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10 easy winter hikes with beautiful views, natural wonders, and history

Petit Jean State Park Hikers exploring one of 8 hiking trails at Petit Jean State Park in central Arkansas. | Photo courtesy Arkansas Department of Parks, Heritage, and Tourism

While those New Year’s resolutions to get fit and stay active are fresh in your mind, here are 10 great places to hike to help walk off some of those holiday pounds and embrace the season.

Chosen for their scenery, wildlife, geology, or history, these easy hikes will stimulate your senses and provide a dose of mental and physical rejuvenation.

1. Garden of the Gods Observation Trail

Herod, Illinois

Garden of the Gods

No matter the season, the rock formations in the Garden of the Gods Recreation Area will take your breath away. | Photo courtesy Southernmost Illinois Tourism bureau

A wonderful diversity of trails can be found in Shawnee National Forest, including the Garden of the Gods Observation Trail that provides unforgettable views of fanciful rock formations, the Shawnee Hills, and the surrounding wilderness area. Whatever season you visit—including winter—the scene will steal your breath.

And once you see Camel Rock (pictured), you’ll always recognize it. It is one of the area’s many sandstone formations and bluffs formed by erosion over eons.

With mostly flagstone underfoot, hikers rate the quarter-mile trail easy-to-moderate, but pay attention when scrambling around the big rocks atop the high cliffs. Choose from nearly 17 miles of additional trails in the recreation area.

2. Rim Rock National Recreation Trail

Karbers Ridge, Illinois

Rim Rock National Recreation Trail

Find remnants of Native American cultures on the Rim Rock National Recreation Trail. | Photo courtesy Southernmost Illinois Tourism bureau

Also in the Shawnee National Forest, the popular Rim Rock National Recreation Trail winds around a large rock escarpment that lends the route its name.

On this moderate trail, look for signs that explain the natural and cultural significance of the features, such as the remnants of a stone wall built by Native Americans.

From the 0.8-mile paved upper trail, stairs descend to the valley and the 0.7-mile dirt-surface lower trail, which leads past Ox-Lot Cave, a rock overhang that 19th-century loggers used to shelter oxen and horses.

3. Lewis and Clark Park at Kaw Point

Kansas City, Kansas

Lewis and Clark Park Kaw Point

Hikers can trod in the pathways of history at Lewis and Clark Park at Kaw Point, which offers views of downtown Kansas City, Missouri. | Photo courtesy Visit Kansas City Kansas

Follow in the footsteps of legendary explorers William Clark and Meriwether Lewis with a brisk hike at Lewis and Clark Park at Kaw Point, overlooking the confluence of the Missouri and Kansas rivers. The Lewis and Clark Expedition arrived at Kaw Point on June 26, 1804. They camped for 3 days, and interpretive signs in an open-air education pavilion chronicle their journey.

Keep an eye out for bald eagles in this 10-acre nature oasis in the heart of Kansas City, Kansas. If you’re feeling energetic, follow the Lewis and Clark Heritage Trail via the bike and pedestrian Woodswether Bridge into Kansas City, Missouri, and explore the Kansas City Riverfront Heritage Trail.

4. Lakeside Forest Wilderness Area

Branson, Missouri

Lakeside Forest Trail

Follow more than 5 miles of trails through Branson’s beautiful 140-acre Lakeside Forest Wilderness Area. | Photo courtesy ExploreBranson.com

It’s hard to believe that the music theaters and attractions on Branson’s bustling Highway 76 Entertainment District are just a stone’s throw away from the serene hiking trails and vistas of the 140-acre Lakeside Forest Wilderness Area. The park’s entrance is just south of the busy intersection at Fall Creek Road, near Dick Clark’s American Bandstand Theater.

More than 5 miles of trails wind through the forest along bluffs, across glades, and past a grotto that spouts a wet-weather waterfall. Interpretive signage describes the 1911 homestead, 315 stone steps, and 2,000 feet of hand-built stone walls that are part of the trail’s appeal. Be prepared to pause for spectacular views of Lake Taneycomo.

5. Lincoln State Park

Lincoln City, Indiana

Lincoln State Park

At Lincoln State Park, walk in Abraham Lincoln’s footsteps in the woods he roamed in as a boy. | Photo courtesy Indiana Department of Natural Resources

Combine some outdoor exercise with a hefty dose of history at Lincoln State Park just south of Lincoln City. Young Abraham Lincoln once roamed the rolling hills and forests of this area, which became a state park in 1932 as a memorial to Abe’s mother, Nancy Hanks Lincoln.

Today, the 1,747-acre property a few miles from the Ohio River includes 10 miles of hiking trails, 2 lakes, and an interpretive center.

Choose from 6 trails, such as the 1.7-mile Mr. Lincoln’s Neighborhood Walk, or the easy 1.5-mile Lake Trail, which includes a short side loop to a fire tower built in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps.

