Length: About 310 miles, plus side trips.
When to go: Popular year-round.
Words to the wise: Heavy rains can make rivers rise suddenly, so choose campsites that allow a route for escape. Swim only in clear, calm water and look below the surface for submerged objects.
Nearby attractions: Elephant Rocks State Park, Rte. 21 near Belleview. Clearwater Lake, Rte. 34, east of Garwood. Meramec State Park, Rte. 185 near Sullivan.
Further information: Ozark National Scenic Riverways, Box 490, Van Buren, MO 63965; tel. 573-323-4236. Mark Twain National Forest, 401 Fairgrounds Rd., Rolla, MO 65401; tel. 573-364-4621, www.fs.fed.us/r9/marktwain/.
Spewing from limestone crevices deep in the subterranean aquifer and gurgling into tranquil pools, the turquoise springs of the Ozark Mountains are among the largest and most plentiful on earth. Remarkably clear, curiously constant, and each with its own personality, they tell a tale as old as the hills that surround them and as lively as the rivers they feed. As you drive through the quiet Ozarks, you’ll discover historical settings that seem unchanged from the days of the settlers.
1. Onondaga Cave State Park
On the drive south from I-44 on Rte. H, the rocky slopes and folded hollows on all sides conceal a vast honeycomb of caves and underground streams. Missouri, in fact, boasts a total of some 5,000 grand and small limestone caverns. In the minds of many, Onondaga Cave, the focal point of a state park near Leasburg, is the most spectacular of them all.
It’s an excellent place to learn about the secrets of these hidden worlds. The Onondaga Cave’s story began about 550 million years ago, when a shallow marine sea covered this entire region. Sediments beneath the sea hardened into limestone and dolomite, and for eons after, either the sea receded or the land was uplifted, percolating groundwater dissolved away the stone, opening flooded underground channels and, as the water levels dropped, the open cavities we call caves.
Water filtering through the semiporous stone then leached out calcium carbonate and deposited it on the walls, floors, and ceilings of Onondaga Cave as the water carrying it evaporated, creating the intricate calcite deposits that decorate it today. As you tour this silent wonderland, lights cast an eerie glow on walls encrusted with cave coral or draped with silky-smooth flowstone. Ceilings are festooned with dripping “soda straws,” and lily pad–shaped stones seem to float on the waters’ pools.
2. Meramec Spring Park
Once back in the light of day, you can swim, hike, or picnic along the shores of the Meramec River, which flows through Onondaga Cave State Park. Or you can drive to another park, located just a few miles away, that shelters the Meramec’s pristine source.
To get there, follow the gravel road out of Onondaga Cave State Park for three miles through the Huzzah Wildlife Area, heading south on Rte. E to the junction with Rte. 8. Then veer west and continue through Steelville to the rugged hills of Maramec Spring Park, named for the largest of the springs that nourish the river. Once the site of a 19th-century mining community, the 1,800-acre park is crisscrossed with nature trails.
Scotch-Irish farmers from the Appalachians began trickling into the Ozarks in the late 1700s, but it was Shawnee Indians who led keen-eyed Ohio businessmen to this area. The Indians had pointed out the “red earth” they used as body paint, and the white men correctly suspected the presence of iron ore. In 1826 the first successful ironworks west of the Mississippi was established here, and it continued to operate for 50 years. One lonely furnace is all that remains today, but the ironworks are recalled at the park’s museum.
3. Mark Twain National Forest
The rough-hewn yet city-polished Mark Twain probably never set foot in the 1.5-million-acre forest that bears his name, but you can: turn south on Rte. 19, which dominates much of this drive and serves as the scenic backbone of the Missouri Ozarks. Once you reach Cherryville, continue south on Rte. 49, which snakes into Mark Twain National Forest.
Its rocky slopes and deep, shady hollows—where white-tailed deer forage and rabbits dart about—are at their most captivating in spring, when redbuds and dogwoods blossom into pink-and-white clouds beside babbling springs and frothing rivers. In the autumn, hardwoods cast a mantle of reds and golds across the hills.
The national forest is managed for multiple use, which means that interspersed with its trail-laced wilderness areas are bustling resort lakes, grazing lands, active mines, and logging operations. If you had visited these wooded slopes seven decades ago, you would have seen something quite different: a denuded wasteland—the result of clear-cutting—with gravel washing down eroded hillsides into the rivers and streams.
Renewal began in the 1930s when the Civilian Conservation Corps planted millions of pine, hickory, and oak trees. Populations of deer and wild turkey soon grew as they regained their habitats. The waters now teem with bass, bluegills, sunfish, crappies, and catfish, and squirrels, raccoons, and opossums share the trees with 175 species of birds—all in all, a notable environmental success story.
Dillard Mill State Historical Site, one mile south off Rte. 49, is a picturesque spot for a picnic in the recovered forest. Nestled among grassy, pine-topped bluffs overlooking Huzzah Creek, it was built in 1900 and was one of many gristmills that depended on the Ozarks’ most plentiful natural resource—free-flowing water—for its power.
4. Indian Trail Conservation Area
Following Rte. 19 southwest from Cherryville to Rte. 117, the drive dips into 13,000-acre Indian Trail State Conservation Area, where the paths once were traveled by two different tribes. Generations of Osage Indians trod stealthily through the woodland, leaving an ancient trail known as the White River Trace. The second forest footpath, tramped out by Indians on their forced march to Oklahoma in 1838, is part of the infamous Trail of Tears, during which thousands of Cherokees died.
5. Montauk State Park
Continuing on Rte. 19 to the town of Salem, the drive turns west onto Rte. 32 and then south again on Rte. 119. This 22-mile side trip along forested ridges atop the Ozark Highlands leads to Montauk State Park, supposedly named by homesick pioneers from Montauk, Long Island, who in the early 1800s settled in this secluded river valley about 35 miles southwest of Indian Trail State Forest.
Here the cold, driving headwaters of the Current River, which emerge steadily from Montauk Springs, provided the water power that ran mills, and several were built in the 19th century. One, a gristmill constructed in 1896, still stands and is open to visitors. The clear, fast-flowing waters also make a perfect home for rainbow trout, attracting anglers to the river from miles around. Just south of the park the river lures paddlers, who consider the Current one of the best canoeing rivers in the Midwest.