Columbia is a terrific small city with a strong emphasis on outdoor activities

Columbia, Missouri is located mid-way between Kansas City and the place of my birth, St. Louis. For years it was known as a college town, home to the University of Missouri's main campus, as well as Columbia College and Stephens College. But, more than that, Columbia is a terrific small city with a strong emphasis on arts, outdoor activities plus great food and fun beer places.

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Out and About in Columbia

A year earlier, I wrote a travel story featuring the Lewis and Clark expedition, focusing on the western end of their trek. Our initial visit to Columbia was inspired by that article. We wanted to get a feel for what it was like at the start of that epic journey. In June of 1804, Lewis & Clark made camp downstream from St. Louis at Rocheport, a few miles from what is today Columbia. This is where our aptly named outfitter, Mighty Mo Canoe Rentals, prepared us for a 6.6 mile float trip. The river was beautiful and the sky cloudless. The soft slapping of the water on our kayaks and sounds of nature accompanied us as we glided past sandstone bluffs, sandbars and pristine scenery. We learned that birding and floating are quite compatible; remote river areas can be navigated without disturbing the birds. Along this stretch of river one can spot bald eagles, great blue herons, flocks of pelicans, cliff swallows and Canada geese.

Another day, we hiked on the Katy Trail. The Missouri portion, formerly the MKT Railroad's bed and track, has been transformed into a 227 mile, east-west path that stretches across most of the state; it is America's longest rails-to-trail reclamation project. A favorite of walkers, runners, bikers and horseback riders, over half of the trail follows Lewis & Clark's passageway along the Missouri River. The section we walked is flat, scenic and on a bluff parallel to the river. So, once again, we were able to travel in their footsteps as we had a year earlier in Oregon.

Columbia is a terrific small city with a strong emphasis on outdoor activities

One morning, we combined a two mile hike at the bucolic Grassland Trail with a side trip to the Devils' Icebox, both located within the 2300 acre Rock Bridge Memorial State Park. At the latter, we encountered a double sinkhole entrance leading to the Devil's Icebox Cave and Connor's Spring. Devil's Icebox is aptly named; the temperature stays a cool 56 degrees year round. It is home to endangered gray bats which give birth and raise their young in the cave. It is also the only known habitat of a rare species of flatworm, the pink planarian.

Columbians take their recreation seriously. The City of Columbia Parks and Recreation Department is dedicated to the fitness of their citizens. They operate and maintain over 2,000 acres of land spread over 51 sites throughout town. They offer a handy compilation of trails located in neighborhoods, community parks, along greenbelts, in nature areas and adjacent to wetlands. Additionally, a newly announced initiative by the PedNet Coalition is striving to develop biking and pedestrian friendly routes to connect the downtown area to the edges of town.

For a leisurely stroll, don't miss the campus of the University of Missouri (aka Mizzou) which was established in 1856. Pick up a copy of Tree Trails, a guide featuring the gardens and horticultural diversity found on campus. It's an easy walk and also a good way to get the flavor of a picturesque major Midwest campus. Historical Note: the Mizzou Tigers, the nickname given to their sports teams, goes back to Civil War times, when the armed home guards (called Tigers) protected the small towns in Missouri from plundering gangs.

After several days of paddling on the river, hiking and walking, we had our share of minor aches and pains, so we headed to the Riversong Spa for some pampering. The spa offers a full line of treatments in a tranquil setting including massages, body scrubs, facials and aroma therapy. After a couple of relaxing hours at the spa, our knots were gone and we were ready for more action. We spent another two days exploring and shopping in The District.

Months later we returned to Columbia to attend the True/False Film Festival. The weekend event first began in 2004 and is already one of the most influential documentary film showcases in the country. Over 40 feature films and 40 shorts are presented throughout The District at the Ragtag Cinema, Blue Note, Missouri, and Forrest Theaters. Over the three day period, the movies are interspersed with parties, panel discussions, seminars and workshops. Our favorite film was the closing night movie, Homemade Hillbilly Jam, about the life of the Missouri-based band Big Smith. The film introduces the audience to these neo-hillbillies (their term) who have a rich family musical legacy, and shows how their lives have been affected by their music. The movie was followed by a rousing concert by the stars of the film, complete with dancing in the aisles.

