Riverway Getaway

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Ozark National Scenic Riverways (ONSR) is Missouri's largest National Park Services property, of which there are twelve, and the first national park in the United States to protect a river. It is a wonderful space for family camping or for an outing with friends, and summer float trips here are both a State tradition and right of passage. 

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GENERAL INFORMATION

 

KAMP is a mom and pop operation, and our family consists of two boys, so we'll write mostly from that perspective. For a family, there is something for nearly everyone at ONSR, whether it is excellent riverside camping, cool and clean water for boating/swimming, historic sites of relevance, short hikes or longer backpacking trails, quaint towns, abundant wildlife, etc.

On a personal note, we take notice of how people react to our kids, who are both African-American, and there are certainly plenty of places in Missouri (and elsewhere) where we have to be cautious, but seemingly, ONSR is not one of them. Yes, most of the people you are likely to meet are White, though visitors can be pretty diverse depending upon season and crowds. Still, we had wonderful interactions the whole four days that we were there, with very kind locals and Park Staff.  

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Ozark National Scenic Riverways consists of more than 80,000 acres (over four times bigger than MO's largest State Park), situated along 134 miles of the Jack's Fork and Current Rivers. The Riverways are over 60% spring-fed, giving the water excellent clarity, by the Country's largest collection of first magnitude springs in dolomite rock (including the magnificent Big Spring, the world's 1st, 2nd or 3rd largest spring, depending upon output that day). There are literally hundreds of springs here. In addition to the springs, are caves. More than 300 caves dot the Park, which are in most cases springs that went dry. During the summer months, NPS Rangers lead tours of Round Spring Caverns, while all others remain off limits year round in order to protect the bat populations from White Nose Syndrome. It is recommend when exploring any cave to take precautions to prevent the spread of this disease and to minimize your impact on such a sensitive environment. 

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As a retailer of tree tents and hammocks, it is worth drawing attention to the fact that attaching these accessories and others to trees at ONSR is not allowed in developed campsites (primitive sites are allowed, though steps to prevent tree bark damage is recommended). This is a new rule for 2018, and may or may not be extended in the future. It is obvious by reading various online forums and the Park's own social media that this rule is not popular, and we were a bit bummed to not be able to sleep in our tree tent (especially given the precautions we take, and recommend, for tree protection). Keep this rule in mind if you camp with these items, and be sure to call ahead if you plan on using them: (573) 323-4236

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With more than 1.3 million visitors every year, it is easy to understand why human impact is a major concern, and why NPS takes so many steps to mitigate that risk. The preservation of such a complex ecosystem can't be easy, and even when the rules negatively effect us, we are always appreciative of them.

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For overnight lodging, the Park includes hundreds of options, ranging from more comfortable cabins to primitive camping. The three former State Parks, Big Spring, Round Spring and Alley Spring, all have wonderful facilities and are well maintained, while some of the smaller sites can allow for a more intimate (with nature!) camp environment. Some of the sites are reservable through the NPS' site, while for others, you have to contact the campsite directly. No matter how or where you choose to stay at ONSR, be sure to take some time to visit some of the other sites while you are there (float trips are a great way to do this), and you'll know exactly where you want to hit up in the future. 

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HISTORY

 

For reader reference, our trip concentrated on the upper Current and Jack's Fork Rivers, so that is what this post focuses on. A later trip will allow us to explore the lower Current.

 

The Missouri State Park System was created in 1917, and by 1925, it had grown to include 8 areas consisting of nearly 24,000 acres. Of those original 8, three of them (mentioned already) are in what is now Ozark National Scenic Riverways. The timing of this is significant as the development of the Park System coincided with The Great Depression. Fortunately, Franklin D. Roosevelt's "New Deal" allocated funds for infrastructure development in the new State Parks, some of which still exist. Nonetheless, the surrounding region was largely impoverished during this time, both a result of the National recession and disruption caused by the Civil War decades earlier. One possible solution was to begin damming the Current River, a plan that was initially popular but was stalled by World War II. After the War, support for damming the River turned to opposition, and the dam projects ultimately failed. The conservationist movement to preserve the Current River from alteration transitioned into one of National protection. In 1956, a study by the National Parks Service generated a recommendation to Federally preserve the waterway, and in 1962, a bill endorsed by President John F. Kennedy was approved by Congress to establish the Ozark National Scenic Riverways (the first federally protected riverway in the United States).

