Columbia, Mo. – Anyone looking to escape the crowds and spend some time outside will find many great escapes in Columbia. With 73 city parks, 10 conservation areas, three state parks, a celebrated nature trail and numerous outdoor venues, Columbia offers ample opportunities to roam around, stretch your legs and enjoy the fresh air while still maintaining a safe social distance.
“Being a college town, often times it’s Columbia’s collegiate sporting events and fun festivals that get the most attention, but we have a wealth of outdoor activities that many people enjoy all year long,” says Megan McConachie, strategic communications manager for the Columbia Convention and Visitors Bureau. “Now, more than ever, you see people taking advantage of our great outdoor recreational opportunities, whether it’s riding or running on the MKT trail, taking an easy stroll on one of our greenways or spending a leisurely afternoon in a city park. There’s truly something for everyone who would like to spend more time outside.”
Below are a few highlights of outdoor adventures to be found in and around Columbia.
HIT THE TRAILS
In 2013, Missouri was honored as being the “Best Trails State” by American Trails, due in large part to the Missouri State Parks system’s 1,000 miles of managed trails as well as the numerous municipal trails throughout the state. Columbia lays claim to two of the most celebrated trails in Missouri, both of which can be experienced by bicycle or by foot.
The 240-mile long Katy Trail State Park is the longest developed rails-to-trails conversion program in the U.S. and runs along the western border of the city and connects to Columbia via the nine-mile MKT Nature and Fitness Trail. The MKT, which was voted the second-best urban trail by readers of USA Today, begins at Flat Branch Park in downtown Columbia and winds along a crushed limestone pathway through shaded forest groves and over former steel-and-wood railroad bridges, connecting to the Katy Trail near McBaine, Mo. Some highlights along the MKT include a “Voices from the Past” self-guided cell phone tour of memorial benches, a Martin Luther King, Jr. memorial garden, two exercise stations, ball fields and a thrilling bike “pump” track featuring an undulating circuit with jumps and obstacles.
The Katy Trail State Park, which is about a 45-minute bike ride from downtown via the MKT, covers 240 miles of scenic Missouri landscape from Clinton on the west side of the state to Machens on the east. Much of the Katy Trail follows the Missouri River, flanked by impressive limestone bluffs and meanders through former railroad towns along fertile fields of corn and soybeans. The trail has stops along the way where home-cooked food is served in friendly cafes and overnight lodgings can be found at quaint bed and breakfast inns. Some of Missouri’s best wineries and microbreweries are also accessible from the Katy Trail.
Rocheport, on the Missouri River west of Columbia, is the original Katy Trail town, with charming bed and breakfasts, eclectic restaurants and cafes offering delicious food, unique shops, the award-winning Les Bourgeois Vineyards and the only railroad tunnel on the trail. The tiny town of Rocheport is a must-stop for anyone cycling the Katy to or from Columbia.
In addition to the Katy Trail State Park, Columbia is home to two other popular state parks, Rock Bridge Memorial and Finger Lakes. Each park has its own charm and unique features and both offer numerous ways to explore and enjoy nature and spend some time on the trails.
Located just five miles south of the glow of Columbia’s downtown lights is Rock Bridge Memorial State Park, which offers wanderers the chance to trek along some of the most popular hiking trails in the state. The 2,272-acre park is home to impressive karst geological formations, a namesake rock bridge, sinkholes, a natural spring and an underground stream in the imposing seven-mile long cave system known as the “Devil’s Icebox.” The 750-acre Gans Creek Wild Area located within the park features a rugged 8.5-mile trail surrounded by high bluffs and accommodates horseback riding from July through October. Gans Creek is a favorite among trail runners and backpackers.
