I absolutely love a rugged and remote trail. To me, there are few more enjoyable outdoor activities than wandering along a scenic trail – whether it’s in the mountains, the desert, or along a gorgeous coastline.
Still, as I’ve explored cities around the U.S., I’ve discovered another love as well: urban trails. Hop on a trail in a city like San Francisco, Boston, or Austin, and rather than being in the middle of nowhere, you’re suddenly in the center of it all. San Francisco’s iconic Golden Gate Bridge, Boston’s historic Bunker Hill site, and the Austin’s lush Barton Springs are all accessible via urban trails.
I was reminded of my love of urban trails on my recent trip to Kansas City, Missouri and Kansas. While working on a writing assignment on the 15-mile Riverfront Heritage Trail, I took in significant sites like the Lewis & Clark Expedition’s 1804 stopping point at the Missouri/Kansas river confluence; the Freedom Trail Memorial located not far from a key station along the Underground Railroad that helped to get escaped slaves to freedom; and the site of the first permanent railroad bridge across the Missouri River.
I also sampled authentic tacos, saw some amazing architecture, and watched dogs frolic in a bona fide dog bar. Not all of the attractions were located directly on the trail, but the Riverfront Heritage Trail served as my conduit to Kansas City history and culture.
I had some guidance along the way from the wonderful Urban Hikes KC, which offered complimentary coffee tours at the Women In Travel Summit conference I was attending. I also joined Urban Hikes KC’s River Market/West Bottoms/Columbus Park hike, which took in several key sections of the Riverfront Heritage Trail. I highly recommend the guided hikes! They’re affordable, fun, and super informative.
Here are some of my favorite stops along the Riverfront Heritage Trail.
Kaw Point was amazing in so many ways, and it was definitely a high point of my Kansas City explorations. Located on the Kansas side of the Missouri River, Kaw Point is the spot where the Kansas River (a.k.a. Kaw River) and the Missouri River come together. It’s a notable place in the history of U.S. expansion, because it is where Lewis and Clark camped for a few nights on their 1804 exploration of the Louisiana Purchase.
The Kaw Point area is also important for being the home over the centuries for more than a dozen Native American tribes. A memorial at the site commemorates the various tribes that have called the region home, from the Kansa to the Cherokee to the Wyandotte people.
Beyond the important history, Kaw Point is a flat-out gorgeous place. Not only do the two rivers combine to make for a wide and lovely expanse of flowing water, but the 10-acre park along the river banks features shade trees and greenery, which seemed to be at their peak when I visited in mid-May.
And then there are the views. I love a good skyline panorama, and Kaw Point was the prime spot for taking in distant downtown Kansas City, Missouri. A cutout statue of Lewis and Clark gives you feeling of seeing the land through their eyes (minus the skyline, of course). In fact, William Clark may have predicted the future development in the area when he wrote in his journal that the confluence of the two rivers would be fine place for a fort.
Pro Tip: Kaw Point is located along the Riverfront Heritage Trail and is accessible from Kansas City, Missouri via the Woodswether Pedestrian Bridge.
Kansas City, Kansas
After taking in Kaw Point on the Kansas side of the Missouri River, it pays to explore a bit in Kansas City, Kansas. The Riverfront Heritage Trail continues on toward downtown and passes near the pretty St. John’s Park, Huron Park, and the fascinating Huron Indian Cemetery. They’re all worthy stops.
St. John’s Park, which is located in the Strawberry Hill neighborhood, offers great views of the Kansas City skyline and is also right next to the cool old St. John the Baptist Croatian Church and the Cruise-Scroggs Mansion (now the Strawberry Hill Museum and Cultural Center) on the hill. I didn’t get a chance to explore the interiors, but the exterior architecture was definitely worth a walk-by.
From Strawberry Hill, the walk continues toward downtown Kansas City, Kansas and passes by the Huron Park, a pretty green area surrounded by busy streets.
Another notable feature in the area is the Huron Indian Cemetery. The little graveyard high on a hill in the middle of the city has a compelling story to tell.
Buried there are the three Conley sisters – Eliza (Lyda), Helena (Lena), and Ida – who became famous for defending the cemetery from sale for development. Using the words, “Trespassers, beware,” the sisters, whose parents were buried in the cemetery, fiercely defended the ground, arming themselves and putting up no-trespassing signs. Lyda, a lawyer, would go on to sue the U.S. Department of Interior over the matter, and she argued her case before the U.S. Supreme Court – the first Native American woman to do so. She lost her case but ultimately succeeded in preserving the cemetery.
Today, the cemetery is protected as the Wyandot National Burying Ground.
KCK Taco Trail
Even though Kansas City, Kansas’s Taco Trail is technically not on the Riverfront Heritage Trail, it makes for a fun and tasty detour off the trail. Known as the KCK Taco Trail, it features more than 50 taquerias in the Central Avenue area. I got to try a few, and I found the tacos at El Torito Taqueria and El Jefe Taqueria to be delicious, spicy, and authentic. And the salsa bar at El Torito was fantastic!
