Thanks largely to the Missouri River, mid-Missouri has always been a high-traffic area. Once home to the Osage and Missouri Indians, 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 108,500 (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.
Here are a sampling of the best places to . . .
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 both beginner joggers and seasoned marathoners. The MKT starts in downtown Columbia at Flat Branch Park and stretches 8.9 miles 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. In the winter, when snow covers the crushed limestone surface, the MKT is a great place for cross-country skiing or snowhoeing.
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-milers in the country; it’s also the fourth oldest.
Rock Bridge Memorial State Park is a popular hiking, running and mountain biking spot, with 2,273 acres and 15 miles 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.
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 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.
Mountain Bike:Rhett Walter’s Memorial Mountain Bike Trail (aka Rhett’s Run) is a 2.4-mile loop at Cosmo Park in north Columbia. 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.
For canoers and kayakers, Perche Creek offers Class 1 water, virtually no current, 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 downstream. If you’d prefer to go upstream, enter the Perche Creek Gutbuster 10.3-mile race in March.
The beach at Finger Lakes State Park is open 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) that were 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 north of Columbia and is one of two Missouri state parks to feature an ATV area.
The University of Missouri’s Aquatic Center features a 50-meter by 25-yard competitive pool that’s among the fastest in the country. 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.
If you prefer spectating, every February, MU hosts the Missouri Grand Prix, part of the USA Swimming Grand Prix Series (keep an eye out for Olympians).
Three Creeks Conservation Area, five miles south of Columbia, is so named for the three creeks that run through the 1,500-acre park. Two trails (the 8-mile Multiple Use Trail and the 3-mile 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.
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 is consists of well-maintained grassland (feel free to wander off the paved path to explore) and also includes a lake with boardwalk and a gazebo, which is open to swimmers in the summer.
Every September, the Stephens Lake hosts Paws in the Park, a dog-friendly 5K. If you’re in town with a canine friend, this laid back event is not to be missed.
TOP FIVE MID-MISSOURI OUTDOOR/ATHLETIC EVENTS
TriZou (late May)
Presented by UltraMax Sports and held on the University of Missouri campus, TriZou is among the biggest pool-swim triathlons in the nation. 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 (Memorial Day weekend)
The two-day bike and music festival is the biggest party of the spring, with more than 1,500 cyclists making the 60-mile (round trip) ride from Columbia to Boonville along the MKT and Katy trials. 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 Boonville’s Kemper Park for a big-name concert, good food and free camping.
Show-Me State Games (late July)
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 2011, 26,927 people participated in the summer games, and participation for all events was more than 34,500.
MR340 (late July)
Canoers and kayakers get 88 hours to complete the 340-mile trek from Kansas City to St. Charles (the longest non-stop river race in the world), and only two-thirds of participants generally finish. Go solo or tandem, but if you’re racing to win, you likely won’t have time to enjoy the wildlife and scenic vistas along the way.
The Roots ‘N Blues ‘N BBQ Festival brings talented musicians and barbecue connoisseurs to Columbia. The two day event also attracts runners for what has become Columbia’s most popular road race. Participants receive a complimentary festival ticket, an ice-cold beer and a barbecue sandwich at the finish line. How’s that for incentive?