While it’s tempting to tuck yourself indoors during the longest weeks of winter, don’t put away your hiking books just yet. Winter is an excellent season to spend time outdoors along an Ozarks trail.
Hiking in winter is a fresh air alternative to indoor gyms, a cure for cabin fever and good for mental health. Plus tromping through the woods among bare, leafless trees reveals lines, shapes and texture — the bones, you might say — hidden most of the year. It feels open and clean, and best of all provides new trail views blocked in other seasons by foliage. Not to mention, we live in the Ozarks! That means wildly ranging temperatures, even in winter.
Whether it’s cold enough for a hat and gloves, or you wake up to rare warm temps, try one of these great winter hiking spots around Springfield — and beyond.
3 great winter trails in or near Springfield, Mo.
Springfield Conservation Nature Center
Location: 4601 S. Nature Center Way
What’s best about the 80-acre Nature Center is that it’s within city limits yet feels remote. Winter is a great time to strike out on its three-mile network of trails, meandering up and down hills within the woods or along a narrow arm of Lake Springfield when views of water and vistas are unobstructed. It’s also a prime season to watch for wildlife, which may include herons, deer, turkeys, woodpeckers and in winter, eagles.
One good route I like (see map) follows the Boardwalk Trail downhill; connects to the Fox Bluff Trail uphill; then connects to the Long Trail which meanders along a creek, eventually crossing a foot bridge over Lake Springfield and looping left through a field before reentering the forest. The Long Trail eventually goes uphill, connecting to the Savanah Ridge Trail which ends at the Visitor Center. There are great offshoots and shortcuts, too, including the Photo Blind Trail and the Sycamore Cut-off that leads back to the Boardwalk Trail.
Eagle Days at the Visitor Center (Click to expand story)
If it’s too cold to hike, you can still enjoy a dose of nature inside the Visitor Center which features programs and exhibits. The Eagle Days event, Jan. 21 and 22 at the Nature Center, celebrates the annual return of bald eagles to Lake Springfield. Details about the event are here. Learn more about the Nature Center in this 2022 story.
Wilson’s Creek National Battlefield
Location: 6424 W. Farm Road 182, Republic
If you think Wilson’s Creek National Battlefield is just for history buffs, think again. A seven-mile network of trails crisscrosses the nearly 2,000-acre park southwest of Springfield, a natural haven from urban development that’s easy to reach. I like trail-walking here in winter — often with a camera — because of its winter textures, views of Wilson’s Creek, and historic structures that stand out. And it’s a good time to watch for wildlife, especially deer in the early morning.
The 4.9-mile paved tour road (which can be walked, biked or driven) leads to eight interpretive stops, several of which also include trailheads. This trail system connects all over the park (see map), so you can do a short trek or really stretch your legs on a longer hike. The trails traverse through woods, across meadows, near creeks and to historic sights you can’t see from interpretive stops, including the old Edwards Cabin, the General Lyon marker, the Pulaski Battery and the Gibson Mill site. (The park is also a great spot to shoot photos after snow! Read more here for winter photography tips.)
Suggested trail route (Click to expand story)
Here’s one route to try: Park at Stop No. 3 and follow the trail down through woods until it connects with the Wire Road trail and continues to the bridge over Wilson’s Creek. From here, keep left to visit the cabin and continue to the next creek crossing. We usually turn back here, retracing our steps over the bridge and connecting to a trail that goes to Ray’s Cornfield. If you continue that trail, you’ll eventually cross the tour road to visit Edgar Cemetery. Return the way you came or add to your hike by taking the connected Gibson Mill Trail (which eventually leads out to Tour Stop No. 1). Another option for getting your heart rate up: Take a connecting trail up toward Bloody Hill and the Lyon Marker. Or once back at the parking lot, cross the tour road and take the steps toward an uphill overlook trail.
Dirt 66: Fellows Lake Trails
Location: 4200 E. Farm Road 66
With more than 25 miles of trails at Fellows Lake, thanks to the Dirt 66 project, this park in northeast Springfield makes a great winter destination. Not only is it easy to reach, but you also have multiple options for short hikes or longer ones. Plus, with bare trees, you get better views of the natural landscape and the lake. One easy trail to try is the 1.3-mile Bullwinkle Loop (the trailhead is off North Farm Road 197, south of the lake and bridge). The wooded trail goes by the lake and connects to other trails if you want to extend your hike. (Watch for a fun nod to Bullwinkle via moose horns on a tree.) You can’t go wrong no matter which trail you do at Fellows Lake. Read more stories about Fellows Lake here and here.
