Located in southeastern Missouri, Ozark National Scenic Riverways was the first scenic waterway created in the United States, founded in 1964. It protects 134 miles of the Current and Jacks Fork Rivers located in the Ozark Highlands.
The rivers are largely spring fed with seven major springs and an additional 51 smaller springs keeping the water clean, clear and cool. The area within the park is extremely diverse and sits primarily on soluble limestone and dolomite. The soft limestone allows for the formation of a classic karst environment with a large number of sinkholes and natural caves peppering the terrain.
Within the boundaries of the park over 300 caves can be found. Some of these caves are home to some unique species, including the endangered Indiana bat. In some cases caves are gated off or are posted as protected habitat. Exploration is possible but be sure you are skilled in spelunking before diving underground.
The most popular activity by far is canoeing and tubing along the waterway. There are well over 20 outfitters and equipment providers for both canoeing and inner tubing needs along the Current and Jacks Fork Rivers. All of the rivers are Class I trickles and can be easily navigated by novice paddlers. The spring is the best time to take a float trip when water levels are highest.
Although there are over 50 miles of hiking trails within the park, including seven miles of the Ozark Trail, there is not an official trail maintenance program in place. Because of this trail conditions can vary widely depending on the time of the year and recent weather conditions. Alley Spring, located on the Jacks Fork River is a popular hiking and paddling destination, and has camping facilities available outside of the park.
Several historic buildings can also be visited. The Alley Roller Mill, built in 1894 is in the process of being restored and free tours are offered. Located in Eminence, Missouri, it is about ten miles east of Alley Spring. Next door to Alley Mill is Story's Creek School where visitors can see a school house in late 19th century Missouri.
During the fall leaf peepers can enjoy the subtle colors that accent Ozark National Scenic Waterways and the adjacent Mark Twain National Forest. Starting at Bartlett, Missouri, drivers can head south down State Highway 19 to Alton through the heart of the Mark Twain National Forest. At Alton you then head east along US Highway 160 to Hill Top, Missouri and the Current River Heritage Museum. State Highway 21 will take you north along the eastern edge of the Ozark National Scenic Waterways. State Highway 49 can than be taken north to State Highway 32 west on the only unimpressive stretch of this loop out to Salem. From there drivers can head back down to Bartlett passing through Eminence and close to Alley Springs. This extended loop is almost 120 miles so expect to spend the better part of the day enjoying the scenery.
Although accessible year round, the park is popular for hiking and auto touring in the spring and fall when the Ozarks are painted in collage of colors. In the summer the cool rivers become the draw. It is no wonder why over 1-1/2 million people visit Ozark Scenic Waterway each year.
Just The Plain Facts
Name: Ozark National Scenic Waterways
Location: Southeastern Missouri
Nearest Major Air Service: St Louis, Missouri
Fees & Permits: Access to the park is free.
Why Visit: Karst environment offers plenty of limestone caves to explore. Class I rivers offer easy float trips down long distances of the waterway. Relatively remove region of Missouri.
When To Visit: April to October
Essential Gear: Varies depending on wide variety of activity. Sunscreen, hat, lip balm, sunglasses, camera, binocular, insect repellant, bathing suit, towel, drinking water. Other gear is strongly recommended.
You Should Know: Relatively remote part of the state surrounded by National Forest. Never canoe out of your ability. Respect private property that can be adjacent to the river.
More Information: Ozark National Scenic Riverways, P.O. Box 490, Van Buren, MO 63965 or call (573) 323-4236.