Show Me the Outdoors: Exploring Mid-Missouri on Foot, Wheels and Water

Thanks largely to the Missouri River, mid-Missouri has always been a high-traffic area. Once home to the Osage and Missouri tribes, the area was “discovered” by pioneers during the Lewis and Clark Expedition. In 1806, Daniel Boone established a salt lick in Boonville, and by the 1820s, nearby Franklin was recognized as the start of the Santa Fe Trail. In 1839 the University of Missouri opened its doors in Columbia – the first land grant university west of the Mississippi River.

Located almost exactly between St. Louis and Kansas City, Columbia is the heart of mid-Missouri. With a population of 124,500 (which expands during the school year thanks to the influx of students attending Mizzou, Stephens College, and Columbia College), there’s always something to do.

Explore the District (aka downtown area) for world-class restaurants, quirky cinema, and rockin’ concerts. But don’t forget to check out the outdoor scene as well. Sure, mid-Mo might not have mountains or white water, but this area of the Show-Me State does have scenic trails, glorious rivers, and tons of outdoor places, races, and activities that will entertain, inspire and keep you coming back for more.

columns and building at University of Missouri in Columbia

The University of Missouri or Mizzou is one of the sights (in addition to the great outdoors) in Columbia. Photo: Whitney Spivey

Where to Explore

Without further ado, here is a sampling of the best places to explore the beautiful outdoors and participate in summer activities near Columbia, Missouri.

Run

The 10-foot wide MKT Trail was built on the old bed of the Missouri-Kansas-Texas railroad.  The flat, mostly shaded trail has plenty of water fountains, fitness stations, and mile markers that attract beginner joggers and seasoned marathoners.

The MKT starts in downtown Columbia at Flat Branch Park and stretches 8.9 miles (14.3 km) west, where it hits the Katy Trail. From there (if you’re an ultramarathoner), you can run all the way east to St. Louis or west to Kansas City. When snow covers the crushed limestone surface in the winter, the MKT is a great place for cross-country skiing and snowshoeing.

For more of a challenge, tackle the Heart of America Marathon, held every Labor Day. The Columbia Track Club’s signature event is often touted as one of the toughest 26.2-mile races in the country; it’s also the fourth oldest.

Missouri summer activities: trail surrounded by forests (MKT Trail in Columbia MO)

The MKT trail is a flat, mostly shaded trail with plenty of water fountains, fitness stations, and mile markers. Photo: Whitney Spivey

Trail Run

Rock Bridge Memorial State Park is a popular hiking, running, and mountain biking spot, with 2,273 acres and 15 miles (24 km) of trails. You won’t get bored on the rugged singletrack. But if you need a break, check out the Devil’s Ice Box cave or the park’s namesake karst rock bridge formation.

In the fall, partake in Rock Bridge Revenge, a 7-mile or 25K trail race through wooded hills, native grasslands, and bottomland forests.

Read More: The Mountains are Calling: 10 Tips for the Transition to Trail Running

man with arms up running in Rock Bridge Revenge trail race

The Rock Bridge Revenge is a 7-mile or 25K trail race through wooded hills, native grasslands, and bottomland forests. Photo: Whitney Spivey

Road Bike

Cyclists will enjoy the Big Tree Loop, so named because it hooks around a 350-year old burr oak tree near the tiny town of McBaine. The popular 28-mile (45 km) course is scenic and challenging. You’ll have some flat, fast stretches through the Missouri River flood plains and steep climbs closer to Columbia.  Be alert for both vehicles and wildlife.

For other routes and group ride opportunities, check out the Columbia Bike Club or local cycling shops such as CycleExtreme, Walt’s Bike Shop, and Tryathletics.

tree on side of road - part of Big Tree Loop in Columbia

On the Big Tree Loop, you’ll see a 350-year old burr oak tree near the tiny town of McBaine. Photo: Whitney Spivey

Mountain Bike

Rhett Walter’s Memorial Mountain Bike Trail (aka Rhett’s Run) is a 2.4-mile (3.8 km) loop at Cosmo Park in north Columbia, Missouri, and excellent summer activity.

The challenging course was designed by Brian Stickel and John Bailey of Mountain Designs, the same folks who designed the 1996 Olympic mountain bike courses in Atlanta. Great care was taken to protect trees and minimize erosion through proper switchbacks and stream crossings.

Read More: Why Do This? Combine Mountain Bikes and Mountain Runs

Paddle

For canoers and kayakers, Perche Creek offers Class 1 water and virtually no current water. You’ll spot eagles, deer, gar, paddlefish, and, of course, carp (watch out, they jump). Put in at the Providence Access, and you’ll flow into the Missouri River 1.25 miles (2 km) downstream.

If you’d prefer to go upstream, enter the Perche Creek Gutbuster 10.3-mile (16.5 km), held each spring.

