In Columbia, just south of downtown and the University of Missouri, lies Capen Park. The park’s bluffs make it a draw for rock climbers, but it also means there are great views for anyone who can scramble up the back of them. There are trails where dogs are free to run off leash, and both Hinkson and Grindstone Creeks run through the park. These features, plus its close proximity to most of the city, make it a popular park. Some areas feel so remote and secluded, it’s possible to forget you’re in the middle of Missouri’s fourth-largest city.

If you’re new to town, you might think Capen is a hidden gem. Truth be told, it’s just one of the many outdoor adventures Columbia has to offer. Whether you want to be challenged while climbing or take a relaxing stroll in nature, there’s a spot for you. On any given day you’ll find locals and visitors alike exploring what the scenic park has to offer. We asked six of them to explain what brings them out to Capen and other community parks in the area.

Mike Powell, 33, Executive Director at Greenbelt Land Trust of Mid-Missouri

A Group of people at Capen Park in Columbia Missouri
Photo by Notley Hawkins

We work with public and private landowners to conserve the natural and working land of Missouri. We have a property that joins Capen Park to the west. The boundary between our property and the park is Rock Quarry Road. We own about 65 acres and conserve another 15 with private conservation easements on the other side of Rock Quarry. The group field trip [pictured] was a part of the annual Missouri Land Trust Coalition meeting. I grew up in the Kansas City area, but I came to Columbia in 2009 to start Graduate School. I moved away for about a year and a half, but then I moved back. I’ve been here for about four and a half years. I think there are all sorts of instances that people are healthier and happier when they interact with nature on a regular basis. I think it’s a mutual relationship. The opportunity to interact and be in nature is healthy for people, and it also encourages them to be conservationists and to be in favor of protecting natural resources.

John Feres, 25, Brush Dragger at Korte Tree Care

Photo by Notley Hawkins

Capen is right in the city, but it’s just like this chunk of nature reserve in the middle of downtown Columbia. One of the craziest parts is the deeper in you walk, you can hear the streets getting quieter and quieter. I grew up in St. Louis, but I’ve been back and forth between Columbia and St. Louis for a few years now. I work with a tree trimming company in Jefferson City. I love being outside and going to different places between Jefferson City and Columbia. We drive to a lot of different places, visiting different people, and working at different locations. That’s the sort of thing I love.

Virginia Muller, 56, English Professor at the University of Missouri

Photo by Notley Hawkins

I’m originally from St. Louis, but I’ve lived in Columbia for a long time. I moved here to go to school. My dog Neo and I park at the Capen lot, but we actually go into Grindstone [Nature Area.] We go very regularly, often times every day. We go there because there are a lot of trails that go through the woods and up on the ridges and they’re leash free trails for the dogs. Neo is 13; I’ve had him since he was 2. He’s a Second Chance dog. I think it’s important to have public parks so that everyone can get out and be in green space. We’re learning more and more how important green space is to our overall health, physical and mental. So I think it’s really great that we have a variety of parks in Columbia. We have parks that are dedicated to things like soccer, like Cosmo Park has I don’t know how many soccer fields and football fields, and then we have other parks that are dedicated to trail walking. Our animal companions are also important to our health. I know for me, having Neo gets me out walking more often than I would if it were just me. He’s a real good motivator to get me out on the trails. I love to do it anyway, but everyday he looks at me like, “Are we going to the park today?”

Cecelia Davis, 25, Artist at The Mud Room

Photo by Notley Hawkins

Being able to get back to nature every once in awhile and get out of the noise of the city is what makes [Capen] amazing. It’s a hop, skip, and a jump away. You’re not having to travel half an hour. I particularly like Capen because there are so many different levels of terrain out there. Josh and I were mainly just taking a walk, but he also likes to do some foraging. I was not as excited about the composting area. I do respect it and I understand it’s purpose, but I could live without the smell. The cities and all of that, that’s not what’s natural. It’s important to remember where we started and to maintain and know our natural ecosystem and our natural plants. That’s what lives here. As beautiful as things like manicured gardens with roses are, that’s not Missouri. I think being so much in the city and how high the buildings are, we forget that Columbia is surrounded by river fronts and creek fronts. They’re everywhere. Without the rivers we wouldn’t have thrived back in the day. When we were out there at Capen, it was obvious that there were coyote tracks and fox tracks and rabbits going around, and most people don’t experience that in their backyard.

Joshua Hulen, 45, Mental Health Therapist at A.B.L.E., Achieving Better Living with Empowerment

Capen is centrally located in Columbia, which is nice and it’s connected to some other places I enjoy. Sometimes I’ll hike from there into the Grindstone Nature Area or ride my bike to a connector of MKT for longer distances. I think the compost site is really awesome. Sometimes when on a walk with someone else, it can promote a conversation about composting, which is one of my favorite topics. I’ve been composting for about 10 years. Something else about Capen that is really unique is the rock climbing cliff. I still haven’t climbed it myself. The top of the cliff is such a unique place right in the middle of town to hang out with someone. There’s something about being above everything and having a wide perspective as well as the vulnerability of being right on the edge. It can promote some really intimate conversations. Being in the natural world is so needed. Especially, now that people are so plugged in. Spending time in parks such as Capen really gives people a chance to connect with the natural world and connect with each other in ways that I find very important. It’s good for our physical health, but also for our psychological health.

James “Jay” Dolph, Medical Instrument Technician, EKG at the VA Hospital

Photo by Notley Hawkins

I started climbing when I was about 16 years old, and I climbed off and on for many years when I was in the military service. When I left in 2006, I moved to Columbia, and I started taking it more seriously. I got tied in with the climbing community. Believe it or not, Missouri has a pretty big climbing community. An old climbing partner of mine, Will Harpham, and I got to talking back in 2009, and we came up with The Mid-Mo Climbers Facebook group, which started with two members and now it’s at 500 and something. Capen Park is only two blocks from where I work so it’s kind of hard to find a place in the world with more convenient climbing than that. I can literally walk from work to the park and do some climbing during my lunch break. The parks get used by cyclists, mountain bikers, people walking dogs, runners, hikers. It’s a good mix of folks, and I really like what Columbia has done to its park systems. They are very gracious in letting us use the cliffs. We’re really blessed.