Paddling into Cave Spring on the Current is always a memorable experience. Photographers are drawn to the spot for its play of light and shadow. Photo—Barbara Gibbs Ostmann

Show-Me Secret: The Ozark National Scenic Riverways is waiting

This story originally appeared in the June 2022 issue of Missouri Life magazine.

If you ask me my favorite place, I will answer without hesitation: the Current and Jacks Fork Rivers in the Ozark National Scenic Riverways (ONSR).

Although the Riverways is a national park, it sometimes seems like it is the best-kept secret in the state. I am regularly surprised by Missouri residents who have never heard of it or been there. I can’t be more emphatic: the Riverways is heaven on Earth right here in the Ozarks.

Until you’ve paddled a spring-fed, crystal-clear Ozark stream, it is difficult to envision one. You need to experience it for yourself. For starters, I’ll share some of my favorite floats on the upper Current. Each section contains at least one major feature that adds special appeal to the day’s journey.

  • If possible, float during the week.
  • Try to avoid summer Saturdays and big holiday weekends, when the river tends to be jam-packed with revelers.
  • And always wear your PFD (personal flotation device, or lifejacket).
Whether by raft, tube, paddle board, kayak, or canoe, a lazy float down the Jacks Fork is a summer treasure. Photo—Aaron Fuhrman, Missouri Division of Tourism

Cedar Grove to Akers

The section from Cedar Grove to Akers is one of the most beautiful stretches of the river. There’s a wilderness quality to it that feeds my soul. Be on the lookout for a spring branch feeding into the river on the right. Paddle up the branch to the base of Medlock Spring, which resembles a waterfall as it cascades down the rocky hillside. Some people scramble up the rocks to the cave at the top, but the cave is not open to the public.

The major attraction on this stretch of river is Welch Spring and the ruins of an ill-fated health resort. If you’re lucky, park service interpretive ranger Mark Van Patten will be on duty, sharing tales of the early days along the Current. His wife’s ancestors once owned the land around the spring and on the other side of the river.

The spring pours 75 million gallons of water a day into the Current, substantially increasing the river flow. You also can reach Welch Spring via a footpath from Welch Landing; the trail leads you to the spring pool, across from the hospital ruins.

Akers Ferry marks the end of this section. It’s the last ferry operating in the Riverways. If you’ve never ridden a two-car ferry, take time to do so, even if you just ride over and then turn around and ride back.

Akers to Pulltite

The next section is Akers to Pulltite, and the big attraction on this stretch is Cave Spring, where you can paddle into the cave. Use a light with a strong beam to look deep into the pool in the back of the cave, and pause for a moment on the way out to take an iconic photo of paddlers silhouetted in the cave opening.

Although paddling inside the cave is exciting, you also can reach Cave Spring on foot by hiking down from Devil’s Well, which is accessible by car from Highway KK.

Devil’s Well is itself worth a visit. You descend a winding wooden stairway to a gated opening where you can peer down at the huge underground lake, larger than a football field.

Pulltite to Round Spring

Pulltite Spring is one of the highlights of the section from Pulltite to Round Spring. Just minutes after putting in at the Pulltite campground access, pull over to the right where the spring branch flows into the river. Follow the trail to the spring, then take the short side trail to Pulltite Cabin, a vertical log construction similar to ones found in Ste. Genevieve. Because of vandalism and flood damage, the cabin is closed to the public.

Farther down this stretch, you’ll spy the distinctive black and white lodge and outbuildings of Current River State Park on the river’s left. Pull over and get out for a walk up the hill to the lodge and lakes. You might be able to catch a tour of the lodge and gym given by park staff on various days during the summer season.

The Riverways is heaven on Earth right here in the Ozarks.

Soon after leaving Current River State Park, you’ll reach the confluence of Sinking Creek and the Current River. Pull over on the gravel bar and wade in Sinking Creek, whose sun-kissed waters feel warm compared to the spring-cooled Current River. Paddle on down to the take-out at Round Spring, and you’ll have completed one leg of the three-part Current River Challenge. You can complete the two hiking portions—from Round Spring to Echo Bluff State Park, and from Echo Bluff to Current River State Park—any time and in any order. When you have completed all three legs, you’ll receive bragging rights and a commemorative bandana.