Also, the beach at Finger Lakes State Park is open from May through September, from sunrise to sunset. The 1.5-mile-long lake was formed by reclaimed coal strip mines (not as scary as it sounds) joined together by a series of dams and canals.  The narrow stretch of water also offers boating and fishing. At 1,128 acres, Finger Lakes is 11 miles (17.7 km) north of Columbia and is one of two Missouri state parks to feature an ATV area.

Read More: River Sports Magazine

Missouri summer activities: people in canoes on river participating in Perche Creek Gutbuster

Paddle upstream in the Perche Creek Gutbuster, a 10.3-mile race. Photo: Whitney Spivey

Lap Swim

The University of Missouri’s Aquatic Center features a 50-meter by a 25-yard competitive pool among the country’s fastest. More than a million gallons of water are kept between 78 and 80 degrees. But if that’s too cold, jump in the adjacent diving well or hot tub.

In addition to summer during the summer, the University of Missouri hosts other activities, including the 6-time host of the Missouri Grand Prix, part of the USA Swimming Grand Prix Series. It’s also the annual host for many USA Swimming and USA diving competitions (keep an eye out for Olympians).

Hike

Three Creeks Conservation Area offers scenic views for exploring the outdoors. Located five miles south of Columbia, it is named for the three creeks that run through the 1,500-acre park.

Two trails, the 8-mile (12.8 km) Multiple Use Trail and the 3-mile (4.8 km) Turkey Creek Interpretive Trail, wind through cedar forests and grasslands, past scenic bluffs, and across streams.  If you’re hiking, be wary of cyclists and horseback riders.

Stroll

Stephens Lake Park is minutes from downtown Columbia but offers a secluded, scenic 1.7-mile loop frequented by walkers and joggers. The 116-acre park consists of well-maintained grassland (feel free to wander off the paved path to explore) and also includes a lake with a boardwalk and a gazebo, which is open to swimmers in the summer.

Read More: Snowshoeing in Your Own Backyard: Options Close to Home

sign and lake at Stephens Lake in Columbia

You can take a stroll at the scenic Stephens Lake Park, near downtown Columbia. Photo: Whitney Spivey

Top 5 Mid-MO Outdoor/Athletic Events

In addition to the areas listed above, you won’t want to miss these summer events and activities near Columbia, Missouri.

TriZou

Presented by UltraMax Sports and held on the University of Missouri campus, TriZou is among the biggest pool-swim triathlons in the nation. Each May, sign up for a 400-meter swim, 14-mile bike ride, and a 3-mile run.

Not ready for that? Enter the DuZou, which consists of a 1-mile run, 7-mile bike ride, and 1-mile run.

Pedaler’s Jamboree

The two-day bike and music festival is the biggest party of the year, being held over Labor Day weekend in 2021. During this event, more than 1,500 cyclists making the 40-mile ride from Columbia to Jefferson City on the Katy Trail.

Although music stops along the way feature high-energy bluegrass, participants are encouraged to travel at their own pace (it’s a ride, not a race!). The Jamboree culminates in Jefferson City at the amphitheater at Ellis-Porter Park for a big-name concert, good food, and free camping.

Show-Me State Games (summer)

This Olympic-style sports festival features more than 40 sports for all ages and ability levels. From synchronized swimming to powerlifting, there’s an opportunity for all types of athletes (of all abilities) to compete.

The majority of events occur in July, but others are scheduled in different months to promote health, fitness, and family fun year-round. In 2019, more than 20,000 people participated in the summer games!

Missouri summer activities: close up of canoe with MR340 sticker before race

Get ready for the MR340, where only 2/3 of participants typically finish. Photo: Whitney Spivey

MR340 (late July)

Canoers and kayakers get 85 hours to complete the 340-mile trek from Kansas City to St. Charles (the longest non-stop river race globally), and only two-thirds of participants generally finish. Go solo or tandem. However, if you’re racing to win, you likely won’t have time to enjoy the wildlife and scenic vistas along the way.

Roots N Blues Festival (September)

The Roots ‘N Blues Festival brings talented musicians and barbecue connoisseurs to Columbia. The three-day event also attracts runners for the Betsy Farris Memorial 5K, 10K, and Half-Marathon. With access to over 24 musicians and a run to remember, this event is not to be missed.

many racers waiting for the start of the race

The Betsy Farris Memorial Run honors the former director of this great event. Runners have a 5K, 10K, or Half-Marathon option. Photo: Whitney Spivey

What are some of your favorite outdoor summer activities to do in Columbia, Missouri? Please share them with us in the comments below.

This article was originally published on August 19, 2012. Susan Wowk most recently updated it on June 15, 2021, with new information. 

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About the author

Whitney Spivey

Whitney Spivey is based in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where she is a freelance writer and editor. She is a three-time New Mexico state snowshoe racing champion, and she placed eighth at Nationals in 2014.

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