Pro Tip: There are dozens of other taquerias to check out as well, and the Visit Kansas City, Kansas website provides the link to a free pass for the KCK Taco Trail, which offers rewards (decals, t-shirts, flags, and spices) when you check in to five, 15, 30, or 50 of the places along the trail.
Freedom Trail Memorial – West Bottoms
For a glimpse into Kansas City’s place in the fight to end slavery, as well as the city’s industrial past, the West Bottoms neighborhood is a key stop along the Riverfront Heritage Trail.
Once the center of the city’s stockyards and packing houses, West Bottoms still has an industrial feel. To get to the area, my group walked over overpasses and passed by blocks of boxy brick buildings.
The heart of West Bottoms is the Freedom Trail Memorial that commemorates the escaped slaves who once passed through the area on their way to freedom in Kansas. A plaque at the site explains that the Missouri/Kansas border “was once the most contested dividing line in the nation.” After seven years as a “freesoil” territory, Kansas officially became a free state in early 1861, less than three months before the start of the Civil War .
The Freedom Trail Memorial is not far from the site of a former key station on the Underground Railroad, famous for helping slaves to escape across the Kansas and Missouri rivers.
Town of Kansas Bridge
Continuing east from West Bottoms, the Riverfront Heritage Trail arrives at another of its highlights – the Town of Kansas Bridge. The 650-foot-long bridge spans the archaeological site of the original Town of Kansas townsite, two railroads, and the Missouri River flood wall to get to an observation deck that features a spectacular panorama of the Missouri River and its historic and modern bridges.
The Town of Kansas Bridge was the first place I visited on my recent trip to Kansas City, and it made quite an impression. I visited on a hot afternoon and was amazed by the views of the river known as the “Big Muddy,” the lush greenery bordering it, and the cool bridges in the distance.
I later returned at dusk and took in the spectacular sunset over the river. Over the next few days of my visit, I returned again for a morning visit and another afternoon visit. Each time, the Town of Kansas Bridge offered a unique perspective.
Along with offering stellar views from the observation deck, the Town of Kansas Bridge serves as a link between the River Market area of Kansas City and the Riverfront Heritage Trail along the Missouri River. A large elevator is available beside the observation deck that takes walkers and bikers the several stories between the two.
The lower level of the trail closely follows the route of the river and offers a ground-level view. It is shaded by leafy trees, and it curves through the terrain, sometimes offering glimpses of nearby business and industry.
I especially loved walking this section of trail in the evening. I had a feeling of being away from the hustle and bustle of the city, yet just steps away from bustling restaurants and cafes of the River Market area.
Transitioning from the shady section of river that meanders near the Town of Kansas Bridge, you will come to the well-manicured section that runs through the Berkley Riverfront Park.
This section is a favorite for walkers and also for people on bikes, scooters, and rollerblades. When I visited on a warm Saturday evening, I noticed many families out having fun and picnicking at the tables that are provided in the greenway area.
There is plenty of history in this part of the trail as well. Interpretive signs along the way tell the story of the railroad and vehicle bridges that cross the Missouri River at intervals along the way. I loved seeing all the styles of the bridges – from the late-1800s Hannibal Bridge (the first permanent bridge to span the Missouri) to the ASB (Armour-Swift-Burlington) rail crossing to the modern Bond Bridge.
The interpretive signs also tell the history of traders on the Santa Fe Trail, who brought their goods by steamboat as far up the Missouri as possible before departing on foot and wagon for Santa Fe. By the late 1830s, Santa Fe traders were disembarking in the Riverfront Park area, then known as Westport Landing.
Bar K Dog Bar
I’ve visited plenty of bars and restaurants that are dog-friendly, but Kansas City’s Bar K Dog Bar was my first experience with a bar that is MADE for dogs. And their people.
Bar K, which is located just off the Riverfront Heritage Trail, is not just a bar, but also a large dog park and a multi-level restaurant. When I visited on warm Saturday evening, there were already more than a hundred customers relaxing, drinking, and dining. Many had dogs with with them, but the majority seemed to be at the bar without dogs.
Tips for Riverfront Heritage Trail
• The Historic City Market of Kansas City is located in the River Market neighborhood, just steps from the Town of Kansas Bridge. The market makes for a great place to start out on the Riverfront Heritage Trail, and there are plenty of restaurants and cafes to have lunch or a drink before or after your walk.
• For people who want to launch a boat or kayak on the Missouri or Kansas rivers, Kaw Point has a public boat ramp that is popular with recreational boaters and fishermen.
• Getting from downtown Kansas City to the Riverfront Heritage Trail is easy on Kansas City’s Ride KC Streetcar. The streetcar runs for 2.2 miles along Main Street and features 16 stops from River Market to Union Station/Crown Center. One of the best things about the streetcar – it’s free! There are no fares, which makes it even more convenient.