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The original proposal included the Eleven Point River, further south in Missouri, but property owners who stood to lose their farms for such a project opposed, and so it was limited to the Current and Jack's Fork. That said, the Eleven Point became one of the first 8 rivers to be protected  under the National Wild and Scenic River Act in 1968, which celebrates its own 50-year Anniversary this year! 

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Round Spring is one of those three former State Parks located in ONSR (though the campsite is not a part of the original Park grounds), and being centrally located to both the Jack's Fork and upper Current Rivers, was our site of choice for this venture. It is also one of the campgrounds that is reservable through the NPS' website with more than 50 sites available. Watercraft can be rented nearby, and the boat ramp at Round Spring is a popular stop. This is something to note if you are looking for a quiet respite, limited motorboat travel is allowed in this section of the Current River which can be heard (and seen via the boats' lights) late into the night and early into the morning. We always recommend camping during the week if you want maximum privacy, especially in ONSR, which can become rowdy on weekends during the summer.

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Our campsite at Round Spring was close enough to the water to hear it trickling by, and granted peaks of the river through the trees. We were also just steps away from the beach and the shower facilities, despite having one of the more secluded sites in the campground. Total score! Our second night there was all rain, but that led to early morning fog, which was a real pleasure to see. 

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You can just peep our campsite through the trees (this is from the water's edge)

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 With all of the beautiful waterside views, you might believe that this is the campground's main attraction, but you'd be wrong. The Round Spring Cave is a huge hit in the summer, as the Park's only accessible cave and with two-hour long lantern-led Ranger tours. Since the Cave was closed, we spent more time getting to know the area's namesake, Round Spring. As you might expect, the Spring is round, but most remarkable is how blue it is! The images below are not over-saturated, and this is truly how it looks. 

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The blue coloring comes from limestone and dolomite dissolving from water action deep underground. Round Spring discharges on average about 26 million gallons of water per day. Incredible considering that Round Spring is no where near the largest or even "most blue" spring in ONSR! 

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NEARBY

If you are staying at Round Spring Campground, there are so many opportunities available for you to enjoy, both within Ozark National Scenic Riverways and outside it. Current River and Echo Bluff State Parks are just outside ONSR, and provide great recreational opportunities, including serene wading and crayfish chasing at Echo Bluff. 

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Going northwest along the Current River, you will encounter several notable stops. First is Devil's Well, a collapsed sinkhole or as the NPS more eloquently puts it: "A spring window". At Devil's Well you can actually descend a spiraling set of stairs into the "window" for an illuminated view 100 feet down to the chilly subterranean lake below your feet. It is an experience, for sure!

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Just past Devil's Well is Aker's Ferry, a functioning relic of a time in the park before the major bridges. On either side of the river at the Ferry crossing, travelers press a doorbell-like buzzer to alert the Ferry operator who comes scrambling out of the nearby general store during open hours. The store also doubles as a canoe rental facility, and the wide open surrounding grounds are an attractive picnic location.  

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Moving upriver, the next must-see site is the ruins of Welch Hospital at Welch Spring. 

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The hospital was constructed over a cave entrance in the early 1900's, which the physician owner hoped would help heal tuberculosis patients. The cool cave air and clean spring water was thought to have medicinal properties. Unfortunately, the Hospital's total seclusion ensured itself very few patients, and it was eventually abandoned. The Welch Spring is larger than Round Spring, generating 75 million gallons a day on average (you can really get a sense of this is the fast water flow here).

