Tiny dry seeds grazed my fingertips as I pushed bluestem grasses aside and gazed over the prairie from the trail where I stood. I turned my head to make sure my little shadow was beside me.
“Mom, I can’t see anything!” Rose, my 4-foottall daughter, complained. When she parted the itchy grasses lining the trail she was greeted with an endless sea of stems. We moved on until we found a vantage point we both could enjoy. We lingered there, admiring a field of tall grasses and wildflowers.
We were at the Mark Youngdahl Urban Conservation Area in St. Joseph. I like to think of the area as a park, although it’s not the kind of park where you’d find swings and jungle gyms. This was more of a natural playground. The best thing about it was that it was close to home; in fact it was just across the street from our grocery store.
Some of the busiest streets in the city border the 85-acre area, but it still has a rural feel. You not only can immerse yourself into wild prairie land, but you often get glimpses of wild animals, including white-tailed deer. I especially like the scenic views of rolling hills filled with grasses that sway as one with even a gentle breeze. This area also has ponds and both dusty and paved trails, as well as a picnic shelter.
The Missouri Department of Conservation has conservation areas totaling nearly 800,000 acres throughout the state. Much of this public land is in rural areas and provides excellent opportunities for hunting and fishing. To serve the outdoor needs of people in our larger cities, however, the Department has also established a number of urban conservation areas.
These are not the same as conservation nature centers, which are modern facilities that primarily focus on nature education. Urban conservation areas usually consist of small pockets of land tucked within neighborhoods and suburbs. They focus on allowing people to experience nature—without a lot of frills. They are peaceful places where you can enjoy a daily walk and an afternoon adventure.
They allow people who live in the city to occasionally listen to the songs of the eastern meadowlarks, see wild turkeys strutting in the spring and smell the earthy aroma of forest land. They are also great places for children to learn that creeks don’t stop at the city limits and that owls aren’t just found out in the deep, dark woods.
I had hoped to take Rose to a conservation area out in the country where we could look for migrating monarch butterflies clustered in trees and feeding across acres of asters. It was my way of getting Rose outside and away from Spongebob Squarepants for a while.
As so often happens, however, time intruded. In the rush between the school bell, dinner and gymnastics there just wasn’t enough time to run out of town to look for butterflies.
I was disappointed, but then I remembered our urban conservation area. It had fields of asters and was only a 10-minute drive from our house. You might call it a local solution.
At the urban prairie, Rose and I talked about Laura Ingalls Wilder’s stories about living on a prairie in the 1830s. We held hands as we searched for butterflies and imagined she was the character Laura and I was Ma. The tall grasses brushed our cheeks and scratched our legs and the dry prairie earth crunched under our feet as we walked. It was like reliving history.
Our search for monarch butterflies gave us a good excuse to explore the wild land. Even though prairie grasses, a ruddy duck and the fuzzy leaves of mullein distracted us from our original pursuit, we eventually found our orange-and-black beauties clustered on a stand of common milkweed. It was the perfect end to a wild urban adventure.
I’ve visited several urban conservation areas, and each has its own blend of charm and beauty. For example, the Jim Bridger Urban Conservation Area in Blue Springs boasts a beautiful forest stream and feels very rural, even though busy Highway 7 is only a short distance away.
The rocky trail along the stream has an Ozark feel and is lined with prickly pear cactus. In spring, the stream flows smoothly over rock shelves, bubbles in stair-step waterfalls, and dips down between the rocky walls that channel it. Kinglets often accompany you on your hikes there.
The urban conservation area also offers you plenty of chances to admire bird craftsmanship. Its diverse habitat might house the basket nest of the oriole, the shrubby nest of the cardinal, or the flat flimsy nest of the mourning dove. I like to leave the iPod at home and listen to the chorus of songbirds instead.
Hinkson Woods Conservation Area in Columbia is a natural resting area when you are hiking the Katy Trail in the summer. This 70-acre area conveniently connects to the MKT trail between trail miles 3.5 and 4.0. Take a seat on one of the benches along the trail and enjoy the view of forest, old fields and grasslands. You’re apt to spy a deer grazing or a red-tailed hawk perched above Hinkson Creek.
When the leaves fall from the oak and hickory trees at the August G. Beckemeier Conservation Area in Chesterfield, you can enjoy a beautiful view of the Missouri River from the bluff-side trail. If the weather is nice, pack a lunch and eat in the picnic area. In the winter, a fresh snowfall will open your eyes to braided trails of turkey, deer, coyotes and other animals.
Taking children to an urban conservation area gives them a chance to learn about nature in ways that aren’t possible by gazing at pictures of stunning landscapes or watching television programs about nature. They can learn that nature doesn’t only exist in faraway places like the Himalayas or the Amazon rainforest; it underlies their city, their neighborhood, and even their own backyard.
It’s an easy transition from listening to a chorus of American goldfinches as they feast on purple coneflowers at an urban conservation area to noticing the same bright yellow birds singing from treetops in the backyard. After kids see raccoon tracks in the mud along the pond at the conservation area, they might better be able to guess what kind of creature the family dog was barking at during the night.
They might also learn to connect how what they do in their own backyards may affect nature in other places. I’m thinking of the trash that people have to pick up at Hinkson Woods Conservation Area. It wasn’t deposited there, but it found it’s way there. We never escape our connections to nature.
I wonder if a similar realization prompted Julia Brooke and her two sons to join a recent No MOre Trash! cleanup at the Youngdahl Conservation Area. Julia said she and her husband used to explore the shrubby land before it was donated to the Conservation Department, and she’s doing her best to keep her family linked to the area.
Each day that the weather is bearable, Julia and her sons, Jacob and Ben, start their home-school day on the trails of the conservation area.
“It’s a mind-clearing way to start the day,” she said.
Julia described how their walks often lead to discussions of nature and the wildlife they see on the trail. Jacob even brings his digital camera and has taken some great photos of a group of Eastern bluebirds on the area. Sometimes they pull a little red wagon loaded with a cooler and charcoal to one of the park’s pavilions for a picnic lunch.
The family even started a summer school program for the neighborhood church which focuses on the Youngdahl area. Each week the children travel together to the area to explore and play in the outdoors.
Almost anyone whose shoes beat a busy tune on pavement most days can find some relief at a nearby urban conservation area.
You can find a conservation area near you by viewing our Conservation Atlas online at MissouriConservation.org/2930 or by calling one of our regional offices. Before venturing out to a new area for the first time, it’s a good idea to call your regional office to get specific information and traveling directions. This is especially helpful for those areas that are a little—but not too far—off the beaten path.
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