Hiking Into Spring

Think of hiking or backpacking and what comes to mind for most of us? The West! Spacious vistas of uninterrupted mountains, breath-taking crystal clear lakes - a numbing 20 hour drive to get there, and once there, competing with hordes of dehydrated-food-munching, like-minded souls intent on getting away from it all.

It doesn't have to be that way.

The Conservation Department manages more than 800,000 acres of land scattered throughout Missouri that contain more than 600 miles of trails. Virtually no Missourian is more than a 45-minute drive from at least one such area.

The Conservation Department's best known trail sites are its four nature centers - Burr Oak Woods Conservation Nature Center, Blue Springs; Springfield Conservation Nature Center; Powder Valley Conservation Nature Center, Kirkwood and Runge Conservation Nature Center in Jefferson City. Each features trails that are well maintained and suitable for a leisurely pace. No backpacking opportunities here, but plenty of nature study and lots of friendly Conservation Department employees ready to be of service.

The nature centers are good places for the mobility impaired to enjoy the outdoors. Each features a disabled accessible trail.

Short walks, such as those available at nature centers, can be lengthened on large conservation areas, where established foot trails and existing maintenance roads combine to provide extended hikes, or even overnight backpack experiences.

Hikers trading the vastness of the West for the diversity of Missouri won't give up anything in the view department. Spectacular scenery abounds; whether it's a forest, wetland, prairie or glade, hikers on conservation areas won't be disappointed.

Another Missouri advantage is hikers are rarely, if ever, snow bound. Intrepid backpackers seeking solace during the winter months will see wildlife more readily while sharing the trails with only an occasional archer or squirrel hunter. By mid-February chances are hikers and backpackers will have the area to themselves.

Because each area is unique, regulations vary. Camping is not allowed on some conservation areas, so if you're planning an overnighter be sure to check ahead of time.

A handy item for hikers and backpackers is Missouri's Conservation Atlas. This new book gives a thorough description of Conservation Department lands and is available for $15 plus $5 shipping and handling from: Atlas, Missouri Department of Conservation, P.O. Box 180, Jefferson City 65102 0180.

Specific conservation area maps are generally available from nearby Conservation Department offices. These maps also cover regulations and show parking lots, trails and geographic