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Head to Columbia, Mo., for a socially distanced travel adventure

A short detour off the Katy Trail State Park leads to a huge oak tree that's one of the oldest in the state of Missouri.
A short detour off the Katy Trail State Park leads to a huge oak tree that’s one of the oldest in the state of Missouri. (Bob Sessions photo)
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For anyone who loves to travel, the COVID-19 quarantine has been especially frustrating. Now that restrictions are easing, my husband and I wanted an easy-to-reach destination that offers a variety of outdoor activities while still making it possible to social distance.

Our getaway choice? Columbia, Mo., a vibrant university town with convenient access to recreational adventures and an eclectic range of eating establishments, many with outdoor seating.

Finger Lakes State Park, which is located 12 miles north of Columbia, became our base for several days of exploring. In the 1960s it was the site of a coal mining operation that scarred the countryside with deep pits. After the mining company donated the land to the state park system, the damaged landscape was reclaimed and improved, creating a 1,128-acre park with a network of long, narrow lakes interspersed with woods and meadows.

“We’re popular because we’re one of just two Missouri parks that offer off-road vehicle trails, but people also love to come here to kayak and canoe,” said Debbie Newby, superintendent at Finger Lakes State Park. “Because our lakes are so narrow, you can get the classic river experience of gliding through a corridor of trees but you don’t have to deal with a strong current. This is an especially good place for people who don’t have a lot of experience on the water.”

After we set up camp, we headed out to explore the park’s interconnected, well-marked water trails. As we paddled beneath tall trees, bird song filled the air and dragonflies fluttered by. In the middle of our half-day expedition we pulled our kayaks to shore and dove into the clear water of a lake, a welcome respite from the heat of the afternoon.

The next day we headed south to Columbia, which as home to the University of Missouri has a laid-back, college town vibe. In Flat Branch Park in the heart of the city we unloaded our bikes and hopped on the MKT Trail, which was voted the second-best urban bike trail in the nation by readers of USA Today. Even on a warm day the off-road route was pleasantly cool, leading us through a deep, wooded valley that slices through the heart of Columbia and into the countryside. After nine miles of riding, we reached the junction with the Katy Trail State Park, the longest rails-to-trails project in the United States. The scenic 240-mile route borders the Missouri River for much of its way across the state. As we cycled, we enjoyed views of the river on one side of the path and limestone bluffs on the other.

On our trek we were fortunate to have the company of Mike Sutherland, an avid cyclist who’s also director of Missouri State Parks. He told us about the boom of interest in Missouri parks this summer.

“Many people are eager to travel again, and camping and outdoor activities are attractive because they make it easy to social distance,” Sutherland said. “We’re getting a lot of first-timers in all of our parks, and our campgrounds are much busier than usual. We’re working hard to make sure visitors can enjoy the outdoors while still remaining safe — and we hope that even after COVID has passed, people will still keep returning to our parks.”

At last we reached our destination of the tiny village of Rocheport, whose picturesque houses on the bank of the Missouri River include many bed-and-breakfasts. A leisurely, delicious lunch at Abigail’s Cafe replenished all the calories we’d used up on our bike ride.

On our third day in the area we added hiking to our list of outdoor activities by exploring the Kelley Branch Trail at Finger Lakes State Park. On our 2.7 mile excursion we headed up and down steep hills and through thick woods, marveling at how well the landscape has been restored after being damaged by coal mining.

Later that afternoon, we headed back to the Katy Trail because we’d enjoyed it so much the previous day. This time our base was Cooper’s Landing, a funky settlement overlooking the Missouri River south of Columbia. After parking our vehicle, we took a leisurely ride through a green tunnel of trees, stopping often to enjoy views of the river and bluffs. Other highlights included Boat Henge, a Stonehenge-inspired arrangement of half-buried boats, and a massive burr oak tree that’s one of the oldest trees in the state. Afterward we returned to Cooper’s Landing to enjoy drinks at a table overlooking the wide channel of the river.

Our time in Columbia ended that evening with a leisurely meal enjoyed on the patio at Sophia’s, an upscale restaurant on the south side of the city. We talked about how easy it had been to have a wonderful trip full of adventures and great food while still maintaining social distancing.

I remembered Debbie Newby’s comment to us earlier in our visit. “I think during the COVID crisis a lot of people realized for the first time how much beauty and peace can be found outdoors,” she said. “That’s definitely a silver lining of the past months.”

If you go

In addition to standard hotels, Columbia, Mo., visitors can stay at the campground at Finger Lakes State Park or at Cottonwoods RV Park located just north of the city.

For breakfast, try Uprise Bakery or Ernie’s Cafe. Lunch options include pub grub and handcrafted beers at Flat Branch Pub & Brewing, Mexican specialties at Las Margaritas, and Shakespeare’s Pizza, all of which have outdoor patios. Bring your own lawn chairs or a blanket to enjoy libations on the large lawn in front of Log Boat Brewing Co. Additional dining can be enjoyed at 44 Stone Public House and Addison’s Grill.

Near Rocheport, the restaurant at Les Bourgeois Vineyards sits atop a high bluff with gorgeous views of the Missouri River valley.

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For more information, contact the Columbia Convention and Visitors Bureau at (573) 874-2489, visitcolumbiamo.com or Missouri State Parks at (800) 334-6946 or mostateparks.com.

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