4 road-trip-worthy trails a short drive from Springfield, Mo.
Alum Cove Natural Bridge Recreation Area
Location: NFM 28 in Deer, Arkansas
The Arkansas Ozarks is flush with fascinating scenic rocky areas and the Alum Cove Natural Bridge Recreation Area, about two hours south of Springfield, is best revealed on a winter hike along its 1.2-mile moderate loop trail. The highlight of this compact area is the huge natural bridge with an arch that’s 130 feet long and 20 feet wide. In fact, your first view is from its top as the trail crosses over before descending underneath. The trail continues into the valley, over creeks, along a wet-weather waterfall and into a cave and rock formation area that’s fun to explore. This short trail is a great stop any time of year, but you’ll see everything it offers more easily without foliage. It’s also short enough you can combine it with another trail and still get back to Springfield by dinner.
Round Top Mountain Trail
Location: South of Jasper off Highway 7, Arkansas
A nearby trek to consider pairing with your hike at Alum Cove is the moderate Round Top Mountain Trail, a 3.5-mile loop (with shorter options) around the mountain to an incredible view from the top. Winter is a great time to see its many interesting rock formations and bluff lines, plus more of the vista view. One unusual point of interest is a memorial marker and remains of a B-25 airplane that crashed into the mountain in 1948. The nice thing about this trail is you can choose a faster way to the top if you don’t have time for the whole thing.
BRT: Ponca to Steel Creek
Location: Ponca Low Water Bridge, Arkansas
The Buffalo River Trail — or BRT — snakes 37 miles along the Buffalo National River in northwest Arkansas. One short section, less than two hours from Springfield, is roughly four miles out and back between the Ponca Low Water Bridge and Steel Creek Campground. It makes a nice day hike with lots to see. That’s especially true in winter when the river is more readily viewed through trees along the trail that, spring through fall, are thick with foliage. The lack of leaves also opens views to more rock formations, bluff lines and scenic cascading creek beds, which become run-off waterfalls in wet weather.
You can start this trail on either end, but we generally begin in Ponca. After parking, cross the low water bridge and head left — or downstream. The trail primarily follows the river and includes a few edgy spots and overlooks, but also ascends away from the river in some areas. As the trail nears Steel Creek, you’ll pass through a split in the bluff (a popular photo spot). Before long, the trail begins to descend steeply to the campground, a good picnic spot and bathroom break. That means you’ll hike steeply uphill for a bit on the return trip — not as hard as it looks, but it’s why some hikers turn around before the descent.
More to do in this area (Click to expand story)
Add to your hike experience by trekking up a short trail at the Ponca BRT trailhead to the historic remains of the Beaver Jim Villines Homestead, an 1882 Ozark farm that includes an old barn, house and other outbuildings. More to see and do in this area include elk viewing, taking a scenic drive in the Boxley Valley Historic District, visiting the Ponca Nature Center to learn about elk and wildlife, or hiking another nearby trail.
Lakeside Forest Wilderness Area
Location: 412 Owen Lane, Branson
Forget all the theaters, go-carts and funky museums, a rather surprising hidden gem within Branson city limits is the Lakeside Forest Wilderness Area. With good parking and a well-marked entrance, this 140-acre natural area less than an hour south of Springfield is a beautiful spot that’s easy to access. Its 5.3 miles of woodland trails take hikers through forest and glade and along bluffs with views of Lake Taneycomo. The trails serve various hiking levels, from easy, such as the Ridge Trail, to the more difficult Lake Taneycomo Trail. The park includes a playground, pavilion, picnic tables and restrooms.
If you don’t mind hiking with elevation, follow the Bluff Trail down a set of 315 stone steps (built by Owen family members in the 1930s) to the Lake Taneycomo Trail, a narrow rocky path that winds above the lake to a large grotto that features a seasonal waterfall. It’s a bit of a climb out of the grotto to continue the path which also goes by the Old Soldier’s Cave, known for its use as a hideout during the Civil
More winter trails to try
Want more winter hikes? (Click to expand story)
In addition to our highlighted trails, a few more great winter hikes that feature interesting rock formations and points of interest include:
- Ha Ha Tonka State Park trails, Missouri
- Pedestal Rocks Scenic Area, Arkansas (Read our guide here)
- Lost Valley Trail, Arkansas
- Indian Rock House Trail, Arkansas
- Grand Gulf State Park, Missouri
- Busiek State Forest and Wildlife Area, Missouri
For more Daily Citizen hiking guides, click here.