Think of hiking or backpacking and what comes to mind for most of us? The West! Spacious vistas of uninterrupted mountains, breath-taking crystal clear lakes - a numbing 20 hour drive to get there, and once there, competing with hordes of dehydrated-food-munching, like-minded souls intent on getting away from it all.
It doesn't have to be that way.
The Conservation Department manages more than 800,000 acres of land scattered throughout Missouri that contain more than 600 miles of trails. Virtually no Missourian is more than a 45-minute drive from at least one such area.
The Conservation Department's best known trail sites are its four nature centers - Burr Oak Woods Conservation Nature Center, Blue Springs; Springfield Conservation Nature Center; Powder Valley Conservation Nature Center, Kirkwood and Runge Conservation Nature Center in Jefferson City. Each features trails that are well maintained and suitable for a leisurely pace. No backpacking opportunities here, but plenty of nature study and lots of friendly Conservation Department employees ready to be of service.
The nature centers are good places for the mobility impaired to enjoy the outdoors. Each features a disabled accessible trail.
Short walks, such as those available at nature centers, can be lengthened on large conservation areas, where established foot trails and existing maintenance roads combine to provide extended hikes, or even overnight backpack experiences.
Hikers trading the vastness of the West for the diversity of Missouri won't give up anything in the view department. Spectacular scenery abounds; whether it's a forest, wetland, prairie or glade, hikers on conservation areas won't be disappointed.
Another Missouri advantage is hikers are rarely, if ever, snow bound. Intrepid backpackers seeking solace during the winter months will see wildlife more readily while sharing the trails with only an occasional archer or squirrel hunter. By mid-February chances are hikers and backpackers will have the area to themselves.
Because each area is unique, regulations vary. Camping is not allowed on some conservation areas, so if you're planning an overnighter be sure to check ahead of time.
A handy item for hikers and backpackers is Missouri's Conservation Atlas. This new book gives a thorough description of Conservation Department lands and is available for $15 plus $5 shipping and handling from: Atlas, Missouri Department of Conservation, P.O. Box 180, Jefferson City 65102 0180.
Specific conservation area maps are generally available from nearby Conservation Department offices. These maps also cover regulations and show parking lots, trails and geographic features.
Rudolf Bennitt, Forest 44 and Bois D'Arc conservation areas are just a sample of the many Conservation Department lands offering hiking trails.
Rudolf Bennitt Conservation Area, south of Moberly, features the Moniteau Wilderness Trail, and numerous other trails winding through its 3,444 acres. The area is primarily forest with a smattering of uplands. Hikers and backpackers are welcome to explore this vast area, named for an early pioneer in conservation.
Forest 44 Conservation Area doesn't provide any camping, but folks wanting to stretch their legs will find this 958-acre area to their liking. Forest 44 is located west of St. Louis on Interstate 44. The area is predominantly forest, and hikers can expect a good workout from the rugged terrain.
Bois D' Arc Conservation Area is another great day-hike opportunity located north of Springfield. A combination of Ozark upland and arid glade gives visitors a taste of diversity as they traverse the newly completed foot trails.
Finally, for the hardy outdoors person who doesn't give a second thought to several days on the trail, the Ozark Trail might be just the ticket. This unique trace transects state, federal and private land in the southeastern Ozarks. Although still in the formative stages, detailed maps of completed trail sections and specific information concerning the Ozark Trail may be obtained by writing: State Forester, Missouri Department of Conservation, P.O. Box 180, Jefferson City 65102-0180.
Some Conservation Department property is acquired, developed and/or funded in part through the wildlife and sport fish restoration act administered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Hikers, bikers and trail riders will celebrate Trails Day (June 1) with a variety of activities in Missouri.
National Trails Day is a nationwide day of events to promote community trail planning, increase public awareness of trails, promote trail conservation and celebrate the values and benefits America's treasured trails provide. Trails promote fitness, provide an alternative to auto transportation and its attendant pollution, provide outdoor classrooms for nature study, and a look at our past as marked by historic journeys. The day also gives trail side communities an economic boost. For additional information, contact The American Hiking Society, PO Box 20160, Washington D.C. 20041-2160.
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