While this city is known for its celebrated universities with great performing arts events throughout the year, Columbia also offers a mix of small town charm and friendliness. It’s green open spaces also attract outdoor enthusiasts year around.
What better time is there than Spring to take advantage of those offerings? Experience the room to roam in any one of 65 area parks and 10 conservations areas. The often-overlooked natural gems are scattered throughout the area, including Columbia’s three unique state parks, a celebrated nature trail and the city’s vast conservation areas. Columbia’s Capen Park offers impressive rock outcroppings and stunning scenic views that are popular with rock climbers and hikers.
Located just five miles south of the glow of Columbia’s downtown lights is Rock Bridge Memorial State Park, which offers wanderers the chance to trek along some of the most popular hiking trails in the state. The 2,272-acre park is home to impressive karst geological formations, a namesake rock bridge, sinkholes, a natural spring and an underground stream in the imposing seven-mile long cave system known as the “Devil’s Icebox.” The 750-acre Gans Creek Wild Area located within the park features a rugged 8.5-mile trail surrounded by high bluffs and accommodates horseback riding from July through October. For more details on Rock Bridge Memorial State Park, visit www.mostateparks.com/park/rock-bridge-memorial-state-park .
Finger Lakes State Park, located just north of Columbia offers a unique mix of amenities and draws a diverse crowd. This 1,128-acre park was once the site of a coal strip-mining operation, which created the park’s namesake lake configurations and rough terrain. The rugged landscape of Finger Lakes State Park has been recycled into more than 70 miles of off-road motorcycle and all-terrain vehicle trails, only one of two Missouri state parks that allow off-road vehicles. And, for visitors looking for the more typical state park experience, the numerous finger-shaped lakes allow activities such as swimming, fishing, canoeing and scuba diving. Nearly a dozen small, isolated lakes left by the mining company were joined together by a series of dams and canals. The result is a long, narrow strand of water that runs more than a mile and a half along the eastern edge of the park, perfect for canoeing, kayaking and float fishing. A sand swimming beach and change house are located on one of the eastern finger lakes. For more information on Finger Lakes State Park, visit www.mostateparks.com/park/finger-lakes-state-park.
Columbia also provides visitors with perhaps two of the most enjoyable ways to experience Missouri’s beautiful countryside – by bicycle or by foot. The Katy Trail State Park, the longest developed rails-to-trails conversion program in the U.S., runs along the western border of the city and connects to Columbia via the nine-mile MKT Nature and Fitness Trail. The MKT, which was voted the second-best urban trail by readers of USA Today, runs through the heart of downtown Columbia making it easy to access the Katy Trail. The Katy Trail State Park covers 240 miles of scenic Missouri landscape from Clinton on the west side of the state to Machens on the east. Much of the Katy Trail follows the Missouri River, flanked by impressive limestone bluffs and meanders through former railroad towns along fertile fields of corn and soybeans. The trail has stops along the way where home-cooked food is served in friendly cafes and bed and breakfast inns. Rocheport, on the Missouri River west of Columbia, is the original Katy Trail town, with charming bed and breakfasts, delicious restaurants, unique shops, the award-winning Les Bourgeois Vineyards and the only railroad tunnel on the trail. For more information on the Katy Trail, visit www.mostateparks.com/park/katy-trail-state-park .
One of the area’s most celebrated conservation areas, Eagle Bluffs, is located a mere 15 minutes southwest from the heart of Columbia. Eagle Bluffs Conservation Area features 4,286 acres comprised mainly of wetlands, woodlands and prairie and is designated as an important ornithology area by the Audubon Society of Missouri. As such, Eagle Bluffs is well known for shorebird and migratory game bird viewing, making it one of the best birding locations in the state and a hotspot for waterfowl hunters. For fishermen, Eagle Bluffs features hearty populations of catfish, carp, crappie, buffalo and drum. For complete information about Eagle Bluffs, visit nature.mdc.mo.gov/discover-nature/places/eagle-bluffs-ca.
All parks and conservation areas are free and open to the public year around. For more details on the activities and amenities available at the Columbia-area parks and conservation areas, visit the parks and trails page at www.visitcolumbiamo.com/section/parks-trails/.
Visitors interested in exploring Columbia’s state parks, conservation areas and city parks can find information on lodging, dining options, events, additional attractions and things to do around Columbia by heading to the Columbia Convention and Visitors Bureau (CVB) website at www.VisitColumbiaMO.com. Or, they can call the CVB at 1-800-652-0987.