Rivers probably aren’t the first features that come to mind when you think about the U.S. National Parks, though hundreds of them flow through the parks and some are even quite famous (think: the Colorado River in Grand Canyon National Park, the Snake River in Grand Teton National Park and the Alsek River in Glacier Bay National Park).
The Ozark National Scenic Riverways has a unique claim to fame: it’s the first and only scenic waterway in the National Park Service. Locally, this park is known as one of the best places for float trips in the midwest and it’s also a favorite spot for fishing and camping. What makes the waters here worth being protected (and perfect for lazy days floating along)? The two main rivers that make up the park, the Current and Jacks Fork Rivers, are spring fed, making them calm and easy to navigate as well as clear and cold year-round. In fact, the park has one of the largest concentrations of first-magnitude springs (springs that discharge at least 64.6 million gallons of water per day) and one of the single largest springs in the United States, the aptly named Big Spring.
Beyond the riverways, there’s hiking, camping, historic and archeological sites, caves and waterfalls.
Make a Splash in the Pristine Waters of the Ozark National Scenic Riverways
The two main rivers of the park are crystal clear and classified as Class 1 streams (the easiest classification), which means they’re nice and calm. The fact that outboard motor horsepower is limited on the Jacks Fork River and on a section of the Current River helps preserve their natively peaceful atmosphere, allowing them to provide endless fun and excitement for visitors—from swimming, tubing and canoeing to Jon boating, hiking and birding.
The rivers are fed by numerous springs located in the park, including seven major ones with colors that must be seen to be believed.
Rent a Kayak, Canoe, Raft or Tube in Riverways
Numerous road access points along both the Current and the Jacks Fork Rivers make them easy to get to. And outfitters located up and down the rivers stand ready to equip visitors with all the gear needed for a host of water adventures; they’ll even put you in and pick you up when you’re done. All you need to do is decide what part of a river you want to play in and call a nearby rental company to make arrangements.
You can also fish in the two rivers (112 different species of fish reside in the park’s waters), though not in the springs or spring branches. But you’ll need a Missouri fishing license, and for trout, a trout permit to cast your lines here.
Explore Springs, Falls and a Cave
Big Spring (4 miles south of Van Buren), which swells the nearby Current River, will wow you with its size and jewel-like blue color—the result of 70 tons of dissolved limestone coming in daily, the roughly 80-foot-deep cavern they carve and the blue of the sky above. The water flows in from up to 45 miles away, through a network of underground passages. Listen quietly and you’ll hear the unique sounds they produce.
While you can’t swim or fish in Bog Spring, the view is easy to access and it’ll blow you away—you can see it from the parking area and a wheelchair-accessible walkway leads right up to it. You can also hike the surrounding trails; picnic nearby; and camp at Big Spring Campground, which has sites for both tents and RVs.
Round Spring and Round Spring Cave
Come to the Round Spring area, 13 miles north of Eminence, to see both a spring and an awesome natural cave—three times per day during the summer, park rangers conduct 2-hour underground lantern tours for 15 people at a time on a first come first served basis (tickets are $5.00 for adults and $2.00 for kids).
The spring appears as a circular pool and is circumscribed by a wheelchair- accessible paved trail. Come by to gaze at the awesome water and spot otters, wood ducks and great blue herons. You can also picnic and camp nearby.
For campground reservations, please visit recreation.gov or call 877-444-6777.
Blue Spring on the Current River
At more than 310 feet deep, Blue Spring, located 14 miles west of Ellington, is one of the deepest springs in the U.S., and that great depth gives its waters a spectacular blue tone. Follow a ¼-mile trail from the parking lot to get to the water’s edge—in spring it’s lined with wildflowers that make the vista even more beautiful and in fall, the foliage adds jolts of warm color to the scene.
Tumbling over reddish-brown rocks, the rushing waters of Rocky Falls, located on Route NN, off of Route H east of Eminence and Winona, provide a nice contrast to the gentle swimming hole they empty into. While you can visit the falls any time of year, the spring season frames the waters in lovely blooming trees. Follow the walking trail, climb the rocks (with care!), swim in the natural pool below the falls and stay on to picnic. The falls are most active after a rain.
Learn about additional springs and other sites to visit in Ozark National Scenic Riverways National Park here.
Read Next: Gateway Arch National Park Guide – A St. Louis Icon. Explore the riverfront and nearby attractions including a museum where you’re encouraged to climb on the exhibits.