A Park Chaser’s Guide to Ozark National Scenic Riverways

For every national park unit we plan to visit, there’s a certain amount of research that goes into what to see and do.  Websites, blog posts, TripAdvisor links, podcasts are some of the first things we look for when searching for travel information.  But when we planned for a stop in Missouri’s Ozark National Scenic Riverways (our 90th of the 400+ national park units), we were surprised with how little we could find about the destination. Even though it’s less documented among national park fans, among the National Wild and Scenic Rivers, Ozark National Scenic Riverways is still one of the more popular.  Around 1.2 million people visit the park annually.  That’s nearly double the visitor count of Minnesota’s St. Croix National Scenic Riverway, one of the closest parks to our home in St. Paul. Well, fellow Park Chasers.  Look no further.  After our March 2020 visit want to make sure everyone has the chance to see and explore everything the park has to offer.  There’s so much here you won’t want to miss. So today we’re publishing our guide to Ozark National Scenic Riverways. It’s your chance to discover what everyone’s not sharing about this gem in central Missouri.

All About Ozark National Scenic Riverways

Location: Van Buren, Missouri Park Website:  https://www.nps.gov/ozar/index.htm Ozark National Scenic Riverways is one of six national parks in Missouri.  Founded in 1964, the park was the first in the National Park Service to protect a river system.   Today the 80,000 acre park preserves more than 130 miles of the Current and Jacks Fork Rivers.  Both rivers are considered some of the best floating and paddling in the Midwest. Images of Ozark National Scenic Riverways may also show up in your piggy bank.  The park was featured on a 2017 issue of the America the Beautiful quarter, representing the state of Missouri.

What to See at Ozark National Scenic Riverways

1. Get in the water.

By far the most popular way to see Ozark National Scenic Riverways is from the water.  Thousands of visitors plan canoe, kayak, and float trips through the park each year. Many of the communities around the Current and Jacks Fork Rivers thrive on canoe and raft rentals.  There are dozens of authorized concessionaires to choose from with all different lengths of float trips.  Several of these rental companies will even pick you up from your lodge or campsite for a day on the river.

2. Check out the Visitors Centers.

Even if you’re not able to spend some time on the river, you’ll still want to stop in at one of the park’s Visitor’s Centers or ranger stations.  The Van Buren headquarters location has travel information and exhibits detailing the history of the area.  The Alley Spring and Mill Store also has passport stamps, history and souvenirs.     Other locations to stop in during your visit to collect national park passport stamps:  Round Spring, Pulltite, and Akers Ranger Stations.

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3. See a freshwater spring.

One of the things Ozark National Scenic Riverways is most famous for are the springs.  If you’re not planning to float the rivers, be sure you view the water that feeds them. The park contains the largest concentration of first magnitude springs (those with outputs over 100 cubic feet per second) in the United States.  It’s one of the reasons the Current and Jacks Forks Rivers flow so cold and consistent throughout the year.
During our visit we stopped to see Big Spring, one of the largest springs in the entire U.S.  On any given day roughly 286 million gallons of water flow from the spring.  From a short hike to the parking area, you’ll see the gigantic bubbling spring and unique aqua blue waters. Other springs to add to the list during your visit:  Alley Spring (81 million gallons per day), Round Spring (26 million gallons per day), and Blue Spring (91 million gallons per day.)

5. Learn about caves.

Along with the springs, Ozark National Scenic Riverways is well-known for caves.  Over 300 have been identified within the boundaries of the park.  While the presence of white nose syndrome has reduced cave access to visitors, there are still opportunities to learn about the cave networks below and how the limestone and dolomite geology in the area creates unique cave formations. Curious above caves?  Check out Round Spring Cave, Devil’s Well, and Jam Up Cave (available only by float trip.)

6. Step back in history.

The final way we recommend enjoying Ozark National Scenic Riverways is through the existing historical structures around the park.  Much of the Ozark park area was originally Missouri State Park before being donated to the National Park Service.  Many of the original structures were built through Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) and Works Progress Administration (WPA) funds in the 1920s and 1930s.  Others, including the Alley Spring Mill, Welch Hospital Ruins, and the Klepzig Mill bring visitors back to the early homestead era of Missouri’s first EuroAmerican settlers. For a look at Native American history in the Ozark National Scenic Riverways area, stop in at one of the visitor’s centers to speak with park staff.  The Osage and Missippian Peoples once called the lands in and around Ozark National Scenic Riverways home.  At nearby Buffalo National Riverway in Arkansas, you can view historic villages and bluff shelters built by the Osage.

The Best Time to Visit

While it’s possible to visit the park year-round, the warmer summer months of late-May to early-October are by far the most popular.  It’s when the water activities are in full swing and when the park’s amenities are fully available. Camping is available year-round, however water may not be available October to May.  The Headquarters Visitor Center remains open year-round however amenities at the other ranger stations and visitor’s centers are only open Memorial Day through late-September.

Where to Stay at Ozark National Scenic Riverways

Camping – There are 7 developed campground around the park, and many others located in nearby national and state forest areas.  Alley Spring and Big Spring Campground the two largest in the park, offer electric hook ups, water, and some reservable sites.  Semi-primitive and float-in campsites are also available for multi-day canoe camping trips.

Lodging – The Ozarks are well known for lodges, resorts, and getaway properties.  From small motels up to luxury vacation rentals, it’s possible to find just about everything in the gateway towns around the Riverways.  Google Search for properties in the communities of Van Buren, Eminence, West Plains, and Poplar Bluff for the best hotel and lodge options.


Why not make it a road trip?

While Ozark National Scenic Riverways offers plenty for a family summer vacation, it’s also a great destination to add on a longer road trip.  Check out how we added the trip to our 2020 Midwest National Park road trip (and saw Missouri’s other national parks along the way!)

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Greg & Amy
Chasing a visit to all 400+ units in the NPS
Current Count: 130/423
Next Stop: @hawaiivolcanoes


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