Located in Southeast Missouri, Ozark National Scenic Riverways preserves 134 miles of the free-flowing Current and Jacks Fork Rivers. The scenic beauty and multitude of recreation opportunities draw visitors away from the city to this remote natural area. Whether you are looking to enjoy a relaxing float on the river, get in a few hikes, or explore the history of the area, you’ll find plenty of options at Ozark NSR.
Ozark National Scenic Riverways is particularly great to visit in the summer. The rivers are largely spring-fed, meaning the water stays nice and cool even in the hottest part of the summer. Whether you are looking to boat, swim or just relax on the shore, the cool river water and shade of the trees provide ample opportunity to cool off and relax.
We’ve had this stop on our itinerary several times over the past few years. Unfortunately, weather and itinerary delays kept us away – until now! Finally, we were able to spend weekend exploring this park. While this area is quite remote without much in the way of services, it’s a great place to slow down and just enjoy the outdoors.
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Floating the River
When you’re at a National Scenic Riverway, you should definitely plan to get out on the water! Of course, you can bring your own boat, canoe or tube. There are also plenty of outfitters who rent kayaks, canoes, rafts and inner tubes.
We decided to get a canoe from The Landing in Van Buren, MO. At the beginning of summer, we were able to walk up and get something on the spot. If you’re visiting on a weekend and/or later in the summer, you might want to make reservations ahead of time to be safe.
The outfitter drove us up-river to one of many river access spots. From there, we spent about two hours canoeing the river. The float should have taken us a bit longer but the water level was pretty high and we moved quickly, even without a lot of paddling.
Along the way, we enjoyed the quiet of the river with only an occasional fishing boat passing us. From the water, we could see a number of houses and campgrounds along the shore. The river bank is also dotted with quite a few gravel bars, perfect for a picnic lunch or to just splash around in the water.
The only downside to a canoe is battling the waves created by passing motor boats. If you don’t have a lot of canoe experience, I would suggest getting a raft or kayak. An inner tube would be fun as well but takes a lot longer and doesn’t really allow you to steer.
What to See at Ozark National Scenic Riverways
If you want to fully explore the park, there are plenty of different areas where you can see the many springs that feed the river, check out some historic areas and do a little hiking. Since the park follows the rivers the various sites are spread out. Thus, to really explore you need to be prepared to do a bit of driving.
Make sure you’re prepared with our road trip essentials.
The main area on the west side of the park, along Jacks Fork River, is Alley Spring. Here, you’ll find the historic Alley Mill alongside Alley Spring. The mill operated with a turbine instead of the traditional waterwheel as it ground wheat into flour. You can tour the mill, which houses much of the original equipment. A short trail makes a 1/3-mile loop around the spring or you can take the longer Alley Overlook Trail.
Also in the area is Story Creek School, an old one-room schoolhouse. As teachers, Grant and I are always fascinated by these tiny schools that served a small community with students of various ages all in one room. It’s even crazier to think that one person had to teach not only the different ages but all subjects as well.
According to the National Park Service, schoolhouses such as this one were in widespread use across rural Missouri until 1957!
The spring, mill and schoolhouse are located an easy walk from the parking lot. We found a ranger and a small gift store in the mill. An actual visitor center is nearby, but was closed when we visited in early June 2021.
Near the north end of Ozark National Scenic Riverways, not far from the headwaters of the Current River, you’ll find the Nichols cabin. John and Susie Nichols built this cabin on 120 acres around 1910. Old, remote farmsteads such as this are not uncommon and we’ve toured many of them at various parks over the years.
John passed away around 1932. What Grant and I find fascinating is that Susie Nichols lived here until her death in 1959. Not only is this cabin remote, even today, but it lacks electricity or a traditional fireplace. Yep, Susie lived here, without electricity until 1959! We always appreciate stories such as these. There’s just something intriguing about folks who choose to life the simple life and forgo modern technologies!
We found directions to the cabin on a small hiking brochure that I picked up at Alley Mill. The cabin is so remote that most of the roads aren’t even marked on the official park map! Getting to the cabin involved a roughly 1/3-mile walk from the parking area. From the parking area, cross a stream (we suggest wearing sandals), then follow the old road on the other side of a gate.
