Ozark National Scenic Riverways, in southeast Missouri, is the first federally designated National Park dedicated to the protection of a wild river system.
Created by an Act of Congress in 1964, the park encompasses two of America’s most beautiful waterways: the 300-km-long Current River and its tributary, the 75-km-long Jacks Fork River. These are two of the finest floatable rivers you’ll find in the state.
Spring-fed, crystal-clear and winding through a landscape of rugged hills, deciduous forests and towering bluffs, both rivers are a delight to canoe, kayak, fish and camp beside year-round — and swimming is great in the summer. Thanks to national park regulations, the shorelines are not commercialized and remain, primarily, in their natural state. In addition to these two famous waterways, the park is home to hundreds of freshwater springs, caves, hiking trails, gravel bars and historic sites.
Akers Ferry Canoe Rental, 30 km south of Salem, (currentrivercanoe.com) is an ideal spot to start your adventure on the Current River. (At this location, the only two-car ferry still operating in Missouri waits to transport you across the river.) Floats can be booked that range from a couple of hours to as long as two days. Akers also has a restaurant, general store, hot showers, camping, RV sites and cabins.
The Current River’s headwaters, in Montauk State Park, offers more amazing paddling routes. Baptist Camp to Cedargrove, Cedargrove to Akers, Akers to Pulltite and Pulltite to Round Spring are all wonderful day-floats. If you’re lucky, you may even spot the Wild Horses of the Ozarks meandering along the shoreline. And be sure to visit the ruins of the old sanitarium at Welch Spring, upstream from Akers.
The park service operates a campground at Pulltite — lodging is available at either the park or Round Spring Retreat, a single ridge-top cabin overlooking the river (roundspringretreat.com).
The bluff-lined upper reaches of the Jacks Fork River is called The Prongs, and is one of the wildest and most scenic river-stretches in Missouri. The river from Alley Spring to the town of Eminence is usually floatable year-round, due to constant flow from the spring. River’s Edge Resort (rivers-edge.com) is right on the river at Eminence, and offers hotel rooms, cabins and condo rentals.
The Eleven Point River is one of the original eight rivers set aside for preservation by U.S. Congress in 1968 under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. It is free of impoundments, with its shorelines still largely undeveloped.
Eleven Point River Canoe Rental (11pointcanoe.com), in Alton, offers guided floats as short as a half-day to as long as three days, as well as a handful of cute cottages. This river is gorgeous — especially from the Greer Spring access to Turner Mill. The spring adds 830 million litres of cold, clear water to the river each day, which keeps levels up throughout the year. Make time for the mile-long hike to the spring to see one of Missouri’s most beautiful spots.
In southwest Missouri, the Elk River, and its tributary, Big Sugar Creek, are also very popular. Two Sons Floats and Camping (twosonsfloats.com), just two miles north of Noel, has all of the facilities and recreation needed to invite a long stay, including a large beach.
The 175-km-long North Fork of the White River is another fabulous float; less crowded because of its location near the Arkansas border in south-central Missouri. A good day float begins at the Hammond Camp access, near Dora, and ends at River of Life Farm (riveroflifefarm.com), a picturesque resort with a restaurant and cabins at the river’s edge. (Keep an eye out for endangered Ozark Hellbenders — massive salamanders, up to half-a-metre long, known to Ozark-region waterways.) River of Life Farm’s latest addition, the 1,200-sq-ft River Lighthouse Cabin, impresses with jetted tubs, a gas fireplace and a covered deck perched high above the glistening water. What better way to close the day?
Missouri Craft Beer
A pint of small-batch beer is the perfect reward after a glorious river-day. We spoke to Bill Martin, proprietor of the Mark Twain Brewing Company, in Hannibal, Missouri, to uncover some choice local picks:
Huck’s Habanero Apricot Wheat (5.5%)
“It’s very different, adventurous types would really dig it,” says Martin. “The apricot takes the burn out. You can drink a lot of these. It’s been really popular.”
Clemens Kolsch (4.4%)
“As in ‘Sam Clemens,’” explains Martin. “This is a traditional lager-ale beer. It’s a very thirst quenching beer.”
Jumping Frog IPA (6.5%)
A West Coast style IPA with citrus notes. “Good for coming off the river,” adds Martin.
Mark Twain Brewing Company is located right on the Mississippi River in Hannibal. “We’re really welcoming to paddlers,” Martin says, adding that he even sees some long-distance travellers headed through to the Gulf of Mexico each year.
And where does he like to paddle?
“Eleven Point River is my favourite. It’s really quiet — and it’s a little bit bigger and not seasonal, so you can paddle it at any time. There’s nothing more than Class 1 rapids… and it has some nice designated primitive campsites. Put in at the spring and you can do three to five days before it really flattens,” he explains. marktwainbrewery.com