Note: the springs in Ozark National Scenic Riverways are protected as sensitive ecosystems, so swimming or wading in them is prohibited. Feel that rushing water with your eyes only. :)

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You can actually see the blue spring water mixing in here (shot with a GoPro on an extension pole).

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 Continuing up the Current, you'll eventually get to Montauk State Park, where ONSR ends.

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Another very accessible option if you are camping at Round Spring is the Jack's Fork River arm of ONSR. For this section, the town of Eminence acts as a great jumping off point for all you want to do. If you arena watercraft, you have even more access to points of interest here than you do on land, but what you can see on two legs is not insignificant.

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Alley Spring, not far from Eminence, is the obvious thing to see, and one could argue that it is the biggest attraction within Ozark National Scenic Riverways (its distinctive red mill even wound up on the back of the 2017 U.S. Quarter). Of the three springs covered in this post, Alley Spring is the largest with an average daily output of 81 million gallons.

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The flour mill at Alley Spring was built in 1894, and features a submerged turbine, rather than an exterior rotating wheel, to power its machinery. Almost from the time of its construction, the Mill was the vibrant heart of its surrounding community. Its grounds possessed a farm, a school, and a mercantile that were the site of annual celebrations. 

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Just beyond the Mill, which is open for exploring, is a short hiking trail that circles around the Spring before following alongside the spring branch toward Jack's Fork. The trail is spectacularly beautiful and offers compelling views of both rushing water and rock/cave formations. 

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After exploring Alley Spring, we headed into Eminence to Dos Rios Mexican Grill for lunch, a super-satisfying restaurant that let us bring our pup onto their patio for outdoor dining. After lunch, we sought out after two of Ozark National Scenic Riverways' four wild horse herds. Though we found some of the grazing pastures for both, and saw where one of them likes to ford the Current River, we came up empty-handed on our horse sighting safari.

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OUR EXPERIENCE

We reserved our campsite from Saturday-Tuesday, so we got a good sense of both weekend and weekday camping at Ozark. There is definitely a difference, though after October 15th, the off-season when utilities are shut off, and when it is colder, there is probably not much distinction. Still, our first night had two groups of boaters on either side of us, which let's be real with a two year old and a five year old no one is going to "out loud" us. Even without the kids, our site was enough removed that it wouldn't have been much of an issue, though many of the sites in the Round Spring Campground are virtually right on on top of one another, so be attentive to what site you reserve. 

In the summer, ticks are an additional issue, but even in October, the mosquitos were abundant. It probably didn't help that it was unseasonably hot and humid. The rain definitely helped to curb the pests, but they came back with a vengeance after it dried out a bit. You are by the water, and it's Missouri, so the bugs are just to be expected. 

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As an outdoor store, we pride ourselves on selling things we actually use, but until now, our family, ground tent has been a gargantuan relic that carried over from our mid-twenties. That said, it's held its own pretty well. This trip, it met it's match, however, in the 24 hours or so of straight rain we received. One miserable night, we resorting to using clothing as a barrier against the water pooling up on the tent floor (luckily, it was just some taping below the windows that wore down and nothing on the canopy). Still, it was rather amusing that the pup tent we set up for the dog, with a primitive shelter by Grand Trunk Goods, was keeping her nice and dry while we were all soggy and huddling together.

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literal pup tent

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Weather and insects aside, our recent trip to Ozark National Scenic Riverways was a total joy. This park is a complete treasure for the nation, but mostly for Missourians. Wandering around the ONSR, you definitely get a sense of several other National Parks around the country, but all balled into one. We can't wait to bring the kiddos back out soon to explore the lower Current!

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GEAR



Backpack: F-Stop Satori with Small Pro ICU

Main Camera: Nikon D300

Secondary Cameras: GoPro Hero 4 Silver, GoPro Hero 4 Session, iPhone 7+

Lenses: Tokina 11-16mm f/2.8 AT-x Pro, Nikkor 24mm f/2.8DNikkor 50mm f/1.8D, Nikkor 35-135mm f/3.5-4.5 AF

Other Equipment: Check out our upcoming post on what camping equipment we brought!