Fishing, hunting, trapping and gathering edible plants are generally considered to be the “traditional” outdoor sports. While I couldn’t prove it in court, I’ve always assumed that the title stemmed from the fact that, until very recently in terms of the span of human existence, a varying combination of those four activities were the primary–if not the sole–means by which people obtained food, clothing and, in some cultures, shelter.
My agreement with that philosophy is best evidenced by the fact that I’m a Charter Member of the Professional Outdoor Media Association, an organization dedicated to saving “traditional outdoor sports and the journalists dedicated to their preservation.” Even so, unrepentant rebel that I am, it’s my contention that hiking is also a traditional part of the human psyche. Why else would our distant ancestors have left Africa to ultimately occupy all six habitable continents other than a desire to walk over the next hill just to see what was there.
All musings about whys and wherefores aside hiking is a bonafide recreational activity–a sport if you will–that’s not only healthy but also inexpensive. And perhaps best of all, Missouri’s wealth of opportunity has made it a destination state for hikers from not just throughout the United States but also from far beyond its borders.
Missouri has 53 state parks and 35 historic sites, the majority of which have developed hiking trails. Happily, the Missouri State Parks website (www.mostateparks.com) is one of the most user friendly bits of cyberspace I’ve ever visited. The truth be told, when I visited the site in connection with this article, I had a hard time leaving it, so I could get back to work. Believe me, that’s not my normal reaction to the Internet.
If you so choose, the site will call up a list of every trail in the state park system by name. Clicking on the name of a trail, provides information about its length, degree of difficulty, estimated hiking time, the possibility of using bicycles or horses, potential hazards and an overview of what hikers can expect to see along the way.
It’s also possible to retrieve a list of all of the parks that have trails. Clicking on an individual park reveals full information about all of the trails within its boundaries as well as a good description of the park’s other facilities and points of interest. The park sites will even give you travel directions.
Every Missouri park and historic site was created to preserve and protect everything within its boundaries, very much including the environment. Therefore, it’s very important that hikers remain on established trails and that they adhere to the hiker’s creed: leave nothing but footprints and take nothing but photographs.
More adventuresome hikers are free to strike out on their own on most of the rural property owned or managed by the various federal agencies and by the Missouri Department of Conservation. Hikers who are willing to forgo the amenities provided by the state parks are almost always allowed to gather wild plants and mushrooms for personal consumption.
As regular readers know, I have a subconscious, but oftentimes irresistible desire to serve as a bad example. That desire reared its ugly head one brutally hot and humid afternoon a few years ago, when Amber and I decided to visit Taum Sauk Mountain, which is not only the highest point in present day Missouri, but which is also some of the oldest continuously exposed rock in the world.
The parking lot is almost on top of the mountain, so reaching the summit is a short, nearly level stroll. By some evil coincidence, the path to Taum Sauk Mountain is the trailhead for a three-mile jaunt to Taum Sauk Falls, the highest waterfall in the state.
Despite the fact that we’d already hiked around the Johnson Shut-Ins earlier in the day and the trivial detail that a sign said something about the trail being “rugged,” we impulsively decided to give it a go. We proved three things that afternoon. Taum Sauk Falls is beautiful. Some state park sign painters are astute judges of trail conditions. And never start a hike without loading a day pack with plenty of drinking water.
Quite probably the only reason we survived unscathed to tell the tale was that our next stop was a blissfully air conditioned Civil War museum.
No discussion of hiking in Missouri would be complete without mentioning the Katy Trail, which is actually a very long, but very narrow state park. To get the most out of a day on the Katy, pick out a section of trail and position vehicles at both ends of it before starting your hike.
Gerald Scott can be reached at [email protected]