A beginner's guide to Kansas City's best hiking trails
If you've taken up hiking over the course of the pandemic — or want to, but don't know where to start — we've got some favorite spots to share, with options for all kinds of hikers.
Before the pandemic, on those intoxicatingly temperate days that happen a few weekends a year, my husband and I (and eventually our kid) would drop whatever else we'd planned to go for an invigorating hike.
When March 2020 came around, hiking became an all-season, every-weekend activity. It's what we do whenever we need inspiration, nature therapy, a change of scenery — in a word, constantly.
As a result, we've tried out lots and lots of new spots for exploring on foot, some within city limits, others a good day trip's distance away.
For sure, the Kansas City area is not a major hiking destination. These aren't the kinds of trails that people travel long distances to experience — overlooking seaside cliffs, following mountain waterfalls among herds of majestic elk, winding around cacti inside the Grand Canyon.
But Kansas and Missouri trails do offer simple pleasures, and a quiet beauty that sneaks up on you. I don't expect them to wow me, but usually, they still do. And they get better with repeat visits. Once your feet know the way, you can really pay attention to your surroundings, and that's when things really get fun.
So with more moderate fall weather hopefully on the horizon, here's a list of some of the best trails we've explored in and around the city.
My advice: Just pick a place and go. If you let your surroundings surprise you, they will. Happy hiking!
Fox Hollow Trail in Swope Park: 2 miles
Departing just outside the Lakeside Nature Center in Swope Park, Fox Hollow Trail is a short hike that can be made easier or more challenging as hikers see fit. Steep downhill detours following by climbing back up on hefty rocks can add intrigue for those who feel comfortable taking calculated risks.
Otherwise, this wooded path, dense with green foliage, is more of a chlorophyll fix than a workout. There’s something delightfully old-school about the hand-etched sign warning visitors to look out for snakes (but really: do look out for snakes).
The most satisfying moment on this brief adventure comes about three-quarters of the way through the hike, when the trail leads visitors onto a flat rock formation overlooking treetops and passing trains.
Berkeley Riverfront Trail: 2 miles
A decidedly urban hike, this excursion also offers an inspiring view of the Missouri River up close — or, about as close as you're likely to get in Kansas City, with a couple of less hospitable exceptions.
To access the trail from the City Market, walk north on Main Street as far as it goes; it will eventually give way to a wooden pedestrian bridge leading toward water. A staircase down to Berkeley Riverfront Park has notches on it to measure flood levels when the water rises.
The trail follows the river, with a grassland acting as a buffer between you and the muddy torrents. Up ahead, walking east, you can observe vestiges of industry, the Bond Bridge on the horizon as a natural place to double back on this stroll.
Berkeley Riverfront Trail is just one segment of the much longer Riverfront Heritage Trail, a worthwhile adventure beginning in Kansas City, Kansas, and ending in the East Bottoms.
Parkville Nature Sanctuary: 3 miles
A nature preserve on the edge of downtown Parkville, Missouri, the sanctuary contains a small network of trails that can be combined to form a 3-mile hike, or broken up into short restorative jaunts.
Old Kate Trail is the longest at 0.9 miles: It takes hikers on an unpaved wooded walk to a waterfall, and then across said waterfall toward a flatter, less densely wooded path.
One of the shorter trails, Bluebird Trail (0.3 miles), is ADA compliant. Near the end of the trail, a collection of fallen tree trunks have been transformed into an imagination-fueled play area for kids.
Families dominate Parkville's trails, which reveal their true splendor as the leaves change color in October.
Wyandotte County Lake Park: 9.2 miles
Come for the giant oasis in Kansas City, Kansas. Stay for the trails. Some of them are used for horseback riding, and come with a high probability of horse-poop encounters, so check signage carefully.
The Wyandotte County Lake Loop Trail is a favorite, starting at shelter 9. It's shaded and offers a rock-and-mud terrain best suited for serious runners and hikers seeking a challenge. The 9.2-mile loop circles around the lake.
For the more leisurely hiker who prefers not to rough it, Stotler Cove provides a nature walk surrounded by native plants and flowers. It can be accessed right behind the F.L. Schlagle Environmental Library (located inside the park). Your view of the lake here is stunning; butterflies and birds abound.
Signs along the way turn the trail into a "Storywalk" for kids, providing prompts and games to hold their interest as they go. A hidden treasure for all ages.
Mill Creek Park Streamway Loop Via Shawnee Mission Park: 7.4 miles
A paved trail wide enough to accommodate both hikers and bikers, the Mill Creek Park Streamway — spanning, in its entirety, the cities of Lenexa, Olathe, and Shawnee — includes a loop that departs from Shawnee Mission Park. It's a great choice for groups with different activity preferences and ability levels.