Finger Lakes State Park, located just north of Columbia off Highway 63, offers a unique mix of amenities and draws a diverse crowd.This 1,128-acre park was once the site of a coal strip-mining operation, which created the park’s namesake lake configurations and rough terrain. The rugged landscape of Finger Lakes State Park has been recycled into more than 70 miles of off-road motorcycle and all-terrain vehicle trails, only one of two Missouri state parks that allows off-road vehicles. And, for visitors looking for the more typical state park experience, the numerous finger-shaped lakes allow activities such as swimming, fishing and kayaking/canoeing. Finger Lakes’ other claims to fame are two self-guided Aquatic Trails (kayak and canoe rentals are available) and, on land, the Kelley Branch Trail, which is favored by mountain bikers, trail runners and hikers looking for a more challenging track. Finger Lakes also offers primitive and RV camping sites for overnight stays.
Columbia’s many municipal parks also offer an outdoor refuge year round. The 116-acre Stephens Lake Park near downtown Columbia features an 11-acre lake that’s great for fishing and also features a “sprayground” for the kids to enjoy during the summer months. Stephens has a 1.7-mile paved greenway that winds throughout the park for walking, biking and jogging. Numerous picnic areas and pavilions offer an opportunity to dine al fresco. Many of Columbia’s other city parks also feature walking paths, playgrounds, picnic areas and other outdoor activities to enjoy. For a complete list of Columbia’s city parks, please visit www.como.gov/parksandrec/park/. For a complete list of trails around Columbia, visit www.como.gov/parksandrec/trail/.
LET IT FLY
One of Columbia’s outdoor hidden gems can be found at Strawn Park on the western side of the city. Harmony Bends Championship Disc Golf Course was designed by the world-renowned disc golf architect John Houck in 2016. Harmony Bends was named the best disc golf course in the country in 2017 and was also selected to host the Professional Disc Golf Association’s U.S. Masters tournament. The course features 18 holes with an array of unique terrain, beautiful views and multiple creeks coming into play. With disc golf growing exponentially in popularity, expect this course to pick up even more notoriety in the future.
In addition to Harmony Bends, Columbia has three other 18-hole disc golf courses. Albert-Oakland Park, located in northern Columbia, features two distinct 18-hole courses and Indian Hills Park, in eastern Columbia, features another 18 holes, providing disc golfers or anyone that wants to give disc golf a try many opportunities to play this fun sport.
For fans of pickleball, or anyone that has ever wanted to play this popular paddle ball sport that’s like a combination of tennis, badminton and pingpong, there are several opportunities to play outdoors around Columbia. Albert-Oakland Park has six dedicated pickleball courts that are open year around. Rock Quarry Park has two tennis courts that have permanent pickleball boundary lines as does Shepard Boulevard Park. Both Rock Quarry and Shepard parks are located on the south side of Columbia.
ROLLIN’ ON THE RIVER
Cold beverages, fresh-made meals, live musical entertainment (depending upon current health and safety gathering guidelines) and stunning sunsets over the mighty Missouri River is what visitors will find any given weekend at two of Columbia’s best-loved outdoor venues.
Cooper’s Landing Riverside Resort & Marina, located south of Columbia along the Katy Trail, has been welcoming guests from all over the country for years for a slice of Mid-Missouri river life. Visitors to Cooper’s can enjoy fresh eats from a rotating schedule of Columbia’s food trucks, cold beverages (alcoholic and non-alcoholic) from the general store, comfortable camp sites and a short walk down the trail to view “BoatHenge,” Mid-Missouri’s version of Stonehenge. The marina features a boat launch and slips as well as a filling station. Cooper’s typically features food trucks Tuesdays through Sundays during the summer and live music Thursdays through Sundays in the evenings*. Cooper’s is a 12-mile drive from downtown or a 15-mile bike ride by way of the MKT and Katy trails.
The Station House at Katfish Katy’s has long been a staple for cyclists heading west from Columbia along the Katy Trail. Top-to-bottom renovations have given Katfish Katy’s a new life and has expanded its notoriety beyond the weekend cyclists who love to stop for a bite to eat and cold refreshments. Bordered by the Katy Trail and the Missouri River, Katfish Katy’s sets on 170 acres and features a full-service kitchen and bar, live music* and plenty of outdoor seating on its large covered patio that can accommodate social distancing. Those with boats, motorized or not, also can make use of the large on-site boat launch for a day on the river. Katfish Katy’s is 14 miles from Columbia by car or 11 miles by bicycle and is open seasonally Friday evenings from 5-9 p.m. and from 11 a.m. until 9 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays.