6. Poverty Point World Heritage Site

Pioneer, Louisiana

Poverty Point World Heritage Site

Hikers can explore ancient Native American earthen mounds at Poverty Point World Heritage Site. | Photo courtesy Louisiana Office of Tourism

Tucked away in Louisiana’s northeast corner, just west of Mississippi and south of Arkansas, is a roadside wonder you probably haven’t heard of, although it’s been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2014.

Poverty Point preserves the remains of ancient mounds and earthworks constructed by Native Americans 3,500 years ago. At the time, the site was a thriving community and a major hub of exchange for the region’s Native peoples.

Today you can wander a 2.6-mile loop trail appropriate for most fitness levels. Bird-watching is popular, as is simply soaking in the wonder of the ancient civilization that created this once-thriving metropolis in the Mississippi River Valley. If you want to learn more, duck into the museum before or after your hike.

7. Petit Jean State Park

Morrilton, Arkansas

Stout Point

Stout’s Point is among several overlooks that offer stunning views at Petit Jean State Park. | Photo courtesy Arkansas Department of Parks, Heritage, and Tourism

Once you’ve experienced the scenic grandeur of Petit Jean State Park, you’ll understand why it was the first state park created in Arkansas.

The rustic log-and-stone facilities built by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) in the 1930s mirror the rugged natural beauty of Petit Jean Mountain. Gather round the fireplace in the lobby of the CCC-built Mather Lodge before or after your trek and soak up the atmosphere that has greeted guests for decades.

Eight hiking trails showcase the mountain’s ancient geology and natural features, including the spectacular 95-foot Cedar Falls. The easy, quarter-mile Rock House Cave Trail leads you to a rock shelter that is the state’s best spot for viewing Native American rock art.

And the more moderate Seven Hollows Trail passes through several small canyons under the canopy of a dense hardwood forest. Highlights include a natural stone arch and signs of prehistoric bluff dwellers.

8. Mount Nebo State Park

Dardanelle, Arkansas

Mount Nebo Sunrise

Enjoy inspiring scenes from atop the mountain at Mount Nebo State Park. | Photo courtesy Arkansas Department of Parks, Heritage, and Tourism

Many of the 16 trails that crisscross Mount Nebo State Park offer amazing views from the 1,350-foot peak. In fact, on a clear day, you can see 100 miles over the Arkansas River Valley.

When trees lose their leaves in winter, take in more expansive views of the park, 34,000-acre Lake Dardanelle, and the Arkansas River—which was a water route of the Trail of Tears. Originally blazed by the area’s 1890 residents and developed by the CCC in the 1930s, the 3.5-mile Rim Trail circles the top of the mountain and ranges from easy to moderate.

Shorter at a quarter mile but a little more challenging, the Waterfall/Gum Springs Trail passes a seasonal waterfall and includes many switchbacks to accommodate the steep route.

9. Tishomingo State Park

Tishomingo, Mississippi

Tishomingo State Park

Trails at Tishomingo State Park skirt a pioneer cabin, interesting rock formations, spring-fed streams, and more. | Photo by fredlyfish4/Stock.Adobe.com

One of the most picturesque places in Mississippi, Tishomingo State Park nestles in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains in the state’s northeast corner.

Known for its massive rock formations, springs, and waterfalls, the park showcases its wonders on approximately 13 miles of hiking trails, all rated as easy to moderate. For starters, follow the 3-mile Flat Rock Trail through a world of large rock outcroppings, under a hardwood forest canopy, and along spring-fed streams.

And the 0.75-mile Saddleback Ridge Trail follows a route used by the Chickasaw Indians to travel from Mississippi to Alabama. You’ll notice numerous small caves along the way.

10. Natchez Trace Parkway

Canton, Mississippi

Cypress Swamp

Admire water tupelo and bald cypress trees in the Cypress Swamp at Milepost 122 on the Natchez Trace Parkway. | Photo by NPS

The 444-mile Natchez Trace Parkway cuts through beautiful scenery and historic sites from Nashville, Tennessee, to Natchez, Mississippi. Along the scenic drive are dozens of interesting places to hike, including across the state of Mississippi.

Among many choices, you can stroll along a half-mile path, including a small section of boardwalk, through the Cypress Swamp at Milepost 122 that’s populated by water tupelo and bald cypress trees. In addition to admiring the iconic trees, you might spot frogs, snakes, and even alligators sunning themselves on floating logs.

The location near Canton serves as a trailhead for the Yockanookany section of the Natchez Trace National Scenic Trail, and you can hike approximately 14 miles south or 9 miles north to the next trailheads and any portion thereof on this out-and-back trail.

Barbara Gibbs Ostmann is an outdoor enthusiast from Gerald, Missouri.

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AAA Travel Alert: Many travel destinations have implemented COVID-19–related restrictions. Before making travel plans, check to see if hotels, attractions, cruise lines, tour operators, restaurants, and local authorities have issued health and safety-related restrictions or entry requirements. The local tourism board is a good resource for updated information.

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