The Best State and Nature Parks in Missouri
Missouri is a gold mine for nature lovers, with crystal-clear lakes for swimming and boating, lazy rivers for fishing and floating, and wooded hamlets for hiking, biking, and camping. Visitors here will even find more than 6,000 caves, many of which offer guided tours. Head to the state’s finest parks to explore these natural wonders, perhaps with a picnic—or even a tent—in tow.
5685 Riverside Dr, Joplin, MO 64804, USA
Situated on Shoal Creek, just a skip downstream from Wildcat Park in Joplin, Grand Falls is the largest continuously flowing waterfall in Missouri. While it’s just 12 feet high and 163 feet wide, it’s a glorious example of Missouri’s natural beauty—and a popular place to fish and swim for generations of locals. There’s an outcropping of chert around the falls that fills with water to form natural pools. Splash around there on a hot summer day, then find a shady spot to relax over a picnic lunch.
Belleview, MO 63623, USA
As fascinating for children as it is for rock hounds, this geologic reserve is named for its string of massive pink-granite boulders that resemble a train of circus elephants. Estimated to be around 1.5 billion years old, the rocks are prime for climbing, but also feature carvings by miners who worked in the area during the 19th century. The best way to tour the park is via the Braille Trail, which was specially designed for visitors with visual and physical disabilities. Equipped with Braille signage, it winds through the main area of rocks and leads back to the ruins of an old railroad engine house—a remnant of the area’s quarrying history. When you’re done walking around, locate one of the picnic tables scattered strategically under shady trees and treat yourself to a picnic lunch.
401 Fairgrounds Rd, Rolla, MO 65401, USA
Named after the great author from Hannibal, Missouri, Mark Twain National Forest sprawls for more than 1.5 million acres in the Ozark Highlands. The only national forest in Missouri, it’s a treasure trove of outdoor adventure, with 750 miles of trails for hiking, mountain biking, and horseback riding; 350 miles of perennial streams for canoeing, kayaking, and floating; several caves for exploring; and more than 35 campgrounds and picnic areas for relaxing in between activities. The Eleven Point National Scenic River is a particularly lovely area of the park, snaking through the Ozark hills along an underdeveloped, ruggedly beautiful shoreline.
Salem, MO 65560, USA
Montauk State Park sits at the head of the Current River, where seven springs converge to form a breathtakingly beautiful area. The park is popular with anglers who come to fish for rainbow trout in the cool waters, but also offers ample opportunity for hiking, biking, and picnicking in shady groves. Visitors can even learn a bit of history during tours of the old gristmill, built in 1896 at the center of what was once a thriving community. For a relaxing day in nature, follow the locals to the river, where they float in canoes with coolers of cold drinks in tow, then spend the night at one of the modern campgrounds, rental cabins, or motel rooms that dot the park grounds.
Columbia, MO, USA
Located just south of Columbia, Rock Creek State Park is the perfect quick getaway from the city, with more than 2,000 acres of geological preserve and public recreation. The park is a popular spot for hiking—especially in the scenic Gans Creek Wild Area—but also offers trails for hiking, biking, and horseback riding as well as a large cave system, complete with a rock bridge, sinkholes, and underground stream at the Devil’s Icebox. Explore Connor’s Cave in the light of the opening, or simply get out in nature just minutes from Missouri’s favorite college town.
Columbia, MO 65203, USA
The longest developed rail-trail in the country, Katy Trail State Park snakes across Missouri for 240 miles, from the western edge of the state to the St. Louis metro area. Built on the former corridor of the Missouri-Kansas-Texas Railroad, the well-maintained park closely follows the Missouri River, offering bikers, hikers, equestrians, and everyone in between a scenic way to see much of the state. The section between Cooper and St. Charles counties is an officially designated segment of the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail, adding an educational aspect to any exploration. Most choose to bike a portion of the trail, though hiking, running, and horseback riding are also great ways to experience the park, all the while surrounded by forests, wetlands, prairies, and abundant wildlife. A favorite stop along the way is the charming town of Rocheport, where you can make a pit stop at the bluff-top Le Bourgeois Winery for fine wine and views of the Missouri River Valley.
1135 Hwy W, Sullivan, MO 63080, USA
With a nickname like the “Cave State,” Missouri certainly isn’t short on impressive caverns. Of the more than 6,000 across the state, however, Meramac Caverns is the largest—and stays open year-round for tours. Said to have been a hideout for the outlaw Jesse James in the 1870s, the seven-level, 4.6-mile-long natural wonder was purchased by Lester Dill in 1933 and opened as a tourist attraction in 1935. Today, visitors can take guided tram tours past the cave’s complex mineral formations, stopping at a “wine room” (named for its grape-like botryoids and accessed by a long stairwell). While exploring, keep your eyes peeled for the resident tricolored bats that call Meramac home.
Lampe, MO 65681, USA
Sprawling over 10,000 acres in Lampe, Missouri, Dogwood Canyon Nature Park was established by Johnny Morris—founder of Bass Pro Shops and nearby Big Cedar Lodge—as a place for families to spend time in nature. Elk, bison, Texas longhorn cattle, and whitetail deer roam the property, which is dotted with soaring bluffs and cascading waterfalls that can be explored via Jeep, tram, and Segway tours. There are also paved paths for biking and leisurely strolls, rugged trails for horseback riding and challenging hikes, and spring-fed waterways filled with rainbow trout for catch-and-release fishing. When hunger strikes, head to the on-site Mill & Canyon Grill Restaurant, where you can eat an excellent bison burger while gazing at the blue-green Little Indian Creek and a 120-foot waterfall.