Like nearly everyone else in the world, a lot of my plans for 2020 were disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic. In addition to changing my travel plans (I was supposed to go to Utah to hike and guest blog for a major Utah hiking and nature site), lockdowns and social distancing guidelines changed many of my daily routines, as well as my leisure activities. Since I couldn’t enjoy most of my usual activities around Kansas City, I had to look someplace else where I could safely “get away” from time to time.
I have always enjoyed spending time in nature – especially hiking and exploring places on my own. Luckily, the Ozarks are blessed with many scenic trails where social distancing is not only possible, but easy to do. Therefore, 2020 presented me with many opportunities to invest in personal and professional growth, as well as enjoy hiking and social distancing in nature.
Spring in the Ozarks
My typical spring activities include things like attending the Bentonville Film Festival, going to the Bentonville Farmers Market on the square, catching a Royals game, and visiting the Kansas City Market. But there was none of that in 2020. However, as far as nature was concerned, spring 2020 looked just like any other spring in the Ozark Mountains. Trees bloomed forming a think, lush canopy covering hillsides and creek bottoms. I seemed to have an even greater appreciation for the beauty of nature in 2020. For example, nature provided me with many newly discovered beautiful, scenic sights to enjoy on my hiking treks – like this one pictured above.
Northwest Arkansas Hiking Trails
Bella Vista Lake has long been a favorite hiking spot of mine. In fact, my favorite trail – the Northwest Arkansas Razorback Regional Greenway – runs 37-miles from Bella Vista Lake to Fayetteville. Before COVID-19 and social distancing, most of my hikes on the Razorback Greenway consisted of me trying to power-walk to the Bentonville square as fast as I could to beat the lunch hour rush at the Flying Fish, Onxy, or Spark Cafe Soda Fountain – or browse the Farmer’s Market on a Saturday morning.
Since I couldn’t enjoy most of my usual activities on the Bentonville square, I decided to get off the Razorback Greenway, take my pace count down a few notches, and explore some new areas (new to me) around Bella Vista Lake. I took the opportunity to hike on many of the mountain bike trails that crisscross the north side of Bentonville. I still met a lot of happy, friendly mountain bikers out on these trails!
Even though Northwest Arkansas has consumed a lot of nature to feed its fast-growing metro area, I was pleasantly surprised to find many unspoiled, scenic spots not that far from the area’s crowded roads and highways. I hope that nature can hold out – so these areas can remain scenic and unspoiled.
Playing in and around water is another favorite outdoor activity of mine. (When I think of nature, I often picture a beautiful stream like the one in the picture above). These interesting rocks cut out by the creek now create small rapids – especially when there’s been a lot of rain. I enjoyed a social distanced picnic lunch on these rocks.
One reason that I love spring is because April showers provide usually fill up the waterways in the Ozarks. For example, typically by late summer, the creek in the picture above is dry.
Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art
The usually busy art trails around Crystal Bridges were unusually quiet since the museum had to temporarily close in the spring of 2020. However, even though the inside of the museum might have been closed to visitors, I was still able to enjoy nature around the museum while hiking on the Razorback Greenway. Again, I was thankful that I could still hike on the trails and enjoy the beautiful outdoor spaces surrounding Crystal Bridges.
My favorite “paintings” at Crystal Bridges have always been the beautiful scenery that nature painted outside the museum! Luckily, those “paintings” are always open and free to enjoy.
Summer in the Ozarks
I love hiking in each of the seasons because I get to enjoy nature a little differently – even during the hot summer months. Luckily, most Ozark Mountain trails are pretty well shaded under a thick canopy of trees. Although, when it’s a hot day, my hikes almost always take me to water that I can play and cool off in. Hey, I’m from the Ozarks – playing in creeks is what I grew up doing!
Hiking to Grand Falls
Remember those April showers I mentioned earlier? Well, as you can see by the picture above, they turned Shoal Creek into what looked more like a wild, raging river full of large whitewater rapids at Grand Falls. I can still hear the loud roar of the water rushing over the falls. (I felt just a little terrified while taking that picture). The Grand Falls Dam – just above the waterfall – creates a small lake on Shoal Creek. There is a short nature trail that you can explore around the old dam.
There isn’t an actual hiking trail that takes you to Grand Falls. Instead, most people park near the falls on Riverside Drive south of Joplin. However, I often park at the old Redings Mill Bridge or the Shoal Creek Conservation Center and hike a few miles on the Wildcat Glades nature trails. Then, walk the remaining distance on Riverside Drive from the low water bridge to the breathtaking, scenic waterfall.
Table Rock Lakeshore Trail
Nearly everything about summer 2020 was different – including my usual trip to Branson. For me, there was no Silver Dollar City, no music shows, and no Dewey Short Visitors Center. Even my traditional picnic and hike at Table Rock Lake State Park was disrupted. Not because of social distancing or lockdowns, but flood control by the Army Corps of Engineers. Heavy spring rainfall across the Ozarks forced the Army Corps of Engineers to increase the water level in Table Rock Lake to prevent flooding in the lower White River Valley. (In fact, Table Rock Lake was actually constructed primarily for flood control – water recreation was a secondary purpose).
