For a healthy and inexpensive way to enjoy the natural world, look no farther than your neighborhood conservation area. There's plenty of fun afoot when you hike nature trails in the Kansas City area.
Hiking is for everyone in the family. You can go as fast as you want, as far as you want, whenever you want and with whomever you want. But whatever your hiking ambitions, keep in mind a few common sense points before you set out on the trail.
First consideration goes to essential gear. Dress comfortably and for the weather. Sensible shoes are a must. Boots that provide ankle support and good traction make sense. A hat will help keep you warmer in the winter and cooler in the summer.
Since ticks, chiggers and poison ivy are common throughout Missouri, consider wearing long pants and long sleeves. At the least, protect your skin with insect repellent and keep a sharp eye out for the distinctive three leaves of poison ivy.
Along with the essentials, bring along a canteen of drinking water.
It will provide welcome relief any time of the year, especially if you are hiking with children. A map of the trail will help you appreciate it more and let you gauge your progress. Maps are available at local Conservation Department offices and at some of the larger areas. You might also want to bring along a compass.
Binoculars and a pocket magnifier let you peer into the natural world. Guidebooks about flora and fauna will deepen your appreciation (and give you a chance to pause if you are feeling a little winded). Don't forget a lightweight but sturdy hiking stick. It's like having a best friend along when you hike.
Enjoying the trail carries a responsibility. Hiker's etiquette is just as important as any other item you bring along. Consider yourself a guest in nature's house and act accordingly.
First of all, stay on the trail. Not only will this help preserve the natural beauty for your next visit, but it will keep you from getting lost or hurt. Hiking off the trail can also contribute to erosion.
Don't leave anything behind. Drop gum wrappers in your pocket, not on the trail. Recycle the soda can when you get home, rather than tossing it into the woods. You might even consider bringing along a small trash bag and having the kids help clean up the trail as they go.
Don't take anything with you either. Native plants, flowers and small animals all have their roles in the natural cycle. By carrying them away, you not only break the cycle, but you break the law. In fact, if you found it along the trail, consider leaving your hiking stick at the trailhead for the next hiker.
Kansas Citians are fortunate to have a good selection of hiking trails at nearby conservation areas. Here's a sampling.
The Shawnee Trace Nature Trail is tucked in the back of this 2,456-acre wildlife area. This loop trail begins and ends at the Bodarc Lake dam.
The Shawnee Trace Trail, which gets its name from an American Indian trail that passed nearby, is actually made of three interconnected, unpaved trails. All of the hiking is easy, which makes this a good family adventure.
The Big Creek Loop covers one mile along the east branch of Big Creek on the way out and then passes along a ridge on the way back. When you cross the creek, look for horsetail (scouring rush) growing in the rich soil.
The .75-mile Glade Loop runs along the top of the hill. As the name suggests, the soil is rocky and includes several treeless areas. Look for prickly pear and an old homestead along here.
The mile-long Habitat Loop crosses the creek on a swaying wooden foot bridge. Though the area is thickly forested now, a massive sycamore pops up along the trail and shows that the area was mostly open within this century. Have the kids join hands and try to reach around the trunk. It's a great break in the hiking and an opportunity to teach about trees and history.
Before leaving the area, be sure to stop in the office, which has wildlife displays, a touch table, several aquariums of native fish and turtles, vending machines and staffers who love to make conversation.
James A. Reed Memorial Wildlife Area is on Ranson Road, south of Highway 50 and just east of Lee's Summit in southeast Jackson County.
There are four trails at Burr Oak Woods and an outstanding nature center. Every hiking ability and interest will be satisfied by a visit here.
Start with the best. The Bethany Falls Trail is the showcase trail for all of Kansas City. Though only 1.3 miles, it offers some challenging hiking, so wear sensible shoes. You start with a gentle climb through a lowland forest, where you'll pass the foundations of settlers' cabins. The trail gets its name from the outcropping of Bethany Falls limestone it passes over, under and through. Bring your camera for some interesting shots. Markers along the trail identify history and topography.
The longest trail here is the 1.5-mile Wildlife Habitat Trail. This loop trail takes you through various habitat and scenery. You'll pass through uplands and bottomlands, over creeks, past ponds and glades and along more Bethany Falls limestone. Some of the inclines are moderately steep. A shortcut trail along the bubbling creek shaves half a mile off the hike.
Two trails near the nature center offer hiking opportunities for those who prefer pavement. To the west of the building is the Missouri Tree Trail. This .8-mile, paved loop trail includes a photoblind, a bridge across a pond and a deck that overlooks a glade. The Discovery Trail immediately behind the building is also a paved loop trail, but it has some steep inclines. Look for a short spur off the trail that crosses a creek. Even on the hottest days, you'll enjoy an appreciable drop in temperature here.
Burr Oak Woods is on Park Road, west of Highway 7, just north of Blue Springs in Jackson County.
The vigorous development of northern Kansas City surrounds the 39 wild acres of this little park. A clearly defined, mile-long loop trail takes hikers through a dense forested area filled with bird song. Maple Woods is the largest remaining stand of virgin maple trees west of the Mississippi. How surprising that such an unspoiled area is located right in the middle of suburbia!
The trailhead is beside a parking lot on 76th Street. You begin your hike by crossing a wooden bridge, and then you are faced with a choice. You can take the steep trail to the right or the more moderate one to the left. Each is an end of the same trail, so whichever you choose will eventually bring you back to the trailhead.
Along the way you'll pass a couple of short spurs you can take to explore further into the dense forest. Don't be surprised, though, to spot the houses of new subdivisions peeking through the trees when the trail takes you close to the perimeter of the area.
A short cutoff trail halves the distance of your hike, but since the entire trail is only a mile long, you might choose the cutoff so you can make a figure-8 hike.
Expect some moderately steep¿g and some serious mud in wet weather. Be sure to bring along your tree guide.
Maple Woods Natural History Area is within the city of Gladstone in northern Kansas City. It is on 76th Street, west of Antioch Road in Clay County.
For a fun day-trip, make the drive to Bluffwoods Conservation Area. The two hiking trails here offer a moderate challenge to the hiker.
The Lone Pine Trail is the longer of the two. Its overall length depends on the various spurs you might take. The trailhead is in the bottomland, near an old cemetery. Go to the left and you quickly begin a moderately steep ascent as the trail mounts and follows a ridge. On the way up, you'll hike along an old road that has been worn nearly 10 feet below the surrounding ground in some areas.
Along the ridge you'll find persimmons galore in season and dozens of varieties of wildflowers. Once you reach the ridge, make sure to take the spur to the north. Not only will you see the massive, gnarled pine that names this trail, but you'll reach a bluff with a dizzying view of miles of open bottomland.
On your return, you can choose the loop trail back to your car or a second spur that takes you along a creek and another old road. If you go this way, though, you must retrace your steps to get back to the trailhead.
The Forest Nature Trail is in another part of the area, running from and to a picnic shelter. The trail is gently sloped and allows a pleasant, short hike through both forest and grassland.
Bluffwoods Conservation Area is nine miles south of St. Joseph on Highway 59 near the town of Halls in Buchanan County.
See you on the trail!
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