Birds chirping. Water rushing. Animals scurrying. Breeze blowing. And people walking—at a distance. Some of the best but least-known places for getting outdoors safely are conservation areas. These areas are lands that are protected and managed by the Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC). They are still open, offer more than 800 miles of trails among other features, and you can choose from more than 1,000 conservation areas throughout the state that have been purchased or donated. You can still camp at the ones that allow that, at their mostly primitive sites.

“We’re blessed in Missouri,” Joe Jerek, MDC news services coordinator, says. “There is a conservation area within a thirty-minute drive from pretty much anywhere in the state.”

Conservation areas are not only beautiful and beneficial to the outdoor world, but they are also usually not as populated as your typical park, which makes them the perfect place to get outside. The main purpose of these areas is to conserve the natural land and provide educational resources.

“Visiting conservation areas, hiking area trails, fishing, and other outdoor activities are great ways for people to connect with nature while still complying with all health and safety recommendations,” says MDC Director Sara Parker Pauley.

Whether you want to picnic, hunt, hike, discover a grassy field, or search for unique features, there’s a conservation area for you. You can also bike on some designated mulch or gravel multi-use trails, although a few have paved trails. You will find signs and information about each area near the parking lots. Pick one or two conservation areas near you and explore the outdoors while protecting your health—both physical and mental.

NORTHWEST AND KANSAS CITY

Jim Bridger Urban Conservation Area in Jackson County, between Blue Springs, Raytown, and Lee’s Summit, is a smaller spot for trapping, bird-watching, hunting, and short hikes on the 0.88-mile trail. While exploring the 320-acre area, you’ll spot streams, prairie plantings, grassy fields, woodlands, and glades, natural characteristics Missouri is known for.

Platte Falls Conservation Area is about 35 minutes outside of Kansas City at Platte City and has 2,242 acres. Hunting quail, rabbit, squirrel, turkey, deer, and dove is common here, along with fishing, hiking, and canoeing. An unchannelized nine-mile stretch of the Platte River runs through the area, allowing river fun. A unique opportunity here is to float 2.5 miles without shuttling a vehicle. The river makes a big loop and comes back to almost meet itself. The narrow neck of land in between has two boat ramps on each side and a parking lot in between. There’s also an archery and shotgun range, and plenty of wildflowers and wildlife.

Riverbreaks Conservation Area in Holt County northeast of St. Joseph is characterized by old prairie lands, limestone quarries, and views of the Missouri River flood plain from the loess hill river bluffs. With 2,307 acres, there’s plenty of room to bike, hike, and go horseback riding on trails. Fishing, hunting, and a shooting range are also offered.

Star School Hill Prairie Conservation Area in Atchison County is a smaller remote area with 289 acres. Lewis and Clark camped near here during their journey up the Missouri River, and you can camp in designated sites on the hilly land, too.

Star School Hill Prairie Conservation Area.

NORTHEAST AND ST. LOUIS

At 133 acres, Bellefontaine Conservation Area in St. Louis County is a smaller area known for hiking, bird-watching, and fishing in Bluegill Lake, Hybrid Pond, Catfish Pond, and Bass Pond. Two trails offer disabled access. The land was previously owned by the Missouri Department of Mental Health and is now used by many for a short, easy trip outdoors.

In Gasconade County north of Bland, Canaan Conservation Area is rich in history. Nomadic American Indians hunted here, and then in the 1800s, German immigrants settled and worked on farms. A 10-mile trail for hiking, biking, and horseback riding winds through the forest. Several creeks and ponds can be found on the property as well. About three-fourths of the 1,435 acres are forested or woodland and glades. A unique feature is a deep muck fen.

Canaan Conservation Area.

Although the area is prone to flooding, many people visit Columbia Bottom Conservation Area in St. Louis County with hopes of catching a glimpse of the magnificent sunflower fields in summer. In addition to the beautiful blooming flowers, hunting, fishing, hiking, and biking are common on these 4,316 acres.

