The name Missouri, it’s said, comes from an Algonquin term roughly meaning, “the people with canoes.” So, it seems natural that paddling is a beloved pastime deep in the heart of this rugged Midwestern state. More specifically, take a closer look at the northern Ozarks. Here, you’ll find a wild region of hardwood forests, meandering rivers, and spring-fed streams that often go unnoticed by people speeding through on nearby Interstate 44. All are good reasons to put Pulaski County at the top of your list when it comes time for your next float trip in Missouri.
From short and relaxing floats to longer paddling adventures, there’s something for everyone here. And when you stay at a riverside outfitter, you can often conveniently float a few miles or more back to your campsite or cabin rental. Now, when it comes to choosing between river sections, the best is always the one that you’re currently floating. In other words, if your goal is to have fun on the water, you can’t go wrong. But if you’re looking to home in on some of the more adventurous paddling in the area, here are a few unforgettable options.
5 Unforgettable Float Trips in the Heart of Missouri
The Gasconade Narrows
The Gasconade is the longest river falling entirely within the state of Missouri, and some call it one of the most crooked rivers in the world. From its headwaters on the Salem Plateau to its confluence with the Missouri River, the Gasconade crams about 270 miles of meandering into only 115 straight-line miles. This twistiness is fully displayed in Pulaski County, where about a hundred river miles wind through the rural countryside. At one spot called the Narrows, the river takes about seven miles to loop back around to a neck only a quarter-mile wide.
Starting from Schlicht Springs Access, you can put in about a third of the way around this riverbend. After floating four miles, you’ll reach the Narrows. On the opposite bank is Ruby’s Landing, a resort and outfitter offering boat rentals, cabins, and camping. Continuing downstream after three more river miles, you’ll reach Falling Spring. During lower water levels — like those you might find on a fall colors float during October and into November — there is a fun class II riffle where the waters from Falling Spring dam up behind some emerald-green moss-covered rocks. The typical take-out comes ten miles down from Schlicht Springs at a gravel access off MO-17 at the confluence with Roubidoux Creek.
A short drive upstream along this lovely tributary leads to the Historic Route 66 town of Waynesville. Anglers may want to check out Laughlin Park, where the outflow from Roubidoux Spring gives rise to a white ribbon trout stream. Plus, plenty of Mother Road attractions can be found, including the 1903 Courthouse Museum or the quirky Frog Rock.
The Wild Gasconade
If you’re looking for a challenging adventure, consider paddling this longer section of the Gasconade. This trip starts where the section described above ends, the gravel access just off MO-17 at the confluence with Roubidoux Creek. The take-out is at the gravel Riddle Bridge Access. The reward is paddling about 14 miles through some of the Gasconade’s wildest scenery with wooded bottomlands, occasional farm fields, and sheer bluffs rising above the river.
At typical water levels, there will be regular gravel bars for beaching boats and stretching your legs. And this section, like others, often displays the wild signs of recurrent flooding on the Gasconade due to its vast 2,800-square-mile watershed. While you’re on the water, look closely and you’ll likely spot logs suspended surprisingly high in the riverside canopy, wedged there during prior flood events.
BSC Outdoors, a riverside outfitter and resort offering cabins and camping, is a good base for exploring this part of the Gasconade. A bonus of staying with BSC is having access to an equally adventurous 14-mile paddling run below Riddle Bridge — this one has limited public access points and some of the tallest bluffs on the entire river.
Upper Big Piney River
Start by heading upstream on Big Piney River to Sandy Shoals Ford. Up here, one of Missouri’s finest float trips is more like a swift creek with occasional class II riffles. Sheer bluffs rise overhead and are often topped with pine trees that give the stream its name. Because of the dense foliage that frequently overhangs the channel, there is great shade for a sunny summer day. Along the way, the flow is augmented by numerous freshwater springs that sometimes burst from the banks near water level.
After floating just under six miles, the take-out is at Boiling Spring Access. This spring is aptly named, given an estimated 10 million gallons burble forth each day. At Boiling Spring, you’ll also find a classic swimming hole and a rope swing dangling above the clearwater pool. Since Upper Big Piney is so remote, keep in mind there aren’t many options for post-river meals or accommodations. Thus, the restaurants and lodgings closer to I-44 in Pulaski County make for a convenient choice when your day on the water is done.
Lower Big Piney River
Unlike the upper creek-like section, in its lowest reaches, the Big Piney River lives up to its moniker with deeper pools and slower currents. You’ll find some great sections for lazy float trips down this Missouri stream. Because many of the lower access points are on private land, going with a Pulaski County outfitter is a great way to explore this part of the river.
However, several sections found just upstream in Mark Twain National Forest provide a little bit of everything: wider channels, deeper pools, and swifter sections of current with sporty riffles. One such section starts at Slabtown Access. From there, you can float six miles and take out at Horse Camp Access — or break out your paddle for a full 15 miles to Ross Access. Another option: Continue a half-mile further to Wilderness Ridge Resort, a riverside outfitter that offers cabins, campgrounds, and an RV park.
When paddling a lower reach on Big Piney River, consider stopping by Devils Elbow. This famous spot on Route 66 is known for a tight bend in the river and a historic bridge. The famous Elbow Inn, once a raucous biker bar, was sadly closed in a record flood, but restoration on the iconic establishment is in progress, which may someday raise hell — and pints — again. Fortunately, the Devils Elbow River Safari and Campground continues to operate on the inside bend of the elbow, offering a family-friendly way to experience the lower Big Piney.
The Osage Fork of the Gasconade
Like so many great adventures, our final entry takes us west to a little-known stream near the edge of Pulaski County. As its poetic name suggests, the Osage Fork is undoubtedly peaceful as it winds through tangled forest. But a trip here is not for the faint of heart. This is wild Ozark floating at its finest. Yes, you will have to paddle at times. You may also have to drag past shallows, around brush jams, or over downed trees.
The watershed of this Gasconade tributary is on the smaller side, so this six-mile section is more challenging to catch. The put-in is at Hull Ford Access and the take-out is at Hazelgreen Access on the Gasconade, roughly a quarter-mile downstream from the confluence of the Osage Fork. There’s typically enough water during the spring, and the fork’s main paddling season usually lasts into early or mid-summer. Then, it dries out until enough significant rains recharge it, whether they arrive during fall or winter.
The nearby outfitter Gasconade Hills Resort is a good base for adventuring in this area, including floating several sections on the main Gasconade. Or they can arrange a shuttle for you to explore the Osage Fork. But keep in mind this remote tributary is for experienced paddlers only. Once you’re on the water, you’ll be on your own — and that’s the point.
These unforgettable canoe and kayak float trips are just the beginning of a visit to this Missouri region. Visit Pulaski County and learn what other adventures await at the edge of the Ozarks.