Your picks for the best regional outdoor towns in our Readers’ Choice Awards.
By now, we’ve all heard about the 200+ miles of binge-worthy singletrack in and around this Northwest Arkansas town (pictured, top). Outside magazine went so far as to call it “Disneyland for Mountain Bikers” in a recent issue. But there’s much more — on two wheels and off. The paved Razorback Regional Greenway connects Fayetteville (36 miles south) to Bentonville’s downtown square via the latter’s city trails and paths. Along the way, it passes famed Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art and its 120-acre park. You can tour a Frank Lloyd Wright House here before grabbing a bite at one of the area’s locally owned, farm-to-table restaurants. Visit anytime or plan a trip around one of the many annual festivals, including Bite NWA, Roots Festival, and Oz Trail Off Road.
St. Charles, Missouri
Two million visitors hiked, camped, biked, and otherwise enjoyed St. Charles County’s 15 parks in 2019. That’s a significant milestone — and one that’s well earned, as the natural and historic sites constitute some of the most diverse in the Greater St. Louis region. From the picturesque white sand beaches of Klondike Park, to the bucolic period village of the Historic Daniel Boone Home, to the thrill-inducing attractions at the Youth Activity Park (soon to be home of the US’s largest pump track), the parks here offer fun, education, and adventure for all types. The Katy Trail connects several of the recreational areas to Missouri Wine Country as well as to Main Street St. Charles, a great place for shopping, eating and drinking, or strolling the brick-lined streets.
Popular for decades as a rural respite from the city of St. Louis, Eureka has garnered a reputation as the area’s next outdoor hub. A blending of old and new features includes access to the Meramec River; miles of hiking and biking trails at Chubb/West Tyson County Park; a museum honoring the “Mother Road” at Route 66 State Park; and death-defying rides and rollercoasters at Six Flags. There’s also the Endangered Wolf Sanctuary and four conservation areas. Whispers of a new mountain bike park and a connector to the state-spanning Ozark Trail have fanned the flames of excitement about the outdoor horizons here. Eureka’s Old Town Business District offers quaint shops along with several cafes, restaurants, and beer halls.
A true Ozark treasure, Eminence lies in close proximity to some of the most pristine bodies of water in the country, as well as a number of other bucket-list-worthy attractions. Round Spring Cave, for instance, is heavily decorated with formations and can be toured with National Park Service guides Memorial Day through Labor Day. Century-old Alley Spring Mill represented Missouri on the America the Beautiful Quarter and is one of the most photographed landmarks in the Midwest. Rocky Falls offers an impressive look at a steep cascade with picnic sites nearby. A herd of approximately 20 wild horses roam the lands surrounding the Current and Jack’s Forks rivers, which are recognized as part of the Ozark National Scenic Riverways and provide excellent canoeing, swimming, tubing, and fishing.
This new American small town in far-west St. Louis County has kept nature and the outdoors at the forefront of its planning since incorporating in 1995 — and it shows, from its abundant open space to its paved pedestrian and bicycle paths. Progressive by design, Wildwood is home to Hidden Valley Ski Resort and 12-mile Bluff View Trail, the top-rated mountain bike trail in the region as voted by you (see November/December 2019). But its history isn’t all young: The St. Louis Cycling Club has been visiting the area since 1921, when it erected a stone marker at Smiths Hill on Old Manchester, near the site of Big Chief Roadhouse (opened in 1929) and not too far away from Dr. Edmund A. Babler Memorial State Park (1874).
St. Louis, Missouri
Metropolitan St. Louis, an outdoor destination? You bet! The Lou boasts 100+ parks — led by Gateway Arch National Park and 1,300-acre Forest Park, one of the top public parks in the country — and hosts dozens upon dozens of races and events, from the nationally renowned Gateway Cup and GO! St. Louis Marathon to the Gateway Outdoor Expo + Summit. Its location near the confluence of three of the US’s mightiest rivers means paddling and wildlife prospects galore. Hike or bike on St. Louis’ growing network of paved greenways, break a sweat at one of downtown’s two indoor rock-climbing gyms, or stroll the lovely grounds of the Missouri Botanical Garden. It all exists within easy reach of the city’s likely culinary and craft brew culture, among the best in the county.
Lake of the Ozarks, Missouri
Spending weekends at Lake of the Ozarks is a Missouri tradition, a rite of passage. The state’s most popular boating destination is well known for its floating parties, fishing, and waterside resorts, but there’s a lot more to experience within the 1,150 miles of shoreline than just that. Tucked among the rock bluffs and timbered hills, you’ll find everything from rare geological wonders to nearly 30 miles of hiking and biking trails. (Discover the former along the Lake of the Ozarks State Park Aquatic and the latter at Ha Ha Tonka State Park.) There are four show caves in the area, plus several wild caves for spelunkers to explore. And, at the end of the day, Lake of the Ozarks offers a seemingly endless selection of restaurants, bars, and attractions to keep the whole family happy.
Across the Mississippi River from St. Charles hides an often-overlooked stretch of bottomland and river bluffs that is rich with outdoor options, from low-key birding to pulse-pounding ziplining. It’s about an hour’s drive by car from St. Louis, or hop on your bike and pedal over. You can cross the Clark Bridge and head north or take one of two ferries: the Golden Eagle Ferry (daily) or the Grafton Ferry (Friday-Sunday). Once there, you’ll have access to mile after mile of bike paths, multiple hiking trails, river paddling, rock climbing and (bonus!) several area wineries and brew houses for replacing those burned-off calories. Highlights include 8,000-acre Pere Marquette State Park, Two Rivers National Wildlife Refuge, and the new Grafton SkyTour, offering unbeatable views of the wood-and-water surroundings.
Author: Brad Kovach is the editor/publisher of Terrain Magazine.