116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Kayaking paradise: Explore the nation’s first protected river system in Missouri
Visit the first national park created to protect a river system in southeast Missouri
Aug. 13, 2021 8:30 am
There’s just one disadvantage of a trip to the Ozark National Scenic Riverways: it’s going to spoil you for kayaking anywhere else. With water so clean and clear that you can see all the way to the bottom of its rivers and a landscape of rugged, thickly forested hills, this 80,000-acre park in southeastern Missouri has some of the best canoeing and kayaking in the nation.
My husband, son and I explored the region on a three-night adventure. We stayed at Alley Spring, a campground that’s owned and operated by the National Park Service near the small town of Eminence. We kayaked the Current River one day and its major tributary, the Jacks Fork River, the next, using the services of an outfitter who picked us up at our campsite, dropped us off with kayaks at scenic sections of the rivers, picked us up again at designated landing points, and then brought us back to our campsite. The logistics couldn’t have been easier.
Each day as we headed out on the water, we marveled at the beauty of the rivers, which are remarkably clear because they’re fed primarily by underground springs and are surrounded by woods rather than farmland. As we headed downriver, we passed tall bluffs and hills lined with oak, hickory, sycamore, green ash and short-leaf pine, which is the only pine native to Missouri. Great blue and green herons watched us warily from the river banks, and we saw hundreds of turtles sunning themselves on logs and rocks.
Though the majority of the banks are wooded, occasional gravel bars provide places to picnic and rest. We spotted a number of people camping, which is allowed on any gravel bar as long as the tents are not within a half-mile of a designated campground. Otherwise the signs of human activity were few and far between, with just the water, woods and sky to keep us company.
This pristine environment exists because of grassroots efforts in the 1950s to halt the proposed construction of a series of dams on the Current and Jacks Fork rivers. Activists not only stopped the dams, but also successfully lobbied for the establishment of the first national park to protect a water system. President Lyndon Johnson signed legislation in 1964 creating Ozark National Scenic Riverways, which includes 134 miles of the Current and Jacks Fork rivers, as well as the surrounding countryside.
The rivers are navigable by people with minimal kayaking or canoeing experience. Most of their water flow is Class I, with a few Class II spots. Below Alley Spring, both rivers are accessible year-round (Jacks Fork above Alley Spring is best in the spring when there’s more rainfall). And with a water temperature of about 60 degrees thanks to being fed by underground springs, it’s easy to take a refreshing dip on hot days.
Water in many forms defines this region. The Ozarks are an ancient mountain range dominated by easily erodible dolomite and limestone, which over the millennium have been carved and hollowed out by rain and underground streams. As a result, the national park has more than 400 caves and some of the largest freshwater springs in the world.
One of the most beautiful is Alley Spring, which is located just across the road from the campsite where we stayed. Water gushes from deep underground at a rate of 81 million gallons a day, forming a turquoise-colored pool that is bordered on one side by rock walls with hanging gardens of columbine and ferns and on the other side by a picturesque red mill built in 1894.
Inside the mill is a museum that describes how grain was ground here by turbines powered by the spring. Mills like this were once centers for community life in the Ozarks. Ally Spring had a store, blacksmith shop and school in addition to its mill, and frequent dances, picnics and games were held on its grounds.
We also visited Rocky Falls, where water cascades 40 feet into a pool of cold, clear water, and Blue Spring, which is reached by a half-mile hiking trail through scenic woods. Blue Spring has an average flow of 90 million gallons per day and a depth of 310 feet, making it Missouri’s deepest spring. If the Statue of Liberty stood on the bottom, her torch would be underwater. As at Ally Spring, its brilliant turquoise color comes from dissolved minerals.
The Ozarks are home to a number of rare and endangered animal species, including the Ozark hellbender, a salamander that can live for 30 years and grow up to two feet in length. Other species of note include the collared lizard and armadillo, along with black bears, otters and mink.
On our trip we also explored some of the hiking trails in the region, including part of the 390-mile Ozark National Recreation Trail. While we didn’t see any of the wild horses that live in the Ozarks, we did spot some of the elk that have been reintroduced here.
The rugged Ozarks were long isolated from the rest of the world and still retain a distinctive culture that you can explore in the small villages and towns that dot the region. The region’s Scotch-Irish heritage have shaped rich storytelling and music traditions here, and hunting, fishing and trapping continue to be part of the lives of many of its residents. Visit the Ozark Heritage Welcome Center in West Plains for information about the region, as well as locally made crafts.
We especially enjoyed our visits to Eminence, a small but lively outfitting town near our campground. Over ice cream cones from its Dairy Shack, we started making plans for our return trip to the Ozark National Scenic Riverways.
If you go
Ozark National Scenic Riverways near Eminence, Missouri, which is about seven hours south of Cedar Rapids
Bring your own kayak or canoe to explore the Current and Jacks Fork rivers, or rent one from several outfitters in the area, including
Harvey’s Alley Spring Canoe Rental: Serves the area around Eminence, Missouri; locations at Highway 106 at Alley Spring National Park and junction of Highway 19 and 106; (888) 96-FLOAT, harveysalleyspring.com. Offers canoes, kayaks, tubes and rafts. Prices start at $15 for a tube or $45 for kayak/canoe for standard trip rate
Alley Spring Campground: MO-106, Eminence, Missouri, (573) 323-4236; www.nps.gov/ozar/planyourvisit/alley-spring-campground.htm. Campground amenities include shower house, restrooms, RV dump station, electric and water hookups (600 loop only), lantern post, trash dumpsters, picnic tables and fire ring.
Echo Bluff State Park: 34489 Echo Bluff Dr., Eminence, Missouri; (855) 999-6980; echobluffstatepark.com. It has camping, a lodge and cabins.
For more information: Ozark National Scenic Riverways, nps.gov/ozar; for the Missouri Tourism Office, visitmo.com.