In 1964, Ozark National Scenic Riverways in the hills of south-central Missouri became the first national park in the world created specifically to protect a river system. The park now consists of 80,785 acres preserving the free-flowing Current and Jacks Fork Rivers, surrounding natural resources, and the unique cultural heritage of the Ozark people.
This park's more than 130 miles of river corridors and thousands of acres of forested hills now annually entertain over a million visitors a year with a wealth of outdoor recreational activities. Here is some information and suggestions you'll find useful for planning your own Ozark escape.
BEFORE YOU GO
Take a good look at the park map and plan your trip carefully, allowing plenty of driving time. The main east-west access to Ozark Riverways is via U.S. 60, which was recently four-laned. North-south access is via state highway 19, a narrow and winding two-lane highway. Ozark Riverways is a long, narrow, irregularly-shaped park with many access points and numerous recreational facilities and attractions dispersed over a large area. The road network is sparse, and the park has not been provided with a system of loop roads or scenic drives that were purpose-built for windshield touring and recreational access. Importantly, there are no roads paralleling the Current or Jacks Fork Rivers.
Remember that Ozark Riverways is meant to be a place to have good, clean fun in a family-friendly atmosphere. The park once had a reputation as a place where people could drink to excess, party loudly, and generally be obnoxious. Those rowdy days are now a thing of the past, thanks to a renewed commitment to law enforcement. The river and surrounding land are patrolled day and night by park rangers, sheriff's deputies, and Missouri state highway patrolmen, water patrolmen, and conservation agents. Drunkenness, public nudity, drug use, and other illegal actions are not tolerated and will be vigorously prosecuted. To read more about rowdiness on the rivers, visit this site. You can help by reporting any concerns to the park’s 24-hour emergency dispatch, MROCC (Midwest Region Ozark Communication Center) at 1-877-692-1162.
VISITING THE PARK
* Enjoy the fall colors. We're coming up on a great time of year to be in Ozark Riverways. The park has very nice fall colors by mid-October, and the adjacent Mark Twain National Forest also has some good leaf peeping routes. Missouri Highway 19 between Salem and Eminence, and also south of Winona to Alton, is a good north-south route for fall colors. Other good choices are Missouri Highway 106, E and H Highways from 106 south to US 60, Missouri State Highway 103/Skyline Drive, and C Highway from US 60 to at least Eastwood.
* Learn about the cultural heritage of the Ozark people. Historic Alley Spring, located six miles west of Eminence on Missouri Highway 106, is a great place to go if you'd like to learn about the cultural history of the Ozarks. Explore the 1890s Alley Mill, Storys Creek One Room Schoolhouse, and the Alley Spring General Store. (You can also hike to a beautiful overlook of the Alley Spring hollow.) Alley Spring is by no means the only place in the park with interesting relics and historical structures. For example, old sawmills, quiet reminders of the Ozarks’ lumbering past, are found in a number of places in and near the park. The Kelpzig Mill is located on a gravel road at the end of NN Highway near Winona, and the adjacent Mark Twain National Forest is home to Falling Spring Mill and Turner’s Mill, to name just a few. You can easily spend a full day exploring mills of the Ozarks.
* Attend a special event. They're offered at Big Spring, Round Spring, Alley Spring, and Pulltite. Each June, Big Spring hosts an "Ozark Heritage" celebration. In July, you can celebrate Independence in true Ozark fashion at Alley Spring or enjoy “An Ozark Dinner Theatre” at Big Spring. Every fall at Alley Spring, the park hosts the "Haunting in the Hills." This year it's held October 9th and 10th, and it's free. There will be two full days of folkway and pioneer skills demonstrations, reenactments, music, hands-on activities, food and a Saturday evening filled with ghost tours, memorable tales and legends. For more event information, phone (573) 226-3945.
*Camp in the park. Float-in camping on gravel bars is free. There are dozens of backcountry campgrounds (with pit toilets) that have sites available for $5 a night. There are developed campgrounds for drive-in campers at Alley Spring, Round Spring, Pulltite, and Big Spring . There you'll pay $14 nightly, or $17 for a site with electricity. Limited services are available at Two Rivers ($14) and Powder Mill ($10). Reservations are accepted, provided you make them at least a week before your arrival.
* Enjoy a stunning view from a firetower. Old CCC-era fire lookouts abound along the Ozark Riverways, and the views from these firetowers are stunning. Some are open to the public, and some are only open on a limited schedule. Check with the park before setting out.
