The “S” in Springfield might as well stand for superlative. This southwest Missouri city, the third largest in the state, truly entertains with not just the quantity and quality of its attractions but also their remarkable scale and scope. Even the rain that haunted my family when we visited earlier this year could not — wait for it — dampen our spirits. Places like the Discovery Center and the Wonders of Wildlife National Museum & Aquarium made ideal diversions that brought the outside in, the former featuring interactive exhibits that encourage learning in science, art and culture. (My kids loved the dinosaur bone dig and high-wire bike ride.)
But outdoors is where this grown-up Ozarks town really shows off its choose-your-own-adventure mix of scenery, history and fun opportunities for all kinds of sports and activities. For example, did you that Route 66 can trace a path all the way back to 1837’s “Springfield Road” between St. Louis and its namesake settlement? You can still walk, run or ride a bike along what remains of the old “Main Street of America” and see its kitschy roadside charms, such as the old Gay Parita gas station.
And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Springfield features pristine parks, trails, rivers and streams; self-guided or managed tours and adventures; major Civil War battlefields; and lions, tigers and bears. (Oh my!) On the following pages are some of the highlights my family and I experienced on our trip, and some that we can’t wait to try next time we go back to the “Queen City of the Ozarks.”
Gear Up and Go
Want to have an outdoor adventure without the hassle? Springfield’s 37 North Expeditions offers a trip menu that includes Hike & Hops, Hike & Swimming Hole, Kayak & Distillery and more. The guide service handles all the logistics and transportation; all you do is show up and get sweaty. If you need to gear up before you go, stop in at Ozark Adventures, serving Springfield outdoor enthusiasts since 1979, or visit the original and largest Bass Pro Shops, which consists of almost 500,000 square feet of retail space along with waterfalls, aquariums and Hemingway’s Blue Water Café.
Highs and Lows
On a tour of Fantastic Caverns, you’ll follow an ancient underground river filled with massive rock formations, all from the seat of a Jeep-drawn tram. This is America’s only ride-through cave, which makes it convenient for kids and helps preserve the natural features. The cave was discovered in 1862 by an Ozark’s farmer and still displays the names of the 12 local women who first investigated it. If exploring above ground — high above ground — is more your thing, Zenith Climbing Center has state-of-the-art Walltopia climbing walls, a training and systems area, yoga studio and pro shop.
In northwest Springfield, the Sac River Mountain Bike Trail offers 8 miles of interconnecting single-track suitable for all skill levels. The trailhead is 3 miles north of Interstate 44, off Highway 13. Watch for the brown sign marking the westbound turn onto an unnamed road to the Northwest Water Treatment Plant. Twenty minutes down the road in Highlandville, Two River Bike Park boasts 14+ miles of trail winding through 400 acres of rolling hills. Heart-pumping climbing and downhill sections, rock and wood features, a progressive skills park, jump circuit — it’s all here, along with an 18-hole disc golf course.
Walk on the Wild Side
While technically not an “outdoor activity,” the Wonders of Wildlife National Museum & Aquarium is a must-see for Springfield visitors, especially families, as it aims to pass on a love of nature, wildlife and conservation to the next generation. The year-old attraction takes you on a 1.5-mile walk through 350,000 square feet of exhibits. The centerpiece is a 1.5-million-gallon aquarium adventure with 35,000 live fish, mammals, reptiles and birds. Immersive wildlife galleries bring you eye-to-eye with the greatest collection of record-setting game animals ever assembled. It really is incredible, like the Smithsonian of the Ozarks.
Once you’ve finished your outdoor adventures, savor the flavors of Springfield at one of its craft breweries, wineries or micro-distilleries. Lost Signal Brewing makes its beer in house and serves up fresh barbecue daily. 7C’s Winery lies just east of the Frisco Highline Trail and offers award-winning wines and meads, as well as a small food pantry and gift shop. For those who enjoy spirits, Copper Run Distillery features a real Ozarks moonshine, whisky and rum made with all-local products. Swing by the tasting room for a sample, order some food and enjoy the live music.
Surf and Turf
Rent a canoe, kayak or paddleboard at Lake Springfield Boathouse and explore the James River Water Trail, which runs 4.5 miles along Lake Springfield and the James River, passing Springfield Conservation Nature Center, Galloway Creek and Creighton Access. Adjacent Lake Springfield Park comprises 158 acres of rolling greens, trails, woods and bluffs. Accessible by the Ozark Greenways paved trail, Ritter Springs Park (245 acres) is home to a playground, picnic pavilion, trails, woods, lake, streams, sand volleyball court and archery range. Overall, Springfield/Greene County Parks operates more than 100 locations, including a botanical center and skate park.
Feed a big cat, get a behind-the-scenes tour or spend an entire day with the director at the National Tiger Sanctuary in Saddlebrooke, about 30 minutes from Springfield. The nonprofit rescue organization provides a permanent home for exotic and domestic animals. Dickerson Park Zoo offers a traditional zoo setting, with hundreds of animals from around the world, from “Tropical Asia” (elephants, peacocks, monkeys) to “Missouri Habitats” (wolves, river otters, black bears). Tamer encounters can be found at Rutledge-Wilson Farm Park, a 207-acre demonstration farm with animal barn, crop garden, themed playground and fishing pond.
Stay the Night
Inspired by Springfield’s rich history and active culture, Hotel Vandivort capitalizes on its downtown setting to offer an urban boutique experience. The hotel features a high level of style, with 50 guest rooms, including 12 suites and two premier suites. Best Western Route 66 Rail Haven, listed on the National List of Historic Places, is a refurbished motel complex with two nine-unit roadside buildings and a heap of 1950’s era character. Courtyard by Marriott Springfield Airport provides travel convenience and a modern lobby with flexible spaces to work, relax or play in the on-site swimming pool.
Brad Kovach is the editor/publisher of Terrain Magazine.