Any time of the year, Ozark National Scenic Riverways, in southeast Missouri, is a great place to spend some time. This is the first area in the U.S. to be designated as a 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 clearest and most beautiful spring-fed rivers: the Current River and its tributary, the Jacks Fork River. For outdoor enthusiasts, these streams are two of the finest floatable rivers you'll find anywhere, winding through a landscape of rugged hills, wilderness areas and towering bluffs.
Spring-fed, cold and clear, these rivers are a delight to canoe, kayak, swim, boat and fish. Thanks to national park regulations, the shorelines are not commercialized and primarily remain in their natural state. In addition to these two famous rivers, the park is home to hundreds of freshwater springs, caves, hiking trails, gravel-bars and historic sites. The park is open for outdoor activities and discoveries year-round.
The park contains several "Missouri Natural Areas," deemed worthy of extra protection and recognition because of outstanding scenic and/or scientific value. Missouri's natural areas represent some of the best–and last–examples of the state’s original natural landscape. These areas are maintained and administered by the Missouri Department of Conservation, not the National Park Service. To learn more about all of the state’s protected natural areas and to find rules and tips for visits, check the Missouri Natural Areas webpage.
If you'd like to explore any or all of these hidden treasures, by all means go for it. Remember, for the protection of the waterways, flora and fauna, removing plants, flowers, insects, rocks, et cetera, is strictly prohibited. For detailed information and some dos and don’ts, read the article Floating Tips and Restrictions.
The Ozark National Scenic Riverways encompasses more than 80,000 acres. The park is used for many forms of recreation and is home to an abundance of animal and plant species, including American bald eagles, wild horses and a recently reintroduced herd of elk.
The Current River is one of the Midwest's best floatable streams, so canoeing and kayaking are the most popular activities, attracting more than 1.3 million visitors each year. The Current is fed by some of the nation's largest springs. The headwaters of the Current River begin in Montauk State Park, where seven springs provide excellent trout fishing. The National Park contains the largest concentration of first magnitude springs in the United States; including two of note: Blue Spring (81 million gallons daily) and Big Spring (one of America’s biggest, with an average daily flow of around 300 million gallons).
Since floating is the major activity, there are several canoe outfitters in the area, most operating year-round. They offer everything needed for a day (or more) on the river. For details and a complete list of floatable streams and outfitters state-wide, contact the Missouri Canoe & Floaters Association.
Other popular activities include horseback riding, hunting, hiking, fishing, ziplines, camping, backpacking and sightseeing. The park is dotted with campgrounds, some operated by the National Park Service; others are managed by the Missouri State Parks, plus privately operated campsites. Park rangers often present campfire programs and nature hikes at the bigger campgrounds during the summer. The park is home to many caves, including Round Spring Cavern, which offers ranger-led tours Memorial Day weekend through Labor Day.
The area is traversed by the renowned Ozark Trail, a rugged hiking trail that runs more than 200 miles from southern St. Louis into northern Arkansas. Bordering the national park, Roger Pryor Pioneer Backcountry is the largest undeveloped area in Missouri’s state park system. The 60,000-acre tract, in a remote corner of the Ozarks, contains more than 30 miles of trails, including nearly 15 miles of frontage along the pristine Current River. A short distance from the southern section of the Ozark National Scenic Riverways is an area known as the Irish Wilderness. Dedicated a true wilderness by act of Congress in 1984, this 16,277 acre wilderness, consisting of dense forest and undulating topography, is Missouri's largest Wilderness Area. Outdoor enthusiasts enjoy hiking, backpacking and primitive camping there. There are some restrictions, so check the website before you go. For details, read “Hiking in the Ozarks,” an article from the National Parks Service.
Two crucial rules: 1> Do Not Carry in Your Own Firewood! Moving firewood around the country spreads forest pests like the Emerald Ash Borer and Gypsy Moth. 2> Missouri law prohibits glass containers and glass bottles of any kind, and all foam-type food and beverage coolers on and near any waterway.
This entire section of Missouri is a great place to “get away from it all,” where you can actually find some peace, quiet and solitude all year. Don’t let the seasons deter you; there is always something new to discover and experience in and around the Ozark National Scenic Riverways national park. Just get out there and do it.
Missouri – enjoy the show.