Around Kansas City, you can get close to nature at these wildlife refuges and conservation areas
The Kansas City metro area has a fair amount of manicured green space, abundant trees, and miles of urban hiking for citizens to enjoy. But not too far away are wildlife refuges and conservation areas where animals and plants take priority over humans.
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The Kansas City metro area is such a rich urban ecosystem that a person can forget there’s an abundance of nature — and the wildlife that calls it home — right at our doorstep.
And, friends, real wildlife is out there. Bears are now seen more and more north of the Ozarks, elk have been reintroduced in Missouri, and mountain lions are returning to the plains and Midwest from established populations in the Mountain West.
But how does one get closer to our amazing flora and fauna? Glad you asked! Here’s a guide to the Kansas City-area refuges that will have you glued to a pair of binoculars in no time.
Wildlife refuge, sanctuary, state park, conservation area: What’s the difference?
The story of America’s conservation movement is a long and exceptional one, punctuated by the creation of the world’s first national park, Yellowstone, in 1872.
While we don’t have a Yellowstone in the Kansas City region, we do boast national wildlife refuges, nature and wildlife sanctuaries, state parks, conservation areas and more. However, each one’s purpose, and the proper way to access them, can sometimes be unclear or confusing.
A wildlife refuge, like Jackass Bend National Wildlife Refuge northwest of Kansas City (part of the larger Big Muddy National Fish and Wildlife Refuge system), is a federally managed tract of land that is devoted first to providing habitat to wildlife. In these refuges, wildlife viewing is a secondary focus, and hunting and fishing are sometimes allowed.
Wildlife sanctuaries, like Liberty, Missouri’s Martha Lafite Thompson Nature Sanctuary, tend to be smaller than refuges (though some can encompass many acres) and focus on education, awareness, activism, and volunteerism. Some take in injured animals, some offer hiking and events, etc. These wildlife-focused organizations are more active and hands-on and may require a donation to enter.
Your average state park, like the popular Weston Bend State Park northwest of the metro in Weston, Missouri, may be a great place to incidentally view wildlife, but in these natural areas you’ll also encounter campers, picnickers, extended families gathering in outdoor shelters, history buffs exploring preserved structures, boaters, and more.
These are maintained — in some cases manicured — multi-use areas, and they are not exclusively set aside for wildlife and wildlife viewing.
Note: On the Missouri side, there is no cost to enter state parks. In Kansas, you’ll be charged a daily $5 vehicle fee to enter and use the park.
One last Kansas-Missouri difference to consider is the presence of conservation areas on the Missouri side. Some offer water access, hiking, camping, ranges for archery and target practice, etc. It’s best to read up on each area before visiting to learn what you can — and can’t — do on-site.
(If you’re interested, you can read more about the history of the Missouri Department of Conservation.)
Missouri-side wildlife-rich sites to consider
Since we’re talking about wildlife refuges and sanctuaries, let’s be clear: The best nature areas are hard for humans to penetrate and thus are great for wildlife.
To enjoy these places you’ll need to prepare. That means dressing in layers of durable clothing that can keep you comfortable in a range of temperatures (and probably opting for pants over shorts), wearing sturdy shoes or boots, packing plenty of water and snacks, and bringing along bug spray, a hat, sunglasses and sunscreen, and a compass or navigational app. If you’re a list kind of person, REI maintains a great “Day Hiking Essentials Checklist.”
For Kansas Citians, the Jackass Bend National Wildlife Refuge is maybe the best in the immediate area. Even finding your way into the refuge is a challenge. There are no trails, and there are no roads through.
This 860-plus acre refuge is all about bushwhacking through lowland, Missouri River-adjacent forest and scrubland. Defined by an oxbow — or former river curve cut off from the main channel after a flood — a visitor can expect an abundance of wildlife here given the proximity to water and ample cover. Here, a visitor stands a good chance of seeing larger fauna like deer, owls, turkeys, coyote, foxes, etc.
As for how to enjoy Jackass Bend, remember that the lack of services means you’re expected to pack out everything you pack in. So, come prepared with a sack for trash and the like.
To access this refuge, take MO 210 past Missouri City for about five miles. Turn south on South Union Road, which will dead-end at the refuge after about a mile. Most National Wildlife Refuges are open 24 hours a day “for permitted activities.” Given the vagueness of this guidance, it’s always best to call a refuge’s headquarters if you have any questions.
If you’re looking for a visitor-friendly wildlife refuge in Missouri and don’t mind a drive, 86 miles north of Kansas CiIty you’ll find Loess Bluffs National Wildlife Refuge. It’s a bird watcher’s paradise, especially during migration seasons, so don’t forget to bring your binoculars and camera.
Loess Bluffs boasts miles of multi-use trails and a 10-mile auto tour, as well as restrooms, a visitor’s center, and dogs are allowed on leash. As always, check out their rules and policies before you head out.
Among the conservation areas, the aptly named James A. Reed Memorial Wildlife Area, also quite popular with anglers, is a great option for those wildlife seekers who also want some pavement and the presence of other humans.
At over 3,000 acres, this conservation area offers a great diversity of habitat, meaning there should be a great diversity of wildlife. It features healthy woods, fields, ponds and lakes, and there are trails throughout. If you want a walk in the woods, the southeast corner features at least a few trail miles almost completely in forest.
The James A. Reed Memorial Wildlife Area is off of SE Ranson Road, south of Highway 50, in Lee’s Summit. Hours are 6 a.m. to 10 p.m.
For those with small children or who want a more intimate wildlife experience without so much of the searching and hiking, the Martha Lafite Thompson Nature Sanctuary is a great option.
