Social distancing-friendly parks and trails in KC for when your usual is overrun with people

Monkey Mountain in Grain Valley, Missouri. Photo by Julie Babcock

If you’ve been following social distancing recommendations for the past few months, you’re likely pretty stir-crazy by now. Warm, sunny summer days don’t do anything to help.

That means it’s time to get outside. But if you’ve been near any of Kansas City’s most popular parks of late, you’ve likely noticed you’re not alone in the desire to get outside. In fact, some local parks are busier than grocery stores.

The good news is that the Kansas City metro area has a lot of green space—almost one hundred thousand feet of green space per person, the second-highest rate in the nation behind Minneapolis. For perspective, St. Louis ranks seventh in the nation, but residents there have only about half the space we do. People in Miami, Portland, Dallas and Cleveland have about a tenth the green space Kansas Citians enjoy.

So if you want to feel a fresh breeze without worrying about how close the neighboring picnic blanket is to yours, there are plenty of options.

If you like Burr Oak Woods Nature Preserve in Blue Springs, try…Monkey Mountain

Monkey Mountain is what they call a hill on the outskirts of Grain Valley and the forest preserve surrounding it. It’s not a mountain, and there are no monkeys, but it is popular with horseback riders and hikers looking for a little solitude. Start on the south side of this out-and-back trail, where you’ll make a steep climb up a dirt and rock (or, if it’s rainy, mud and rock) trail to the summit. The view is worth the extra effort—once you’ve made it to the top, you’ll see miles of grassy meadows framed by lush forests and distant hills. The trail can be tough to follow when it reenters the woods, but it’s easy enough to wander around the meadows for a bit before taking the trail back down to your car. From our experience, this trail is buggy, so bring along some repellent.

GO: The south Monkey Mountain trailhead is on R D Mize Road near the intersection with Hardsaw Road. From I-70, take exit 24, go south on S. Buckner Tarsney Road, then east on R D Mize Road. The entrance is on the left, soon after you pass Hardsaw on the right.

If you like Shawnee Mission Park in Shawnee, try…Wyandotte County Lake Park

At 1,600 acres, Shawnee Mission Park has plenty of room to stretch your legs. But the beaches and picnic areas get very busy on nice weekends, pandemic or not. Head north to Wyandotte County Lake Park and you’ll find a 1,500-acre park with similar amenities and smaller crowds. Wyandotte County Lake Park is a hidden gem—even among KCK residents. A Kansas City Star outdoor writer recently called it “the best of our most underappreciated outdoor places.” Your best walks will come on the nearly nine-mile long loop trail that follows the shores of the park’s namesake lake. It’s hilly in places and also used by mountain bikers and equestrians, but it’s well-kept and offers some impressive viewpoints.

GO: From the western side of the I-435 loop, take exit 15A for KS-5 S/Leavenworth Road. Go east two miles to 91st Street. Go north on 91st Street to enter the park.

If you like the Trolly Track Trail from the Plaza to Waldo, try…the Little Blue Trace Trail from Lee’s Summit to Independence

Kansas City’s beloved Trolley Track Trail goes through some of the city’s most attractive neighborhoods, but it has gotten so crowded that the city has closed several surrounding streets to make more room. You’ll find a similarly scenic ride on a crushed limestone trail—but without the crowds—at the Little Blue Trace Trail. The fifteen-mile-long trail sits east of Independence and ribbons along the Little Blue River. Like Trolley Track, the trail passes through a few urban areas among its many quiet, desolate spots. You’ll come across bridges, old train trestles and even wildlife like wild turkeys, turtles and native wildflowers.

GO: There are a number of trailheads, but we like the one behind Saints Pub & Patio of Independence (there are restrooms at nearby businesses and an ice cream shop nearby). Take I-70 west to the Little Blue Parkway exit, then go north off the freeway and take the first left into the plaza.

If you like the Riverfront Heritage Trail, try…Kessler Park

If you’re looking for a quiet riverfront trail within an urban setting, the trails that wind through northeast Kansas City’s Kessler Park will satisfy. They have a similar feel to Riverfront Heritage Trail, but instead of being right along the Missouri River, the trails let you look down at it. The four-and-a-half-mile stretch of Cliff Drive State Scenic Byway will take you right through the most scenic areas of the park, like the Cliff Drive waterfall, limestone bluffs and breathtaking overlooks. The paved road is smooth and wide enough for vehicles but is now closed to traffic. If you’re walking or running uphill on any parts of the trail, try to stay on the right side—bikers will zoom downhill and around turns at rapid speed.

GO: Take I-670 east to US 71 north. Turn right off Admiral Boulevard exit. Turn left onto The Paseo and follow to Missouri Avenue. Park on the street and look for a stone gate with large boulders blocking traffic—that’s Cliff Drive.

If you like Loose Park, try…the old Southwest High School

With its rose garden, duck pond, rolling fields and perfect hammock trees, Loose Park is arguably the best outdoor space in the city. That’s no secret, which is why the park has been overrun this spring as stir-crazy Kansas Citians descend on it in droves. The good news: You can find a quiet oasis of urban greenspace just two miles south on Wornall Road. KCMO’s long-shuttered Southwest High School sits in the heart of Brookside, adjacent to the Trolly Track Trail, and the grounds are kept in tip-top shape. The fields and track surrounding the school are great for a picnic, frisbee game or running your dog, and you can grab takeout refreshments a few blocks away.

GO: Southwest High School is at 65th Street and Wornall. It won’t show up in mapping software, so if you’re going, plug in St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church one block north.

If you like Thomas Stoll Park, try…Corporate Woods North Park

Thomas Stoll Park in south Overland Park is one of Johnson County’s favorites—the dog park is especially beloved—but it’s been busy during the pandemic. Meanwhile, the office parks of Corporate Woods are nearly deserted, and the large, densely wooded park separating the office buildings from the I-435 freeway is lightly populated. The park has a loose network of paved trails that follow Indian Creek as well as grassy patches where you can toss a frisbee without worrying about keeping your distance. You will encounter the freeway noise throughout your walk, but it doesn’t seem to bother the animals frolicking in the little urban forest.

GO: The park is nestled in the southeast corner of the intersection of I-435 and U.S. 69. From I-435, take the Antioch exit and go south, then immediately head west onto Indian Creek Parkway. The park’s parking lots will be on the north side of the street.

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