In a little-known corner of Missouri, in the almost unheard-of Ozarks, there’s a hilly region of oak and pine woodland hiding some of America’s best-kept secret kayaking rivers. Taking a paddle through the Ozark Mountains is full of mystery and delight.
Kayaking is a dream in Missouri’s Ozarks
Picture plunging sinkholes, limestone caves, underground streams, and many freshwater springs bursting year-round from cliffs. In fact, there are so many springs, they seem to have run out of names. There are multiple Boiling Springs, Round Springs, Cave Springs, Ebb and Flow Springs.
While there are several regions across the Ozarks with fantastic year-round kayaking opportunities, the eastern region in Missouri is particularly suited for a first-time kayaking visit.
The class I to II waters run cool and clear throughout the year, including the sweltering summers. And with two rivers protected by a national park, plus another designated as a Wild and Scenic River, you’ll find plenty to paddle, whether for a day or a week.
There’s more than just kayaking at ONSR. Two highlights include a ranger-led lantern tour of Round Spring Cave and descending the stairs into the gaping Devil’s Well, a karst window where a sinkhole swallows a creek.
While much of the Ozark Trail is still under construction in other parts of Missouri, a completed section passes through ONSR. Specifically, shorter hikes can be found near Round Spring or in the nearby Echo Bluff State Park and Current River State Park.
For a guide to more than 40 of the Ozarks’ greatest paddling adventures, in Missouri and Arkansas, check out Paddling the Ozarks by Mike Bezemek.
Guide to kayaking the Ozarks in Missouri
If you have a half day:
The upper run, starting at Bay Creek access off County Road 106-425, is more remote and begins in a narrow bluff-lined valley. Typically, this run has smaller crowds and lower flows once the trees leaf out, which may require some dragging past riffles. Below Alley Spring, which boosts the flow, is the more typical summer run, with a take-out at Buttin Rock Access near the bridge in the town of Eminence, Missouri.
If you have a full day:
Head over to the Current River, also in ONSR, and focus on one of the roughly 10-mile class I to II runs above or below the river access at Pulltite Campground, reached via Highway EE off MO-19. For the upper run, start at Akers Ferry, reached via Highway KK from MO-19.
This run includes kayaking past Cave Spring, unique in the Ozarks, where groundwater discharges from a river-level cave—due to White Nose Syndrome, which is fatal to bats, the cave is currently closed to entry. To extend this run, start three miles farther upstream at Welch Spring, where you can visit the ruins of a historic hospital. For the lower 10-mile run, start at Pulltite, visit the landmark logging cabin up the spring branch, and take out at Round Spring access (just off MO-19).
If you have a weekend:
Head to the Eleven Point National Scenic River, one of the original eight protected in the 1968 Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. The 19 miles from Greer Crossing to Riverton are perfect for a two- or three-day trip. Near the put-in, Greer Springs is the second-largest spring in the Ozarks, discharging an average of 360 cfs.
Along the way, enjoy the mysterious vibes of the Eleven Point, like the recurring river-level fogs, the forested bluffs of the Irish Wilderness where a whole community vanished during the Civil War, and the abandoned mill sites at Turner and Boze Springs.
If you have a full week:
You’re what Ozarkers call lucky. Combine everything above but know most kayaking runs can be extended upstream or downstream—sometimes for dozens of miles. In 1926, acclaimed naturalist Aldo Leopold floated for two weeks on the lower Current River, from Van Buren to Doniphan. On the trip he became so enamored with Missouri, he returned three years later and bought a riverside cabin.
If you want more rivers to explore, all you need to do is pick a direction and drive over rolling ridges and valleys for about an hour. Here’s a hint: North Fork White.