I think the picture above is a good analogy for how a lot of people feel when it comes to the plans that they had for 2020. Speaking of the picture above, that’s (usually) my picnic spot at Table Rock Lake State Park. I enjoy sitting there by the lake and watch the boats go by and waves hit the shoreline. As you can see, the lake level didn’t cooperate!
Luckily, I was still able to hike on most of the Lakeshore Trail between the Dewey Short Visitors Center and the State Park Marina.
Ozark Swimming Holes
While some places like Lake of the Ozarks saw record crowds after social distancing and lockdown restrictions were lifted, there were still lots of scenic areas in the Ozark Mountains where it was easy to enjoy nature away from big crowds.
The Blue Hole is one of my favorite summertime swimming spots. Even before social distancing became a thing, visitors here always did a good job of giving each other plenty of space. You can’t beat the scenery! (My picture doesn’t do it justice). In addition to being in a beautiful setting, the water always feels cool and refreshing after a hot summer hike. However, the water isn’t nearly as cold as a lot of Ozark springs.
I would tell you about my other favorite swimming holes, but they are top secret!
Bull Shoals Lake
Even though I didn’t get to take a big vacation in 2020, I did get to enjoy a couple of really fun and memorable family staycations at two really cool lakeside lodges. One of those staycations was at White River Ranch Estate: A beautiful log cabin home (mansion) set on 100 acres of heavily forested land overlooking Bull Shoals Lake just east of Branson.
I enjoyed hiking on some pretty rugged trails, as well as trailblazing my own. There was an old caretaker cabin on the property that dated back to when Teddy Roosevelt stayed at the original lodge back in the day. I also went fishing (I was the only one to catch a fish), as well as exploring the lake kayaking.
Unlike the very popular and often crowded Table Rock Lake, the shoreline of Bull Shoals Lake is scenic and mostly undeveloped. That’s because there are conservation restrictions in place that prevent development by the lake. Therefore, you can’t get much more ‘back to nature’ than in the heavily forested hillsides around Bull Shoals Lake in Southern Missouri and Northern Arkansas.
Fall in the Ozarks
My cousin once described fall to me as that magical time of the year when temperatures are just perfect – not too hot and not too cold. Autumn is perfect for hiking in the Ozarks and just enjoying nature. I usually increase my pace and do some of my longest hikes during this time of the year. The stunning fall foliage turns the Ozark Mountains into a ‘wonderland’ of beautiful colors. When the leaves fall off the trees, they blanket the trails with a colorful “carpet” for my feet to walk on. Most years I get to enjoy a lot of fun fall festivals and activities too.
Hiking the Katy Trail
I know, I know, the Katy Trail doesn’t run through the Ozarks. Not all of my hiking treks are in the Ozark Mountains!
I finally got a chance in Fall 2020 to hike a section of the Katy Trail State Park known as the Rock Island Spur. The Rock Island Spur runs 47-miles along the old corridor of the Rock Island Line Railroad – connecting downtown Pleasant Hill, MO, to the main corridor of the Katy Trail in Windsor, MO.
While the section of the Katy Trail that I hiked didn’t offer the stunning views of the Missouri River – like many of its most famous sections – I did get to enjoy a lot of beautiful farmland in West-Central Missouri.
Hiking the MOPAC Trail
Another fall hike I did – outside of the Ozarks – was on the MOPAC Trail. The trail follows the old corridor of the Missouri Pacific Railroad around Pleasant Hill. Currently, the MOPAC Trail runs from downtown Pleasant Hill for a few miles north to the city’s lake. (I believe there are future plans to extend the trail all the way into Kansas City).
After the MOPAC Trail leaves downtown Pleasant Hill, it takes you through a heavily wooded area along an existing railroad line where you cross Big Creek a couple of times. Then, the trail opens up into a really beautiful field – see picture above.
The trail eventually leads to a country road where they run concurrently until you reach Pleasant Hill Lake.
Pleasant Hill Lake is surrounded by a beautiful, scenic park. The park features a large fishing dock and boat ramp, as well as picnic tables and a disc golf course.
2020: A Year of Getting Back to Nature
There are over 7 billion personal stories about 2020. This blog post tells my story: A year of rediscovering nature while learning to adapt to social distancing and the “new normal.”
I have always appreciated every opportunity to get outside and go hiking. However, before 2020, I didn’t take the time to really appreciate nature and all of the benefits that it offers us. For example, social distancing from others can get lonely. Reconnecting with nature is a healthy way to deal with some of that loneliness when we miss all of the old activities that we used to be able to do. Even better, all of these adventures are within a few hours of Kansas City. That makes them easily accessible for future visits!