Celebrate Trails Day at a State Park

National Trails Day – June 1, 2016
Nature Abounds in State Parks… Sharing Some of My Experiences

This timber rattlesnake was calmly sunning itself on the trail to the top of Taum Sauk Mountain. Rattlesnakes pretty much keep to themselves I you let them be, the good part is they usually give you a warning if they sense danger to themselves. Just walk around them.

Nothing could ever take the place of hunting and fishing for me, but they aren’t the only outdoor pursuits I enjoy.  Sometimes, especially in the summer when most hunting seasons are closed, nothing sounds better to me than a day hike with my camera.

Beautiful flowers abound, this spiderwort was one of hundreds growing alongside a trail at Johnson’s Shut-Ins State Park in June.

The American Hiking Society designates the first Saturday in June as National Trails Day and encourages people to get out and sample some of America’s amazing landscapes.  That’s a suggestion I wholeheartedly endorse.  Missourians are incredibly fortunate to live in what is arguably the best state for public hiking trails.  If you don’t believe me, just ask American Trails, a national nonprofit that  works on behalf of hiking, biking and riding trails.  In 2013, American Trails named Missouri the Best Trail State in America.

No wonder, the Missouri Department of Conservation’s more than 1,000 conservation areas have hundreds of miles of designated trails.  Some of those trails are included in the 350-mile Ozark Trail, but for my money, the best trails with the widest range of experience are to be found in parks owned and operated by the Missouri Department of Natural Resources (DNR).

The diversity is stunning, from Civil War battlefields to swamps, prairies, waterfalls and strange volcanic rock formations.

A network of trails short enough for day hikes stitches together Johnson’s Shut-Ins, Taum Sauk Mountain and Elephant Rocks state parks and the 7,000-acre St. Francois Mountains Natural Area.

No other place in Missouri has more to offer day hikers than the relatively small patch of eastern Ozarks that contains Johnson Shut-Ins, Taum Sauk Mountain and Elephant Rocks State Parks.  Besides being able to climb to the highest point in the state, this piece of real-estate offers swimming in pristine water, viewing the  tallest waterfall in the state and clamoring over slick-rock barrens littered with pink granite boulders – some the size of houses!  Some of it is made to order for little kids.  Other parts are definitely for adults, assuming you are interested in serious hiking or rock climbing.  The landscape and the huge variety of plants and animals it supports make this one of the state’s best spots for photography, too.

Of course, not everyone wants to drive to the Ozarks on any given weekend.  Good thing, too.  You couldn’t find room to stand, let alone hike, if everyone showed up at the same time.  So I suggest you visit these extremely popular parks during the week if possible, or you can save yourself a drive by taking advantage of the trails at a state park nearer to home.  The Missouri DNR has a convenient search engine (https://www.visitmo.com/walking-trails.aspx) that enables hikers to get detailed information about parks statewide.

Here is a sampling of the kind of opportunities available at Missouri State Parks:

  • Watkins Woolen Mill State Park north of Kansas City
  • Roaring River, Bennett Spring and Montauk State (trout) Parks
  • Grand Gulf State Park south of West Plains
  • Big Oak Tree State Park in southeast Missouri
  • Meramec State Park southwest of St.  Louis
  • Wakonda State Park north of Hannibal
  • Thousand Hills State Park west of Kirksville
The rushing waters of Johnson’s Shut-Ins State Park create an idyllic summer escape.

The Missouri DNR also operates more than 30 historic sites, including Battle of Lexington, Mark Twain Birthplace, Mastodon, Scott Joplin House, Boone’s Lick, Deutschheim, Dillard Mills, Nathan Boone Homestead, Sandy Creek Covered Bridge and Thomas Hart Benton Home and Studio, to name a few.  If you can’t find something to pique your interest in Missouri State Parks, you might ask a doctor to check for a pulse.

Thanks to the early wisdom of Missourians’ who provided for a dedicated sales tax to support state parks – along with soil and water conservation, you can access most park picnic areas and playgrounds for free.  But that could change.

State parks in Missouri’s western prairie counties have a grandeur unmatched elsewhere in the Show-Me State.

Missouri’s one-tenth of 1-percent sales tax for parks, soil and water is up for renewal by voters this year.  Since that tax provides about three-quarters of the operating budget for state parks, you can bet that most of the parks and trails will be closed should the tax fail to get a majority of voters’ approval.   This proposition titled “Constitutional Amendment 1,” will appear on the ballot in the general election on Nov. 8, 2016.  If you live in Missouri, urge everyone you know who values Missouri’s parks and historic sites, not to mention the state’s soil and water, to vote yes to extend the tax for another 10 years.