The prairie in winter at Jerry Smith Park near Martin City.

Walk the winter prairie: connect to nature at Jerry Smith Park

“Essentially it is a look into the past landscape of what this area used to be.” 

By Sara Wiercinski

It’s winter, and some warm-blooded creatures are deep in hibernation.

For the rest of us, cold-weather outdoor activities provide many physical, mental and emotional benefits. A hike at Kansas City’s Jerry Smith Park showcases winter’s natural beauty and calm.

The 360-acre park, located at 139th and Prospect, has a 1.5-mile loop trail through remnant prairie and restored native grassland.

A natural walking trail at Jerry Smith Park.

“Remnant prairie means that it has not been touched by development or used for farmland,” said Courtney Green, conservation educator with the Missouri Department of Conservation. “Essentially it is a look into the past landscape of what this area used to be.” 

Prairie and open woodlands dominated the landscape of western Missouri before European colonization. Today, very little of the native landscape remains.

And while the prairie sings in the warm months, winter brings its own charms. Shrubs lose their leaves, making bird nests visible. Dramatic seed pods pop against prairie grasses. Gnarly Osage orange trees have long dropped their fruit, which rots on the ground—the seeds inside are tasty winter treats for some critters (and fun pranks for children).

Seeds still cling to these milkweed pods.

Hawks circle overhead, searching for mice or rabbits. 

“Winter hiking is a lot of fun as long as you are prepared,” said MDC’s Green. Stay safe in the cold by dressing in layers, bringing water and monitoring the weather.

Neighbor Sandy H. walks the park with her husband nearly every day. “We feel so blessed to live next to such a beautiful place. They are doing such a good job taking care of it.”

The park’s success is a community effort. The Missouri Department of Conservation and Kansas City Parks & Recreation revived the prairie remnant, an effort led for many years by now-retired MDC biologist Larry Rizzo. Private companies donated equipment and services. Missouri master naturalist volunteers remove non-native, invasive species. 

When there’s snow on the ground, tracks show what wildlife is moving about the area. Several years ago, Sandy saw mountain lion prints.

Fruit of the Osage Orange tree, commonly called a hedge apple.

When asked about Jerry Smith Park in winter, Sandy mentions the air. “It just feels so nice and fresh out here.”

The trail has an overlook seating area in the middle of the prairie with views of the surrounding city, including the recognizable campus of Church of the Resurrection in Overland Park, located miles to the west. 

The park is open from 8 am to sunset daily. Pets are allowed on leashes. Horseback riding is permitted on trails. There are occasional managed bow hunts through January 15 to control the deer population. 

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