The origins of the name “Missouri” can be traced back to the Sioux tribes who once inhabited the areas along the lower stretches of the Missouri River. When translated, it means, “place of the big canoes.” The etymological conclusion is simple enough to reach: Missouri is home to the confluence of the two largest rivers on the North American continent, and it required significantly large canoes to navigate those waters back in the day.
One of the two most prominent expeditions in American history originated in Missouri, and I’m not talking about the moon landing. The one I’m referring to is the Corps of Discovery, which departed the St. Louis area in 1804 under the orders of president Thomas Jefferson to find a navigable route to the Pacific Ocean. It took Lewis and Clark two years to return from the Oregon coast; something we can accomplish today in a few hours.
Both word origin and an expeditionary history lend credence to the adventurous spirit of present-day Missourians. There is no shortage of outdoor activities available here, and it’s probably one of the most recreationally-dense states in the nation.
Since the time the Sioux gave the state its name, birchbark canoes have ceded ground to kayaks, rafts, and inner tubes on Missouri waterways. There are thousands of miles of floatable rivers and creeks in the state. Most of these waterways rise in the Ozark Plateau, and have carved immense bluffs through the limestone and granite hillsides. The water is crystal clear, and you’re pre-approved to take a dip in one of the numerous swimming holes you’ll find. Taking a relaxing canoe float-trip is almost a rite of passage for Show-Me state youngsters.
Missouri is home to the Eleven Point River, one of the “original eight” National Wild and Scenic Rivers as declared by Congress in 1968. In addition, the Current and Jack’s Fork Rivers combine to make up the Ozark National Scenic Riverway, which was authorized in 1964 and was America’s first national park established solely to protect a river system.
If running whitewater is your bailiwick, you’ll find opportunities to do so here. When the rivers run high, class IV-V rapids can easily be found in the streams that come down from the St. Francois mountains. These mountains are 1.45 billion years old – three times as old as the Appalachians – and at one time were one of the few landmasses visible above the primordial sea. The St. Francis River is a favorite and is the annual site of the Missouri Whitewater Championships. Taum Sauk Creek, when navigable, is home to class V rapids and drops 500 feet in the first mile (pretty steep by midwestern standards). You can even catch turbulence on a channel of the Missouri River close to St. Louis where the water rushes over a submerged concrete slab. Named the “Centaur Chute,” these rapids attracts kayakers eager to give the big river a try – watch out for the 50-foot tree trunks floating by.
Speaking of the Mighty Mo, feel free to enter the MR340, a kayaking endurance race covering the entire length of the river from Kansas City to St. Louis. Competitors are given 88 hours to complete the 340-mile paddle, all while battling river barges, and avoiding dikes and bridge pilings. It’s not your daddy’s float trip.
Missouri isn’t known as a hotspot for rock climbing, but if you look for pitches you can certainly find them. The southern half of the state is home to a number of climbable river bluffs and outcrops. On occasion, the limestone will protrude through the forest floor and offer spontaneous climbing opportunities. Many routes grade out at 5.5 or higher. And if bouldering is your thing, get yourself down to Elephant Rocks State Park. As the name suggests, the park contains granite monoliths the size of elephants just waiting to be climbed. A few are classified as high as V6.
Hiking and Camping
In 2013, Missouri was named “Best Trails State” by non-profit organization American Trails. The award is given to a state who has significantly improved their trail system, and Missouri has done just that. Mostly unthought of by hikers, Missouri has some great trails. Not all are suitable for backpacking, but day hikers can rejoice, for they have infinite options. Among the trails, the longest and best maintained is the Ozark Trail. The OT begins a hour south of St. Louis and winds its way 350 miles to finish very close to the Arkansas state line. Maintained by a non-profit, the OT is well-marked and travels through the state’s best scenery. Numerous spurs can give hikers challenges, like summiting Taum Sauk mountain or a ford of the unpredictable Black River.
The Mark Twain National Forest protects 1.5 million acres of Missouri. The MTNF is home to numerous campgrounds and hiking opportunities. If visiting, check out the trail systems in the state’s seven wilderness areas for a scenic one- or two-night backpack. In addition, the 83 Missouri State Parks protect an additional 200,000 acres and offer nearly 4,000 campsites and 900 miles of trail. This would include the Katy Trail; the nation’s longest developed rails-to-trails project. The Katy runs 225 miles along the Missouri River from the St. Louis area to Clinton. Dispersed camping is not allowed along the trail, so it’s best suited to biking and day hikes. You can backcountry camp just about anywhere else though, as long as it’s not private property.
In addition to miles of navigable rivers, Missouri is home to numerous recreational lakes. The most popular of these is the Lake of the Ozarks. To give you an idea of how big this lake is, it has a longer shoreline than the state of California has oceanfront. It sits behind a large hydroelectric dam on the Osage River. Once considered a tourist trap, the lake area is now popular year-round, but the population probably doubles or triples in the summer with city visitors. If revelry is your thing, you’ll want to visit the Lake of the Ozarks’ infamous “Party Cove,” which the New York Times described as, “the oldest established permanent floating bacchanal in the country.” Nothing beats tying 3,000 boats together and getting your party on. And yes, the author has participated a time or two. For something more G-rated, try the equally mammoth Table Rock Lake near Branson.
There are a few things you’ll want to take into account if you are planning to visit. The first is the weather. It can get pretty cold in the winter, and is usually hot and humid in the summer. The heat index can easily top 105 degrees in July and August. In addition, the summer is tick season in the woods, so take precautions before walking through the forests. On the other hand, I’ve never found mosquitos here to be overwhelming. Second, prepare to see critters. Missouri has diverse wildlife, and you might see anything from scorpions and copperhead snakes to black bears, elk, and wild horses. Be sure to diligently prepare before beginning your Missouri adventure. And finally, have fun and enjoy the state. You’ll find the people who live here to be some of the friendliest and most adventurous anywhere.