Before leaving the area, take time to visit Round Spring. The stunning blue of this circular spring changes with the weather and the time of day. If Round Spring Cave is open for tours, don’t miss the opportunity to explore this beautiful cave.

Jammin’ on the Jacks

The Jacks Fork is a tributary of the Current, and is part of the Scenic Riverways. The upper Jacks, from the Prongs to Buck Hollow, Rymer, and Bay Creek, is the most spectacular, but it is also the most dependent on water levels for a good float.

  • Early spring is usually the best time to paddle these upper sections.
  • Gravel bar camping on a multi-day trip is the ideal way to enjoy the scenery and tranquility of these remote sections.
  • Always be aware of weather upstream and the possibility of flash flooding.

One of the wonders on the upper Jacks is Jam-Up Cave, accessible only by river between Blue Spring and Rymers. The massive opening is visible from the water, and energetic folks scramble up the rocky bluff to reach the mouth of the cave. You can wander around the opening, but the rest of the cave is off limits to protect the bats.

The roiling waters of Big Spring race through the spring branch on the way to the Current River. Photo—Patty Wheatley-Bishop

Alley Spring to Eminence

The stretch from Alley Spring to Eminence is floatable year round thanks to the flow of 81 million gallons daily from Alley Spring. This is the most popular section and hence the busiest on summer weekends, so plan accordingly. If you haven’t seen Alley Mill, one of the most photographed sites in the state, be sure to make time for a visit. In the summer, the iconic red mill is open for tours. The hiking trails around the spring pool and branch are open all year.

You also can float from Eminence to Two Rivers, where the Jacks Fork joins the Current River. The river is wider, with less spectacular scenery than previous sections, but it is less crowded and you have a good chance of seeing the wild horses of Shannon County that often cross between Shawnee Creek and Broadfoot fields. 

Paddling how-to

So you’re a novice paddler and are a bit hesitant about setting out on the river. Or maybe it’s been awhile since you were in a kayak or canoe and you need a refresher. No problem. Missouri State Parks and the Missouri Department of Conservation offer a variety of paddling programs; most are free or with a minimal fee. Check their website calendars to find classes near you.

The ONSR joins with Current River State Park and the Ozark Riverways Foundation to offer a series of kayak clinics each summer. Classes begin on land at Current River State Park, then move to the lake to practice strokes and get a feel for the kayak. After a sack lunch, which you bring for yourself, participants head to the river for an instructional float from the state park to Round Spring. A shuttle returns you to the state park.

Volunteers who are American Canoe Association accredited kayak instructors assist with the clinics. (I’m a volunteer instructor; hope to see you on the river.) These classes fill up fast, so contact the Round Spring ranger station at Skyler_Bockman@ to check on dates and sign up.

The park also offers interpretive floats led by a park ranger, who will point out wonders you might otherwise miss. Another way to take the paddling plunge is to join a group trip such as Paddle MO Ozark, which will be October 15-17 this year. Organized by Stream Teams United and led by Jody and Bill Miles of

, this three-day, 25-mile float on the Current from Cedar Grove to Round Spring is the ideal way to learn about the river and gain confidence in your paddling skills.

For more information, visit 

Where to Sleep

One of the best places to rest your weary bones is in a tent camp on a gravel bar. But not everyone is eager to sleep on the ground, even with a comfy pad, so there are many options, from rustic cabins to luxurious vacation rentals to RV campgrounds.

Echo Bluff State Park, one of the newest in the state park system, is on Highway 19 between Salem and Eminence and is the ideal base for your Current River adventures. You can choose from lodge rooms, cabins, and RV or tent camping. The lodge and cabins are usually booked a year in advance for prime summer dates, but it is always worth a call to check availability because plans do change and people do cancel.

