When people talk about national park vacations, certain images usually come to mind: Yellowstone, Yosemite and the Grand Canyon, for starters. There’s no question that these scenic wonders merit their universal appeal.
But there are national parks close to home that offer plenty to see and do, without the need for an expensive airplane ticket or multi-day road trip.
The Ozark National Scenic Riverways in the Missouri Ozarks and the Buffalo National River in the Arkansas Ozarks are two topnotch outdoor destinations practically in our backyard.
You might tend to think of them as summer destinations, because floating is one of the primary activities. But they are wonderful in the fall — as well as the winter and spring. Each season brings its own special beauty and outdoor activities. Fall is especially appealing, when the trees turn on their flaming foliage.
Canoeing, kayaking, fishing, hiking, camping, horseback riding — you can do it all in either park, year-round. Both offer cultural and natural history and nearby elk herds. There are many similarities, although each park is unique.
The Ozark National Scenic Riverways (ONSR) was the first national park created to protect a wild river system, the Current and Jacks Fork rivers. It was authorized by Congress in 1964, and will be celebrating its 50th anniversary next year.
Three Missouri state parks — Big Spring and Round Spring on the Current River and Alley Spring on the Jacks Fork River —were transferred in 1967 to the National Park Service (NPS) to serve as the cornerstones of the ONSR. The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) cabins at Big Spring are a popular lodging option for visitors.
The ONSR became the prototype for the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act of 1968, which helped protect rivers around the country, including the Eleven Point in southeast Missouri.
The Buffalo National River in Arkansas was the country’s first national river (not a river system, as with ONSR); it was signed into law on March 1, 1972, 100 years to the day after the establishment of America’s first national park at Yellowstone.
Two Arkansas state parks — Buffalo Point and Lost Valley — were transferred to the park service to became part of the new national park. The CCC cabins at Buffalo Point are an evergreen choice for visitors.
An Ozark Flavor
To this writer, one of the best parts of visiting the Ozarks is interacting with the locals, the people who live and work in that neck of the woods.
One of the most colorful riverways characters is Jack Peters, a fixture on the Upper Current River since the late 1960s. Peters and his wife, Lois, have owned and operated Running River Canoe Rental, on Highway 19 between Salem and Eminence, since 1979. Prior to that, Peters was a ranger with the National Park Service and was instrumental in the beginning phases of the Ozark National Scenic Riverways.
“When we (Jack and Lois) arrived here in Shannon County in March 1967,” said Peters, “the National Park Service had just acquired the first 12 acres. I was the ranger for the Upper Current district.”
Although the ONSR was authorized by Congress in 1964, it didn’t open to the public until 1972. During that time, Peters and others worked to obtain the land for the park, which now has more than 80,000 acres. Peters recalls that Congress appropriated $11 million to buy up to 89,000 acres along the 134 miles of the free-flowing Current and Jacks Fork rivers that are protected in the ONSR.
That corridor included a two-mile buffer or gap on either side of Eminence and Van Buren, to allow for future development.
Although the park’s goal was to protect a mile-wide corridor along the rivers, Peters noted that really isn’t enough “to truly protect an entire watershed; it’s just a minimum.” Fortunately, the ONSR is bordered by other protected areas, including six Conservation Areas managed by the Missouri Department of Conservation: Peck Ranch, Sunklands, Angeline, Current River, Logan Creek and Rocky Creek.
“I can honestly say that the Upper Current River is in better condition today than it was when I came here,” says Peters. “Back then, there was open range around the Upper Current. You could come around a bend in the river and there would be a herd of cattle practically blocking the river, or you might see a sow and piglets wallowing in the water.”
In the past, river cleanups would yield truckloads of tires, trash and old car bodies. Today, society in general is more environmentally conscious than in the 1950s and ’60s.
“The park service has contributed to that,” he said. “I don’t agree with all that the park service has done, but there is no question that there has been a major, major improvement of the riparian corridor.”
Peters retired from the park service in 1976. “The kids were getting older and we needed to put down roots.” They ran a canoe rental business at Camp Zoe on Sinking Creek, which was then a youth camp. When the building on Highway 19 became available in 1979, they bought it and moved their canoe business onto the highway.
Although Peters put Running River up for sale in 2007, the economy was not conducive. So Jack and Lois continue to operate the canoe rental and campground and “retire a month at a time” by taking off in their RV during the slow season on the river.
