Trails, nature sites near Columbia offer plenty of outdoor activities

Friday, May 22, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CDT; updated 10:47 a.m. CDT, Friday, May 22, 2009
From left, Jeanette, Mary and Jeremy Fisk of Clark prepare to go on a canoe trip on Bennitt Lake at Rudolf Bennitt Conservation Area on May 8. "It's peaceful out here," Jeremy Fisk said. "It ain't noisy. And it's close to home."

COLUMBIA — Having trouble finding cheap entertainment for the weekend? Try exploring Columbia a little more by visiting some of the state parks and conservation areas nearby.

With resources such as forests, state parks, lakes and conservation areas, mid-Missouri offers many opportunities to get outdoors. The primary difference between the region's state parks, conservation areas and Mark Twain National Forest is who owns and operates the area.

Hiking safety tips

For those new to hiking, it's a good idea to follow some basic safety guidelines.

  • Travel with a partner
  • Be in good physical shape
  • Wear long pants and shirts to prevent being bitten by ticks
  • Think about where you are walking
  • Watch the weather
  • Learn basic first aid
  • Go during the day
  • Bring bottled water

Source: U.S. Forest Service

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Mark Twain National Forest is a federal agency that works to preserve and restore Missouri's eco-system, said Charlotte Wiggans, public relations officer for the forest. State parks are operated by the Missouri Department of Natural Resources to preserve landmarks and to provide recreational opportunities that are compatible with those resources, according to the Missouri State Parks Web site. A conservation area is run by the Missouri Department of Conservation, which seeks to conserve biodiversity through sustainable land management, according to its Web site. The Conservation Department also works to educate residents about the land around them.

Pack a picnic, put a little gas in the tank, and meander through some of nature's offerings. Here's a list of some places you might consider.

Rudolf Bennitt Conservation Area

This area 19 miles north of Columbia is named for Rudolf Bennitt, a zoologist instrumental in the formation of the Missouri Department of Conservation in the 1930s. The area contains 3,515 acres with a 10-mile-long trail that can be used for hiking, horseback riding and biking. The trails are mostly gravel and fairly easy to navigate. Watch out for areas that are closed for renovation or flooding. Maps are available at the parking lots to help visitors with navigation.

There are unstaffed target ranges and camping areas that provide amenities for horses. There is also a lake that provides visitors with opportunities for fishing and canoeing. Hunting also is permitted during hunting season.

Ann Koenig, an urban forester with the Conservation Department, said pets are allowed if they are on a leash.

Directions: Because of construction on Route F, visitors will need to take an alternate route to Rudolf Bennitt Conservation Area. One option is to take U.S. 63 north. Turn left on Route B toward Higbee. Turn left onto Route T. Turn right on County Road 2930, which is in between Fairview Church of Christ and Fairview Cemetery.

Gans Creek Wildlife Area - Shooting Star Trailhead

Shooting Star Trailhead is in the Gans Creek Wildlife Area, which is part of Rock Bridge State Park. The trail here is not for the faint of heart. In fact, it's really more of a rugged, though cleared, walking path for visitors. Roxie Campbell, a park naturalist at Rock Bridge State Park, said there is a hill on the trail, and that the trail can be narrow and rocky in places. She also estimated that the trail is about 2.5 miles long.

"It's not one nice loop like others in the park," Campbell said.

To follow the trail, start at the trailhead until the fork, then turn left to go down a hill. Go left at the creek, which will go through the bottoms, then there is a switchback along Waterslide Creek. This takes the trail back to the uplands, where it comes to a 'T.' Go left, and the trail will lead to the youth camping area. The trail goes through the camping area and returns to the trailhead.

Campbell said that if visitors turn right at the 'T,' they will come to Coyote Bluff, which is the best bluff in the park and now contains a lot of blooming wildflowers.

Directions: Take U.S. 63 south to Missouri 163, heading west. Follow Missouri 163 to Bonne Femme Church Road, then turn right. Drive three-tenths of a mile to the trailhead.

Finger Lakes

For visitors who wish to do more than hike, Finger Lakes provides a fantastic opportunity. There are trails for off-road vehicles, such as four-wheelers, and motocross sports. The area is a former coal strip-mining operation and has a 1 1/2-mile-long lake that is used for swimming, fishing, scuba diving and canoeing.

There is also an area for camping — both basic and electric sites are available — that has modern toilets and showers. There is also a designated area for picnicking in the shade.

Directions: Take U.S. 63 north. Turn right on East Peabody Road. Turn left on the third road on the left (it's unnamed).

Devil's Backbone

Devil's Backbone is a ridge located between two bends of Cedar Creek. It's a little ways off of the Cedar Creek Trail's Southern Loop. Devil's Backbone ends by the creek near an old bridge that cannot be crossed. Visitors should also watch out for private property that borders the area.

The trail is considered a moderate-level one, which means that while there is rolling terrain and bluffs, it isn't as strenuous as some trails, such as those found in the Ozarks. It is also child- and pet-friendly, said Todd Hottel, a forestry technician at the Cedar Creek Ranger Office.

Directions: Take U.S. 63 south to Englewood Road. Turn left onto Devil's Backbone Road. Parking will be on the right. To get to Devil's Backbone, continue walking along Devil's Backbone Road.

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