I’ll be honest, we saw way more hoof prints from horseback riders than footprints! But it was easy enough to do on foot, if you don’t mind wading across the stream. While our visit was brief, it was fun and interesting.
Just south of the Nichols Cabin is Welch Spring and an old historic hospital. From the parking area, it’s a 0.4-mile easy hike to the spring. On the opposite side of the spring you can see the remains of an old hospital that treated tuberculosis patients. It was thought that the thick, cold, damp vapors emitted from the cave would help cure the patients.
This was a neat site and and easy hike but there are other more interesting sites if you’re short on time.
Once upon a time, people, buggies and cars crossed the river on ferries rather than bridges. Today, only one of these historic ferries still exists in Missouri. You’ll find it at Akers. When I say ferry, throw out any picture you have of passenger or vehicle ferries. This is more of a historic moving bridge. And, yes, I definitely mean historic!
The ferry supposedly holds two vehicles. If I’m being honest, I’m very glad that we were the only truck when we crossed! I don’t even have the words to describe the “pulley system” that helped the ferry across the river. I’m just glad we made it and that we only had to cross it once.
If you’re up for an adventure, bring $4 cash and cross the river on the Akers Ferry. For those a little less adventurous, there are other places to cross the river on a modern bridge.
You’ll also find a nice picnic area and easy water access at Akers.
Devils Well and Cave Spring
Most hikes in Ozark National Scenic Riverways are relatively short, at only about a mile round-trip. The Cave Spring Loop Trail offers a chance to stretch your legs a bit more, with a 4.6-mile loop.
Prepare for your hike by carrying the right hiking gear.
From the Devils Well picnic area, a well-marked trail takes you up and around the hillside, though an oak-pine forest. Off the loop trail, two short out-and-back trails take you to Cave Spring and the Current River.
Unfortunately, we misread/misunderstood the trail description and thought that we would find an overlook of the spring from the main trail. Because of this, we opted to NOT take the segment down to the spring. Alas, the overlook didn’t actually have views of Cave Spring. In fact, it was so overgrown it barely had views of anything.
Without the off-shoots, the loop trail was about 3.5-miles. While it was a decent hike, it really wasn’t worth it without going down to the spring or river. And, honestly, there are plenty of other places to access the river and other springs that are MUCH easier to reach.
Right at the trailhead, you’ll find Devils Well. Supposedly, this is a large underground lake that formed when a cavern roof collapsed. We saw the viewing platform but didn’t see anything that looked like an underground lake. I’m not sure if we just looked at the wrong thing or if the water levels depend on recent rainfall.
The picnic area here is nice and if you really want a longer hike, this is a good option. We just didn’t have the best experience here. If you’re going to do the hike, I definitely suggest heading down to the spring and/or river.
Blue Spring on the Current River
I’m not sure why Ozark National Scenic Riverways has two areas named Blue Spring but one is on the Jacks Fork River and one is on the Current River. The Blue Spring on the Current River is Missouri’s deepest spring, at 310 feet deep. For reference, the Statue of Liberty is 305 feet tall, from the base of the pedestal to the torch!
Blue Spring has also been deemed Missouri’s “bluest” spring, hence the name.
The park service states that the spring is a 1/2-mile walk from the parking area but we measured it at closer to 1/3-mile, one way. Once at the spring, you’ll find a viewing platform right and plenty of space on the edges to see the spring and take a few pictures.
There’s also an upper viewing platform. Unfortunately, the view is mostly obscured by trees now.
Blue Spring is worth the short hike from the parking lot. There’s no need to head up to the upper platform, though.
Just south of Blue Spring, you’ll find Rocky Falls. In addition to being a neat waterfall, this area offers a good opportunity for swimming or lounging on the gravel shore.
This is also an example of a “shut-in,” an Ozark term for a river that is naturally confined to a narrow channel.
We just made a quick stop to snap a few pictures. It was clear that this is a popular day-use area for those looking to play in the water. We were there at the end of the day, though, and were just ready to get back to our campsite for dinner.
The waterfall is easily accessed from the parking lot.
Near the south end of the park, along the Current River, you’ll find the historic area of Big Spring. As the name would suggest, Big Spring is the largest spring in Missouri. With an average daily flow of 286 million gallons, it is also one of the largest springs in the world!
