In 1857, New York’s iconic Central Park opened to the public. That same year, Thomas Hunton Swope arrived in Kansas City, where 39 years later he would donate the land that would become his namesake landmark – a vast Midwestern playground twice the size of Central Park.
Tucked between Highway 71 and Interstate 435, Swope Park is a conveniently accessible oasis for residents of the KC metro who want to escape rush hour or weekend chores for gorgeous green space and free-range exercise.
“At 1,805 acres, it’s easy to forget you are in the middle of the urban core when you are in Swope Park,” says Heidi Downer, marketing & events manager for the Kansas City Parks and Recreation Department. “You can feel miles away as you enjoy the rugged terrain, beautiful limestone glades and native flora that make up the Swope Park Trails.”
The crown jewel of the parks system, Kansas City’s largest park attracts more than 2 million visitors each year. They gather there to run, ride and hike on an ever-evolving trail network, maintained and expanded by volunteers such as the Earth Riders Trails Association (ERTA), an advocacy group “created to increase the quantity and quality of sustainable singletrack trails throughout the Midwest.”
While the Earth Riders have a bold goal of building out 50 miles worth of singletrack (Swope Park has also been host to several top cyclocross events over the years), cycling isn’t the only sport with a growing presence at the 29th-largest municipal park in the nation.
In 2007, Kansas City’s wildly popular Major League Soccer team, Sporting Kansas City, dedicated its training center (a 7,800-square-foot facility with three soccer fields) as part of a unique public-private partnership between the Parks Department and Sporting Club, the team’s parent organization. The world-class Swope Soccer Village continues to grow, and in 2013 and 2014, the Big 12 Soccer Championship was contested on a new natural grass championship field – consisting of 99,000 square feet of Colorado bluegrass sod that came to life in just four months over 8 million pounds of a special sand blend. The $20 million soccer village has also played host to the U.S. Men's and Women's National Teams as well as Manchester United and other top international squads.
Taking advantage of the wide range of activities enjoyed at Swope Park, Kansas Citians can also check out the two golf courses, a disc golf course, an equestrian center and the community gardens. The park is also home to the Kansas City Zoo (a 202-acre sanctuary that opened in 1909 and now welcomes 885,000 visitors each year), Lakeside Nature Center and Starlight outdoor amphitheater, which brings in Broadway productions, concerts and special events throughout the year.