Hike the Heart of Missouri
Davisdale Conservation Area is a unique collection of young and old forests, abandoned fields, active cropland, and various warm- and cool-season grasses. This 2,700-acre area contains over 10 miles of trails. The most easily accessible and varied loop of the trail starts at the park's southern border and arcs north across gravel road 442 before returning south. This loop measures about 5.5 miles and begins at the parking lot on Highway 40, perched on the edge of the Missouri Rivers floodplain.
The trail immediately crosses the KATY Trail and climbs into the hills. (Stick to the path labeled on the map as "trail," not the "Wade Eagle Trail," which is poorly marked.) Follow the path's left fork and wind your way through old hilltop pastureland. Notice the young hardwoods encroaching.
After the trail swings northward, you'll come to a series of narrow fields, actively cultivated. On these ridgetops are some fine views of the surrounding hills, and more than a couple teasing glimpses of the wide Missouri River bottom and the hills across the river.
North of the gravel road are more croplands, as well as fields of native grasses and stands of blackberries and milkweed. As the trail crosses south over the gravel road, you'll pass the enchanting 1881 Sulfur Springs Baptist Church, and soon find yourself walking along an old roadbed through tall woods.
The entire trail is wide and mown but does climb some lengthy hills. The 5.5-mile loop might take the average walker three hours to traverse, though it can be completed in less than two. For a real challenge, try to locate the four graveyards within or adjacent to the area. For a Herculean challenge (fit for an energetic Boy Scout troop, perhaps) try to locate the park's 25-plus ponds. The area also has three American Indian mounds.
Davisdale Conservation Area is 15 miles west of Columbia on Highway 40.
Runge Conservation Nature Center
In Jefferson City, Runge Conservation Nature Center offers excellent outdoor walking without leaving town. The five trails can be hiked individually or strung together.
The .33-mile Naturescape Trail is paved and traverses only mild inclines, so it's well suited for wheelchair hikers or people who might not be able to tackle more rugged walks. Interpretive stations on the trail highlight different conservation strategies you can employ in your own back yard, such as planting a butterfly garden or constructing a small pond.
The longest trail, .75-mile Raccoon Run, is also paved and winds through dense cedar groves and past prairie grass meadows, three ponds and a huge shagbark hickory. Bluestem Ridge Trail, .33-mile, is similar to Raccoon Run.
Moss Rock Trace runs between a rocky creek and a lovely mossy hillside. There is a set of stairs on the .33-mile trail and one steep climb.
Towering Oak Trail, .5 mile, passes through some of the older woods on the property.
Runge Nature Center is just north of Highway 50 on Highway 179
Little Dixie Lake Conservation Area
The centerpiece of Little Dixie Lake Conservation Area is the 205-acre, manmade lake. Hiking trails wind around the lake, though to walk the entire circuit would take hours. More attractive is the idea of constructing your own hike, of whatever length you like, from the many trail options.
A good area to start from is the parking lot on the east side of the lake. Here is a .4-mile paved and level interpretive trail that winds through the woods and along the lakeshore. Be sure to check the lake to see what waterfowl are present; it's a popular stopover for migratory ducks and geese.
You can wander farther north on the "shoreline trail" or "boundary trail." These trails, north of the parking lot, pass through some fine oak forest. You can easily loop back to your car after 20 minutes or an hour, or choose to continue north to observe old pasturelands. The level terrain and old woods are lovely, but the highway and haphazard residential development surrounding the park may detract from your outing.
Little Dixie Lake Conservation Area is south of Interstate 70 off Route J.
Columbia's own in-town trail, the Katy Trail, is accessible from many points. You can walk as far as you like on the trail. In some places, the trees lean over the trail, lending the appearance of an old country lane. One pleasant feature of the trail is its lack of steep inclines.
For people interested in backpacking (multi-day hikes), the best mid-Missouri destination is probably the section of the Mark Twain National Forest that straddles the border of Boone and Callaway counties. Here, the Cedar Creek Trail System offers 22 miles of trail with several points of interest. The National Forest has many access points, such as Route Y east of Ashland.