This 100-acre sanctuary strives to provide “hands-on environmental and natural science education for all ages” and works to do so through its thoughtfully managed property east of Liberty. The sanctuary offers grade-specific educational experiences — including overnight programming — several trails, and much more besides.
This sanctuary is operated by a nonprofit and has its own mission and history, and it also has a rules page that should be read carefully. For example: Signing in on arrival is expected, as is packing out one’s trash. And pets are not allowed.
The Martha Lafite Thompson Nature Sanctuary is typically open Tuesday through Saturday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Its trails are open 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Wildlife-rich areas on the Kansas-side
Though Kansas evokes images of grasslands and generally wide-open spaces — and it does feature many refuges that match this — it has its share of watery, dense, woodsy, hilly environs for those seeking such an experience.
The Perry Wildlife Area is perhaps the quintessential escape KC-adjacent such area on the Kansas side. This wildlife-rich complex is supported by the Delaware River, an underrated, very beautiful waterway that waters woods of oak and hickory and rich grasslands.
However, the main attractions (and wildlife attractors) are wetlands — manmade lowland zones that can be drained or filled depending on the need or season. These support large flocks of migrating birds and also sustain great numbers of birds year round. Plus, terrestrial wildlife viewing here is fantastic.
Given that this refuge is built around marshes, the birdwatching here can be especially good, especially during migration. Fall migration begins as early as August and runs through November, with September and October being considered the peak. Spring migration in our region is typically February into May.
This large refuge’s marshes are clustered around Valley Falls, which is directly north of Perry Lake. A specific address won’t necessarily get you “there,” so plan your trip using Google Maps or by calling the area office at 785-945-6615.
The Perry Wildlife Area is more accessible than Jackass Bend, but it can still be quite challenging for younger nature lovers. For those wanting well maintained trails, clear signage, and great educational opportunities and great birding, the Haskell-Baker Wetlands are a great choice.
A partnership between Haskell Indian Nations University and Baker University, the wetlands are bisected by K-10 on the south side of Lawrence. The Haskell section north of K-10 is a little more difficult to access, but Google Maps can show the best access points.
The general public tends to access the Baker University-managed side of the wetlands south of K-10. This 900-plus acre area features the Wetlands Discovery Center, which is generally open Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to noon and 1 to 3 p.m.
This wetlands complex features very well maintained trails — some that support even road bikes, too — through grasslands, along waterways and marshes, alongside and in woods, etc. It even gives decent access to the Wakarusa River. The trails are open dawn to dusk, so go whenever is good for you. You’ll almost never encounter a crowd, even as the area is adjacent to Lawrence.
Located about an hour’s drive south of Kansas City on the Kansas side, Marais des Cygnes National Wildlife Refuge was established in 1992 to protect 7,500 acres of bottomland hardwood forests, a uniquely Kansas landscape mixed with prairie and wetlands.
Red headed woodpeckers, trumpeter swans and warblers of all kinds abound throughout the refuge, making it an ideal escape for birders. Non-motorized boating is allowed (make sure your kayak or canoe is cleaned prior to launching), as are fishing and waterfowl hunting with the proper permits.
Visitors should always check the refuge’s rules and policies or call with questions prior to visiting.
Encountering wildlife is just the beginning
While your preparation for and visit to a refuge may seem like a full adventure, it’s really just the beginning. One of the first things you’ll notice in a truly large and only lightly developed tract of land is the abundance of life — flora and fauna. Fortunately, there are a lot of resources you can turn to to identify all you encounter.
More often than not, you’ll see animal tracks before you see an actual animal. And learning to identify tracks is really rewarding.
Animal Tracks of the Midwest Field Guide is a great resource, and affordable, too (typically under $20). The book identifies 95 animal tracks and also covers some birds and reptiles, and it includes insights on scat and signs, animal gait and more.
For lovers of our winged friends, The National Audubon Society has developed a very robust app for both iOS and Android. It’s pretty encyclopedic for most any user, and its Bird ID feature does a remarkably good job of helping you identify that little brown bird that just flew by. Also, the app’s audio recordings are good enough to call in birds (this writer has had this happen before).
Cornell’s Lab of Ornithology also offers a top-shelf app. It offers many features similar to Audubon’s app, but it also includes a Sound ID tool that does a decent job of listening to the birdsong around you and suggesting the birds that could be making it. Shazam for the winged world!
Despite their ubiquity, not everyone loves a tool that relies on a smartphone. For those who want a guide in book form, look no further than “the Sibley,” as my wife and her family (who are avid birders) call it. “The Sibley Guide to Birds” has been called “the finest guide to North American birds,” and with good reason. It’s about as detailed as it gets, with each species’ calls, habits, locales by season and more captured in full.
Where the guide stands out, though, is the use of illustrations for each species. David Allen Sibley’s renderings are gorgeous and very, very accurate.
The most common nature you’ll run into in these spaces won’t be scurrying away. Trees are trees until you take a second look: the complexity and interrelatedness of our woody neighbors is staggering, especially in a region as biologically diverse as ours.
“Trees of Missouri Field Guide” is a highly respected tome that will have you discerning Bur Oaks from Post Oaks in no time. Though the title might seem to leave out half of our metro, plants don’t really respect borders, and this guide is great for our purposes.
For those seeking to explore a wider world than that of just trees, “Native Plants of the Midwest” could be the perfect choice. This tome is more than a catalog (though it profiles over 500 species) in that it outlines how to incorporate native plantings into your garden.
Don’t want to lug a book along with? A popular plant ID app like PictureThis is a good solution. There are many similar apps to choose from, and they’ve all become so much more reliable over the last few years.