It would be a crime to visit Kansas City and not spend time in Clay County, MO, home of the outlaw Jesse James. Comprised of fascinating cities such as Kearney, Liberty, Smithville, Excelsior Springs, Gladstone and North Kansas City, the county offers affordable fun for the history buffs, art lovers, foodies and outdoor enthusiasts in your family. So steal a day from your schedule, and take a day trip to discover this trove of hidden gems in northwest Missouri.
Kearney is the place you go to learn the story of Jesse James and, in a sense, America. The town was transformed by the coming of the railroad and takes its name from the president of the Kansas City and Cameron Railroad, Charles E. Kearney. But it is best known as the birthplace of Jesse James.
So get your weekend getaway off to a running start with a visit to the Jesse James Birthplace and Museum. Before he started robbing banks, James was born to a Baptist minister in a cabin north of Kansas City. The museum offers guided tours that include a peek inside the historically preserved farmhouse. Visitors can see the site where James was first buried as well as artifacts such as the boots and guns James had on him when he was killed by fellow outlaw Bob Ford.
Hungry for more outlaw lore? Visit Kearney in September for the annual Jesse James Festival, which includes a demolition derby and parade. And don’t miss out on exciting shows at Kearney Amphitheater in Jesse James Park, where scenic views of a spring-fed lake are the perfect backdrop to the day’s entertainment.
Just decades after the American Revolution, one of the ideals upon which the country was founded—liberty—still felt fresh. So, when American settlers started to arrive just north of the Missouri River in the early 1800s, they figured: why not name a city after that concept? As the second-oldest incorporated town west of the Mississippi River, Liberty continues to celebrate that history with five local historic districts while also consistently generating buzz through its restaurants and frequent fun events.
Before your trip, check the calendar at Corbin Theatre, an opera house that dates back to the 1880s. The first Monday of every month features some of the most unique, interesting live jazz around.
Start your day in Liberty with a visit to local teahouse Anna Marie’s Teas,. Pick up some loose-leaf tea for your pantry, or stay for a cup and join a themed tea party, scheduled monthly.
A former 19th-century drugstore, the Clay County Museum & Historical Society now holds 1900s Boy Scouts equipment, Native American artifacts and antique quilts. Stop by to take a step back in local history, and make sure to check out the vintage sewing machines.
Get your legs moving on one of 13 trails inside the Martha Lafite Thompson Nature Sanctuary, a carefully maintained conservation area. Try the McGowan Bridge Trail, featuring a part of the railroad that ran from Kansas City to Excelsior Springs in the early 1900s.
Time for some grub! Whether you like your meats smoked traditionally or in an Asian-fusion style, Mudhole BBQ has an award-winning meal on the menu for you. The proprietors started as a competition barbecue team and then a food truck before setting up shop at a brick-and-mortar restaurant in Liberty in 2017. Try the Mudhole Philly (like the one back East but with brisket) and the Mudhole Rangoon (picture your favorite crab Rangoon, but add burnt ends).
A town of 10,000 residents situated around a historic downtown and beautiful lake, Smithville proves that you don’t need to visit a city with skyscrapers in order to have a good time. Smithville sits along the Little Platte River, which was dammed in 1977 to form a reservoir, Smithville Lake.
These days, it’s a 7,200-acre body of water that doubles as an all-in-one solution to family squabbles about what to do on a Saturday. Thanks to the abundance of lake activities, there is fun waiting for everyone. You can rent fishing or pontoon boats at the Camp Branch Marina. Grab your rod and try to reel in largemouth bass, channel catfish or bluegill, among other species. Remain on land and hike one of the 11 trails surrounding the lake, or play one of the two challenging 18-hole golf courses at Paradise Pointe Golf Complex, which features a rolling landscape and beautiful lake vistas.
While in Smithville, grab a bite at the delightful KoZak’s Laketown Grill, serving up specialties like fried green tomatoes with rock shrimp. Save room for dessert at Nellie’s Sweet Shoppe, where the maple walnut fudge is so tasty you might find yourself reaching for seconds.
