Rural Missouri Magazine


by Jim McCarty

Summer’s finally here and it’s time to get outdoors. If you long to get off the beaten path on a motorcycle, ATV or mountain bike you might feel the frustration of not having a place to ride. There are few places in Missouri where off-road vehicles can be opened up without prompting complaints about noise and damage to the landscape.

Not to fear – two of Missouri’s state parks feel your pain.

At St. Joe State Park in Park Hills and Finger Lakes State Park near Columbia you are welcome to challenge the rugged terrain on whatever off-road vehicle suits your fancy. Both parks were once mines. This man-made landscape makes them perfectly suited for off-road use.

Both parks began when the companies that mined the earth reached the end of the natural resources they sought. The two mining companies, St. Joe Lead and Peabody Coal, offered the land to the state.
Before the mined area was turned over to the state, locals used the St. Joe area for a place to ride off-road vehicles. They found a challenging playground in the leftover piles of mine waste and a desert-like landscape called the “slime pond” where mine tailings were left to settle.

Dune buggies, four-wheel-drive trucks, motorcycles and ATVs found a perfect home in a landscape more like the moon than Earth. Some 2,000 acres had been laid to waste by mining activities. But an additional 6,000 acres were owned by St. Joe Lead. The company donated all 8,000-plus acres to the state, including the rusted out hulk of the milling complex that is now the nearby Missouri Mines State Historic Site.

Besides being a place to race off-road vehicles, the park features 15 miles of trails for hiking, horseback riding and mountain bikes. An additional 13 miles of paved roads are popular for bike riding and cross-country skiing. The park even boasts a tiny airport for flying model planes.

For those more interested in exploring nature, most of the park is timber with occasional glades and prairie. Up to a thousand acres of savannas, grassy areas mixed with large trees, have been identified.
There are four small, clear-water lakes teeming with the usual pond fish — bass, crappie, bluegill and channel catfish. Two swimming beaches have sandy bottoms made from mine tailings.

But make no mistake, most people come to St. Joe State Park to kick up some dust. Last year visitors bought 46,000 riding permits at the park. The roar of powerful engines can be heard for miles around and the ever-present bobbing of the required orange flags on four-wheelers can be seen through the trees.

“The off-road area is real popular,” says Bill Bonnell, the park’s superintendent. “The majority of users, that’s what they come for. But the beaches will get real crowded once school lets out.”
Off-road vehicles are confined to the area where mining took place. Other trails wind through the woods.

Separate campgrounds cater to off-road and horseback riders. The park also has a staging area with ramps for unloading off-road vehicles.

There is no charge to enter the park, but if you want to ride off-road vehicles there is a fee.

Columbia’s Finger Lakes State Park offers a much different experience. Coal was once mined here and while the landscape may seem natural to the casual observer, it is actually the work of strip mining.

Coal deposits underlie much of northern Missouri. To find them miners removed tons of rock and soil to reach long, narrow seams of coal.

The “finger lakes” that gave this park its name are actually pits where coal has been removed. They make a perfect playground for park visitors. Several of these long, skinny lakes have been connected to form a 1.5-mile canoe trail.

On another, a swimming beach complete with changing house has been created. It is one of the most popular swimming holes in the Columbia area.

Unlike St. Joe, Finger Lakes does not allow horseback riding. The park is much smaller than St. Joe and those who designed its management plan decided horses and noisy motorcycles in close proximity don’t mix.

At Finger Lakes you can find 70 miles of off-road trails. There is one well-marked main trail that runs north and south through the park. Other unmarked trails offer the real possibility of literally losing yourself but all eventually lead back to the main trail. There’s also a 10-acre motocross track often used for races. The track is challenging, with jumps and sharp turns.

There is a youth track as well. This area is open to children 12 and under riding motorcycles with 80cc or smaller engines.

The two parks differ in the challenges they offer as well as in the types of vehicles they allow. At St. Joe State Park the sandflats are well-suited to beginning riders. Finger Lakes’ rugged trails are more difficult.

“The trails are rugged. They run through the woods,” says Patricia Fagan, an employee of Finger Lakes State Park. “I’d say they are more for the intermediate to advanced riders. But we do have beginners come out.”

She says it’s not unusual to see riders from all surrounding states and even as far away as Colorado using the trails at Finger Lakes. “They don’t have facilities like this in their states,” she says.

St. Joe State Park welcomes dune buggies and four-wheel drive trucks, but only on the sandflat areas. These vehicles are not allowed at Finger Lakes.

Both parks offer a number of races. Finger Lakes holds races sanctioned by the Motocross Parents Association. From six to nine races a year are held at the track. Two mountain bike events are held as well.

At St. Joe similar events are held. In addition, the park has a bicycle road race and a black powder rendezvous in August.

Missouri’s state parks offer something for everyone, and these two parks are worth visiting if you own off-road vehicles. Adventure awaits you at every turn and jump.

For more information on these or other state parks call 1-800-334-6946 or find them on the Internet at


Rural Missouri | June 2020 Issue

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