Happy Trails

Secret escapes on the trail behind the tree-lined highways

I drove through the Northland for the first time in September of 2018. Exhausted from a long day of driving, I grumbled in the car with my impatient toddlers and husband. That is until the sight of buildings and highways faded away into lush forests and quiet countryside. This was the Northland.

Where I grew up, the highways were long stretches of prairie or urbanscapes. I had never seen anything like the tree-lined pathway of I-35, and the longer we live here, the more I realize the treasures hidden in these forests. One of the best is the numerous trails, maintained by local biking enthusiasts and funded by generous local donors. 

Urban Trail Co. volunteers spend their time and sometimes even their own money to create safe trails for everyone from mountain bikers to young families to enjoy a peaceful time in nature. In a world that seems to be moving a mile a minute, that is exactly what we all need to enjoy each other and the stillness. 

Pat Knauss of the Liberty Rotary Club, an avid biker who has traveled all around the world, talked about how important it is to have these trails for another reason.

“Northland roads are not safe for bikers,” she says. She shared that we no longer teach youth how to communicate with drivers when they are biking on the road to signal left or right turn, but also drivers do not have the patience they should for bikers on the road, and they will not always wait or respect the space. That makes the work that Adam Elwell and the other volunteers do at Urban Trail Co. essential to providing a safe place for bikers, and those of us who prefer to walk benefit from their work as well.

Adam shared with me that volunteers at Urban Trail Co. use their own free time to cut back weeds, and trim back other vegetation that is encroaching on the trails, “Sometimes there will be a log and maneuvering around that on a bike is not always fun.” Other times though, they will determine where to keep logs and other obstacles to provide a more challenging ride.

We went on to discuss one of my favorite things about the area: KC seems to have something for everyone. For me, that’s walking trails, art styles, and food. For Adam, it’s the different types of biking trails. For example, Hodge Park is the perfect place for moms to have a relaxing walk while kids ride their bikes is an easy trail — winding sometimes, but never too high of an incline, and lots of visibility. Some parts of the Smithville trails would be considered “black,” which means they have much more difficult terrain, with obstacles and changes in height and type of trail.

There are numerous trails to explore, so here is a list of the best trails in the Northland, with some fun facts about each one so you can decide where to go on your next day out. 

Most popular: Stocksdale Park

Stocksdale Park is one of the most popular trails in the Northland and is referred to often on social media. At 4.5 miles without too much of an incline, it is the perfect place for a relaxing ride. Personally, I love the small lake nearby that attracts wildlife, and throughout the summer they have outdoor movies on Friday nights, which would be a great finale for a ride. Another perk of this trail is it feels completely removed from the city, so a trip here feels like you have taken a real vacation. 

Local favorite: Smithville Lake

Another popular riding location is Smithville Lake. Ever the favorite for water bugs like me, you can see the lake from much of the trail, and the terrain varies because of the water feature. (a great resource for trails near and far) had the trail at 7.3 miles, but Adam noted that there is really more like 13 or 14 miles of trail with all of the trails together. Some members of Urban Trail Co. have done so much for that area that they were around when the trail was first being built, and it is so special that it has grown so much. 

Personal favorite: Parkville Nature Sanctuary

A personal favorite of mine is Parkville Nature Sanctuary. The stunning view of the river, with the historical downtown at the trailhead and a playground for the littles, creates the perfect spot for a family day out. The trail is gentle enough that I once met a wonderful elderly couple using a special low-to-the-ground bike designed to help them continue riding. Afterward, I enjoyed one of the quiet places to relax along the trail. Parkville Nature Sanctuary is the place to be if you are close to the city and needing some peace. 

Best for Families: Hodge Park

About a week before Hodge Park’s playground went up, I was comparing Johnson County to Liberty, disappointed that we did not have parks like they did. One week later, Liberty families were given (through some very hard work of locals) a brand new, beautiful, huge playground, which is now the place to be in Liberty. The rope climbing tower is a great challenge for kids, while the zipline and toddler playground are unique entertaining additions. This playground makes the trail here the best destination for families. It is a perfect outing to take the kids to walk or bike the trail, while the grown-ups quietly walk or talk behind them, getting their own rest time while the kids get energy out. Then, grown-ups can rest while the littles completely wear themselves out with new friends at the playground.

Honorable Mention: Precious Blood Renewal Center

Almost completely a secret, Precious Blood Renewal Center, which is used for retreats, has a quiet pond and short trail hidden behind it. Secluded at the end of the trail is a labyrinth, a historically influenced circle-shaped pathway similar to a maze pattern but on the ground, made to help people to meditate, pray, or practice mindfulness. If you are tired and don’t want to go far, but still need a relaxing escape, this is the place for you. (Just don’t all come at once, this is like my home away from home!)

These are just a few of the trails hiding in the lush forests of the Northland, but there are many more. Mid-America Regional Council (MARC) has a fantastic map with all of the Kansas City trails on it. Go explore, share with us what your favorite places are and what you love about them.

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