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Gas prices are climbing. Interstate highways are teeming with road-hogging 18-wheelers. Air travel is expensive and complicated. All good reasons to enjoy the great outdoors close to home – right here in Missouri – even in winter.
You don’t have to wait until the heat of summer; nature is out there year-round. The Southeast Region of Missouri abounds with exhilarating outdoor adventures that can be enjoyed no matter the season, so dress appropriately and find some new activities; then go back in the spring, summer and fall to see how nature changes with the seasons. Remember, in Missouri, it may be zero degrees with snow one day and hit the 40s with sunshine the next. Be ready.
The Irish Wilderness, 16,227 acres of undulating topography, is Missouri’s largest wilderness area. It is so named because, in the mid-1800s, a Catholic priest brought Irish immigrants to the area to escape the oppression of urban life in St. Louis. It is not certain what happened to Father Hogan and the Irish immigrants, but after the Civil War they had vanished. The rugged Whites Creek Trail meanders 18-plus miles through the Irish. The trail is accessible from the Camp Five Trailhead, on Route J, southwest of Van Buren. The Irish offers hiking, backpacking and camping opportunities. You’ll find sinkholes, hardwood forests, disappearing streams and abundant wildlife. The Eleven Point River marks its western boundary. For information and maps, contact the U.S. Forest Service, 573-996-2153.
For a longer journey, the sometimes primitive Ozark Trail covers more than 300 miles, with planned loops that will lengthen it to 500 miles. The Ozark Trail is divided into sections of 20-30 miles, but many access points allow for shorter treks. Winter, when the trees are bare, is a great time to spot deer, turkey and other critters; horseback riding and mountain biking are allowed on some sections.
If hiking isn’t your bag, winter and early spring are perfect times to float a Missouri stream as it winds below towering bluffs . . . just don’t dump the boat. The Ozark National Scenic Riverways, America’s first federally designated Scenic Riverways, has two of the finest canoeing rivers in the Midwest: the Current and Jacks Fork. Other outstanding floatable rivers in the region include the Eleven Point, Big Piney, Huzzah, Black, St. Francis and the Meramec. Contact the Missouri Canoe & Floaters Association to find outfitters and canoe operations that will provide equipment, shuttle you to a river, and pick you up at the end of your adventure. Floats as short as two hours or as long as several days can be arranged.
What if the weather is just too bad, you might ask? Go underground in one of the world’s largest man-made caverns, at Bonne Terre Mine, one of history’s earliest deep-earth lead mines, founded in 1860. It was the largest producer of lead ore in the world until it closed in 1962. Today, the two upper levels are lighted and used for guided walking tours along the old mule trails, showing were miners dug with pick and shovel in the 1860s. The lower three levels form a seventeen-mile long, one billion gallon lake. Boat tours are available on the crystal clear water, with spectacular views of abandoned shafts and equipment deep below the surface of the water. Spectacular, guided diving tours are available for certified scuba enthusiasts.
With the 150th anniversary (sesquicentennial) of the American Civil War on the horizon, this is a good time to familiarize yourself with two key Civil War sites. In Pilot Knob, Fort Davidson State Historic Site was the scene of one of the largest and most hard-fought battles waged in Missouri. The earthen-berm type fort is preserved at the site. The visitor center tells the story with exhibits, a research library, an audiovisual presentation and a fiber optics diorama of the battle. The playground and picnic area make this an ideal place to get away with the family. Fort D, in Cape Girardeau, featured five cannons, the largest of which could fire a 32-pound cannon ball. This is the only remaining fort of the four built to protect Cape Girardeau and control movement on the Mississippi River. The earthwork walls remain intact and historical signage throughout the fort’s grounds bring its storied past to life.
Ready to move indoors? How about a glass of wine and a hunk of cheese, with a great view? VisitMO.com lists 19 of Missouri’s world-class, international award winning wineries in the Southeast Region. All offer an indoor tasting room, scrumptious snacks and relaxing views; some have a full service restaurant. On nicer days, relax on the patio. The Missouri Wine & Grape Board lists details on all of Missouri’s wineries.
Find hundreds of Southeast Missouri attractions, restaurants, activities and lodging locations on Missouri’s only official tourism website, VisitMO.com. Winter is a great time to plan a day trip or weekend vacation. You can order your free copy of the 2011 Official Missouri Travel Guide while browsing the website and by calling 800-519-4800.