Missouri is, and has always been, a prime state for nature-based activities. And thanks to the dramatic and dazzling color change that occurs every autumn, those activities are enhanced by some of the most breathtaking backdrops in the Midwest.

That enhancement recently received a big exclamation point with the newly opened Echo Bluff State Park (formerly U.S. Department of Justice-owned Camp Zoe), located in Shannon County along Sinking Creek, just minutes away from the Current River. Acquired late fall of 2013 and redeveloped with a masterful design of nature and park visitors in mind, this new state park is a complete sensory experience. The bluff itself is a scenic masterpiece, overlooking the crystal clear Sinking Creek, and the location offers premier lodging, camping, fishing, floating and available event spaces.

As we celebrate the 100th anniversary of Missouri State Parks, we look at a few of the notable state parks in our backyard and see why they’ve become such popular, go-to places. So, pack a picnic basket, cooler, tent, trail bike or RV and head out to one of Missouri’s 88 state parks for a memorable outdoor adventure.

Release your inner river rat. We love the color of the fall foliage as we drive rural Missouri roads. But what about seeing those colors from a different perspective? Autumn is a magical time to be on Ozark streams and rivers, and with over 20 area parks offering floating options, you get to see the change of seasons behind the scenes.

Meramec State Park is one of the most popular for canoe, kayak or raft floating, being a family friendly, gentle route with great atmosphere and landscape. Three other parks also offer rentals, giving you one less thing to schedule and worry about: Washington State Park will take you down the Big River, with areas for fishing and swimming. Bennet Spring State Park offers canoe and raft floating down the Niangua River. For the more experienced, and the more adventurous, the more challenging waters of the St. Francois River are accessible by canoe, kayak or raft from Sam A. Baker State Park.

How low will you go? With 6,400 caves in our park system, it can be dizzying trying to decide where to find the best exploring opportunities, but there are four locations that offer guided tours of their caves: Onondaga Cave and Cathedral Cave, both located in Onondaga Cave State Park; Fisher Cave in Meramec State Park; and Ozark Caverns at Lake of The Ozarks State Park.

Onondaga Cave

Onondaga Cave

Onondaga is the most accessible, and therefore the most popular, offering 1.5 miles of cave passages that include paved and electrically lighted walkways with stainless railing. Onondaga Cave is more than just a hole in the ground. This national landmark sports at least 68 known cave-dwelling species and natural rock formations with names like The Twins, King’s Canopy, the Rock of Ages, the Big Room and the Lily Pad Room. Located just 5 miles southeast of Leasburg, Missouri, Onondaga, like all of Missouri’s caves, is only open for tours from April through October, closing over the winter for our well-documented bat hibernation season.

Camp under the stars. Once you’re in the Missouri outdoors, it’s tough to turn around and come back. We know that, and so do Missouri State Parks. That’s why over 40 of the parks offer official sites designated for overnight camping, ranging from primitive, which are only accessible by walking to them on trails, to full-service hookups to accommodate RV camping. For extended stays, some sites offer hot showers, laundry services, dump stations for waste and even free Wi-Fi.

Sam A. Baker State Park is one of the most beloved camping parks, framed out by the St. Francis River and Big Creek. It offers numerous water activities, and even a separate campground for equestrian use. If you’re too worn out to prep your end-of-day meal, they’ve got that covered as well, with a lodge restaurant to do the cooking for you.

Take a hike! Missouri was named a “Best Trails State” in 2013 by American Trails, a non-profit organization that rates states on behalf of our nation’s biking, hiking and riding trails. Our trails comprise almost 1,000 miles on 230 diverse, managed terrain — including portions of the Lewis and Clark Trail, the Trail of Tears and the Santa Fe National Historic Trail.

At Missouri’s western border, you can find the beginning of the famous Pony Express, California and Oregon National trails. Check out Prairie State Park, our state’s largest tallgrass prairie in Northeast Missouri, for a relaxing hike featuring wildlife and bird sightings. When you want to challenge yourself with perhaps an overnight hike, head over to Cuivre River State Park, also in Northeast Missouri. Get back to nature with miles of rugged trails through grasslands and woodlands along Big Sugar Creek, one of Missouri’s most pristine areas, featuring undisturbed streams and 6,000 acres of nature available for camping and fishing. Lastly, if geology is your thing, the Scour Trail at Johnson Shut-Ins State Park will give you a look at the beauty of geological hiking 1.4 billion years in the making.

