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.
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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