Looking for the best Missouri national parks? Amazing historical sites, beautiful river ways, pristine battlefields, and so much more.
About the Missouri National Parks
Missouri National Parks! Welcome to the “Show Me” state.” More Than Just Parks is going to show you 6 amazing national park sites in Missouri.
There’s a host of amazing sites in this mid-western state visit. Best of all, they’re rich in history and filled with natural wonders.
From impressive monuments to presidential historic sites to scenic river ways to national battlefields and an iconic gateway arch, Missouri is a great state to visit!
So, what are we waiting for? Let’s go!
Missouri National Parks
1. George Washington Carver National Monument | Missouri National Parks
If you know anything about George Washington Carver then you likely know he had something to do with peanuts. Mark Hersey is a history professor at Mississippi State University. He’s the author of My Work Is That of Conservation. It’s an environmental biography of Carver.
Hersey makes the case that Carver did more than just work for peanuts. He made important contributions to the environmental movement, including his visionary ideas about self-sufficiency and sustainability.
Born Into Slavery
Carver was born into slavery. He emerged from the aftermath of the Civil War as a man fully prepared to shake off the chains of oppression and become a person of consequence.
After obtaining his Master’s degree, Carver was invited to lead the Agriculture Department at the Tuskegee Institute in 1896. He remained there for 47 years.
Carver improved the quality of life for poor farmers. His pioneering work focused on finding crop alternatives to cotton – such as peanuts and sweet potatoes. He believed that his greatest contribution, however, was in the area of soil conservation.
Carver developed a theory of “crop rotation.” This restores balance to the land by restoring the chemical balance of the soil. It permits farmers to raise marketable food-stuffs. These food stuffs can then be sold to boost farmers economic fortunes and help to lift them out of poverty.
Modern Organic Movement
“Carver was one of the founders of the modern organic movement, which has changed the face of agriculture and will continue to in the future if we want to have a hospitable planet,” says Leah Penniman, co-executive director of Soul Fire Farm in Petersburg, New York.
Penniman is a student of Carver’s work. “Flattening him to just a pinup with a peanut in an elementary school corridor does not do him justice.” (Source: Grist, The land-healing work of George Washington Carver)
A Monument To Progress
Authorized by Congress in 1943, the George Washington Carver National Monument showcases the birthplace and legacy of an extraordinary African American scientist, educator and humanitarian.
If you’re planning a visit (and you should) facilities include a visitor center and museum, gift shop, a walking trail and a lovely picnic area. It’s a wonderful place to soak up the history of a pioneering scientist and conservationist.
While you’re there you should also visit the 1881 Moses Carver House and the Carver Cemetery.
2. Harry S. Truman National Historic Site | Missouri National Parks
Harry S. Truman’s extraordinary life and career impacted not only America, but the entire world. This is a man who went from being a Missouri judge to unleashing the nuclear age.
Truman left office as a very unpopular president, but–with the passage of time–his presidency has undergone a reevaluation. As a consequence, he has risen in national and international esteem.
The Policy Of Containment
Truman left his mark on foreign affairs by introducing a policy of containment. Containment meant finding ways, short of all-out war, to restrain Soviet aggression. This policy would be tested in Korea and elsewhere.
It passed the test. There was no superpower military confrontations during Truman’s time in office. His successors, from Dwight D. Eisenhower to George H.W. Bush, wisely pursued this policy until the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991.
Truman also left his mark in domestic affairs. On July 26, 1948, President Truman issued Executive Order 9981. This order abolished racial discrimination in the U.S. Armed Forces. For the first time, the unfair and unjust policy of “separate but equal” was challenged by the U.S. Government.
Truman also protected the New Deal, enlarged Social Security, and banned discrimination in federal hiring practices. Another executive order issued by Truman made it illegal to discriminate against persons applying for civil service positions based on race.
So Many Books, So Little Time
Believe it or not, I was one of those guys who sat in class taking notes and, when the professor threw out the name of what sounded like an interesting book, I not only wrote it down, I went out and purchased it. Yes, I am that guy which is why I ended up teaching history.
If you’re interested in a book that will answer all of the questions you have (and many that you don’t) about our nation’s 33rd president then you cannot do better than David McCullough’s Pulitzer Prize winning Truman.