If you park along the north side of Shawnee Mission Park Lake (near shelter 6), you can access this trail by heading west just past the lake. If you pass a reservoir, you're headed in the right direction. At the bottom of the hill, the trail splits, marking the beginning and end of a loop.
For a suburban park trail, this one provides surprisingly varied scenery: open expanses, wooded areas, streams and bridges. Adding to its charm is the not-so-distant sound of passing trains. Plus, there's plenty to do elsewhere in the park if you're looking to get out for a whole day.
Bethany Falls and Hickory Grove Trails at Burr Oak Woods Conservation Area: 4.6 miles
Located in Blue Springs, Missouri, a trip to Burr Oak Woods Conservation Area feels like arriving in a vast, outdoorsy dreamworld that you enter from a strip mall-flanked highway.
When hiking the connected Bethany Falls and Hickory Grove trails, your only reminder of nearby suburbs is the sound of whirring cars, which you usually can't even hear over chattering wildlife.
This is not just a great spot for a bucolic hike, but also a destination for foragers seeking native edibles like paw-paws and mushrooms. Foraging is legal here, and the Missouri Department of Conservation puts out useful literature worth checking out before loading up on nature's bounty.
Along the trails you'll also find big rock formations big enough to scale — an impressive visual even for those of us who err on the side of caution.
Weston Bend State Park Paved Bicycle Trail: 2.8 miles
Of the many worthy trails at Weston Bend State Park — located just outside of downtown Weston — this one made for bicyclists is incredibly popular among hikers (who are far more numerous than bikers here).
A lush tree canopy covers the paved loop, and clearly marked detours point the way to scenic overlooks beyond the brush. This is a hilly trail with steep inclines, making it challenging enough for adult hikers, but sufficiently kid-friendly for little ones with some previous hiking experience.
Because Weston Bend's trail is paved, it's also great for strollers. Benches are available for resting at regular intervals.
Before you leave the park, it's definitely worth taking a side trip to the Lewis and Clark overlook — it's basically a treehouse in the woods jutting out over the Missouri River from high in the bluffs (not great if you're afraid of heights, but otherwise excellent).
Sanders Mound Trail at Clinton Lake: 1.2 miles
This easy hike just outside of Lawrence, Kansas, is breathtaking in every season. The majority of this prairie trail is paved, with great expanses of tall grass and wild flowers on either side.
The path turns to dirt or mud (depending on the weather) for the short ascent of Sanders Mound, a hill just barely tall enough to give hikers the satisfaction of reaching a summit.
More adventurous hikers may choose to continue past Sanders Mound to the water, but the path becomes quite rustic at that juncture: choose footwear wisely, bring a stick to clear away brush, and keep an eye out for snakes. You'll be rewarded with a peaceful waterside picnic spot on the other side — and it's great for skipping stones, too.
Wallace State Park Deer Run and Skunk Hollow Trails: 2.9 miles / 1.2 miles
This remote park in Cameron, Missouri, is a delightfully low-key place to spend a day, with families relaxing on lawn chairs and blankets around a big fishing pond. Four hiking trails depart just steps away, but nonetheless feel incredibly secluded.
I recommend these two, in particular, which flow fairly seamlessly into one another. The Deer Run trail crosses streams and Skunk Hollow guides hikers down into creek beds to be serenaded by frogs.
These trails are unpaved and often muddy, so dress accordingly.
KATY Trail east from Rocheport, Missouri: Distance variable
Originally leveled for trains, this trail is now a continuous hiking and biking path, and the Rocheport stretch — starting just outside Columbia — is particularly beautiful. With limestone bluffs on one side and the Missouri River moving swiftly along the other, this spot offers a true change of scenery.
If stopping by a Missouri winery is your speed, you can veer off the main trail toward Les Bourgeois, then head right back at your leisure. The eastward KATY Trail continues all the way to St. Louis, so you can make this outing as long or short as you like.
Or if you head west from the trailhead at Rocheport, the main attraction is an old-timey train tunnel with cool acoustics. But definitely keep your focus east.
Tallgrass National Prairie Preserve Back-Country Hiking Trails: 3.8 – 13 miles
Were you enticed here by promises of "middle of nowhere," only to find cities and suburbs taking up an awful lot of space? Remedy that by going for a hike in the Tallgrass National Prairie Preserve, operated by the National Parks Service and protected by the Kansas Nature Conservancy.
Forty miles of trails wind around the Flint Hills. In this place dedicated to the restoration of the prairie, low hills covered in waving grass stretch out as far as the eye can see, with an unbroken horizon line undulating against an equally immense sky. Seeing a picture doesn't do it justice; to walk in the Flint Hills is a spiritual experience.
Bonus: The Kansas Nature Conservancy has been repopulating the area with bison, and visitors often luck into spotting one of these majestic creatures. It's a sight to behold.
Have more trails in mind? Send your suggestions to expand this list to firstname.lastname@example.org.