail starts to curve away from the river to make the loop, there are still more amazing bluebell displays to wander past.
After a gradual hill descent you may spot an old cabin off to your right. A side path leads over to the structure which is sadly now covered in graffiti.
From here the trail continues to meander through the woods with a few small creek crossings. Creeks are always a good spot for a snack and inspecting rocks.
At one point the trail passes a sinkhole. A fence and cover have been added for safety.
From here the trail descends back towards the River where it meets back up to finish the loop. Once again you get to pass through the bluebell display before retracing your path back to the parking area. Even if you visit doesn’t coincide with peak bloom, this is still a nice hike any time of year.
Note: As of this writing on April 10th, St. Francois State Park trails remain open. Other amenities at the park including the campground, playground, and pavilion are closed due to coronavirus. Check the park’s website for an up to date status. I recommend hiking early or on a weekday to avoid crowds. We hiked the Swimming Deer trail from 8-10:30 on a beautiful Wednesday and had the entire trail to ourselves. The Mooner’s Hollow trail had about 5 cars at the trailhead at that time.
Interested in other good spots in the area for great bluebell displays? Check out this post for a list on places near St. Louis. While a few of these spots are currently closed, it gives you a great planning tool for next year.