But, for the whole package, with hiking, backpacking, equestrian trails and cycling, the hidden gem may be Crowder State Park, in Trenton, Missouri. A little over four hours from St. Louis, there are more than 1,900 acres wrapped around 17 miles of diverse trails for your exploration. Picnic sites are scattered throughout the park, along with family campground and modern restroom facilities to make your outing comfortable and convenient.

Mill it over. Picnicking and day outings are available at every Missouri State Park, but the serene backdrop of the Dillard Mill State Historic Site has been regularly referred to as the prettiest, with the “old red mill set on the blue waters of Huzzah Creek.” Imagine a great fall day, blue sky and gentle breeze, with the old mill in the background. You’re sitting back, relaxing with closed eyes and open ears, while the Huzzah provides nature’s music. And, if you’re up for it, you can fish or take a hike during your daytrip to this gem, located just to hours from St. Louis in the Mark Twain National Forest.

Relive Missouri history. Put yourself in the footsteps of our forefathers at one of 36 historic sites, over half of which have interpretive tours to guide you through our rich, significant events. Take a day and tour the Civil War battlefields at The Battle of Carthage State Historic Site. This was the first full-scale battle between the Confederates and the Union, occurring 11 days before Bull Run on July 5, 1861. The location was an ideal camp used by the soldiers (both sides), because of the open meadow landscape that includes Carter Spring, a source for fresh water.

You can also visit the birthplace of Harry Truman, or the house of our beloved Mark Twain. Look back into Missouri’s rich heritage and revisit our French heritage at Felix Valle House State Historic Site in St. Genevieve, or study the displays and histories of Missouri’s Native American culture at Van Meter State Park, complete with a hand-dug fort and burial mounds located on the property.

Haul in a lunker! Feel that tug on the end of your line while in a beautiful setting of rolling streams and colorful foliage. While Missouri boasts great parks for trout fishing, like Bennet Springs State Park and Rolling River State Park, Montauk State Park is a great place to satisfy all of your nature cravings, and finish up your day with a hand-dipped ice cream cone as well. The comforting sounds of the always cool Current River rolling through the park will almost make you forget that you’re supposed to be watching your line, hoping to pull a keeper out of the stream. Trout fishing is bountiful, and accessible to all at Montauk, with fish from the on-site hatchery being released at multiple points of the park and campground each night. And, if you want, the lodge will even prepare your catch for your dinner to your specifications.

Take in nature’s beauty. The scenery at Missouri’s parks can make one stop what they’re doing and take note, as well as a multitude of pictures. Trying to recommend a park for purely for photographic purposes would be impossible, but Taum Sauk Mountain State Park may be one of the best when it comes to experiencing the wonder and beauty of nature. Described as untamed and unspoiled, with an unmatched quality of solitude, this park’s namesake, Taum Sauk Mountain, provides scenic views from the highest natural point in Missouri, 1,772 feet above sea level. In addition, the state’s highest waterfall, Mina Sauk Falls, is also here, cascading some 132 feet down into a crystal clear pool at it’s base. Missouri’s deepest valley to the west is also part of the decor, with up to 700 feet of vertical relief sandwiched between the mountaintops and creeks. Viewable volcanic formations below the falls round out the natural trail to Johnson’s Shut-Ins State Park. As a major part of the St. Francois Mountains Natural Area, Taum Sauk is believed to give a picture of how the entire area may have looked before human influence and development.

Devils Tollgate at Taum Sauk

Devils Tollgate at Taum Sauk

Other noted scenic views are available at Pershing State Park (wetlands, marshes and wet prairies sporting abundant wildlife, including the endangered massasauga rattlesnake), Ha Ha Tonka State Park (tall bluffs, deep gorges, with terrific woodlands landscapes and glades, sporting tarantulas, scorpions and the Missouri evening primrose) and Hawn State Park (offering clear, sand-bottomed streams, wild orchid patches and inspiring views of geological formations). Hawn State Park is often designated as place to enjoy nature as intended, serene and inspiring.

Celebrate the Centennial
Missouri State Parks is celebrating 100 years! The park system offers prairies, battlefields, covered bridges, ancient villages, forested hills and valleys, caves and springs, streams and lakes teeming with fish, and the homes of honored artists, pioneers, soldiers and statesmen. The park system was officially established on April 9, 1917, and since then has grown to include 88 properties and historic sites throughout the state. With more than 150,000 acres available to the public, there are a wide variety of opportunities to hike, camp, discover the past and explore nature. In addition, Missouri State Parks hosts specific activities such as the Learn 2 programs, the popular Run, Paddle and Bike Racing Series, and numerous educational camps and courses for kids. More information is available at mostateparks.com.

Author: Gerald Dlubala is a contributor to Terrain magazine