Bidwell Creek passes through a secluded corner of the Mark Twain National Forest in southern Ste. Genevieve County.
The region between Fredericktown and Perryville is a geographic oddity. Five counties -- Ste. Genevieve, Perry, Bollinger, Madison, and St. Francois -- converge in this area with weirdly-shaped boundaries. The peculiar W-shaped line between Ste. Genevieve and St. Francois County even led to a boundary dispute in 2002.
This excerpt from an 1841 map by Henry Tanner shows the newly created St. Francois County and the weird convergence of boundaries northeast of Fredericktown. At this time Bollinger County hadn't been created yet, so Cape Girardeau County extended all the way to Madison County (image from The State Historical Society of Missouri Map Collection).
Driving through the area is confusing. From west to east, State Highway T passes from St. Francois to Ste. Genevieve back to St. Francois and back again to Ste. Genevieve counties before eventually terminating in Perry County.
A portion of Highway T traces the route of the Three Notch Road, a historic road used to transport lead from Mine La Motte to the Mississippi River. By following the ridgeline of the hills here, the road was able to cut down on the number of river crossings. This was important because these hills contain the headwaters of four different waterways: Whitewater River, Castor River, Little St. Francis River, and Saline Creek.
The Mark Twain National Forest holds a sizable chunk of acreage at the southern edge of Ste. Genevieve County. The hills here don't appear to have a recognized name, but they are traversed by the Audubon Trail, a project of the Boy Scouts. The trail was named in honor of John J. Audubon, the 19th Century naturalist famous for his bird paintings. He spent a brief period at Ste. Genevieve after passing through Cape Girardeau.
Forming two loops, the trail can be hiked in short segments, or completed as a 12-mile adventure. If you aren't interested in hiking, you can drive through the forest on the scenic Bidwell Creek Road (also known as Forest Road 2199). This road snakes through a tunnel of trees for several miles.
Starting near the tiny hamlet of Womack, the road passes through farmland before entering the forest. Following a ridge, it offers glimpses of deep valleys on both sides.
The road then descends into the Bidwell Creek valley, clinging to the hillside and featuring retaining walls built with rustic stonework.
At the bottom of the hill, the road fords the creek. This is the main trailhead for the Audubon Trail, although the trail does intersect the road at various other points, allowing hikers to mix-and-match the segments they want to complete.
The picturesque creek was bracketed by wildflowers when I visited recently.
If the water isn't too high, walking the creek is a fun way to explore and look for interesting rocks.
After the ford, the road climbs out the valley and continues to wind through the hills. It eventually reaches private property. Keep your eyes peeled for the historic concrete dam across Coldwater Creek on the left. It's posted against trespassing but can be seen from the road.
Soon the road fords Coldwater Creek before eventually ending at blacktop Route WW.
With its remote location, this secluded corner of Mark Twain National Forest is a fine destination for social distancing whether you feel like hiking -- or just enjoying the drive.
From Cape Girardeau, take Interstate 55 north to the Perryville exit (#129). Turn left, cross over the interstate, and then turn right on the frontage road (Lake Road). Follow the frontage road to the stop sign at Route T and turn left.
Follow Route T west for 21 miles to the hamlet of Womack. A short distance beyond Womack, turn right on Bidwell Creek Road (this turnoff is easy to miss; look for the small "BIDWELL CK" sign). After the turn, you will also see a small marker for Forest Road 2199.
Drive on this gravel road until you reach the creek ford. Up to this point, the road is suitable for all vehicles, but you'll probably want a high-clearance vehicle to tackle the ford. If you feel comfortable in crossing, you can continue along the road, although you will have to cross a second, rougher ford later. Finally, at the end of the road, turn right on Route WW to take you back to Route T.
The National Forest website has a printable brochure with a detailed map of the Audubon Trail.