Answer nature’s call in Columbia

Features like the MKT Trail and Rock Bridge State Park help satisfy a need to get away.
The MKT Trail is just one of many getaways nature enthusiasts have available to them in Columbia. Maneater File Photo

Every year, thousands of optimistic, enthusiastic and adorably naive freshmen make the pilgrimage to the magical land of Columbia. Some come from big cities far and near, some from average suburbs across the Midwest, and some even cut their way through corn and sneak across the Kansas border.

For both the long-distance trekkers and those that move in from just down the street, MU and Columbia have plenty of aesthetically delightful sights to offer. From the Columns and limestone buildings on the Quad to Memorial Union and Lowry Mall, it's not hard to see why so many kids love the MU campus.

But for the more adventurous souls who seek natural getaways to run, jump, climb, explore, or just be away from sidewalks and cell phone service for a while, Columbia has you covered. While the weather is still nice (which will be a lot longer for those of you from the north and a lot more moderate for you southerners), be sure to check out some of the following places when campus life gets a little too civilized for you.

MKT Trail

Situated right across Providence behind Mark Twain Hall (or near Taco Bell, whichever is easier for you to locate), the MKT (or Katy Trail) is a gravel biking/walking/running path that goes through Missouri, Kansas and Texas, hence the acronym. The MKT was formed after the MKT rail line was dissembled and turned into a trail. Around half of the 237-mile Missouri stretch follows Lewis and Clark's expedition route along the Missouri River, and the rest of it offers great views of creeks, limestone cliff-faces and forest.

If you hang a right on the trail at Providence Road, you will end up in Flat Branch Park, which has a small playground, gardens and a gazebo (I mean, what else does a college kid need?).

For a more nature-y adventure, go to the left (away from the little bridge-tunnel) and you can run, bike, walk or otherwise manually transport yourself away from Columbia and into the leafy arms of the forest. On a typical day you'll see locals pushing cute little babies in strollers, art majors drawing or painting one of infinite scenes along the trail and other people trying to get away from campus, just like you.

A few miles down the trail, you can turn off onto the Hinkson Creek Trail, which will take you to Grindstone Nature Area and Capen Park, both of which offer their fair share of limestone cliffs, forest and stretches of natural prairie grass to frolic in. Pretend you're Winnie the Pooh and walk across fallen trees on the Hinkson Creek or sit on the muddy bank and forget about that homework due Monday.

Side note: For you runners, cyclists and work out freaks, the trail has mile markers every half-mile, so you can keep track of how far you're running. Just don't forget to look at all the oak trees and limestone formations while checking your mileage.

Rock Bridge Memorial State Park/Devil's Ice Box

Getting here will either require a car, a friend's car or a school bus ride for your entry-level Geology course field trip. Located about five miles from campus, Rock Bridge Memorial State Park is a great place to hike, picnic, and explore a few cool rock formations.

The park's namesake, the rock bridge, is a giant cave-like formation that became a rock bridge after the back wall collapsed. If it hasn't rained in a while, you can walk up underneath it and look at the cave ceiling or climb up the sides, but be prepared to get wet and muddy, so don't bring your nice new Sperrys.

After your old tennies are nice and gross, walk the trails over, around and behind the rock bridge to check out the stream that created it, the sinkholes forming all over the park, and the park's two awesome caves — Devil's Ice Box and Connor's Cave.

Once you get to a certain spot on the trail, you can look down at the water running below ground where the limestone has collapsed. You can then go down a steep staircase that allows you to look into both cave formations.

To the right, you can take a guided canoe trip through the Devil's Icebox, which stretches 6.5 miles underground, or check out bats, frogs and stalactites in the 100-foot deep Connor's cave to the left with the assistance of a park guide. If you're claustrophobic or afraid of the dark, it's still pretty cool to just look into the opening and touch the wet mossy sides of the rock faces while you're down there.

Pinnacles Youth Park

If you manage to grow bored with the MKT or are tired of Rock Bridge after taking Geology 1100, hitch a ride out to Pinnacles Youth Park to explore the 77-acre park and its 80-foot-high limestone cliffs. The cliffs offer climbing challenges for everyone from scared-senseless to just plain senseless.

Climb to the top of a cliff and look down at the Silver Fork and Kelly Branch creeks that flow through the center of it all, but keep an eye out for Copperheads. If you're part of a youth organization, you'll have access to free year-round camping, but either way it's a great place to climb, wade and contemplate. Just avoid cliff diving.

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