Most authors aspire to, but never actually win, the coveted Pulitzer Prize. Amazingly, David McCullough won two!
Some Interesting Facts About Our 33rd President
Now here’s some interesting facts about the man from Independence, Missouri. Unlike Dwight Eisenhower, who spent his life as a career soldier and succeeded Truman as president, Harry Truman actually saw combat in World War One. Eisenhower didn’t.
Truman was unsuccessful in business. He was a failed haberdasher who went bankrupt, but managed to pay off all of his debts. Truman was not able to find any steady work until he became a county judge in Missouri.
He Was Nobody’s First Choice
At the age of 50, Harry Truman was still unknown. In 1934, he decided to run for the U.S. Senate. Truman wasn’t anyone’s first choice. Kansas City political boss Tom Pendergrast turned to him out of desperation after having been turned down by four other men whom Pendergrast would have rather had to the job.
Truman wasn’t anyone’s first choice for vice president either. In 1944, FDR wanted to keep then Vice President Henry Wallace on the ticket. Wallace was considered too liberal by the party professionals.
Roosevelt turned the matter over to them to resolve. Truman emerged as a compromise candidate. He received every vote at the Democratic Convention for the vice presidential nomination except for one–his own.
A National Historic Site Worth Seeing
You can learn more about this remarkable leader by visiting the Harry S. Truman National Historic Site. This site is made up of five houses in Independence and Grandview, Missouri. It features locations that are important during the years before and after Truman lived in the White House.
Visitors can tour the original Truman home and follow in his footsteps with a walking tour of Truman’s neighborhood. They can also visit the family farm in Grandview, explore exhibits about his private life in his cousin Noland’s house and examine oral histories from people who knew him well.
Also in Independence, Missouri, is the Harry S. Truman Presidential Library & Museum. There visitors can learn about all things relating to Truman and his presidency.
3. Gateway Arch National Park (formerly Jefferson National Expansion Memorial)
If Missourians were asked to identify one symbol which represents their state, many would likely choose the Gateway Arch in St. Louis. This arch symbolizes Missouri’s important role in the Westward Expansion of the United States during the nineteenth century.
At a mere 91 acres, Gateway Arch National Park is the smallest national park in America. It doesn’t even have a natural area. So why, you might ask, is it a national park? That’s a good question. Before I try answering it, I’d like to give you a little bit of the history.
St. Louis was the capitol of the Louisiana Territory from 1812 until Missouri gained statehood in 1821. It was the vision of America’s third president, Thomas Jefferson, that Missouri should serve as the “Gateway to the West.” That vision is symbolized today by the iconic Gateway Arch.
In describing the arch, Kimberlee N. Ried writes:
“It rises gracefully toward the sky, then elegantly curves back toward Earth as the combined waters of the Mississippi and Missouri rivers swiftly flow by at its base—a symbol of the accomplishments and dreams that drive the American experience.” (Source: Kimberlee N. Ried, A Gateway to the West, Prologue Magazine, Fall 2016, Vol. 48, No. 3)
From Sea To Shining Sea
The arch represents the jumping-off point of 19th century America’s age of westward exploration. From the newly acquired Louisiana Purchase to Lewis & Clark’s Corps of Discovery and the subsequent westward expansion of the North American continent, it is the doorway to America’s “manifest destiny.”
Symbolically speaking, a journey through this fabled arch signifies our nation’s grand mission to occupy all of the land from sea to shining sea.
The Best Visitor Center
Before becoming a flagship national park in 2018, the Gateway Arch Visitor Center underwent a $380 million dollar renovation. That’s right! $380 million dollars!
Totaling more than 150,000 square feet, it’s accessed by a semi-circular entryway that is accentuated by the site’s curving geometry. The lobby is actually dug into a berm and organized around a circle of water. An artistic masterpiece!
The Gateway Arch
Speaking of artistic masterpieces, is it possible to provide enough superlatives about that magnificent archway? I think not. At 630 feet about the Mighty Mississippi River, the Gateway Arch is one of the most recognizable and beloved landmarks in the United States.
The monument we know today first began in 1935, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt designated property along the St. Louis riverfront to be developed as the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial (now known as Gateway Arch National Park).
