State Park aquatic trails offer summer adventure on the water
It wouldn’t be summer in Missouri without spending some much-needed time on the water. For many Show-Me Staters, Missouri’s state parks have been the playground of choice. In order to serve a growing interest in paddlesports during recent years, the park system offers a new way to see old favorites through marked aquatic trails at six of the parks.
“Because of the popularity of kayaks we rent them at more than 15 parks now,” says Missouri State Parks Deputy Director David Kelly. “It’s a different experience that helps us keep up with visitor needs.”
Along with kayaks and trails to use them, David says the parks offer camping and paddling programs for newcomers who wanted to experience outdoor activities. Those additions likely prepared them for an influx of visitors last year, which set record numbers across the state.
“We didn’t know what to expect in 2020, and even though we were closed a month and a half, attendance was up 14 percent,” David says. “We saw a lot of new visitors being exposed to what we think is the best state park system in the nation, and we anticipate they’ll come back this year.”
Paddlers will find an aquatic trail to tackle in almost every part of the state, including the Big Niangua River Trail which ends at Ha Ha Tonka State Park. At 1.25 miles, the Monsanto Lake Water Trail at St. Joe State Park is the shortest but it’s jampacked with scenery of dolomite glades, native grasses, shortleaf pines and information on Missouri’s Old Lead Belt. Wakonda State Park in northeast Missouri offers the most mileage — three trails totaling 9.95 miles — although Jasper, Agate and Wakonda lakes are closed at certain times of the year for waterfowl migration. Needless to say wildlife, plus a rare example of Missouri’s sand prairies, are the highlights of these trails. Float-in campsites also are available in the Bee Trace section of Long Branch State Park near Macon.
Whether your goal is to shake up a training regimen for the MR340 or fish away a lazy afternoon, the aquatic trails offer an experience on the water that is not to be missed. And the fun doesn’t stop at trail’s end. Be sure to check out the other adventures waiting for you in Missouri State Parks.
STOCKTON STATE PARK
Whether behind the helm, handlebars or hiking staff, the views of Stockton Lake can be enjoyed just about any way you’d prefer at Stockton State Park. Known throughout the region as a premier sailing destination, the lake is also accessible for paddlers via the 6.65-mile aquatic trail. The trail comes with an added benefit: Whether you rent a boat at the marina or bring your own, the take-outs and put-ins are less than 1 mile apart.
“The whole idea behind the trail was to add another element to the park,” says Southwest Management Unit Superintendent Kenny Neal. “We have these great mountain biking and hiking trails that are very popular, so the aquatic trail adds one more recreational opportunity.”
Completion time for the trail is estimated at 3 hours and 20 minutes, but paddlers on the trail or off of it should pay particular attention to weather conditions at Stockton. The same southwesterly wind that makes the lake great for sailing means severe weather can be dangerous for small crafts. Kenny advises keeping in mind the three W’s: “Wind, water and waves.” And if you want to make a weekend or vacation out of your visit, plan ahead for camping and lodging reservations.
“We had record crowds last year and we’re assuming we’re going to be as busy this year,” Kenny says. “But that’s why we’re in this business. We like it when people are out here using the parks.”
LAKE OF THE OZARKS STATE PARK
The Lake of the Ozarks is known nationwide as a recreation destination, but a different boating experience can be found in Lake of the Ozarks State Park. At nearly 18,000 acres, it’s the state’s largest park and showcases unique pieces of the lake’s cultural and natural history.
The park’s aquatic trail connects 14 different features by GPS coordinates. Visitors begin at Nature’s Window, a slice arch in the bluffs, and end at Lumberman’s Logging Chute, where railroad ties were once floated down Grand Glaize Creek to Old Bagnell. At 9.9 miles, the trail is more easily accomplished with a motor. Still, paddlers will find it makes for a relaxing trip in the Grand Glaize Arm of the lake, where less development and boat traffic lend to a more scenic experience.
For more of the lake’s wild side, venture off the water on a guided tour of Ozark Caverns or along more than 51 miles of hiking and biking trails. Patterson Hollow Wild Area and Coakley Hollow Fen Natural Area preserve some of the area’s diverse habitats and species. If road touring is more your speed, test drive a guide to some of the park structures built by the Civilian Conservation Corps.
“It’s such a resource of public land for people to come and visit,” Assistant Superintendent Brian Fredrick says of the park. “The spectrum is amazing. We have so many natural resources and visitors’ services, there truly is something for everyone.”
FINGER LAKES STATE PARK
There aren’t many chunks of public land where you can catch a crappie or some air on your off-road vehicle in the same place, and even fewer that are only a half-day’s drive from any point in the state. If your tune of choice is birdsong or the roar of engines, you can have one or both at Finger Lakes State Park.
“You wouldn’t think birdwatching and off-road riding mix, but they do here,” says Park Superintendent Debbie Newby with a laugh. “It’s very diverse.”
The repurposed coal strip-mining site makes for not only a great racetrack and migratory flyway but also an environment tailor-made for paddling where visitors feel surrounded by nature. The park office rents a number of kayaks, canoes and paddleboards — just be sure to check availability online and reserve craft in advance. Finger Lakes State Park also is one of many parks that conducts Learn2Paddle classes. The setting at Finger Lakes is perfect for first-timers.
“There is no moving current, so you can work on your techniques and skills,” Debbie adds. “You also don’t have to organize your transportation: You put in the same place you take out.”
The 4.5-mile trail, consisting of two loops with a connector, can be leisurely accomplished in two hours, leaving plenty of time to enjoy the rest of the park’s offerings including the campgrounds and a swimming beach. Other well-known features of the park are a 15-acre motorcross track and 70 miles of trails set aside for off-road riding. Hikers and trail runners flock to the 2.7-mile Kelley Branch, which also attracts mountain bikes fresh from the park’s skills course and pump track.
If you’d rather head off the map while on the water, there are plenty of other paddling — not to mention, boating, swimming and fishing — experiences waiting for you in Missouri State Parks. Grab your camera, take a friend and don’t forget the life jackets and sunscreen. You’re sure to find fun and leave with great memories.