As it turned out, mid-October was a little early, and unfortunately the first week of November may be a little late, but the opportunity to enjoy the fall colors is not the only good reason to check out Magnolia Hollow Conservation Area just south of Bloomsdale in Ste. Genevieve County.
Witnessing the transition from lush green in the oak and hickory forest to a palette of red, orange, yellow and purple is one of autumn’s most redeeming features. Throw in a bright blue sky and cool enough air to keep you from sweating along the hiking trail, and you’ve got an outdoor masterpiece.
The early turners were already losing their leaves when we visited, but the bulk of the woods remained dark green. A couple of cool weeks following our visit have brought on the brighter colors, but strong winds and storms will soon leave most limbs bare.
The disappointment of the leaf-peeping was only the start of my list of things that could have been better at the rural outpost that borders Establishment Creek until it empties into the Mississippi. Parking was inadequate on a Saturday morning at the trailhead, and without a port-a-potty or privy on site, it is important to be prepared before making the drive.
The one designated hiking trail is estimated at about 1.3 miles and accommodates most skill levels, except for one glaring flaw. Other than the trailheads, it is not well marked. Technically the loop begins at the last parking lot on White Sands Road. A paved section of trail leads to a viewing platform overlooking the Mississippi River valley and the expanse of land between the bluffs along the creek far into Illinois. The pavement allows strollers, wheelchairs and just about anybody else access to the overlook.
As we were walking in, we passed a wedding party with guests of all ages on their way back from the scenic spot. I’m sure the ceremony and photos were very nice. The few dozen participants were the reason the four-spot parking lot was woefully inadequate, and we had to find an off-road ditch area, as did many wedding guests.
During the pandemic last summer, when hiking trails seemed to be the only safe place outside of the house, parking was a big problem almost every weekend.
After the happy couple and their entourage left, we never saw another person near the trail, but there were still several cars left on the road. Magnolia Hollow is a popular spot for archery hunters and is also open during firearms seasons for deer and turkey hunting. Several miles of area access trails provide routes throughout the 1,740-acre property.
As you can imagine with a name like Hollow, the terrain can be steep and challenging. The change in elevation is about 300 feet from the highest to the lowest part of the property and the ups and downs are plentiful. Both ends of the unpaved hiking trail welcome walkers with a sign that warns, “Danger Steep Bluffs.”
We only walked the hiking trail, but for those seeking more challenges, the access roads offer a solid workout. With hunters in the woods, we didn’t want to try other areas, so as not to disturb their efforts. There is plenty of space for everyone to enjoy, but the access trails are probably best left to the hunters, especially during the firearms portions of deer season.
Back to the poorly marked hiking trail. Other than that deficiency, it offers a nice walk in the woods. Approached from either end, it goes down about 100 feet in elevation to a low open area with an old boardwalk bridge, which was missing a timber or two.
Hiking doesn’t require wooden bridges, but adequate trail blazes would have been a big and easy improvement. The state Department of Conservation areas are usually meticulous about maintenance issues, but in some ways Magnolia Hollow has missed out.
But don’t get me wrong, with an archery range, clay pigeon shooting area, primitive camping spot and more, there are plenty of positives at the place. Wildlife water holes and woodland food plots benefit the hunters who use the area. The five-mile drive from the state highway is a highlight as well. Winding through the valley farmland past old barns and along the creek provided plenty of picturesque scenes, even if the leaves were not quite ready for prime time.
John Winkelman is Marketing Director for Liguori Publications near Barnhart, Mo., and the Associate Editor for Outdoor Guide Magazine. If you have story ideas to share for the Leader outdoor news page, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org, and you can follow John on Twitter at @johnjwink99.