Why Your Summer Road Trip Should Pass Through MO

If you're one of the many Americans planning a cross-country road trip this summer, you should make sure that your trip passes through Missouri. My home state has been in the news for some pretty horrible stuff in the past year — but don't write it off. Missouri is a truly unique place, with a lot of natural beauty, historical landmarks, and interesting public spaces. Missouri mixes Southern charm with Midwestern politeness and practicality, leading to a unique local culture that you won't find in many other places.

There are tons of reasons that Missouri is something of a hidden gem for travelers. Our rolling hills, natural springs, and lush forests are gorgeous and easily accessible. We're home to countless historical and literary sites, and one of the largest cities in the Midwest. Plus, we have like a zillion wineries, our urban areas are actually quite cultural, and I think it's safe to say we know how to make some pretty delicious food. So before you plan your epic road trip route, if you're going to take a detour through the Midwest, take a look at the 10 reasons that Missouri would make a stand-out addition to your summer road trip itinerary.

1. Kansas City

Although Louie C.K. would have you believe that Kansas City is a dump, it's actually a pretty awesome place to visit. A trip to the National World War I Museum, which illuminates the story of the war and the people who fought it, will break your heart and inspire you at the same time. Additionally, the city has over 200 beautiful fountains (some of which I've actually swam in, because, heads up: Missouri summers are HOT) and 33 museums and historical spaces that offer free admission (including the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, pictured above). Plus, KC BBQ is famous for a reason. So, give Kansas City a chance. Because Louis C.K. isn't right about everything.

2. St. Louis

St. Louis is pretty amazing, and has so many free, cultural attractions that exploring it won't ruin your budget. I've been going to the St. Louis Symphony since I was a little girl, and it still blows my mind every time. But if you only have time to visit to one place in the city, go to Forest Park. It's one of the largest urban parks in the U.S. (approximately 500 acres larger than Central Park) and it's home to the St. Louis Art Museum and the the St. Louis zoo, which happens to be one of the top ten zoos in the U.S. (and my favorite place in the city). If you still have time in town after all of that — and I really hope you do — then check out any one of the many delicious Italian restaurants on The Hill.

3. The Ozark Mountain Region

Ah, the Missouri Ozarks — my homeland. This part of the state is definitely a highlight for nature lovers and outdoor enthusiasts. Visit and you'll have ample opportunities for biking, kayaking, canoeing, hiking, fishing, camping, and basically any other outdoorsy thing you can think of. If you're on the southwestern end of the Missouri Ozark mountains, you can always take a break from the outdoor recreation to ride a few roller coasters at Silver Dollar City, too. And while you're there, try their kettle corn and their Lumbercamp Falls Skillet. You will foodgasm like you've never foodgasmed before.

4. Columbia

If you like head shops, good food, and beautiful university campuses, CoMo (as we locals call it) should definitely be one of your pit stops. If you only have time to visit downtown, have a slice of Shakespeare's pizza, and get some snacks from Hot Box cookies for the road — those treats alone will be enough to make stopping in this town worth your while. But if you have some extra time, check out Mizzou's stunning campus and downtown Columbia's many awesome bars. Because CoMo knows how to do nightlife.

5. Laura Ingalls Wilder's Home

OK, I've never actually been to Laura Ingalls Wilder's "Rocky Ridge Home" in Mansfield, so this suggestion is just as much about living vicariously through you as it is promoting Missouri tourism. But I've always wanted to go, and would be remiss if I didn't recommend this attraction to anyone passing through the southwestern part of the Missouri. It is, after all, where the Little House books were written. Plus, it's only about an hour's drive from Springfield, Missouri which is a fun, friendly place to shop, eat, and stay the night should you need to.

6. President Truman's Home

The Harry S. Truman National Historic Site is definitely worth checking out. If you take my advice and stop by Kansas City, another short twenty minute drive south will take you right to the former president's home. Not only is the estate simply gorgeous, President Truman was actually pretty awesome. He managed to become our Commander-in-Chief without a college degree, and he tried to guarantee that all Americans would have universal healthcare, increase minimum wage, and receive equal rights with his Fair Deal program.

7. Mark Twain's Hometown

As you might already know, Hannibal, Missouri is the home of one of America's most famous and brilliant writers (and one of my all-time favorites), Samuel Clemens — better known as Mark Twain. Hannibal is all about Twain tourism, so if you decide to pass by the famous writer's hometown, you'll have plenty of activities and lodging to choose from. There's something for pretty much every budget, from cheap motels to cutesy B&Bs to the Mark Twain campground (word to the wise: if you do camp, get a spot in the shade and bring lots of mosquito repellent). Once you're settled, you can check out Hannibal's "Music Under the Stars" if you'd prefer a chill night outdoors. But, if you feel like being a bit more active, and a little bit freaked out, check out one of Hannibal's ghost tours. And if you need to escape Missouri's humidity for a bit, take your adventures underground to the Mark Twain Cave complex.

8. Cape Girardeau

Currently, I live about a quarter of a mile from Capaha Park, pictured above — and although I'm in the middle of trying to move out of this little Mississippi river town, I do love this place. So, if you're driving near southeast Missouri, check out Capaha Park (if only to stretch your legs), and definitely check out Cape's downtown. It's right on the Mississippi (and if you haven't seen the Mississippi before, you really should, because it's epic and historical), and there's a ton of cute thrift shops and delicious restaurants down there, too. Personally, my three favorite places to eat in downtown Cape Girardeau are Bella Italia, Port Cape, and Broussards Cajun Cuisine (get one of their po' boys or the etouffe, trust me). As for the thrift shops, check out as many as possible, but if you only have time for one, hit up Annie Laurie's on Broadway. Also, there's a head shop called Hempies that I would highly recommend to anyone needing to restock on rolling papers and the like. But, like the shop doors read, you're going to need to "open your mind before you open the door."

9. Arcadia Valley

There's a lot to see in Missouri's scenic Arcadia Valley. The top three places I would recommend (and I've been going there since I was tiny, so I know what I'm talking about here) are Elephant Rock State Park, Johnson's Shut-Ins State Park (pictured above), and the Battle of Pilot Knob State Historic Site. All three sites are among the most beautiful places in the state, and you won't regret stopping by. Especially Elephant Rock — because the rocks are literally elephant-sized, and sometimes even bigger. They're an absolute blast to climb around on. But bring tennis shoes, sunscreen, and water. Because — and I can't stress this enough — Missouri is hot and humid as hell in the summer.

10. Missouri Wine Country

Missouri has dozens of wineries to choose from, depending on what region of the state you're in. But my all-time favorite wine (not just my favorite Missouri wine, I mean my favorite wine ever) is a delicious, tart, blackberry wine that comes from St. James' Winery in Missouri's Ozark highlands. But, if you're not passing through the highlands on your summer road trip, just check out any one of the dozens of Missouri wineries listed here instead.

Images: Ron Cogswell, Brian Hillegas, Missouri History Museum, Paul Knittel, Adam Proctor, Jo Naylor, Jim Bowen, Artotem, David Wilson, Matthew, flickr