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
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
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.