The Upper Current River, from Montauk State Park to Two Rivers, where the Jacks Fork joins the Current, is probably the most-loved float river in the state, and the summer weekend crowds prove it. For the best experience minus the crowds, try to go on weekdays or in the off-season; you’ll often have the river almost to yourself. The same holds true for the Jacks Fork, a tributary of the Current.
If you’re looking for a scenic river with a wilderness feel to it, the Jacks Fork is the river for you. The narrow upper section is lined with tall limestone bluffs, sometimes on both sides of the river, almost like a canyon, making it susceptible to flash flooding. The limited access for the upper 30 miles makes it the most primitive river in the region.
The crystal-clear Jacks Fork and Current rivers are dotted with springs, which keep the water about 60 degrees year-round. Perhaps the most beautiful spring is Blue Spring on the Current. It was called Spring of the Summer Sky by the Native Americans because of its intensely blue water.
Alley Spring with its landmark red mill is probably the most photographed site in the state. Big Spring’s daily flow averages 286 million gallons, making it Missouri’s largest freshwater spring and one of the largest in the United States.
There are caves all along the riverways. The biggest is Jam Up Cave, on the upper Jacks Fork, accessible only by river. The entrance, an arch 80 feet high and 100 feet wide, is visible from the river. Round Spring Cave is much easier to access, and park rangers lead lantern tours during the summer.
Devil’s Well is a deep, dark, scary sinkhole containing a huge underground lake.
There’s a lot of history within the riverways. People of all ages enjoy the chance to ride an old-fashioned river ferry at the Akers Ferry crossing on the upper Current. The historic cabin at Pulltite Spring is an echo of the past, as are the ruins of Welch Hospital at Welch Spring.
The picture-postcard red Alley Mill is open seasonally for tours. Hikers on the Ozark Trail can view the old Klepzig Mill not far from the shut-ins at Rocky Falls. Missouri’s newly restored elk herd is nearby at Peck Ranch.
Eminence is famous for its cross-country trail rides. There are miles of horseback trails through the area and thousands of riders participate in annual trail ride events. You might even see some of Shannon County’s famous wild horses as you float the Jacks Fork or drive the back roads.
Our Neighbor to the South
The Buffalo National River in northern Arkansas protects 135 miles of the 151-mile river that flows from high in the Boston Mountains to its confluence with the White River, descending almost 2,000 feet along the way.
The Buffalo is generally divided into three sections for recreation purposes — upper, middle and lower. Typically, the float season begins in spring with plenty of water to float the upper section on down. Spring rains produce whitewater rapids in the challenging upper section. As the season progresses and the river level drops, the floating options move downstream.
Because the Buffalo is mostly rainfall dependent, it’s a good idea to check with local outfitters for current conditions in the section you want to float or fish. Weekdays are best for fishermen and floaters who want to avoid crowds.
Although floating and fishing are key attractions of the river park, there are plenty of other things to do.
Hiking is exceptional, with more than 100 miles of maintained trails leading to scenic bluffs and vistas along the river and in the surrounding forest. Hiking is especially popular from November through March. Camping, backpacking and horseback riding are other favorite activities.
The Buffalo also is well known for the restored elk herd near Ponca. The elk are a major tourist draw throughout the year, but especially in October and November in Boxley Valley and at the Elk Festival in Jasper in June. The Ponca Elk Education Center sponsors the Color Fest in Ponca each October (Oct. 18-19 this year). Be sure to allow time for a scenic drive on Highway 7, especially at the height of the fall foliage.
The national park also preserves the cultural history of the Buffalo River and its peoples. From village sites and bluff shelters of the early Mississippian and Osage Indians to the cabins of pioneer farmers and the ruins of a mining district to its CCC legacy, the park captures the heritage of this section of the Arkansas Ozarks.
Even today, it is, as described by the NPS, “an island of time and space,” a valley where turn-of-the-century lifestyles and landscapes still exist. In Boxley Valley, traditional farming continues. The Parker-Hickman Farmstead in Erbie and the Collier Homestead at Tyler Bend illustrate the lives of the early settlers.
The ghost town at Rush Historic District gives a glimpse of the zinc mining boom-and-bust of the area.
Before You Go . . .
For more information about Ozark National Scenic Riverways, visit www.nps.gov/ozar or contact park headquarters at P.O. Box 490, Van Buren, MO 63965; 573-323-4236.
For more information about the Buffalo National River, go to http://www.nps.gov/buff or contact park headquarters at 402 North Walnut, Suite 136, Harrison, AR 72601, 870-365-2700.