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Sierra Magazine
Way to Go: Ozark Pleasures

Riparian refuge is always close by in Mark Twain National Forest, Missouri.

by Meg Krehbiel

"One could believe that human creatures had never intruded there before," Mark Twain is said to have exclaimed after traveling the waterways of the Missouri Ozarks. More accustomed to the bustle along the Mississippi River than to the solitude of the dense forest nearby, Twain had stumbled on the perfect riverman's retreat. Today, the 1.5-million-acre national forest that bears his name is still a midwestern oasis.

The area straddling the Missouri/Arkansas border is an ecological crossroads, where eastern forests meet western prairie and deep stands of oak and hickory give way to sunny glades and limestone cliffs. Below the weather-beaten surface, hidden streams have carved thousands of caves out of porous limestone. With all that subterranean activity, the Ozarks boast the largest concentration of springs in the world.

Though Twain found pristine wilderness, the Missouri Ozarks were hardly untouched. From the 19th century until World War I, loggers felled the virgin oak and pine forests. Once-clear rivers filled with silt and gravel washed from denuded hillsides. (The gravel bars familiar to Ozark river campers are, for the most part, the result of channels blasted in riverbeds to transport timber.) But nearly 80 years of recovery have produced large unbroken stretches of second-growth oak, pine, hickory, gum, and dogwood that provide habitat for bald eagle, osprey, wild turkey, beaver, and bobcat.

For most people, though, the region's biggest attractions are its clear and fast-flowing rivers. More than 350 miles of floatable streams crisscross the national forest. The Eleven Point (a national scenic river) offers 35 miles of canoeing, five miles of it along the border of the Irish Wilderness. The river receives an average daily flow of 220 million gallons from Greer Spring, Missouri's second-largest spring. Nearby, the Current River and its main tributary, the Jacks Fork, are permanently safeguarded as the Ozark National Scenic Riverways. Solitude seekers be warned: these two rivers are spectacular, but they're also the most popular in Missouri.

Ozark hiking trails offer as much variety as the canoe routes. Visitors find rewarding views of rivers and hills from the 230-mile Ozark Trail, part of an ambitious project that will eventually include 500 miles of paths across Missouri. The trail is rugged, so a map is essential. If canoeing and hiking seem too mundane, try exploring the region's caves. Whether you hope to recapture some of Twain's solitude or just want a fun float down a cool river, the Missouri Ozarks will provide hard-to-believe beauty.

Nuts & Bolts: How to Prepare

The best times to enjoy the Ozarks are in spring when the redbuds and dogwoods bloom, fall when the leaves change, or on summer weekdays. The dog days bring the most predictable weather (from 60 to 90 degrees) but also crowds, at least on weekends. Since so many rivers here are spring-fed, most can be paddled year-round. (One notable exception is the upper stretch of the Jacks Fork, one of the region's most beautiful runs, which is best in spring or after good summer rains.) In summer, most Ozark rivers are mild enough for inexperienced paddlers. Always check with park rangers about conditions before starting out, however.

For More Information

For detail on trips in the Missouri Ozarks, contact the Sierra Club's Ozark Chapter at 325 N. Kirkwood Rd., Kirkwood, MO 63122; (314) 909-0890; or Mark Twain National Forest, 401 Fairgrounds Rd., Rolla, MO 65401; (314) 364-4621. For information on floating the Current and Jacks Fork, contact Ozark National Scenic Riverways, P.O. Box 490, Van Buren, MO 63965; (314) 323-4236. For maps of the Ozark Trail, contact the Missouri Department of Natural Resources, P.O. Box 176, Jefferson City, MO 65102; (800) 334-6946.

For Deeper Reading

Longtime resident and author Sue Hubbell describes Ozark life in A Country Year (Random House, 1986). River rats can turn to The Floater's Guide to Missouri by Andy Cline (Falcon, 1992) and Ozark Whitewater by Tom Kennon (Menasha Ridge, 1993). Ozark Hideaways by Louis C. White (University of Missouri Press, 1993) details 27 hiking and fishing trips in southwest Missouri and northern Arkansas, while Missouri Nature Viewing Guide (Missouri Department of Conservation, 1995), edited by Charlotte Overby and Martha Daniels, lists 101 spectacular wildlife and nature viewing areas around the state.

Meg Krehbiel is Sierra's editorial intern.

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