If you need a burst of energy, visit Excelsior Springs, named for the medicinal springs that were discovered there in the late 19th century. The city has more mineral water than anywhere in the world, and when people interested in a therapeutic soak found out about the supposed healing power of the water, they flocked from all over. The Hall of Waters, a health spa, featured a therapeutic polio pool with a wheelchair ramp and the longest water bar in the world. While you can no longer bathe there, you can still absorb its grand history. Check out the bar inside the Art Deco-style building, where there is signage advertising its former refreshments. Who needs craft beer when you can have iron manganese water?
Business at the spa declined when national news organizations started to question the health benefits of the water. But that turn of events is now a point of pride in Excelsior Springs, as evidenced by the local brewery Dubious Claims Brewing Co. and its advertisement, “You can no longer drink the water, so let our beer be the cure of what ‘ales’ you!” Owner Neil Wilkerson can do more than just think up creative puns. Nine out of 10 snake-oil salesmen recommend the Relief IPA and charcuterie tray
During your day trip, make sure to engage with the vibrant Excelsior Springs arts community. On the second Friday of the month, join in an art crawl featuring local artists, live music and theatre shows.
It’s no wonder why the National Civic League awarded Gladstone the "All-America City" designation in 2008. This Kansas City suburb is all about bringing people together. On summer nights, you can find residents and visitors hanging out in the center of the Gladstone downtown, around Linden Square. They might be there for the Sounds on the Square concert series, jamming out to bands on the outdoor stage, or for a picnic and a movie.
For a fun night on the town, grab dinner at Summit Grill—try the parmesan-crusted tilapia or the pan-seared pork chop—and then go see a comedy show at The Groundhog Day Theater. Any night is great, but for a reliable belly laugh, see one of their standup showcases featuring some of Kansas City’s funniest local comedians.
There are few places where the concept of local pride is more tastefully celebrated than at the Big Shoal Heritage Area in Gladstone. The Atkins-Johnson Farm and Museum illuminates farm life in the mid-19th century. Although this vibrant museum is steeped in history, it offers up modern events such as Pickin’ on the Front Porch with a bluegrass band and Yoga on the Farm, so make sure to check the calendar before you visit.
Just down the road from the farm is Big Shoal Cemetery, where you can find the gravesites of veterans of the Civil War, the War of 1812 and the Blackhawk Indian Wars.
Don’t let the name North Kansas City fool you. This is more than just another suburb. Cross the Missouri River, and you will find a dynamic municipality featuring a plethora of great restaurants and watering holes.
There aren’t many combinations more unique than Chicken N Pickle, an entertainment complex featuring eight pickleball courts, lawn games, TVs and fire pits that allow you to spend time outside all year. Order some of their tasty rotisserie chicken with sides of spicy slaw and barbecue beans.
Also pop over to the newly opened Iron District, a plot of shipping containers that have been repurposed to house delicious food. The park includes Plantain District, offering Cuban cuisine; B-rad’s, serving up tasty smoked meats and Avobite, featuring avocado as a canvas for sweet and savory items.
To quench your thirst with hops, hop over to Cinder Block Brewery. The thing this microbrewery does best is flavor. Its Block IPA features six hop varieties and stirs the five senses.
Like to see big-budget films in a retro setting? Then the Screenland Armour Theatre is the spot. Walk into the lobby to find vintage arcade games and a bar with 20 beers on tap. Inside the theater, you can relax in some of the comfiest seating around, including red leather loungers.
If you’re interested in consuming other aspects of a different era, grab a table at Paul & Jack’s Tavern, which has been serving chili using the same recipe for more than 70 years.
And, finally, train your eyes on the future and get excited to go down The Rabbit hOle, a children’s book museum that is expected to open in spring 2020 and feature exhibits such as Max's room from Where the Wild Things Are and "the great green room" from Goodnight Moon.
So whether you prefer to dedicate your weekend adventure to learning more about the notorious native son Jesse James, lazing away the day on a pontoon boat or walking around downtowns that will transport you to a different century, you can carve out a memorable trip in Clay County.