PATTERSON, Mo. – Amy Hughey had a quick answer when asked how long her family had been going on camping vacations to Missouri state parks.
“A lifetime,” she said. “We try to go probably four to five times a year.”
Hughey and her husband, Richard, a nuclear power plant operator from Fulton, were tending a campfire near their tents beneath the trees in the campground at Sam A. Baker State Park in southeast Missouri. Their three young sons were standing by with hotdogs on skewers. Sparkling Big Creek was a short walk away across a gravel bar.
“We’ve been to other state parks,” Hughey said. “They’re beautiful, but we always go back to Sam A. Baker. The bike trails are wonderful. The creek is crystal clear and not swift.
“We picked a very cold weekend, but we managed in the sleeping bags. It made the fire better.”
The Hugheys know what the rest of America’s campers recently confirmed. In a nationwide poll at About.com, readers of the New York Times voted Missouri the best state for camping. Montana and Colorado were next in the online voting.
Bill Bryan, director of Missouri State Parks, credited the state’s diverse geography for its popularity with campers.
“We have a lot of variety,” Bryan said. “You can camp one weekend on a flowing stream like the Current River, and the next weekend in a prairie. There is a diversity of landscapes that is hard to find elsewhere.”
A mild winter and a nice spring have increased the number of campers showing up at state parks, Bryan said.
“Camping trips are up 40 percent this year,” Bryan said in mid-May. “It’s a great family activity that allows you to get out and enjoy the outdoors at a low cost. You can have as much, or as little, camping gear as you want at a state park.”
Missouri has 86 state parks, and about half offer camping. Accommodations range from full-service sites with electricity, sewer and water to 16 parks with hiking trails leading through the forest to backpack camping.
To see what is available, or to use the camping reservation system, visit http://www.mostateparks.com.
“Missourians love to camp,” Bryan said. “That’s why we focus so much of our attention to make sure our campgrounds are ready and waiting.”
The state’s best sites
Asked for a half dozen of his favorites, Bryan couldn’t hold his choices to just six. Here are his picks:
* Montauk State Park at the headwaters of the Current River near Salem: Montauk, Bennett Spring and Roaring River are the state’s three trout parks, which are popular camping spots for fishermen. Campgrounds are located along the gurgling spring-fed branches.
• Montauk has so many great campsites that are on the banks of the Current River, which is a real Missouri gem,” Bryan said. “It provides an opportunity you can’t find anywhere else in the world.”
• Pomme de Terre State Park on a lake north of Springfield: This is the smallest of the parks near large man-made lakes popular for water recreation. Lake of the Ozarks, Table Rock, Stockton, Truman and Mark Twain also are parks located near impoundments. Many of the camp sites at the parks offer lake views.
“Pomme de Terre is a relatively undeveloped lake with miles of shoreline,” Bryan said. “It’s a very quiet family park and a great place to enjoy a weekend in nature.”
• Hawn State Park in southeast Missouri: The park is known for its large stand of shortleaf pines and hardwoods, which put on a gorgeous autumn display. Orchids and wild azalea bloom in the spring. Pickle Creek and the River Aux Vases flow below the sandstone ledges, and Whispering Pines Trail is perhaps the state’s most popular long hike.
“A trip to Hawn is an opportunity to explore the great trails and the interesting geology,” Bryan said. “And the pines really do whisper.”
• Meramec State Park off Interstate 44 an hour’s drive southwest of St. Louis: The campgrounds are on the Meramec River, which offers easy family floating. Eight camping sites are available to backpackers on the 8.5-mile Wilderness Trail, and shorter hikes lead to scenic overlooks from majestic bluffs.
“Meramec is a great quick escape from the city,” Bryan said. “You have access to a lot of different activities, and one of our most popular campgrounds.”
• Johnson’s Shut-Ins State Park on the Black River in southeast Missouri: The park was devastated by the collapse of a mountaintop utility reservoir in 2005, but has been rebuilt and restored to its former grandeur. The campground has a full-range of choices, from walk-in campsites that offer solitude to sites built especially for equestrians hauling trailers.
“Johnson’s Shut-Ins has our newest, most state-of-the-art campground,” Bryan said. “It has been very popular in the few years it’s been in operation. People enjoy the shut-ins and the other things the park has to offer.”
• Sam A. Baker State Park in southeast Missouri: The Mudlick Trail is a rugged, 11-mile walk through wilderness, with several camping shelters built by the Civilian Conservation Corps along the way. Big Creek is a lovely, shallow stream that cuts through the park by the campgrounds.
“Baker is a quintessential Ozark experience,” Bryan said. “You can spend a day on the river, a day on the trails, or you can just relax in the campground.”
That was six, but Bryan offered a footnote.
“Wallace is a small park with beautiful campgrounds and some nice short trails,” Bryan said. “It’s a super, super escape from Kansas City in the western part of the state.
“If you want some place off the beaten path, Van Meter State Park on the Missouri River has a great campground built by the CCC amid towering trees. The park includes a historic Missouria Indian village, which makes it one of the oldest campgrounds in Missouri, for sure.”
The next generation
Roger and Linda Stout of Blue Springs, near Kansas City, have agreed for decades with the opinion of Missouri state parks voiced by readers of About.com. For 33 years, the couple has received a Missouri Camper Award given to campers who visit five or more state parks in a year.
”We started camping in 1974,” said Linda Stout, who is 67. “We’ve been in every state park and every state historic site multiple times.”
Over the years, the Stouts graduated from tent camping to a camper hauled behind their pickup truck. Their three children joined them in the outdoors.
“When they got older, they didn’t want to go,” Stout said. “But I always took extra food and extra towels. You’d turn around at the campsite, and guess who would show up?”
Roger Stout likes to fish, so Bennett Spring is his favorite state park. His wife favors Johnson’s Shut-Ins. They have been to Bennett Spring this year, and have trips planned to Thousands Hills State Park near Parkville and Lake of the Ozarks State Park.
“And we always hit Pomme de Terre,” she said. “We also take short jaunts to ones that are close to our home, Weston Bend and Wallace.”
“No one has a state park system that compares with the one Missouri has,” Stout said. “The parks are convenient, and the sites are nice size and clean. You wouldn’t believe some of the places we’ve seen in other states.”
The children are grown, but the Stouts have camping plans for their six grandchildren.
“Absolutely,” Linda Stout said. “We’re bringing the next generation along.”