The Missouri Department of Conservation and the Missouri State Parks systems is one of the most well funded in the country thanks to a sales tax started in 1984. Generous funding and exceptional management, along with a state rich with natural resources means Missouri can provide residents and visitors meaningful ways to enjoy the beauty, topography, geology and uniqueness of the terrain.
State Parks are affordable, drivable destinations every family should utilize. Missouri boasts 93 of them, along with seven national parks and six historic trails. The possibilities are plentiful. Plan to visit on the weekend, over fall break, spring break or all summer long!
Top Missouri State Parks to Visit with Kids
Known for its clear, spring-fed streams, trout enthusiasts line shoulder to shoulder on opening day of the permitted season at Bennett Springs State Park. For those who love to fish, this is the ultimate destination in the state, but it also entertains those wanting to connect with nature. Besides exploring the cool stream bed, the park has several hiking trails, a butterfly garden and nature center.
Yurts, cabins and campsites are available year-round to rent for overnight stays, and also hosts a dining lodge. Aspiring but inexperienced anglers can purchase lessons and rent gear from a local fly fishing school to learn the basics and how to catch a monster rainbow!
Ha Ha Tonka in the Ozarks houses the 12th largest spring in Missouri. It features sinkholes, caves, a natural bridge and an old castle destroyed by a fire in the 1940’s. Mostly visited by hikers and photographers for its unique scenery, the park is adjacent to the lake, making it easy to visit and enjoy both within a day. There is also an outdoor amphitheater where you can catch summer concerts. The hikes can be tough in places and narrow to walk through, so consider visiting with children old enough to traverse the terrain.
The elephant-shaped boulders are the stars of this unusual park in southeast Missouri. A popular destination in the summer, the giant rocks were formed from 1.5-billion-year-old granite. They got their name because they resemble an end-to-end train of circus elephants. Children love to climb on the boulders, history buffs enjoy partaking in the historical nature of the area and parents find it easy to sit atop a rock and watch their kids enjoy the outdoors. Picnic tables are also readily available in shaded areas for lunch and relaxing.
Hit up the Braille Trail, which was especially designed for people with visual and physical disabilities. It winds through the main area of rocks, through a quarry pond with a plethora of wildlife, then leading to an old railroad engine house.
Just a short drive from Elephant Rocks, bundle the trip with Johnson’s Shut Ins State Park. It won the number one spot for the best park to camp in the country! Carved into the rock by the flow of the Black River, the shut-ins are a great place for swimming and splashing. A boardwalk offers spectacular views and provides easy access to the shut-ins.
A shut-in is a geological feature similar that “shuts-in” the river. Water cascades through rocks creating chutes, pools and waterfalls. Small children may have difficulty navigating the rocks and chutes safely and itnmay prove better for children 8 and older. Changing river conditions, strong current and slippery rocks means that everyone should wear water shoes and life jackets, despite their swimming ability!
Roaring River State Park is unique as it is in a deep, narrow valley surrounded by rugged landscape. Due to the abundance of trout, the river is extremely popular with anglers. The cool waters, seven hiking trails, cabins, full-service restaurant and hatchery make it fun for the non-anglers as well.
Fun fact: The hatchery produces 250,000 trout each year in the 1.6 miles of stream located in the park. Over 100,000 adults and children come to fish and enjoy the beauty of the daily stocked stream each year because it’s that cool!
Set in eastern Ozark, across the state from Kansas City, rests Hawn State Park. Stately pine and oak trees, meandering streams, canyons and cliffs create an impressive landscape and draw thousands of visitors every year. It is enjoyed through its trails. There are easy ones with an overlook for families with small children, or the ever-popular 10-mile-long backpacking trail. Shaded and perfect for bird watching, the long drive to St. Genevieve is worth it!
Weston Bend State Park is a local favorite! Set in an already charming town to explore, the park provides yet another reason to visit the area. Surrounded by lush woodland, visitors can traverse the hiking trails, brave the mountain biking spots, find the overlook of the Missouri River or look for birds during the spring and fall migration.
A playground and shaded campground with modern amenities make it easy to take kids for an overnight or weekend stay close to home. On the way out of town, visit The Weston Red Barn Farm to pick seasonal produce, eat at O’Malley’s for dinner and hit up Green Dirt Farm for a beer and ice cream. Check out our guide to a Day in Weston.
Knob Noster State Park offers a peaceful place for urbanites to escape in nature, in under an hour drive. The combination of a heavily shaded park, streama and paths make visitors feel like they are the only ones in nature.
Equestrians love Knob Noster State park for its dedicated trails, as do mountain bikers. Small ponds and lakes dotted throughout the area make boating of all kinds easy and accessible.
Table Rock State Park has it all for those looking for a fun-filled family vacation. Close to arguably the biggest tourist destination in the state, Branson, the park is easily drivable when amusement parks and traffic become tiring. The centerpiece is Table Rock Lake, with an abundance of water recreation, fishing and exploring opportunities. In addition, two unique caves are open to view. Fischer Cave is home to a large colony of gray bats, while Stone Barn Cave is a historic spot once used as a shelter by Native Americans and early settlers.
Just minutes from Columbia, Rock Bridge Memorial State Park provides the most popular hiking trails in the state. Visitors especially flock there when the seasons change to see the abundance of foliage lining the trails. Gans Creek Wild Area, The Devil’s Icebox and Connor’s Cave will afford hikers and families glimpses of sinkholes, a natural bridge, spring, underground stream and a look at unique typography. On the way back to Kansas City, consider stopping to ride or walk the Katy Trail in Rocheport or the MKT Trail through the urban areas of Columbia.
The caves at Onondaga are filled with stalagmites, stalactites and flow stones. Missouri is often referred to as the “The Cave State”, and if your family has a budding spelunker, this state park would be the perfect educational tour. Guides lead people through a mile long tour, lasting a little over an hour. Wear a coat or jacket because the temperature is always cool no matter the season! Once on the surface again, the park’s bluff provides a great view of the Meramec River where you can relax, fish or picnic.
These are only a handful of the beautiful, state funded parks Missouri has to offer. The diverse terrain enables Missourians and tourists to view the uniqueness of our land. From rivers to caves, diverse trees to wildflowers, one could never be bored when enjoying the great outdoors of the “Show Me State.”
Explore Kansas State Parks here.