Historic Road Trip: Missouri Ozarks

from The Most Scenic Drives in America | 217

6. Ozark National Scenic Riverways The Current River and its southern tributary, the Jacks Fork, form 130 miles of free-flowing, spring-fed, federally protected waters known as the Ozark National Scenic Riverways. Meandering down narrow valleys, diverted by frequent gravel bars, often no wider than a country road, and varying in depth, the two rivers are generally safe and easy to navigate. To ply the waters, canoes, inner tubes, and johnboats (traditional flat-bottomed fishing boats that navigate shallow waters) can be rented along both rivers.

About 30 miles south of Salem on Rte. 19, you can park your car and walk across a bridge for a lovely view of the Current River. Early in the morning it is often draped with low-lying veils of mist. Later in the day, especially on hot summer weekends, it is crowded with flotillas of fun seekers paddling canoes. 7. Alley Spring About a half-mile from the bridge that spans the Current River, you’ll come to Round Spring. Its waters rise from a circular basin formed by a collapsed cave and then pass under a low natural bridge.

Some 13 miles farther south, beside the Jacks Fork on Rte. 19, the drive reaches Eminence, a hamlet that embodies the homespun flavor of the Ozarks. Old-timers congregate outside the bank for “spit and whittle” sessions, kids spin on stools as they wait for their ice cream sodas in Winfield’s drug store, and Saturday nights resound with bluegrass music at the local Veterans of Foreign Wars hall in this hillside town.

A six-mile jaunt west on Rte. 106 leads to Alley Spring and its historic red rollermill, one of the most photographed sites in the Ozarks. Equally photogenic are the limestone bluffs of the Jacks Fork valley, seen from a footbridge that spans the Jacks Fork. Beyond the bridge a path winds down to the turquoise pool formed by a dam on Alley Spring. 8. Blue Spring About 12 miles east of Eminence on Rte. 106, along the stretch of the Current River appropriately known as Owls Bend, barred owls and screech owls do indeed perch on high ledges. Here, at the end of a gravel road, in a rocky basin beneath a black-and-buff dolomite cliff, you’ll find the deep, dazzling waters of Blue Spring, shimmering like a liquid sapphire.

Of the 1,100 or so springs scattered across Missouri, the largest are in the Ozarks, and many bear simple names that humbly describe their most obvious characteristics. In a state that prides itself on plain speaking, a spring in a round basin is called Round Spring and one whose waters are blue is dubbed Blue Spring. But what a blue it is: pure, serene, and so clear that it invites inspection. Gazing down into its transparent depths, you take a moment to realize that this is not a still pool: millions of gallons of rushing water are surging up toward you from a hidden source some 250 feet below and spilling into the creek. Nurtured by the crystalline waters, a luxuriant carpet of watercress rings the spring’s gravelly shore.

9. Big Spring Big Spring, located farther south on the Current River, is one of the largest single-outlet springs in the world. You can float to it from Blue Spring, but if you’re driving, you’ll have to loop through the forest on Rtes. 106, 21, and 60. The final four-mile stretch, on Rte. 103 (called Skyline Drive), is dramatic. From the busy fishing and tubing resort of Van Buren, it wriggles south along the top of a ridge with commanding views of the valley.

A massive limestone bluff forms the backdrop for the turbulent spectacle of Big Spring. Its outflow—277 million gallons a day on average, but reaching up to a billion in times of flood—emerges as a gushing white-water river that momentarily calms itself in a huge basin before racing ahead to its confluence with the even larger Current River.

10. Eleven Point National Scenic River From Big Spring Rte. 60 winds west through pine and hardwood forests to Winona, where Rte. 19 leads south toward the Eleven Point National Scenic River, one of the lushest areas in Mark Twain National Forest. Rushing rapids alternate with deep, slow-moving sections of river as this 44-mile-long stretch of moving water carves its way past soaring bluffs, wooded valleys, and low-lying pastures.

Wildlife thrives in this protected riverside habitat. Kingfishers scan the water for prey; huge pileated woodpeckers and their smaller downey cousins drum on tree trunks; great blue herons wade beneath aged sycamores that lean out from the shoreline; and portly wild turkeys strut across the forest floor. In springtime blossoming azaleas contribute dashes of bold, spectacular color to a scene that seems painted by a watercolorist’s brush.

For a more intimate look at this sylvan paradise, follow the one-mile footpath that leads from a parking area on Rte. 19 to nearby Greer Spring. While some Ozark springs roil, others gush. But versatile Greer Spring does both at the same time. Some of its water bubbles up from the streambed, while the rest surges from the mouth of a dark cave. The spring water then spills through a rocky, mile-long canyon before joining the Eleven Point River and more than doubling the river’s volume.

11. Grand Gulf State Park Just north of the Arkansas border, near Thayer, the drive veers west onto Rte. W, a six-mile spur leading to Grand Gulf State Park. As parks go, it’s a place of modest size—about 160 acres—but it harbors a fascinating treasure: a narrow, mile-long gulf, or chasm of stone, with vertical walls some 13 stories high. This Little Grand Canyon, as Grand Gulf is sometimes called, provides a visible outline of what was once a system of underground limestone caves whose roofs have long since collapsed. A portion of the ceiling that is still intact forms a natural bridge from which visitors can peer down into the cleft—an unusual glimpse into a hidden recess of the Ozarks, whose subterranean splendors are most often concealed beneath hundreds of feet of limestone. To view this gulf is symbolically to take part of the Ozarks home as a memory of the drive just finished.

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