Eero Saarinen’s Vision
A nationwide design competition was launched in 1948 to determine what shape the Memorial would take. Architect Eero Saarinen’s design won and, in 1963, construction began on a stainless steel arch.
It was completed two years later in 1965. Today, it stands as a symbol of national identity and an example of mid-century modern design.
Visitors need to check out the breathtaking view at the top of the arch. One side overlooks the Mississippi river and Illinois while the other overlooks the city of St. Louis with Busch Stadium and downtown in the background. It’s well worth a trip to the top to see this amazing view.
Luther Ely Smith Park
Luther Ely Smith was a 19th century St. Louis lawyer and civic booster who first proposed a riverfront memorial for President Thomas Jefferson. It was his efforts which led to the creation of the Gateway Arch.
It is therefore fitting and appropriate that the park which bears his name should welcome visitors to the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial and Gateway Arch National Park.
Luther Ely Smith Square
Luther Ely Smith Square is a magnificently landscaped green space, which leads to the entrance of the Arch.
Visitors to the area can enjoy unique plantings, picnic areas, and more than 300 feet of benches. For history buffs, there’s also the Museum of Westward Expansion, which is located below the Arch.
This museum contains an extensive collection of artifacts, mounted animal specimens, an authentic American Indian tipi, and an overview of the Lewis and Clark expedition.
So, Why Did It Become A National Park?
Sometimes, it’s more important who you know than what you know. Missouri’s Senator Roy Blunt sponsored changing the Jefferson Expansion National Memorial from a national memorial to a national park.
What is the National Park Service’s definition of a national park? Simply put, “a national park contains a variety of resources and encompasses large land or water areas to help provide adequate protection of the resources.”
Does Gateway National Park meet this definition? No.
4. Ozark National Scenic Highways | Missouri National Parks
On August 27, 1964, Congress created an act “to protect 134 miles of the Current and Jacks Fork Rivers in the Ozark Highlands of southeastern Missouri.” The Ozark National Scenic Riverways was the nation’s very first scenic riverway.
It was a forerunner to the Wild & Scenic Rivers Act, which Congress passed and President Lyndon Johnson signed into law four years later.
What you need to understand, however, is that it’s more than just rivers. This beautiful wilderness area encompasses bluffs, caves, hollows and streams. It’s a beautiful wilderness wonderland and a great place to go exploring. Just make sure that you follow the rules when you do.
RELATED: 8 EPIC Arkansas National Parks
Over 300 caves have been uncovered. These caves provide a critical habitat for the endangered Indiana and Gray bats. Some caves are gated or signed to protect bat habitat.
Things To Do In The Park
It’s worth pointing out that Ozark National Scenic Riverways is the first national park area to protect a river system. There are two rivers which provide opportunities for visitors to go canoeing, fishing, swimming, and tubing.
It’s also a national park where there’s hiking and hunting. Hunting is allowed within the Riverways’ boundaries, except around developed areas.
If it’s the flora and the fauna you’ve come to see then you’ll be pleased to know that, according to the National Park Service: “There are 112 species of fish, 197 species of birds, and 58 species of mammals found in the park.
There are also 26 species of amphibians and 46 species of reptiles found in the park area, including four venomous snakes. The park is home to approximately 1,000 plant species.“
5. Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site | Missouri National Parks
Like George Washington, Ulysses S. Grant’s greatest service to his country may have been as a general rather than a president. Most historians agree that Grant was the savior the Union needed as it wrestled with the difficult challenge of subduing the South and bringing an end to the Civil War.
While other Union Generals allowed Robert E. Lee to dictate their actions on the battlefield, Grant pursued his opponents with a single-mindedness of purpose. He did this no matter who his opponent was. His bulldog tenacity and brilliant strategy broke the back of the Army of Northern Virginia thus bringing an end to the nation’s bloodiest conflict
General Grant Versus President Grant
President Grant does not receive as high marks as General Grant from most historians. Overlooked by the scandals which rocked his administration, however, was his landmark Civil Rights Act, which ended separation in public accommodations and more.
Also overlooked were his relentless and successful efforts to root out the Klu Klux Klan and protect the political rights of African Americans in the South. Those rights were taken from them by the imposition of Jim Crow Laws, but this did not happen on Grant’s watch.
