Once you’re children are old enough to drive, Father’s Day changes forever. With a daughter working at the pool and another at Missouri Scholars Academy in Columbia, my wife and I had our pick at what we wanted to do this holiday. Let’s just say that the empty nest is fast approaching and my dream of owning a sailboat again is growing stronger. That’s why we took a road trip to Smithville Lake just north of Kansas City, Mo.
There’s fishing, there’s camping, there’s hiking, there’s swimming beaches but — best of all — there’s sailing. I’m still several months away from sailing my own boat again but I got to keep the dream alive, at least a little bit on this hot, windy Father’s Day.
The camping bug had been nibbling away at me for quite some time. The problem was we were tight on funds. And I didn’t really want to spend a weekend in a state campground, hearing loud music I cared nothing about, and having car lights swing through the tent in the middle of the night. And we had recently added a dog, a clumsy puppy that we weren’t sure how he would react camping. So with that in mind I set up camp at Grand Trace Conservation Area near Bethany, Mo., for free camping and no neighbors and waited for my wife to get home from work.
Grand Trace is a 1,562-acre conservation area with a primitive camping area. There’s no water, no vault toilets, no actual hiking trails — nothing but a few fire rings, a gravel road, a couple of ponds, lots of timber, and more peace and quiet I had experienced in quite a while. One car came down the road Friday. Three came Saturday, one was a Missouri Department of Conservation agent, but not a single one came by after about 5 p.m. It was like having your very own campground.
Actually there were a couple of other visitors. Each morning and evening a cottontail would come by camp to nibble at clover. And each day, all day long, a bird — a mockingbird, perhaps? — tweeted a variety of songs from atop a pine over our heads. There were only a couple of drawbacks. One was that tick season was in full swing but we treat the dogs each summer for ticks and fleas so that wasn’t a major problem. The second was we became hot and dirty at times and came to the conclusion we need to invest in a camp shower. A pleasant breeze kept us comfortable most of the time. And as for the new puppy, well except for trying to get into the tent when it was zipped and awakening us at 6 a.m. each morning by jumping onto to our bed, he did great. Both dogs got all the exercise they needed. In fact so much so that after we got home they didn’t even want to go outside and explore the yard like they usually do. All they wanted to do was just lie around and nap.
The first Saturday in November, temperatures near 70 degrees and a wearisome presidential election nearing its end meant it was time to enjoy autumn before the weather and Election Day turned worse. With that in mind we stopped at the courthouse, cast our ballots early and headed out of town to Crowder State Park about 50 miles east of here.
Even with the constant crunch of leaves underfoot there was still plenty of fall colors. With more than 15 miles of hiking trails to choose from, we parked at Crowder Lake, walked across the dam and headed off on Tall Oaks Trail. The three-mile trail takes hikers along the lake through the old woods up a ridge through an old field and back down to the trailhead along river bottoms.
We had hiked another trail, River Forks, a few years earlier. Our plan — as soon as we get a few days free — is to set up the tent at the campsite and explore the eight-and-a-half mile Thompson River Trail, get in some fishing and relax in between. The 1,912-acre park includes basic, family and electric camping, an equestrian trail, canoe rentals, Red Bud Trail for those wishing a shorter hike and a quiet setting near Trenton, Mo.
A bit of cooler August weather had us revisiting Emmett and Leah Seat Memorial Conservation Area today. Pollinators, mainly butterflies, were as busy as, well, bees on the wildflowers. They were common along our walk along a wooded access road but we discovered hundreds of them flittering around a south facing mudbank when we crossed a small stream.
One small butterfly even hitched a ride on my leg for several yards before getting its fill of sweat. After our little hike, we drove a few miles west to Denver, Mo., to visit Sowards Ford Access, a primitive camping area on the East Fork of the Grand River. Denver itself is worth a trip if you enjoy visiting old small towns. The name F.C. Grace remains prominent in Denver even though his sale of furniture there have long been gone but the old Denver Schoolhouse has undergone a restoration.
We picked up a few things along the Grand River at Sowards Ford. Part of an old Coca Cola bottle and a few more modern pieces of trash that had either been left there or had washed down the river. While we did a small part in cleaning up the river, we also brought a few other things home we wish we hadn’t. Seed ticks, dozens of them, discovered during our hike at Seat so here’s a tip for anyone planning a summer hike in Missouri: Don’t forget the DEET as we did.
I have few photos from our recent four-night camping trip to Thousand Hills State Park just west of Kirksville, Mo. You see, our youngest wanted to do an overnight backpacking trip so we loaded up our small tent, sleeping bags, a bit of food and the new Mini Sawyer water filter I bought just for the trip and hit the Thousand Hills Trail early one Friday morning before the day’s heat overtook us.
We backpacked about five miles to our campsite to discover a fire ring, picnic table and a place to hang a lantern, far more than we expected. Of course we also found way more ticks than we cared for, the typical poison ivy and the expected hot and humid days late June brings. One bonus, though, was a cove to cool off in just about a quarter mile from camp.
The trail, along with others, was nice to explore with a cave nearby our campsite. A public swimming beach not far from the campground came in handy on those hot afternoons while we were car camping but we soon discovered past inconsiderate visitors have ruined some of the attractions, mainly some Native American petroglyphs that have been defaced. On an early visit the structure protecting the petroglyphs was open to visitors but its doors are now locked. While the early rock carvings were still visible the awe we experienced when viewing them a few years earlier wasn’t quite the same when peering through glass and seeing the names of contemporary vandals along side the petroglyphs.
Always remember to double check your camera battery before you begin a hike. About halfway through our day hike on Deer Creek Loop at Wallace State Park my battery died while trying to get photos of some jack-in-the-pulpit. Fortunately, I had a spare battery but it was back at our campsite. That meant I missed out on other photos along the trail.
It wasn’t a great loss, though. Wallace State Park has five different trails for more than six miles to hike. Of course if you’re camping, like we were, you can add another quarter mile or more to each hike when you walk to the trailhead. And spring is a pleasant time to hit one of the trails. The mornings are still cool, the wildflowers are out, gooseberries and blackberries are beginning to ripen, and songbirds are plentiful to make a hike that much more enjoyable.
You should probably keep in mind snakes, ticks, and poison ivy are also easily found. We came a cross a copperhead and fortunately our dog didn’t stop to investigate. We also found a garter snake, more ticks than we cared for, and a healthy poison ivy population. Other pests such as mosquitoes and flies were few, though.
Wallace State Park is near Cameron, Mo., and about 60 miles north of Kansas City just off of Intestate 35. The park includes a small lake, a pavilion, and four drive-in camping area as well as four walk-in campsites. Wallace is one of our go-to camping areas, a site we have returned to with our two daughters for nearly the last ten years.
What better way to begin a new year than with a hike? A relatively warm day was the perfect time to explore Elam Bend Conservation Area south of where we live. Identify animal tracks in the snow, look for whitetail sheds, walk across a pond or two if the ice is thick enough and, if you’re lucky, startle a turkey or deer.
Elam Bend covers more than 1,400 acres along the Grand River. There are no designated hiking trails but there are plenty of Missouri Department of Conservation roads to explore. There’s fishing along the river, deer and turkey are plentiful, and I’ve seen quail and pheasant a time or two. There’s also a shooting range and primitive camping. Old Havana Trail runs through the east side of Elam Bend where you can find the Newby Cemetery from the late 1800s and a boat ramp that provides a great place to end a Grand River float trip after putting in at Gentryville.