* Float a river. Both of the park's rivers, the Current and Jacks Fork, are spring-fed and floatable. The Current is the larger and gentler of the two. It’s easy-flowing (almost exclusively Class I) and people float it year round in tubes, canoes, kayaks, and rafts. The Jacks Fork is a bit smaller and more gorge-like with some Class II rapids, and it's best to do the Jacks Fork after a rain. Nearly two dozen outfitters are authorized to operate within the park, and trips for two hours or two weeks are yours for the taking. (The park is considering offering ranger-guided float trips on the Lower Current near Big Spring starting next summer, but officials caution that "nothing is set in stone just yet.")
* Marvel at the springs. Ozark National Scenic Riverways has more than 300 springs, including the world's largest concentration of first-magnitude springs (daily flow over 65 million gallons), the third-largest spring in America, and the deepest spring in Missouri. It has springs alongside mills, springs near abandoned hospitals, springs that flow from caves, and springs that flow from gravel bars in the river. Many springs at Ozark Riverways are within yards of a road and have picnic areas, campgrounds, or other recreation facilities oriented to them. Some springs, such as Blue Spring on the Current River, are accessible via a short hike. Still others can only be viewed while floating the rivers.
* Take in the shut-ins. Classic waterfalls are scarce in the Ozarks, but there is an abundance of interesting water features called shut-ins. A shut-in is a place where erosion-resistant igneous rocks have "shut-in" a creek, retarding its flow enough to create a system of pools and small cascades. Perhaps the best-known shut-in is Rocky Falls, but Kelpzig Mill and Prairie Hollow Gorge have fine examples of their own.
* Catch some fish. The Ozark Riverways offers fishing for largemouth, smallmouth, and Kentucky spotted bass, rainbow and brown trout up to eight pounds, panfish (mostly goggle-eyes and pumpkinseeds), chain pickerel, and even the occasional walleye. The Current and Jacks Fork Rivers are both nationally acclaimed smallmouth bass waters, and there are trophy management (big fish only) sections designated for both trout and smallmouth bass. You'll need a valid state fishing license. Nonresidents can buy a daily license for just five bucks.
* Go gig some suckers. Fall and early winter in the Ozarks means it’s time to engage in a quintessential Ozark pastime -- gigging for hog-nosed and yellow suckerfish. It's usually done at night with the help of lighting that makes the fish easier to see on the bottom. Grab your gig (think of the spear-like thing as an altered pitchfork), torches, and johnboat, and head out on the river for the most fun this side of Branson. As they say in the Ozarks, you can’t beat it with a stick. You'll need a valid state fishing license.
* Take a hike. Ozark Riverways has no truly lengthy trails, but there are lots of conveniently located short trails. They range from very easy ones like the 0.5-mile Slough Trail, a wheelchair-accessible interpretive trail leading from Big Spring to the Peavine Picnic Shelter, to more strenuous ones like the Alley Overlook Trail, which begins outside the door of the Alley Mill and climbs steeply to an overlook affording a nice view of Alley Spring. If you want something on the longer side, try Cave Spring Trail, a 4.6-mile loop that runs from Devils Well to Cave Spring on the Current River.
* Maybe explore a cave? Ozark Riverways is home to nearly 300 known caves. Unfortunately, they are all closed to the public at present to help combat the spread of white nose syndrome , a communicable disorder deadly to bats. The white nose situation permitting, Round Spring Cave will be reopened for the 2011 summer season next Memorial Day weekend. In season, rangers lead 2.5-hour lantern-lit caving adventures in Round Spring Cave. Because each ranger develops his/her own program, each tour reflects the ranger’s personality. Priced at just $5 for adults and $2 for kids, the tours are a terrific bargain.
* Indulge your passion for ice cream. If one of the four Ozark seasons is gigging, then “ice-cream-at-the-drive-in" must surely be one of the others. Nearly every Ozark community has a dairy bar where you can buy delicious homemade ice cream at very affordable prices (including cones that may sell for less than $1), and a cool summer’s night spent at a local drive-in restaurant is a rite of passage.
The Ozark National Scenic Riverways website is at this site.
Visit this site for a park map (pdf format).
For a list of river outfitters, visit this site.
Visit this site for weather and river conditions.
To arrange lodging at the Big Spring Dining Lodge & Cabins, which offers the only in-park lodging, visit this site.
The Friends of Chickasaw National Recreation Area promotes public appreciation of and support for Chickasaw National Recreation Area. This support includes conducting interpretive programs, increasing public awareness regarding the park and its mission, fundraising, and other volunteer activities.