Paddle the Parks: Ozark Scenic Riverways

A secret worth sharing in Missouri

Current River, Ozark National Scenic Riverways. Photo: Kloh3rd / Wikipedia Commons
Current River, Ozark National Scenic Riverways. Photo: Kloh3rd / Wikipedia Commons

A Secret Worth Sharing

Ozark National Scenic Riverways, Missouri
By Mike Bezemek

“If there is magic on this planet,” writes Loren Eisley, “it is contained in water.” Toss in lush hardwood forest, riparian wildlife, any craft that floats, and light beer—voilà: Ozark National Scenic Riverways.

During my first visit—a college canoe trip—we imbibed too much in the latter and didn’t even notice we were in a national park. I’ve since returned—and matured?—enough to confirm Ozark Riverways is very real, with narrow borders resembling rabbit ears overlaid on two Missouri classics, the Jacks Fork and Current rivers.

Established in 1964, it’s the first national park unit to protect a wild, dam-free river system. The main draw is day-floating sections along 134 clear-flowing miles. Multiday trips are possible, with primitive camping allowed on most gravel bars. Fishing for trout and bass is popular. While the headwater sections—the Prongs on the Jacks Fork or Baptist Camp on the Current—are rain-dependent, the majority of the lower sections can be paddled year-round.

The trick? Limestone karst topography produces a 3D watershed, with pervasive groundwater, countless caves, gaping sinkholes, gushing waterfalls, and some of the biggest springs in the country. So many springs, in fact, finding enough names proved a challenge. Among others, there’s Gravel Spring, Fire Hydrant Spring, Watercress Spring, two Ebb & Flow Springs, two Blue Springs, two Cave Springs, and, of course, Big Spring with an average 450 cfs bursting from under a cliff.

Options abound to beach the boats and explore. Tour Round Spring Cave with a lantern-toting ranger. Visit the historic sites of Alley Mill and Welch Hospital. Horseback ride or hike, including on the nearby Ozark Trail. Swim below Rocky Falls.

Descend into Devil’s Well, a creek-fed sinkhole, then follow a trail along bluffs to the discharge point at Cave Spring on the Current River.

All told, the lesser-known Ozark National Scenic Riverways is a secret worth sharing.

Click the links below to read about paddling adventures in a few of our favorite parks around the country:

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Grand Canyon National Park

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Lewis and Clark National and State Historical Parks

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Big Bend National Park

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The Missouri National Recreational River

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Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Paddle over the horizon line of waterfalls in Tennessee and North Carolina


Wrangell St. Elias National Park

Paddle through a seascape of water and ice in southeast Alaska


Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore

Explore Lake Superior’s panoramic coastline in Michigan


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The complete list of our favorite national parks for paddling


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