Missouri: the Reigning King of Hiking Trails

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State Parks and State Historic Sites , Katy Trail , biking / walking trails , walking trails , Outdoor Adventure , outdoors , backpacking , backpacking trail
Missouri Named "Best Trails State"
Author: Tom Uhlenbrock

The title Best Trails State was bestowed upon Missouri by American Trails, a national, not-for-profit organization working on behalf of the nation’s hiking, biking and riding trails. The award, announced in April 2013, is presented every two years to the state that has made tremendous contributions to promoting and improving its trails.

The award recognized a system-wide inventory and manage project by Missouri State Parks. The result was publication of a 422-page, full-color book titled Trails of Missouri State Parks, a comprehensive guide to hiking the more than 230 trails found at 58 Missouri state parks and historic sites.

Also, Missouri is home to the Ozark Trail, which includes more than 360 miles of trails that wind through the Ozarks in the southeast region of the state. Along the way are forest-covered hills, knobs and mountains, and valleys filled with springs, shut-ins, waterfalls and crystal-clear steams. OzarkTrail.com describes each section and includes an Ozark Trail Map.

One of the finest backpacking trails in Missouri is the section of the Ozark Trail that begins at the highest point in Missouri at Taum Sauk State Park, heads to the state’s tallest waterfall, and ends at Johnson’s Shut-Ins State Park, one of Missouri’s most popular natural swimming holes. The section can be traveled in six-, 12- and 15-mile hikes.

The hiking book mentioned above is the best place to start when planning a hike in a state park. Each trail is detailed according to mileage, uses allowed, estimated hiking time and special features, with an accompanying map. A visitor can pick a two- to three-mile walk in the woods, or a 10-mile-plus adventure into the back-country.

Missouri’s Hiking Opportunities are Found in all Regions

In southeast Missouri, Trail of Tears State Park offers the four-mile Sheppard Point Trail, which heads through steep ravines and up a ridge to a bluff with a commanding view of the Mississippi River; and the nine-mile Peewah Trail, which explore 1,300 acres of wilderness in the Indian Creek Wild Area.

On the Kansas border in southwest Missouri, Prairie State Park has trails that show off the wildflowers and grasses on the largest remaining remnant of tall grass prairie in the state. In the park, a herd of some 100 American bison roam the rolling hills.

Crowder State Park, in northwest Missouri, features the 8.6-mile Thompson River Trail, which travels through old farm fields that are being returned to prairie, and continues down to the lush bottom-lands along the river. A short detour takes you to Leatherwood Hollow, which contains mysterious writings inscribed nearly a century ago on the lichen-covered rocks slabs and overhangs.

Spring is an excellent time to visit Battle of Athens State Historic Site in northeast Missouri, when the two-mile Snow Trillium Trail blooms with wildflowers; but any time of year is good. The trail has bluff-top views of the Des Moines River.

Traversing the center of Missouri you’ll find the Katy Trail State Park, the nation’s longest rails-to-trails conversion. The hiking-biking trail is a linear state park that stretches more than 237 miles from Machens on the east, to Clinton on the west. Much of it follows the Missouri River, skirting towering bluffs, passing through age-old railroad towns, past fields row crops, near pastures of grazing livestock.

The Katy has 26 official trailheads, with other access points along the way. In many towns, freshly-cooked food is served in friendly restaurants; award-winning wineries serve Missouri’s best; and bed and breakfast inns offer a relaxing stay. Rocheport, on the Missouri River, 14 miles west of Columbia, is a quintessential Katy town, with lodging, restaurants, shops, a bluff-top winery and the only railroad tunnel on the trail.

Missouri’s Cities and Counties Offer Small Parks with Hiking Areas of Their Own

One of the best hiking experiences near St. Louis is the Shaw Nature Reserve in Gray Summit; the reserve is a country branch of the Missouri Botanical Garden. The nature reserve has a complex of trails that take you through restored prairies, upland woods with bluff overlooks and bottom-land forest filled with giant sycamores, ending at a gravel bar on the Meramec River, a perfect spot for a picnic.

Ste. Genevieve County in southeast Missouri is an outstanding hiking destination, with a variety of choices, including Pickle Springs Natural Area and Hickory Canyons Natural Area, both operated by the Missouri Department of Conservation, and Hawn State Park.

Hawn has the beautiful Pickle Creek Trail, a short hike along a sand-bottom creek that winds between granite boulders sculpted by water, and Whispering Pines Trail, a 9.75-mile hike that highlights the park’s sandstone bluffs and stands of shortleaf pine. The park has wild azaleas and yellow lady-slipper orchids blooming in the spring.

Pickle Springs Natural Area has the Trail Through Time, a two-mile loop-trail through a pine-and-hardwood forest to outstanding rock formations, including a rare double arch. The cool, moist canyons are home to seven species of ferns and relict plants left behind by the glaciers.

Hickory Canyons Natural Area is a little-known gem defined by sandstone cliffs and box canyons that drip, spring through fall, and freeze into ice sculptures in winter. Two short hiking trails lead to the distinctive bluffs and canyons.

For Veteran Hikers and Backpackers who want a challenge, the Mudlick Trail is waiting at Sam A. Baker State Park in southeast Missouri. The trail totals 16.75 miles, up and down some of the most rugged country in the state, beginning in the valley of Big Creek and ascending Mudlick Mountain. The trail has three stone-and-timber shelters, built in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps. The trail goes through the Mudlick Mountain Wild Area, an undisturbed natural landscape of old growth trees, rare plants and deep ravines dropping to boulder-strewn streams that turn into whitewater waterfalls with a heavy rain.

On the other hand, Sam A. Baker also has the Shut-Ins Trail, a 1.25-mile leisurely walk in shaded bottom-land woods to the Big Creek shut-ins, a swimming hole in a scenic Ozark setting.

This is by no means a complete list of trails available; it is just designed to whet your appetite for outdoor adventure. Put on your hiking boots, grab the camera, and hike or walk the trails of Missouri – America’s Best Trails State.    Enjoy the show!


 Taum Sauk Mountain State Park
At an elevation of 1,772 feet, this is the highest point in Missouri. The state's highest wet-weather ...

 Johnson's Shut-Ins State Park
Carved into the rock by the flow if the Black River, the shut-ins are a great place for swimming and ...

 Trail of Tears State Park
The Trail of Tears– the forced relocation of Cherokee Indians from Tennessee to Oklahoma in the ...

 Prairie State Park
Hike amid tall prairie grasses, colorful flowers and animals, including American bison and elk, at Missouri's ...

 Crowder State Park
This park, four miles west of Trenton, is dedicated to Gen. Enoch Crowder, founder of the selective ...

 Battle of Athens State Historic Site
At this site, Union troops defeated the pro-south Missouri State Guard in 1861; it was the northernmost ...

 Katy Trail State Park - Statewide
Katy Trail State Park is the longest rails-to-trails conversion in the U.S. The flat, 237.7-mile trail ...

 Missouri Botanical Garden
Founded in 1859, this is the country's oldest botanical garden in continuous operation. It is a National ...

 Shaw Nature Reserve
This 2,400-acre nature reserve is located in the rolling terrain along the Meramec River, 35 southmiles ...

 Hawn State Park
Set in eastern Ozark sandstone country, this park is located between Ste. Genevieve and Farmington on ...

 Pickle Springs Natural Area
This 256-acre Designated Natural Area offers a two-mile Trail Through Time, with scenic views including ...

 Sam A. Baker State Park
The St. Francois Mountains provide the backdrop for this scenic park. Great for families, it offers ...