• Seven outdoor destinations perfect for Midwest road trips
  • The top outdoor activity in seven towns close to St. Louis

While St. Louis and the metro area provide a plethora of places to get outside and recreate, sometimes you just want to hop in the car and go for a drive. We at Terrain know there is something to be said for exploring, for venturing beyond the local and familiar. To that end, we picked seven destinations within a three-hour drive of St. Louis and highlighted the one big thing to do at each stop. Of course, every location has much more in the offing, but then, that’s part of the fun — you get to do the discovering!

Ellington, MO
The Reynolds County town of Ellington lies a little over two hours south of St. Louis. The major attraction here: the award-winning Current River. The Current River Conservation Area, just southwest of the city limits, presents a myriad of put-in and take-out points along the watershed, placing Ellington smack-dab in the middle of Missouri float trip country. Explore the designated nature area and miles of trail, then grab a rental canoe, kayak, or tube and take the plunge. Side trip: Build in some time to see Show-Me State icons Johnson’s Shut-Ins and Elephant Rocks state parks on the way to and from home.

Litchfield, IL

Litchfield - 66 Hike and Bike Trail

Central Illinois’ small-town “hub” rests 56 miles north of St. Louis along Interstate 55. On the east side of town, you will find Lake Lou Yeager and its Shoal Creek Nature Conservation Area. The 1,357-acre, 5.5-mile-long lake welcomes boating, fishing, camping, and simply relaxing on the wide sand beach. Feel like working up a sweat? Check out the Route 66 Hike & Bike Trail. The conservation area, meanwhile, boasts more than 700 plant species, 70 butterfly species, and 70+ bird species. It is a great place for avian viewing and photography; be sure to keep an eye out for bald eagles.

Cape Girardeau, MO
In the opposite direction on I-55, Cape Girardeau sits 120 miles south of St. Louis. Just north of town, perched on the west bank of the Mississippi River, you will find Trail of Tears State Park. While the name of the park commemorates a dark event in US history, the property itself is bright and beautiful. Campsites, hiking trails, river access, plenty of fishing holes — Trail of Tears State Park has all these and more. It has also developed a reputation for being one of the best places in the state to view migratory waterfowl, so bring your binoculars.

Carbondale, IL

Friends of Crab Orchard National Wildlife Refuge

Named by Outdoor Life magazine as one of the “Top 200 Towns for Sportsmen”, Carbondale invites visitors to experience an outdoor playground among the rolling landscape of the Shawnee Hills. Situated 110 miles southeast of St. Louis, it is home of the Crab Orchard National Wildlife Refuge, a 44,000-acre conservation area centered around Crab Orchard Lake. Boating, fishing, camping, hiking, cycling, you can do it all right here. Side trip: Giant City State Park in the Shawnee National Forest features soaring bluffs, rock climbing, rappelling, and hiking.

Columbia, MO
This bustling college town 125 miles west of St. Louis is home to more than the Mizzou Tigers; it is also home to Rock Bridge Memorial State Park. The scenic property offers hiking and biking trails, camping, and fishing in the Gans Creek Wild Area, along with an extensive cave system. With sinkholes, caverns, a rock bridge, and an underground stream, the park is an explorer’s dream. Side trip: Visit Eagle Bluffs Conservation Area for seasonal bird viewing and spectacular fall foliage. Cooper’s Landing, the infamous haunt along the Missouri River and Katy Trail, is a happening stop for lunch.

Boonville, MO

Boonville Bike Depot

Speaking of the Katy Trail, Boonville is another waypoint along the 237-mile-long crushed limestone path. Further west of Columbia on Interstate 70, about 147 miles from St. Louis, this historic town maintains an unpretentious charm despite being one of the larger communities offering amenities for visiting cyclists. The country’s longest rails-to-trails route is the major draw, bringing trail-goers from across the nation and the world, who roll into town to take advantage of the restaurants, grocers, lodging, and bike services. Side trip: Explore the nearby Big Muddy National Fish & Wildlife Refuge via its network of hiking trails and observation decks.

Warrensburg, MO
A bit further afield that our other destinations, Warrensburg lies just south of the I-70 corridor about three hours west of St. Louis. Unspoiled Knob Noster State Park is the main attraction here. The tranquil property east of town is a refuge for hikers, mountain bikers, horseback riders, fishermen, and nature enthusiasts alike. Bridges and walking paths meander along Clearfork Creek and other water features, highlighted by the Pin Oak Slough Natural Area, which was formed by an old cutoff of the creek and is now home to a variety of bottomland forest species. Campgrounds are open year-round, though reservations are required April 1 to October 31.

So, what are you waiting for? Grab your gear, pack a lunch, fill up the gas tank, and set out on a new adventure. You never know what you might find in the quaint, small towns beyond St. Louis. Adventure waits!

Author: Nick Tilley is a regular contributor to Terrain Magazine.