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Terrific Trails

Discover Outdoor Fun in Missouri, America's Best Trails State

By Tom Uhlenbrock

Missouri is the Reigning King of Hiking Trails

The title of "Best Trails State" was bestowed by American Trails, a national nonprofit 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 project by Missouri State Parks to inventory and manage its trail system. The result was publication of Trails of Missouri State Parks, the first guide to hiking the more than 230 trails found at 58 state parks and historic sites. The 422-page, full-color book is available at MoStateParks.com. Missouri also is home to the Ozark Trail, which includes more than 360 miles of trails that wind through the Ozarks of the southern part of the state. Along the way are forest-covered hills, knobs and mountains and valleys filled with springs, shut-ins, waterfalls and crystal-clear streams.

Pickle Springs - Kara/Flickr

If you're looking for info online, Ozarktrail.com describes each section. One of the finest backpacking trails in Missouri is the section of the trail that begins at the highest point in Missouri at Taum Sauk Mountain State Park, heads to the state's tallest waterfall and ends at Missouri's most popular swimming hole, found in Johnson's Shut-Ins State Park. The section can be divided into 15-, 12- and six-mile hikes.

The new hiking guide is the best place to start when planning a hike in a state park. Each trail is described according to mileage, estimated hiking time and special features, with an accompanying map. A visitor can pick a two- to threemile walk in the woods or a 10-mile-plus adventure into the backcountry. The hiking opportunities reach to all four corners of the state. In southeast Missouri, Trail of Tears State Park offers the four-mile Sheppard Point Trail, which heads through steep ravines up a ridge to a bluff with a commanding view of the Mississippi River, and the nine-mile Peewah Trail, which explores the 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. There's a herd of some 100 bison roaming 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 down to the lush bottomlands along the river. A short detour takes you to Leatherwood Hollow, which contains mysterious writings inscribed nearly a century ago on the lichen-covered rock slabs and overhangs.

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

Mid-Missouri is home to the Katy Trail, the nation's longest rails-to-trails conversion. The hiking-biking trail is a linear state park that stretches 240 miles from Machens on the east to Clinton on the west. Much of it follows the Missouri River through forgotten railroad towns and by fields of corn and soybeans and pastures of cattle.

The trail has stops along the way where home-cooked food is served in friendly restaurants and bed and breakfast inns. Rocheport, on the Missouri River west of Columbia, is a quintessential Katy town, with lodging, restaurants, shops, a winery and the only railroad tunnel on the trail. The trail south of Rocheport squeezes by the river and towering bluffs.

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 at Gray Summit, a country cousin 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 bottomland forest filled with giant sycamores to a gravel bar perfect for lunch on the Meramec River. Ste. Genevieve County in southeast Missouri may be the state's premier hiking destination, with a variety of choices at Hawn State Park and Pickle Springs and Hickory Canyons, two natural areas operated by the Missouri Department of Conservation.

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 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 hidden gem defined by sandstone cliffs and box canyons that drip from spring through fall and freeze into ice sculptures in winter. Two short hiking trails lead to the distinctive bluffs and canyons. Finally, 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 is 11 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 leisurely walk in shaded bottomland woods back to a swimming hole in a scenic Ozark setting. Bring your hiking boots when planning a short or long walk in Missouri - America's "Best Trails State."

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