Camping on Missouri Public Lands – Conservation Areas

In the state of Missouri there are more than 900 properties operated by the Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC) as “Conservation Areas.” These Conservation Areas (CA) can be operated for a variety of purposes. Some are managed as nature reserves, some allow hunting, some allow fishing, some are primarily boat accesses, and some are combinations of some or all of these. If you are considering a camping trip to a CA, it is wise to know what the area is primarily used for and also ensure that camping is allowed. For example, if you are not camping in an area for hunting purposes and will be camping during the fall deer firearm season, you may not fully enjoy your stay.

One of the areas we’ve used that offers a little bit of everything is the Peck Ranch Conservation Area in the Ozarks of Missouri. While it is not representative of all CAs, it does suggest what some of those more willing to camp have to offer. There are two designated camping areas at Peck. One is designated for campers who will not use generators and one for those who will. This is good for those tent campers who want peace and solitude without the noise of a blasting generator in the background. On site without generator there are also pit toilets. Both campgrounds are equipped with fire pits and picnic tables. This is certainly an example of a camp where there is a lot of activity associated with the deer and turkey hunting seasons. So if you want to avoid this, avoid visiting at these times. This unique CA has over 25,000 acres of total area, about half of which is a designated wildlife area and the remainder fenced off. It was once a logging operation and has a unique history as well as geographical features. Summer is a great time to visit for those looking for a place to camp away from the crowds.

Another example of a nice CA camping at the other end of the state (northern Missouri) is Union Ridge, west of Kirksville. There, unlike most CAs, you can camp next to parking lots in the area. In addition, in “Parking Lot N” on County Road D, there is a campground with facilities similar to those described at Peck Ranch. Again, things can get a bit hectic for non-hunters during deer season, but this area has more to offer than hunting. While it’s not as big as Peck Ranch (around 8,000 acres), it has about 12 total acres of lakes and fishing ponds, including Union Ridge Lake. These lakes have populations of bass, crappie, catfish, and sunfish.

If you are camping in a CA and will want a camp, be aware that if there is a camp, it will only offer “primitive camp” facilities. This means that you will have a fire ring and perhaps a picnic table and / or a latrine. With that being said, some of these campgrounds are quite well maintained and in absolutely beautiful settings. Since some of these campgrounds are quite small and there is no reserve system in place, you may also want to be prepared to camp outside of these areas.

If you choose to camp outside of a campground in a CA, assuming this is allowed, keep in mind that you must be within 100 yards of the nearest road or parking lot. Also, if you are camping along a stream or river, camp at least 100 feet away. Also, be aware that under certain weather conditions, flooding or even flash flooding can be a hazard.

To find a CA that meets your needs, a little research can go a long way. Fortunately, there are two great resources to help you through this process. First, there is the MDC Conservation Atlas. This atlas is very useful because it provides descriptions of areas, maps, regulations, a summary of allowed activities and, of course, information about camping. Most of these have downloadable maps and / or brochures with trails, camping areas, and even driving directions to the area. CAs in the atlas can be searched by CA name, county, or region. This process of switching between the CA and the atlas can be a bit time consuming. You end up navigating quite a bit back and forth between the atlas and the CA pages. The resource below can help you narrow down the chances.

The possibilities of camping in the Missouri conservation areas will greatly expand the number of camping areas available to the Missouri camper. If you don’t want or need the comforts of a “fancy” private camp or one run by another government agency, these areas may be right for you.