Floating Down the Meramec River

Floating down the Meramec River is a great way to pass a summer day. Photo by Barbara Gibbs Ostmann

One of the crown jewels of Franklin County, Meramec State Park is popular throughout the year, but it really buzzes with activity in the summer, when float trips on the Meramec River and camping in the park take priority.

The Meramec River is the heart of the park. For a good introduction to both the river and the park, begin your visit at the Visitor Center. Park literature, exhibits, a slide show, a 3,500-gallon aquarium and a life-size riverbank diorama highlight the park's natural, cultural and recreational resources.

Many of the exhibits focus on the river and its riparian corridor. The Meramec contains the largest variety of aquatic life in the state, including many unique, rare and endangered types of mussels.

The Meramec meanders some 229 miles through the state, past craggy bluffs, caves, gravel bars and stunning scenery. There are springs all along the river, but the major one is Maramec Spring, the fifth largest spring in Missouri. (Yes, the spring is spelled differently than the river.)

The upper section of the river, above Maramec Spring, is usually only floatable during high water. The prime floating is from Maramec Spring to the state park. Canoe, kayak and raft rental is available at the park outfitter, and includes shuttle service, paddles and life jackets.

If you like to fish, you'll like the Meramec. Smallmouth bass, catfish and panfish are abundant, plus there's trout fishing at nearby Maramec Spring Park (separate from the state park).

CCC legacy

One of the major draws to the park — other than its outstanding scenic beauty — is the legacy of the Civilian Conservation Corps, or CCC. The park opened in 1927, and in 1933, the CCC craftsmen arrived. They spent nine years building trails, cabins, picnic shelters, a lodge and other structures, most of which are still in use today. The rustic wood-and-stone design structures blend in well with the park's rugged landscape.

Today the lodge houses the Fireside Store and Grill. The grill is a popular place to gather for burgers, barbecue sandwiches or chicken sandwiches, and the store is well stocked with all sorts of items you might need for a float trip or a camping adventure.

Take time to browse through the CCC exhibit in the entrance area of the lodge. Artifacts and photos tell the story of the CCC at Meramec State Park.

Caves and trails

The 6,896-acre state park is home to more than 40 caves, several springs and plenty of hiking trails. Fisher Cave is open seasonally for naturalist-led tours; there is an admission fee. The cave experience varies from low, narrow, streamside passages to large rooms with beautiful calcite deposits, including massive columns 30 feet tall.

Seasonal ranger-led programs are held at the amphitheater and other sites within the park.

The 461-acre Meramec Upland Forest Natural Area features glades, caves, sinkholes and wet meadows. Rare plants and animals and the chance for solitude are good reasons to visit this remote area of the park.

There are 210 campsites (both tent and RV), 20 cabins, 22 motel rooms and a conference center within the park. In addition, there are eight primitive backpacking campsites along Wilderness Trail. Cabin, motel and conference center check-in are handled at the Fireside Store in the lodge.

It's easy to have a super vacation close to home by visiting one of Missouri's state parks.

Meramec State Park, 115 Meramec Park Drive, Sullivan, 63080; 573-468-6072 or 573-468-6519; www.mostateparks.com/park/meramec-state-park or www.meramecpark.com. The park is about four miles south of Sullivan on Route 185. From I-44, take exit 226 to 185 South and on to the park entrance.