What's Hot in Columbia? The District

The District is the name given to Columbia's exciting downtown core. It features historic buildings, wonderful restaurants, an active bar scene, live music and theater. Additionally, more than 100 shops and galleries make the area a shopper's delight. One of our favorite places to shop and browse is Poppy, which offers one of a kind crafts and folk art in clay, glass, fiber, metal, and wood. Another suggestion for a stop is Bluestem Missouri Crafts. They exhibit and sell the work of over 250 craftspeople from Missouri. The District is made livelier by its location, nestled between the three hometown colleges.

Columbia: A Foodies' Delight

There are terrific restaurants in Columbia. Two that are very casual, unique and inexpensive are Buckingham Smokehouse Bar-B-Que and Booche's. The first features oversized servings of slowly smoked ribs, brisket, pulled pork, pit ham, chicken and turkey. The smoked pit beans and horseradish coleslaw are my two sides of choice. Don't miss the Sloppy Buck sandwich, a mixture of the pork, beef, ham and turkey burnt ends blended together in a heavenly concoction fit for the BBQ gods. Booche's, in The District, has been serving burgers and beer in the same location since the early 1900's. The hand-formed quarter pound patties are grilled in a tiny kitchen that turns out an amazing amount of food. On a typical day, they will cook 200 pounds of quality beef. That's 800 burgers! Sandwiches are served on a piece of waxed paper and the beer is served in bottles. The menu is limited but this is, after all, a classic joint.
Columbia is a terrific small city with a great beer

For a more upscale dining experience, I have two recommendations. Flat Branch Pub & Brewing, in The District, features sandwiches, brick oven pizzas and salads. A large chalkboard updates their lunch and dinner specials. The award winning brewery produces a wide range of interesting hand crafted beers, ranging from pale ales to stouts and bocks. There are eight "Pour Beers" and four "Brewmaster Choices" featured daily. The staff is attentive and friendly and there is a delightful outdoor patio. Don't miss their homemade root beer, ginger ale and cream sodas and leave room for dessert.

Les Bourgeois Winery and Vineyards, near Rocheport, features an outstanding restaurant, the Bistro. The bluff top setting offers spectacular views of the Missouri River Valley. They offer a full menu of provincial fare for lunch and dinner, including signature house-smoked meats, fresh seafood, pasta, and produce from their own garden. There are daily specials and a Sunday brunch. The family owned and operated winery offers visitors a taste of some of the Show-Me State's finest wines. French hybrid and native American grapes, planted on 27 acres, are blended into award-winning reds and whites.

Chocolate is a passion of mine. Whenever traveling, I try to search out a local choclatier. The Candy Factory in The District fits the criteria. Owners Sam and Don Atkinson have been manufacturing hand dipped chocolates for 20 years. There is a viewing room where one can watch the chocolate and other quality ingredients being mixed, melted, tempered and formed.

My hunt for handcrafted ice cream equals that of my pursuit of chocolate. Sparky's, an area institution, is also in The District. They have a liquor license so the rum raisin is really that. Other unique flavors include the use of red wine from Les Bourgeois Winery, Bailey's, and vodka. Another local favorite is Buck's Ice Cream, part of the Food Science and Engineering Unit at the University of Missouri's College of Agriculture. They have an ice cream program which allows students to experiment with flavors that they manufacture and sell to the public.

Finally, a Show-Me specialty. Show-Me Bar-B-Q is a smoky, sweet-sour barbecue sauce produced by a local character with a passion for his craft. Harry H. Berrier, DVM, manufactures it in his basement in Columbia (talk about home made!). It's tasty, all natural with no extenders and, interestingly, doesn't need refrigeration.

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Howard Hian is an award winning journalist, affiliated with the North American Travel Journalists Association and the International Travel Writers Alliance. Hian writes a monthly travel feature for The Military Press. His column also appears online at Travel Savvy West, Real Travel Adventures and Roadtrips for Couples. You can also visit his website Travels-With-Hian

Photos courtesy of Flat Branch Pub & Brewing, Mighty-Mo Canoe Rentals, and Missouri Department of Natural Resources.

Updated: January 22, 2017

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