The Missouri River has so many cool towns and scenic spots to explore. Here's our guide
Whether it's a day trip or staycation, there are plenty of ways to explore the historic river towns found along the Missouri River — the longest river in North America.
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The Missouri River is the longest river in the United States and North America. Yeah, we were today-years-old when we learned that, too.
Depending on how you measure a river as wily as the Missouri, our state’s namesake beats out the Mighty Mississippi by a few miles, though it does flow into the Mississippi at a juncture near St. Louis.
This confluence, called the Edward “Ted” and Pat Jones-Confluence Point State Park, comes to a literal point at the mouth of the Mississippi. Due to the vastness of both rivers and their color differences, it’s a sight to see.
The river has long been considered the “Center of Life” for the Great Plains, flowing for 2,341 long miles through seven states. And the river basin is a place of “native spiritual practice and burial'' for many Indigenous peoples, including the Shawnee, Wyandot, Delaware, Munsee, Potawatomi, Sac and Fox and Kiikaapoi, who were forcefully relocated to Kansas City in the 1830s.
Also, the Missouri River is pretty great at escaping its boundaries. The Great Flood of 1993 — caused by above-average rain and snowfall in the Midwest — provoked the Missouri to break through a levee and join the Mississippi “some 20 miles upstream from their normal junction.”
Folks in towns all along the river had to move their possessions to higher ground, and people near Quincy, Illinois, where the levee broke, couldn't cross the river for miles. The bridges were all covered in water.
So, for those sticking to dry land, read on. You may find yourself day-tripping to one of several historic river towns mentioned below. And for those looking to paddle the river Lewis-and-Clark style (sort of), have you heard about the annual water race across Missouri?
The MR340 is 340 miles of “wind, heat, bugs and rain” from Kansas City to St. Charles. No rapids, no dams, no locks or portages. Some participants train all year for the race, while others are just fine coming in last. This year's race took place July 12-15 — participants had to finish in 85 hours.
Like we said, just like Lewis and Clark.
First, we should talk about our starting point.
Incorporated as a town in 1850, our fair City of Fountains was once a port city near the point of another confluence, where the gentle Kansas River intersects the Missouri. You may recall that Strawberry Hill sits above this meeting place, today known as Kaw Point.
There, the Kansas River ends its run, flowing into the Missouri, and the Missouri turns east towards St. Louis. Lewis and Clark camped at Kaw Point on their way to the Pacific Ocean.
The confluence of rivers, as well as some other iconic landmarks, can also be seen from the other direction — from Ermine Case Junior Park, which looks out over West Bottoms, River Market, Strawberry Hill, several bridges and the downtown airport.
Turns out, Kansas City was established on this, the south side of the river, purely out of accessibility. The river was a “barrier to the north,” Donna Vestal writes. “Even when crossing was possible thanks to early bridges, its floodplain and lack of grassland got in the way of its development.”
Or, you can do the 15.5-mile float, which begins upriver in Parkville and ends in the same place. Transportation is provided, and you’ll see the glittering Kansas City skyline from the water.
As the crow flies, St. Joseph is an hour north from Kansas City. It’s the eighth largest city in Missouri, and surprisingly, Eminem was born there. (Sorry, Detroit.) Also, notorious bank robber and Confederate sympathizer Jesse James died there after being shot by a member of his own crew who was working with the government.
In the years after it was settled by Joseph Robidoux in 1851, St. Joe had earned a reputation for being rough-and-ready. The bustling river town served as a jumping-off point for settlers looking to go west in search of gold:
“St. Joseph became the headwaters for the journey west as hundreds of thousands of settlers arrived by steamboat and hundreds of wagon trains lined the streets waiting to be ferried across the Missouri River.”
Both the river and railroad — as well as the Pony Express, which was eventually replaced by the telegraph — put St. Joe on the map as a hub for transportation and portal to the new frontier.
But westward expansion has its downfalls, one being the destruction of tribal lands in the name of manifest destiny. The river itself has been reshaped and dammed up. Despite these changes — and according to the Missouri River Water Trail — “the lower Missouri River still retains much of its remote natural beauty.”
As far as activity in St. Joseph goes, the city is still just as lively as it was in Gold Rush times. There are a number of intriguing cultural sites to be discovered, including the Patee House Museum and Jesse James Home, once a luxury hotel built by John Patee. The structure headquartered the Pony Express and held offices for the Union Army.
Also on the list are the Glore Psychiatric Museum, Black Archives Museum, Doll Museum and Native American Galleries, all housed in one historic complex on Frederick Avenue. Nature lovers can get outside and hike along the river at Remington Nature Center and River Bluff Trails Park.
The phrase “hidden gem” is used ad nauseum, but Rocheport takes the cake. Or the glass of wine. Or both.
This tiny river town is home to Les Bourgeois Vineyard and Bistro, some of which spans a blufftop high above the Missouri River. The views from the winery’s popular A-frame wine garden — also known as the best place to meet friends for a picnic among the trees — are out of this world.
Other popular spots include an old train tunnel, which cuts through the nearby limestone bluffs for 240 feet. Sure, you can see light on the other end, but it’s spooky nonetheless. The tunnel was allegedly used in the Stephen King film “Sometimes They Come Back.”
The Rocheport tunnel is also quite special because the Katy Trail runs through it, and the section of glorious trail between Rocheport and Columbia is perhaps worth the two-hour trip from Kansas City in itself. As a whole, the trail begins in Clinton, Missouri, ends in Machens and hugs the river for most of the way.
But if you’re going by water, you can’t miss the Manitou Bluffs, “one of the most picturesque portions of the lower Missouri River.” Made of Mississippian limestone, these bluffs — as well as the river — border the Katy Trail, with the A-frame on top.
Kayakers can put in at Rocheport and paddle down to Cooper’s Landing in Columbia, about a 16-mile float that passes through two sandbars.
You’ll want to take a long weekend for this one. Trust us.
Columbia and Jefferson City
Hey, we get it. Columbia may not be considered a “traditional” river town. It’s known for Shakespeare’s Pizza, Mizzou, Unbound Book Fest and the always excellent True/False documentary film festival.
But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t keep one of the best river drives in the state a secret.
If you take the scenic route to the aforementioned Cooper’s Landing Campground and Marina, you’ll be pleased to come across sunflower fields and sprawling river bluffs, plus the infamous, 400-year-old McBaine Burr Oak tree. It survived a recent lightning strike.
The best section of gravel river road pops up right after Cooper’s, if you follow it south towards Hartsburg, Missouri. The river is so close to the road there, it becomes impassable at the slightest sign of flooding.
And of course, kayakers (and drivers and bicyclists) can follow the river from Hartsburg to Jefferson City, which affords its own stellar glimpse of the capitol building and twin Missouri River bridges.
The pedestrian section on one bridge leads down to Noren Access Point, a conservation area. It’s the perfect place to hike the wooded, winding trails, reserve a campsite, put in your boat or start a driftwood collection. Not that we’ve ever done that.
And if you’re looking to escape the city for a few days, consider taking Amtrak’s Missouri River Runner farther east to another historic river town. From Jefferson City to St. Louis — where the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers meet — the passenger train practically follows the river, allowing for multiple stop-offs.
Hermann, a scenic town settled by the German Settlement Society of Philadelphia, is famous for its thriving wine culture and cute bed and breakfasts. It takes about four hours to get there from Kansas City by train. But hey, you can drink wine. (If that’s your thing.)
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