Rather, it was his Republican successors, beginning with Rutherford B. Hayes, who were all too willing to look the other way in return for the South’s acquiescence when it came to Republican political dominance at the presidential level.
To learn more about Grant’s successes on the battlefield and after he left the military, I would recommend Jean Edward Smith’s Grant. My son Jim highly recommends Ron Chernow’s Grant for a fuller understanding of both the general who saved the Union and the far-sighted public servant who’s presidency is deeply misunderstood.
Why You Should Visit The U.S. Grant Historic Site
The Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site is the home of the 18th President U.S. Grant and his wife, Julia Dent.
Visitors to the site have the opportunity to see a film on Grant’s life, tour a museum featuring exhibits which outline his achievements and tour the grounds where he lived. I would recommend beginning your tour by watching the 22-minute orientation film.
It provides insights into Grant’s military service during the American Civil War and his two terms as President of the United States.
The museum is located in a horse stable designed by Ulysses S. Grant and completed in 1872. It’s totally self-guided so feel free to take your time while exploring the museum’s six permanent exhibits.
While We’re On The Subject Of General Grant . . .
6. Wilson’s Creek National Battlefield | Missouri National Parks
The Civil War may have ended over one hundred and fifty years ago, but the history of that momentous event just keeps coming. Wilson’s Creek National Battlefield preserves the site of the Battle of Wilson’s Creek. For those of you unfamiliar with this battle, it took place on on August 10, 1861. It was the first major Civil War battle fought west of the Mississippi River.
The Union Army was defeated by a Confederate force commanded by Benjamin McCulloch and Sterling Price. Union General Nathaniel Lyon was killed during the battle.
The Battle Of Pea Ridge
After the battle, optimism quickly turned to pessimism for the Confederates as they suffered a subsequent defeat at the Battle of Pea Ridge. That defeat forced the Confederates to withdraw from the state effectively ceding control of Missouri to the Union forces.
If you’re interested in learning more about Pea Ridge then I would recommend The Battle of Pea Ridge–“Gettysburg of the West.” Written by Dee Brown, also author of the critically acclaimed Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee, it’s an excellent account of the battle and its historical significance.
A Guerilla War In Missouri
While the Confederate Army withdrew after its defeat at Pea Ridge, Missouri experienced the most widespread, prolonged, and destructive guerrilla fighting in American history.
This guerilla war was characterized by arson, robbery, torture and murder as well as swift and bloody raids on farms and settlements.
To Learn More
Michael Fellman’s Inside War: The Guerrilla Conflict in Missouri During the American Civil War is an excellent account of the guerilla war in Missouri. The author draws upon a cornucopia of primary sources including letters, diaries, military reports, court-martial transcripts, depositions, and newspaper accounts.
This brilliant book depicts how both Confederate and Union officials used guerrilla fighters to create chaos and division.
Things To Do | Missouri National Parks
There are some wonderful things to do at Wilson’s Creek National Battlefield. The visitor center features a bookstore, museum, and library.
There is a 4.9-mile paved tour road. Visitors can take a self-guided auto tour with eight interpretive stops at different locations.
There’s also some great walking trails which include a pedestrian lane for walkers, runners, or cyclists. And there’s a 7-mile trail system for horseback riding. Hiking is accessible from the tour road as well.
The Ray House
Visitors can tour the Ray House, which is a historic home dating back to the 1850s. The home served as a field hospital for Southern soldiers following the battle. The Ray House is where General Nathaniel Lyon’s body was brought after he was mortally wounded.
There are also some wonderful living history programs. These depict Civil War soldier life, musket and artillery firing demonstrations, Civil War medicine, and other related topics.
These programs are available from Memorial Day to Labor Day on selected weekends. You should check for availability before planning your visit.
Map Of Missouri National Parks
Check Out Our Comprehensive Guide
I hope you’ve enjoyed learning about some amazing places to visit in Missouri. If you’re interested in learning more about our national parks please check out our complete rankings of all 63 of them.
List Of 6 Missouri National Parks
- George Washington Carver National Monument
- Harry S. Truman National Historic Site
- Gateway Arch National Park
- Ozark National Scenic Riverways
- Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site
- Wilson’s Creek National Battlefield