The Big Spring area was actually the state’s first state park, designated in 1924. In fact, you’ll find a number of structures built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s. Today, most of these buildings are closed to the public. A restoration project, started in 2015, seeks to revitalize the area. I have not seen any updates as to when the restoration is expected to be completed.
You can access the spring with just a short walk from the parking area. There are also a few hikes if you are looking to stretch your legs.
Visitor Centers and the Round Spring Cave
The National Park Service operates a number of Visitor Centers around Ozark National Scenic Riverways. Unfortunately, many of these were closed for the 2021 season.
The park is also home to the Round Spring Cave. Rangers generally give cave tours from Memorial Day – Labor Day. Sadly, the park cancelled tours for the 2021 season.
Check the park website for updated information regarding Visitor Centers, cave tours and other park alerts.
Peck Ranch Conservation Area
Not far west of Van Buren, you’ll find the Peck Ranch Conversation Area. While not part of the national park, this is still an interesting area to explore if you want to see wildlife. Of particular interest, Peck Ranch is working to rebuild an elk population and there are several viewing areas that visitors can drive through.
The driving tour takes you through alternating forest and open meadows. We spotted a few elk on our drive.
If you have time and an interest in seeing elk, it’s worth spending an hour or two driving through Peck Ranch.
Where to Stay
There are no major towns near Ozark National Scenic Riverways. We chose to camp in Van Buren, which is where the park headquarters is located. You’ll find a number of other small communities scattered around the park.
While Van Buren is small, only about 800 people, we found a decent campground, a better-than-expected grocery store and a few restaurant options. In all our driving around, I can’t say that we saw any other towns that looked to be a better place to stay.
We stayed at Big Springs RV Camp, which is right on the Current River. The campground is filled mostly by “full-time residents” but offers a couple of sites for temporary visitors. What we found is that most of the “residents” actually park their camper here permanently (at least in the summer) and then just visit when they can. I’d say we actually saw fewer than half of the owners over our four-night stay.
While the campground is nothing fancy, it provided hookups in a good location. The two biggest negatives are that there is no bathhouse and the WiFi was not great. One positive about the campground is that they rent tubes, which is the main reason I chose this campground. Unfortunately, they were not operating the tubing the weekend we were there.
If you don’t want to camp, I’d suggest that you check out the rooms at The Landing. While we didn’t stay there, it’s where we rented our canoe and had dinner on our last night.
Where to Eat
At first glance, there isn’t much to Van Buren. Look a little closer, though, and you might be surprised by what you find. On the east end of town, you’ll find Subway and McDonalds. While these may not be super exciting, they are at least two good “standbys” when all else fails.
In town, we had dinner at Las Margaritas. I believe this is a small chain with several locations around Missouri. Grant had the tacos al pastor, filled with pork and a chile ancho salsa. I opted for the grilled chicken breast, which was topped with onions, bell pepper and queso. Basically, it was fajitas without the tortilla. I have to say, it was delicious!
For dessert, we suggest heading over to Jolly Cone. We opted for a classic chocolate-vanilla twist ice cream cone and a raspberry milkshake. Jolly Cone also serves burgers, chicken and other quick-service foods. This is a no-frills outdoor quick eatery and obviously a local favorite!
On our last night, we decided to splurge a little with dinner at the Blue Heron at The Landing. From what we could tell, this is probably the best place in Van Buren for a nicer dinner.
The Blue Heron offers a variety of steaks, seafood, chicken and other entrees. Grant and I both opted for a steak (NY strip for Grant and a filet for me). Each dinner came with a garden salad and two additional sides. We enjoyed our meals and service was great.
Final Thoughts on Ozark National Scenic Riverways
If you are looking to get out on the water, Ozark National Scenic Riverways is a great place to do just that. With more than 100 river miles to enjoy, you’ll have plenty of options to float, paddle, splash or just relax.
For those looking to stay on land, you can explore historic areas and even get in a few hikes.
We enjoy getting out on the water at times, but it’s generally not our first love. Still, we enjoyed our visit to this park and the laid-back feel it evokes. If you want to unplug and just enjoy nature, this is a great destination!
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