*If you’re interested in catching local musicians at either Cooper’s Landing or The Station House at Katfish Katy’s, please call ahead to see if and when they will be hosting local bands.
SLEEP UNDER THE STARS
For those looking to pitch a tent, park an RV or find a comfortable cabin, there are several great campgrounds and RV parks that would complete any Columbia outdoor adventure. In addition to Finger Lakes State Park and Cooper’s Landing mentioned above, guests in Columbia could enjoy the well-maintained, spacious settings at Cedar Creek Resort and RV Park east of the city and Cottonwoods RV Park north of Columbia. Both parks have ample spaces for RVs of all sizes plus a host of amenities on-site for their guests. For a more rustic camping experience, Three Creeks Conservation Area just south of Columbia features hike-in primitive campsites year around.
THERE’S MORE TO EXPLORE & PLENTY OF PLACES TO STAY
In addition to the highlights above, there are other ways to enjoy the outdoors in Columbia.
Even when not on the trails, cyclists will find riding around town to be a joy. Named one of the “Best Biking Cities in America” by Biking Magazine in 2018, cyclists in Columbia will find several bicycle-only boulevards, many marked bike lanes, bike-friendly “pedways” and numerous bike parking racks throughout town. Visitors can find information on biking in Columbia, including city maps and a “Guide to Your Ride,” here.
Visitors can take a stroll through some of city’s beautiful public gardens. Possibly the most beautiful college campus in the state, the entire area encompassing the University of Missouri near downtown Columbia is a designated botanic garden. The Mizzou Botanic Garden currently has eleven thematic and seven special collection gardens around the campus. Since its inception, the garden has become a living museum of thousands of plants displayed among famous icons, such as Jefferson’s original grave marker and the Columns of Academic Hall. The garden is open year-around and is free to the public. Maps for self-guided tours are available in the Reynolds Alumni Center.
Tucked away behind the Shelter Insurance corporate headquarters on West Broadway, Shelter Gardens is an award-winning five-acre garden that features a “sensory garden” designed for the visually impaired, a Vietnam Veterans memorial, a replica one-room school house, a waterfall and reflecting pool, a stream, a rock garden, a gazebo, a giant sundial and more. Shelter Gardens has more than 300 varieties of trees and shrubs and 15,000 annuals and perennials are planted throughout the garden. Visitors are welcome daily between 8 a.m. and dusk, but closed on Christmas Day.
For those that would like to spend their outside time on a golf course, Columbia has three 18-hole courses that are open to the public. A.L. Gustin, located near Faurot Field, is owned and operated by the University of Missouri and is a designated Audubon International Cooperative Sanctuary. The City of Columbia manages L.A. Nickel Golf Course, located on the west side of the city and Lake of the Woods Golf Course located on the west side. Both courses have their own unique layout and offer a fun and challenging track for beginners and scratch golfers alike.
Visitors to Columbia have their choice of dining options and night life that also offer outdoor seating and/or green spaces for fresh air and social distancing while enjoying their delicious dinners and tasty beverages.
In addition to campgrounds and RV parks, there is an array of hotel accommodations to choose from if you’d prefer the comforts of home for your outdoor adventure. For a complete list of Columbia accommodations – including hotels, motels and bed and breakfasts – go to www.VisitColumbiaMo.com/section/stay.
This is a just a sample of some of Columbia’s unique and enjoyable outdoor activities and attractions. For more information on city parks, conservation areas or other ways to have fun outdoors in Columbia, visit the Columbia Convention and Visitors Bureau‘s website at www.VisitColumbiaMO.com.
STAYING SAFE IN COLUMBIA
Please note that the City of Columbia is currently under an ordinance requiring face coverings while in public until October 8, unless it is rescinded or extended. While planning your outdoor adventures in Columbia, be sure to check the Columbia Convention and Visitors Bureau’s website for the most current, up-to-date safety protocols in place to protect against COVID-19 to ensure a safe and enjoyable visit for everyone.