Alyssa has been writing about exciting travel topics for Trips to Discover since 2013. After living the big city life in Chicago, Washington, DC, and Atlanta, Alyssa sold the bulk of her possessions and became a digital nomad, living full-time in her camper and working from wherever she could find an outlet and an internet connection for her laptop.
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Nicely situated in the middle of America, Missouri is a state that many people pass through on cross-country road trips or plan easy weekend getaways to. While cities like St. Louis and Branson are top tourist attractions, it’s also fun to plan an outdoorsy getaway in Missouri to check out the natural landscapes. Here are the best state and national parks in Missouri to help you plan your next adventure.
One unique place in Missouri that’s fun to explore is Elephant Rocks State Park. Here you’ll find granite boulders that are over a billion years old and enjoy these geological features on a self-guided walking trail. You can learn about the old mining operations that once took place here, have a picnic, and access the site for free. There’s even a braille trail that was designed for people with visual disabilities. You can go rock climbing and rappel at the park in designated areas. For overnight accommodations in the area, there is the Arcadia Valley RV Park and Fort Davidson Hotel.
The most iconic landmarks in Missouri is the Gateway Arch, and you can learn more about it at this national park. A top St. Louis attraction, the arch represents the spirit of western expansion in the U.S. and celebrates the pioneers who made the journey, as well as Thomas Jefferson’s and Dred Scott’s roles in local history. There’s a museum to check out, a tram ride to the top of the arch, and lots of local attractions in the vicinity. These include Busch Stadium, Laclede’s Landing, and Washington Avenue. This urban park offers mandatory but free timed tickets to enter the facility. For researchers, there’s also a library on the second floor of the historic old courthouse.
Visit Lake of the Ozarks State Park for a long shoreline and plenty of opportunities to fish, boat, and swim. On land, you can bike, hike, backpack, and ride horses here. This is a place to come for solitude and natural beauty while still being close to all the shopping, restaurants, and entertainment of the area. Something unique here are the cave tours that last about an hour and are a half-mile round trip. There are also shorter children’s cave tours. Other areas to see are the Patterson Hollow Wild Area and Coakley Hollow Fen Natural Area. There are basic and electric campsites here in four sections and that are available throughout the year.
Bennett Spring State Park is one of Missouri’s first state parks and a place that draws in nature lovers and fishermen each year. It is stocked with rainbow trout and has over 100 million gallons of water rushing through Bennett Spring per day. Hiking trails, a dining lodge, campgrounds, and cabins are also available here. People have been coming to this area since the mid-19th century and once made use of the streams for grist and flour mills. There are five campgrounds in the wooded hills of the park that are basic and that also have water/electric/sewer capabilities. One campground is open year-round while the others are open between February and October or April and October.
Johnson’s Shut-Ins State Park has an interesting name and is a unique place with rugged landscapes by the St. Francois Mountains. People come here for hiking, picnicking, and camping. Check out the Dolomite Glad Natural Area here and also the chutes and waterfalls in the canyon-like gorges. There’s an observation deck at the end of a walkway that gives you views of the pothole shut-ins and views of the valley. This park offers basic, walk-in, electric, water/electric/sewer, and equestrian campsites. It also has a campground store for all your outdoor essentials. The campground loops here are open year-around.
Meramec State Park is known for its caves, majestic bluffs, and 13 miles of hiking trails to explore. This is also a place to come for fishing, rafting, boating, and swimming. You can stay in a campground, cabin, or motel. There’s a visitor center to learn about the cultural and natural highlights of the park. Don’t miss out on a tour of Fisher Cave, which has huge rooms with calcite deposits, narrow passages, and preserved bear claw marks. The park store offers dining at the Fireside Store and Grill. Camping is available in three sections and offered year-around.
While you’re checking out all the tourist attractions in Branson, make a point to visit nearby Table Rock State Park. It has a marina that rents ski boats, paddleboards, and more. There is a great paved path here for walking and biking. Meanwhile, there’s also a mountain biking trail for a challenge. For overnight stays, there are great campsites along the lake’s shoreline and also a premium yurt. This park is in the White River Hills of the Ozarks and a truly beautiful place to be in Missouri. Camping in both campground areas is available year-around.
People from St. Louis have loved coming to Castlewood State Park since the early 1900s. There are hiking and mountain biking trails here that are great for all skill levels. In fact, this is one of the best places to mountain bike in the entire St. Louis area. People also come here to fish and just get away from the busy pace of life. There are two picnic shelters, picnic sites, and a playground here for families with children to enjoy.
At George Washington Carver National Monument you can learn about the man known as the “Plant Doctor” who was an agricultural scientist, educator, and humanitarian. There is a visitor center here with a museum that has exhibits and classroom programs. There is no fee to enter this park. There are often special events that take place here, such as Art in the Park, Park Prescription Day for good health, Storytelling Day, and Prairie Day.
It’s also fun to visit Graham Cave State Park to learn about ancient history and artifacts that were found in a cave dating back to 10,000 years ago. The scenic park spans 386 acres. You can go into the mouth of Graham Cave and see exhibits along the Graham Cave Trail. People love to come here to hike, camp, boat, and fish. There’s a boat ramp at the Loutre River here for access. The park is named after the first settler who owned the cave property, Robert Graham. Basic and electric campsites are available here with access to the hiking trails and available to stay at year-around.
Visit Sam A. Baker State Park to fish in the river and creek or float down the river on a relaxing day. There’s a nature center to learn about the park’s history and also several miles of trails to hike, bike, and ride horses. There are two large campgrounds here, rustic cabins, and shaded picnic areas. Stop by the visitor center to rent out volleyball, basketball, horseshoe, and other recreational equipment for no charge. Float tubes, kayaks, and canoes can be rented to use here for a fee at the Mudlick Mountain Store and park concessionaire.
You can learn about this past U.S. president who took America from isolationism to international involvement at Harry S. Truman National Historic Site. Take a tour of the Truman home to look into Harry S. Truman’s family life, as well as the Noland Home that belonged to his cousins. There is no fee to visit this day-use park.
Come see Ha Ha Tonka State Park for its geological wonders like sinkholes, a natural bridge, bluffs, and caves. You’ll get impressive Lake of the Ozarks views and the Ha Ha Tonka Spring here and enjoy the trails and boardwalks. This is a day-use park with picnic sites but no camping. To see Island Cave, get a permit at the park office between June 15th and September 15th. The other caves are closed to the public but you can look into them from the trails.