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Even if you can’t snag a room reservation, take time to visit the park and enjoy the beautiful lodge and its view of Sinking Creek and the namesake Echo Bluff. You can dine at Creekside Grill, either inside or on the deck, and shop in the park store. The day-use area has a sprinkler park and playground for the kids, as well as walking trails, a lovely spring, and picnic shelters. And of course, you can plop your chair down in Sinking Creek and indulge in the popular pastime of creek sitting.

While you’re in the Echo Bluff area, head a few miles north to the Shannondale Community Center in Timber. On weekends from Memorial Day through mid-October, the Wobus Craft Center across the road from the church is open. It showcases arts and crafts by local artisans. On the Jacks Fork, my personal favorite is Bunker Hill Retreat, which is just around the bend downriver from Rymers. Formerly for members of the Missouri State Teachers Association, Bunker Hill is now open to the public. My sisters and I have been going there for a week every summer for decades.

Bunker Hill is a family-oriented place, great for reunions with its variety of cabin sizes. The dining hall serves a family-style breakfast and dinner, and all the facilities are free for guest use—kayaks and canoes at the gravel bar, miniature golf, tennis, putting green, horseshoes, shuffleboard, basketball, volleyball, library, and the ever-popular ring toss and rocking chairs. 

Grabbing a bite or a cone

You have to eat to fuel up for all the outdoor activities. Although there are few upscale options, there are plenty of places to get a good home-style meal, finger-lickin’ barbecue, or tasty Mexican fare in Eminence, Van Buren, Mountain View, and other towns along the Riverways.

There are two iconic must-do places: the Dairy Shack in Eminence and the Jolly Cone in Van Buren. When you’ve worked up an appetite with paddling and hiking excursions, you won’t want to miss these popular local eateries for a shake, cone, or burger.

Other things to do

Although paddling on the river is the prime activity in the Riverways, fishing is a close second and is often a part of a float trip. In the headwaters of the Current, just outside Montauk State Park and downriver to about Akers, rainbow and brown trout are the catch of the day. Farther down the river, bluegill, catfish, bass, and other species make for fun fishing and good eating.

Camping and hiking follow close after paddling and fishing and are often mixed as part of the adventure. Horseback riding is a huge draw for the area, with horse owners bringing their own beasts for major cross-country events in the spring, summer, and fall.

Bird watchers find many birds to add to their life lists. If you venture by chance into the right place in the Ozark woodlands, you might even see the long-gone and newly re-introduced brown-headed nuthatch. A drive to Peck Ranch to see the elk herd is always popular. Early morning and right before dark are the best times to find the elk browsing in the open areas. The ranch closes for specific time periods during hunting seasons, so check before you go.

RELATED: Finding Elk at Peck Ranch

While in the Peck Ranch area, be sure to drive to Rocky Falls, a shut-in on Rocky Creek. In the summer, it’s a popular swimming hole. Year-round it’s a highlight for hikers on the Ozark Trail. See what the Native Americans were talking about when they called Blue Spring on the Current River the Spring of the Summer Sky.

You can float from Eminence to Two Rivers, where the Jacks Fork joins the Current River, and you have a good chance of seeing the wild horses of Shannon County

From Eminence, head east on 106 to the turn-off for Blue Spring. It’s a rough gravel road, followed by a short walk from the parking area, but this spring is worth the trip. Be prepared to be gobsmacked. The intense blue color is mesmerizing. For the granddaddy of all the springs, head to Big Spring, just south of Van Buren. The largest spring in Missouri and one of the largest in North America, Big Spring pours a mind-boggling 286 million gallons of water into the Current River each day.

There’s an easy footpath to the head of the spring, then a hiking trail that leads around the spring pool. Be sure to note the Big Spring Historic District nearby. The picturesque lodge and cabins were built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s. All are closed for renovation, so plan on coming back in a couple of years when they reopen. It’s one of my favorite places to stay and I can’t wait to book a cabin again.

While in Van Buren, stop by the ONSR headquarters and browse through the exhibits and the gift shop. However you decide to visit the Riverways, I hope you fall in love with the area as I have. It’s a gem. worthy of discovery.

Recommended reading: The author’s article, Winter Floating, should be next on your reading list.