Escape your house with this list of outdoor adventures around Kansas City
Throughout Kansas City and its neighboring communities, you can find hundreds of miles of wooded trails, waterways and other outdoor escapes.
This story was first published in KCUR's Creative Adventure newsletter. You can sign up to receive stories like this in your inbox every Tuesday.
As winter wears on, cabin fever sets in: the doldrums, the mopes, the winter blues. While it’s tempting to snuggle up in front of the television in a haze of semi-somnolent hibernation and wait out the weather, the outdoors offers stimulating delights all year long.
For many people throughout the pandemic, the outdoors provided solace from anxiety, a respite from incessant screen time and invigorating exercise. With COVID-19 cases on the rise in the metro area, outdoor activities continue to offer a safer alternative to indoor gatherings and crowded spaces.
Kansas City was designed to be a city within a park. Throughout the city limits and neighboring communities, there are hundreds of miles of wooded trails available to walkers, hikers, bikers — even some horseback riding.
Our waterways provide spaces for fishing, swimming, and boating. The hilly landscape is prime with plenty of sledding spots and rock faces for bouldering.
Feeling motivated but not sure where to start? We’ve gathered some options to help you on the path (or multiple paths) toward a more meaningful relationship with the natural world.
Mapping outdoor pursuits
During the pandemic lockdown, parent, artist and outdoor enthusiast Jeremy Collins sought places to be active outside. “We have remarkable access to green spaces in the metro,” he says.
Collins discovered there wasn’t a comprehensive source for those outdoor locations, though. He grew up in Lee’s Summit, Missouri, and traveled the country, but exploring Kansas City was new. “I have my go-to locations, and practically everything beyond that was a surprise.”
Based on his own scouting and crowd-sourced suggestions, he created “The Kansas City Map of Outdoor Pursuits & Nature Education,” a poster-sized map of the metro region and surrounding area. “I tried to approach it with the question ‘how would Lewis and Clark present their findings today?’”
Investigating and documenting the region’s many options took over a year. “I wasn’t alone in trying something new, and I had the skill and energy to research what’s out there and present it in hopefully a simple and tasteful way,” says Collins.
As an artist, Collins paints images of nature, map illustrations, and landscape murals; as an outdoorsman, he’s sketched on mountainsides and in deserts — even while paragliding. “Honestly, the idea to map all the outdoor activities just gave me something to focus on — a mission that wasn’t necessarily work or play, but a mix of both.”
While there are no areas marked “Here Be Dragons,” Collins’ pen-and-ink hand-drawn style gives the metro region a Middle Earth vibe, abundant with potential escapades.
“It’s not necessarily a navigation map. You are not going to wander out to James A. Reed Park and reference the map as you hike around,” Collins laughs. "You will definitely get lost doing that. This map is a general locator for us to hang on the wall and get inspired to explore a bit.”
The map includes mostly free and low-cost locations (though for activities such as skateboarding, rock climbing, archery, or boating, you either need to have or rent the appropriate equipment) and many ADA-compliant locations. Created to spark curiosity and imagination, it indicates just how many different types of places and activities in the area are ready and waiting for people to experience them.
“The vision is that people use the map to disconnect from their digital worlds and connect with friends and family by finding new pursuits right out the front door," Collins says.
While strenuous physical activities associated with outdoor pursuits are many, there are equal amounts of low-impact pursuits to help you engage with the natural world around you at a more comfortable pace.
This time of year, known as Eagle Days, the bald eagles are nesting. If you’re lucky, you might be able to spot a couple from Kaw Point in Wyandotte County, well within view of downtown.
For guaranteed high bird counts, drive about an hour north of the city up to Loess Bluffs National Wildlife Refuge, where thousands of migrating birds (including snow geese, trumpeter swans and bald eagles) rest on their annual journeys.
In January 2022, the bird count hit a record with 833 bald eagles sighted. (Due to CDC guidelines, the visitors center is closed until further notice, but the hiking trails, auto tour and public restrooms are available.)
The Missouri Department of Conservation offers two publications regarding all manner of outdoorsy Missouri. Physical copies can be picked up at locations such as the Anita B. Gorman Conservation Discovery Center. Both Missouri Conservationist and Xplor (for kids) are viewable online, too. January’s issue of Xplor features information on what to look for on a winter walk.
The Mr. and Mrs. F.L. Schlagle Library is a branch of the Kansas City, Kansas, Public Library, the only public library environmental learning center in the region, featuring an extensive natural history collection and nature-based events.
This month there’s the Winter Wonderland Stroll around Wyandotte County Lake Park on Feb. 9 (all ages) and you can register for the Full Moon Night Hike & Stargazing on Feb. 16 (recommended 5 years and up), which includes an indoor portion to learn more about constellations.
Inspired by nature
Experiences in nature not only invigorate us — they inspire us, too. Along with the sunscreen and the protein bar, slip a sketchbook into your backpack to jot down drawings or writings as you observe your surroundings. Channel your inner Henry David Thoreau or Annie Dillard with insights, essays and poetry.
Plein air painting is a popular way to commune with and observe nature. It's how artist David Hockney captured the hills and trees of his native Yorkshire, and Urban Sketchers Kansas City — normally out and about in the city — took to their own backyards during the lockdown in 2020.
An outdoor walk has inspired many an artist: Ludwig van Beethoven loved to hike and conjured nature in his sixth symphony; Richard Long created “A Line Made By Walking” in 1967; Andy Goldsworthy’s nature-inspired work includes “Walking Wall” at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Arts. Artist Karen McCoy, who taught at KCAI for decades, has led listening walks in Kansas City and elsewhere, using carved wooden ear trumpets to help participants hone in on specific sounds in nature.
Getting the kids interested in nature isn’t hard (little ones are fascinated by the world around them), but sometimes finding age-appropriate activities is. The Overland Park Arboretum and Botanical Gardens offers take-home Discovery Kits on the first of every month to help kids connect with nature.
The website Discover the Forest offers many suggestions for families looking for different ways to engage with nature, including a digital storybook template for a unique work created with photos from your own experience.
An outdoor Creative Adventure roundup
Outdoor activities are a staple for KCUR’s Creative Adventures. (Have you signed up for our newsletter yet? Do that now!)
Each week, we explore the region and encourage our fellow Kansas Citians to see our neighborhoods and communities from different perspectives. In previous outdoor Creative Adventures, we've explored sledding hills, swimming spots, state parks, local prairies and the Riverfront Heritage Trail. We also took a look at some of the region’s local wildlife, with reptiles and fireflies.
Early on in the pandemic, we featured hiking for our 39th adventure, with suggestions from KCUR staff. Based on her own pandemic-endeavors, KCUR’s Gina Kaufmann put together her recommendations with a beginner’s guide to hiking trails in Kansas City. But in her podcast Real Humans, she also examines how some of Kansas City’s parks weren’t really designed to serve all of Kansas City’s residents.
Whether it’s a quarter-mile loop in your neighborhood park or a more extensive trail across town, take reasonable precautions for outdoor activities. To prevent erosion and damage to the environment, avoid hiking and biking trails that are muddy. Wear sturdy shoes and suitable clothing for the weather, bring water with you and notify family or friends of your intended location.
And as always, be sure to follow public health and safety recommendations. Have fun exploring!
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