The Buffalo River near Hemmed-in-Hollow

Fifteen years ago, if you told me there were two—let alone 40—amazing paddling trips in the Ozarks worth visiting from afar, I would have replied: “What’s an Ozark?” Back then, as a California raft guide, my favorite rivers included the dam-released Tuolumne, the spring-melt North Fork American, and three rain-fed forks of the Smith. I thought springs were trickles from which you filled a water bottle. Karst topography was an exotic Asian landform. And a fenster—like Devil’s Well on the Current River, where a spring emerges and is swallowed by a sinkhole leading to an underground lake and river—sounded more like part of Tolkien’s Middle Earth than America’s Midwest.

After a decade paddling the Ozarks, I can report what the locals have long known: Here you’ll find dramatic limestone-dolomite landscapes, lush hardwood forests, abundant wildlife, and reputedly the largest collection of freshwater springs in the country. With ample Class I-II float streams, a surprising number of whitewater gems, 7 streams in the National Wild & Scenic Rivers system, and 3 rivers protected by national parks, the Ozarks of Missouri and Arkansas offer enough remarkable paddling to fill a lifetime. Culled from the guidebook Paddling the Ozarks (forthcoming May 2017 from Falcon Guides) here are 5 of the region’s best float trips that will impress any avid paddler.

Best Wilderness: Buffalo National River, Arkansas

The Buffalo River winds through the Ponca Wilderness

Looking down from the goat trail on Big Bluff, the Buffalo River winds through the Ponca Wilderness

In the Boston Mountains, the most rugged subsection of the Ozark Plateau, you’ll find a 151-mile river protected by what National Geographic called America’s 2nd most underappreciated National Park. Facts about the Buffalo sound like a contestant for a paddling beauty contest: sheer bluffs rise hundreds of feet above the river; the tallest waterfall between the Rockies and the Appalachians (Hemmed-in-Hollow at 212 feet); and, at 35,000 combined acres, the largest wilderness lands in the Midwest. The most dramatic and popular section is the 10.6 miles from Ponca to Kyle’s Landing, which includes 500-foot Big Bluff. Located on the upper Buffalo, the Class II Ponca runs most reliably during winter and spring, though off-season rain occasionally bumps the flow. Plenty of worthy sections await below, and there’s even a Class III whitewater headwaters run—shhh, code-named the Hailstone.

How about a topographical controversy? Ken Smith, author of the Buffalo River Handbook, identifies this 190 foot cliff as Bee Bluff because it once housed a colony of wild bees. The NPS places Bee Bluff several miles downstream. The take-away? More bluffs (and bees?) than names.

Most Springs: Current River, Missouri

Blue Spring on the Current River

All but the uppermost 13 miles of this 184-mile river runs year-round, fed by more springs than any other Ozark stream. This includes the heftiest of all, Big Spring, which averages 470 cfs bursting from under a cliff near Van Buren. In 1926, naturalist Aldo Leopold was so smitten by the lower Current he built a cabin along its banks.

The Current River, above Pulltite, at a high spring flow

In 1964, the Current was protected by Ozark National Scenic Riverways, the first park to protect a wild river system. Today, due to motorboat use on the lower river, most paddling occurs on upper sections between Cedargrove and Round Spring, with Pulltite Campground making an excellent base.

Most Springs Runner Up: North Fork of the White, Missouri

Just below Hammond Camp is North Fork of the White’s very own Blue Spring–yes, another one! FYI–Don’t ever try to navigate across the Ozarks using nothing but Blue Springs. You’ll go in circles more than a lost boy scout at an orienteering meet.

While the parent stream, the White River, has been impounded by a series of 8 dams, there remain 50 miles of Class II free-flowing river on the North Fork, with the 30 miles between Hebron and Dawt Mill running year-round. The reason? According to the Missouri Dept. of Natural Resources, the North Fork is the 2nd most spring-fed river in the Ozarks, yielding 1 cfs in base-flow for every 4.5 square-miles of watershed (the Current is 1 cfs for every 2.6 sq mi). Hammond Camp at North Fork Rec Area is a popular access point. Above Hammond, the river flows through near-wilderness of Mark Twain National Forest, while below Hammond occasional outfitter camps and homes line the scenic banks.

Favorite Float Trip: Jacks Fork, Missouri

Friends from the unofficial “Spud Packers Outdoor Club” (don’t ask) enjoy the Jacks Fork above Rymers during their 28th annual winter float trip.

There are many reasons why the other half of Ozark National Scenic Riverways, the Jacks Fork, is mentioned by many Missourians as their favorite Ozark float trip. The upper 30 miles have dolomite bluffs creating a canyon-like wilderness valley. Jam Up cave has the most dramatic riverside entrance (80′ by 100′) in the state. And crystal clear spring water keeps the sections immediately above and below Alley Spring running year round, while the upper sections are typically preferred in winter and spring.

Best Overnight: Eleven Point River, Missouri

The mists of the Eleven Point, at sunset, near Boze Spring

This gem is a river of mysteries: First clue? A persistent river level fog appears most evenings and burns off most mornings. Despite being among the original 8 units included in the National Wild & Scenic Rivers system, no one is sure where the name came from. Toss in the 2nd largest spring in the Ozarks (Greer at ~360 cfs) which makes the lower 28 miles run year-round, plus 8 free float-in river camps, blue ribbon trout fishing, the Irish Wilderness, and 19 to 44 miles of cold clear water perfect for a 2-5 day trip and the mystery deepens: why don’t more paddlers know about the Eleven Point (and the Ozarks, in general)?

On Ozark float streams, like the Eleven Point, expect abundant rope swing hazards, which have been known to delay paddling trips for 20, sometimes 30, minutes. (photo: Kelly Kasten)

Continue to Best Whitewater Trips in the Ozarks

Read more by Mike Bezemek, who writes and photographs Regular Paddler, Remarkable Waters for C&K, a paddling series about “stepping down” the intensity and “stepping out” the experience. He also authors Bull on Tap for Bull: Men’s Fiction, a series of satirical reviews of “shitty” beer, which are linked to on his website mikebezemek.com. The guidebook Paddling the Ozarks, for Falcon Guides, will be out May 1st, 2017.