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Each week, KCUR's Adventure! newsletter brings you a new way to explore the Kansas City region.

These lake towns around Kansas City offer a perfect summer escape

Sailboats on a lake
Libby Hanssen
/
KCUR 89.3
Shawnee Mission Park Lake is one of the many lakes in the Kansas City region.

Kansas City may not be as well known for its lakes as other parts of the Midwest, but you can still find plenty of waterfront access within a short drive. Here’s a guide to the Missouri and Kansas towns where you can enjoy the lake life this summer.

This story was first published in KCUR's Adventure newsletter. You can sign up to receive stories like this in your inbox every Tuesday.

During the lazy, hazy summer days in the landlocked Midwest, you may start to yearn for access to expanses of cool water and wind whipped coastline. Sure, there are the Kansas, Missouri, and Blue Rivers, but for a more mellow environment, local lake town vibes may hit that spot.

While the Kansas City region doesn’t have the wealth of lakes as other areas of the nation (including our fellow Midwesterners up north), there are a handful of lakes only an hour or so from the metro.

Although most of them are man-made lakes, they’re still great places to enjoy the soothing lap of waves, exciting water sports, the extraordinary biodiversity of water life, or just a change of pace.

July is National Lakes Appreciation Month, so whether you take a day trip, weekend getaway, or just need a dramatic change of scenery, these lakes (and their towns) offer plenty to enjoy.

Smithville

Buildings in Smithville, Missouri
Libby Hanssen
/
KCUR 89.3
Smithville and its nearby Smithville Lake offer a variety of activities.

Most of the area lakes in Missouri and Kansas are man-made reservoirs, built to control flooding, provide area for recreation, and produce hydroelectric power. The Missouri Department of Conservation explains the difference between natural lakes and man made.

The city of Smithville, about 20 miles north of Kansas City, was founded in the early 1800s on the Little Platte River, on what was originally the homesite of Humphrey and Nancy Smith. The town experienced massive flooding through the years (some buildings in Downtown Smithville still show the high water marks from the 1965 flood) and in the 1970s, the United States Army Corp of Engineers built Smithville Lake to the northeast of the city.

The area has attracted residents steadily over the last century. Each year, the city celebrates its body of water with the Smithville Lake Festival on Father’s Day weekend. Smithville’s Parks and Recreation Department hosts a variety of events throughout the summer, including a fireworks display over the lake on Independence Day.

There are many activities available at Smithville Lake, including boating, beaches, fishing, camping, golfing, discgolf, and hiking. There’s no residential areas directly on the lake, but along with Smithville, the city of Trimble and community of Paradise offer amenities and housing about as close as you can get.

There’s also “Woodhenge” in Little Platte Park, a replica of a prehistoric wooden solar observatory. The site of original, discovered by the Army Corps of Engineers, is now under the lake waters, but dates about 700-1000 B.C.E

Lake Perry

A large stone etched with a picture of a Native American man and the word Ozawkie.
City of Ozawkie
The original site of Ozawkie was displaced by Lake Perry, but rebuilt on higher ground.

Though Kansas used to be entirely underwater (approximately 250-290 million years ago), nowadays it has few natural lakes. Like Smithville Lake, Perry Lake (locally called Lake Perry) was created by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, northeast of Topeka, Kansas. At more than 11,000 acres, it’s one the largest lakes in Kansas.

Built in 1966 by damming the Delaware River, the lake (and dam) was named for the nearby city of Perry, about four miles south.

But when the lake was built, it displaced the city of Ozawkie. The community relocated to higher ground to the west of the lake, though the restful historic Ozawkie cemetery, established in 1855, is on the east side, connected by Highway 92. Now, the city is a quiet residential community, with a couple of restaurants, a playground, and community center.

In Kansas, most of the land around these reservoirs is reserved for public use, not owned privately. All around Lake Perry is the Perry Lake Trail, also called the Old Military Trail, a rugged 29-mile loop that follows the coastline. Perry Lake State Park has both utility and primitive camping, a handful of cabins, boating access, and walking, biking and equestrian trails.

Clinton Lake

Exterior view of the Clinton Store.
Libby Hanssen
/
KCUR 89.3
The Clinton Store at Clinton Lake.

Town displacement happened at most engineered lakes, including the formation of Clinton Lake near Lawrence, Kansas.

The towns of Belvoir, Sigil, Richland and Bloomington ceased to exist (though there is a Bloomington Beach, near the Wakarusa River Valley Heritage Museum). But Clinton remains as an unincorporated community on an inlet, with some residential homes and the Clinton Store, offering convenience items for lake goers.

Located within Clinton State Park, the 7,000 acre Clinton Lake and 9000+ acre surrounding wildlife area offers boating, fishing (including a children’s fishing pond), camping and cabins, hiking and biking. The lake is managed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Loving that lake life

A calm lake at dusk with the moon in the sky.
Libby Hanssen
/
KCUR 89.3
Throughout the metro, there are residential lakes for year-round lake living.

If you are craving lakeside life around the clock year-round, consider moving to a place like the City of Crystal Lakes, a small community north of Excelsior Springs, 30 miles from the Kansas City metro. The five small lakes were built by a developer in the 1960s; the area incorporated into a village in the 1980s and a city in 1996.

Non-residents can access the lakes (a list of fees is here) for boating, fishing and swimming.

There’s also the residential City of Lake Quivira, in Kansas, and Lakewood Lake near Lee’s Summit, not too far from recreational Lake Jacomo and Blue Springs Lake in Blue Springs. And recreational Longview Lake in southern Jackson County which offers plenty of watersports and activities just 19 miles from downtown Kansas City.

The City of Lake Lotawana, a private lake that was originally summer cabins back in the 1930s, is a residential community, with amenities available to residents only.

Make a splash

With access to urban lakes like Troost Lake, Wyandotte County Lake, and Shawnee Mission Park Lake, you may even consider the entire Kansas City region a sort of lake town (if you squint).

After all, there are plenty of places to fishand hike, hit the beach, birdwatch, and dip your paddle.

If you are looking further afar, you might be surprised to learn that Missouri’s largest lake isn’t Lake of the Ozarks (though you can learn all about that lake’s formation with KCUR’s A People’s History of Kansas City podcast).

It’s actually Truman Lake, situated between Kansas City and Springfield, with 55,000 acres of waterways. Truman Lake is about a two hour drive from the metro on Highway 7. Nearby, the town of Warsaw, on the Osage River, provides dining, lodging, and relaxed vibes.

Similarly, Kansas’ largest lake is Milford Lake, two hours west of Kansas City and just north of Junction City. There, you’ll find the lakeside towns of Milford (town slogan: “The City of Beautiful Sunsets”) and Wakefield (“It Will Take You By Surprise”), home of the Kansas Landscape Arboretum.

Originally from Indiana, Libby Hanssen is a freelance writer in Kansas City. She is the author of States of Swing: The History of the Kansas City Jazz Orchestra, 2003-2023. Along with degrees in trombone performance, Libby was a Fellow for the NEA Arts Journalism Institute at Columbia University. Learn more at Proust Eats a Sandwich.
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