A portion of Forest 44 Conservation Area in St. Louis County was once a part of a 10,000-acre cattle ranch and was purchased in 1990. Look for Williams Creek in the eastern portion of this 958-acre tract; several springs feed into it. Like many conservation areas, this one is most beautiful in the spring when native flowering trees like redbud and flowering dogwoods are blooming. In addition to a two-mile hiking trail, there is an 11-mile trail used for hiking and horseback riding.

Sunflower fields attract doves. Head to Frost Island Conservation Area in Clark County north of Wayland to see for yourself. The flowery fields bloom in the summer on the 1,233-acre area that borders Iowa and two miles of the Des Moines River. This area is used mainly for camping, fishing for catfish, and hunting deer, dove, quail, rabbit, squirrel, and turkey.

Frost Island Conservation Area.

With almost nine miles of hiking and biking trails and 2,548 total acres, Howell Island Conservation Area is a great place for those in St. Charles County to get some exercise and keep a safe distance. It sits near the Missouri River and across from Weldon Spring Conservation Area, which has 8,398 acres of diverse natural features and the Katy Trail running through it. In the 1940s and ’60s, portions of Weldon Spring Conservation Area were used for the production of TNT, DNT, and uranium ore processing. Those areas were a part of a federal environmental cleanup and now meet all health and safety standards. The area is so large that you can visit again and again and always see something new.

Weldon Spring Conservation Area with Howell Island Conservation Area across the Missouri River.

At 8,268 acres, Union Ridge Conservation Area sits in Adair, Putnam, and Sullivan Counties, just north of Greencastle. There are no designated trails here, but it is a popular spot for hunting. Three creeks twist and turn through the remote area, and three small ponds are stocked with bluegill, largemouth bass, and channel catfish. The area features woodlands, grasslands, prairie, savanna, and forest.

Union Ridge Conservation Area.

In Eureka, less than 15 minutes from Six Flags St. Louis, Young Conservation Area offers outdoor adventures more peaceful than roller coasters. This 1,300-acre area contains multiple hiking trails and abundant wildlife. With numerous creeks and ponds, fishing for sunfish, black bass, and white bass are popular, as is hunting.

Young Conservation Area.

CENTRAL

The Marion Bottoms Conservation Area in Cole County north of Marion has 2,998 acres ideal for fishing crappie, sunfish, and catfish and hunting rabbit, deer, and turkey. Bird-watching is also popular. You might spot bald eagles, and people who arrive by boat will find individual campsites along the Missouri River.

Rocky Fork Lakes Conservation Area just north of Columbia has more than 60 big lakes and ponds. The largest lake, more than 50 acres, has a boat ramp and fishing dock. There is a shooting range for shotguns, rifles, and pistols, and two old cemeteries dating back to the 1800s can also be found on the 2,200-acres.

Rocky Forks Conservation Area.

SOUTHWEST

Huckleberry Ridge Conservation Area east of Pineville in McDonald County was the first large piece of land MDC purchased in southwest Missouri. Today, it is still mostly forested with more than 16 miles of hiking, biking, and horseback riding trails. Hunting deer, squirrel, and turkey is allowed, and you can camp at designated sites on the 2,106-acre area. The Ozark chinquapin tree—which is only native to five counties in Missouri—can also be found here.

Little Sac Woods Conservation Area, a 772-acre area northwest of Springfield in Greene County, is about 20 minutes from Springfield. The majority of the area is forested with wildlife food plots scattered throughout, but there are seven miles of hiking trails to explore the sometimes rugged terrain.

Little Sac Woods Conservation Area.

SOUTHEAST

Popular among kayakers and hikers, Millstream Gardens Conservation Area, between Arcadia and Fredericktown in Madison County, is known for the St. Francis River and Tiemann Shut-ins. An almost two-mile, paved trail leads to a waterfall. The 916-acre area also offers an archery range, hunting, fishing, and bird-watching.

Wilhelmina Conservation Area is southeast of Qulin and lies in both Butler and Dunklin Counties. Although there are no trails, you can hike in, but check with the MDC website beforehand to make sure the area isn’t closed for managed hunts. There are 1,520 total acres used for hunting, bird-watching, fishing, and primitive camping.

Find more conservation areas at nature.mdc.mo.gov/discover-nature/places or MDC’s MO Outdoors free mobile app.