National Scenic Riverways
Park Photo
NPS photo

This area of boiling waters at the foot of the high, vertical, bare bluff of dolomite rock is a dramatic sight—clear, brawling waters which seem to leap to the surface, freed from the confinement of their underground channels.

—Beckman and Hinchey, The Large Springs of Missouri, Big Spring, 1944

The Journey of Free-flowing Water

Water gurgling out of the ground has fascinated people for thousands of years. Some springs in Ozark National Scenic Riverways do not just gurgle, they gush—powerful, rolling, steady bursts of water—millions of gallons every day. Here groundwater plays a premier role in the makeup of the springs and rivers of this spectacular national park. The flow of springs reveals subterranean rivers. They flow through the readily eroded subsurface limestone, called karst, helping carve the water table ever deeper into the landscape. The park has multiple dimensions, and many seem magically hidden from View. The landscape features springs, underground caverns, and surface rivers that transcend the boundary from underground to the surface.

Nationally significant for its scenic, free-flowing Current and Jacks Fork rivers, its caverns, and for its high-volume springs, this area captured the attention of the U.S. Congress in the 1960s. In 1964 Congress authorized the 134 miles of rivers as the first national scenic riverways. With many American rivers harnessed by dams, the nation awoke to the natural, scenic, and recreational values of free-flowing rivers.

Each week the larger springs pour billions of gallons of clear, cold water into the Current and Jacks Fork rivers, the heart of Ozark National Scenic Riverways. The park exists to protect these largely spring-fed streams running through some of the Ozarks' most beautiful scenery. As residents from St. Louis and other cities became attracted to recreation in the Ozarks, river activities took on new meanings. So did the appreciation of hiking, fishing, and family outings. Now this area is valued for how it preserves nature and offers outdoor recreation. Over 1.5 million people yearly come to enjoy the quality of life ensured by the rivers' protected status, a status shared by only a tiny percent of the nation's rivers.

Big Spring puts out enough water every day to fill a major football stadium. It is the largest freshwater spring in Missouri and one of the largest in the United States. This water travels underground from as far away as 50 miles.

Early settlers built farmsteads and mills along the riverways. In the late 1800s the watershed witnessed heavy logging and other exploitation. Tourism increased in the early 1900s as more people acquired automobiles. Improved roads and new bridges enticed urban visitors, and the Ozarks became a popular vacation destination.

Caves, Springs, and Karst

think of this Ozark landscape as a three-dimensional watershed—water runs across the land's surface in streams and creeks, down through cracks at different levels, and beneath it in underground rivers.

Where these underground rivers burst onto the surface, we call them springs. Ozark National Scenic Riverways is home to more first-magnitude springs in one area (springs with daily flows over 65 million gallons of water) than anywhere else on Earth. These springs offer beauty and respite to people, and they supply most of the Current and Jacks Fork rivers' flow. Some 81 million gallons gush daily from Alley Spring, while Big Spring's daily flow averages 286 million gallons.

This geological landscape, called karst, is riddled with caves and springs that are created as groundwater dissolves soluble rock like limestone or dolomite. As water flows from crack to crack, small underground chambers grow larger and longer, forming submerged caves. These caves are revealed when the springs and underground rivers run dry. The park has over 300 caves. Many like Round Spring Cave are beautifully decorated with stalactites and stalagmites.

Other karst features here include sinkholes like Devils Well (formed when the top of an underground cave collapsed) and "losing streams" like Sinking Creek (so-called because much of the surface water drains into cracks in the bedrock). Water moving from the surface through this fractured bedrock and into groundwater and into our wells is not purified. We must protect this local resource from pollution—it is our only source of drinking water.

History in the Hollows

For centuries Indians traveled these hills and hollows, moving with the seasons and following their sources of food. Spanish explorers in the 1500s and French in the late 1600s encountered tribes who lived in villages, grew crops, and traveled to hunt deer and bison. Life began to change for the Indians when vastly different cultures arrived. By the late 1800s most tribes had been moved onto reservations.

In the mid-1800s American-born settlers of mainly Scots-Irish heritage established hamlets along rivers and springs. Families practiced subsistence farming, gradually building trading networks that used the rivers for transportation. Social relationships centered around family and local communities. Commercial settlements gave rural settlers an incentive to come together. People gathered at mills, stores, one-room schools, and on the rivers to share ideas.

Railroads brought commerce with the larger world. By the late 1800s thousands of acres of Ozark forests were sacrificed for railroads' insatiable appetite for wood for ties and trestles and fuel for steam-engines before coal became the fuel of choice. It was a boom-and-bust economy—resources ran out or markets dried up.

The Current and Jacks Fork rivers acted as highways long before roads were passable. Ferries operated until replaced by modern bridges. In the mid-1920s tourism took hold with the establishment of state parks. Outfitting and guide operations sprang up. Most used wooden jonboats, which were inexpensive to build and—with their square, flat-bottom hull design—easy to navigate on shallow rivers and sandbars. Today Ozark regional culture remains distinct—a pragmatic approach to life that respects loyalty to clan and kin, values personal independence, and relies on local resources. Oral traditions and practical recreation reign: storytelling, hunting, fishing, trapping, picnicking, and, especially, family reunions.

Preservation and Recreation

Ozark National scenic Riverways was the- first national park area to protect a river system in its wild, undammed state. The movement for a park started as a grassroots reaction to plans to build a series of dams on the Current and Jacks Fork rivers. While local residents and conservation groups in nearby cities disagreed on how the rivers should be preserved, most agreed that the rivers should not be dammed—they should be kept wild and free flowing.

After much debate and compromise, Congress officially established the park in 1964. The State of Missouri donated the three state parks, Alley, Big Spring, and Round Spring, to the National Park Service as a gift from Missouri to the American people. Land along the rivers between the former state parks was purchased and the whole area knitted together as America's first national river park. The effort to save these rivers—a remarkable success story—became the prototype for the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act of 1968, which protects many of our nation's free-flowing rivers.

Since 1964 millions of people have come here to enjoy the beauty and recreational opportunities of the rivers. Canoeing and water sports are popular, as are hiking, camping, and birdwatching. Wildflowers in spring and tree colors in autumn are spectacular.

Today the national park strives to protect the rivers and the watershed to ensure enjoyment of these natural and cultural resources for you and for generations to come.

Ozark Habitats


Caves offer a challenging environment for wildlife. Animals must adapt to conditions of darkness, cool temperatures, and high humidity. Bats use caves for shelter and to hibernate, sleep, or raise their pups. They come and go, finding food in the outside world. Others, like grotto salamanders, live in caves full-time. Such species are often blind but their senses, like touch or smell, have become acute for cave life. These cave dwellers (full- or part-time residents) need quality groundwater to survive.


Large and small springs punctuate the Ozark landscape. Essentially the mouths of underground rivers, springs attract plants and wildlife, where the reliable flow, chemistry, and temperature of the water provide a stable habitat. Watercress, duckweed, and other plants provide organic matter for animals and habitat for aquatic insects. At least 38 animal species are found only in Ozark springs and subterranean waters and nowhere else on Earth.


The rivers are home to scores of fish and other animals. Wading birds like great blue herons stalk the banks looking for snacks. Kingfishers dive to snatch unwary meals, perhaps a goggleeye. Green herons patrol gravel bars looking for small creatures. Changes to the watershed (including areas outside park boundaries)—pesticides, stream disturbance, and development—threaten river ecosystems. One affected species is the Ozark hellbender, a salamander that can live for 30 years and weigh up to four pounds.


These free-flowing rivers flood frequently, washing nutrient-rich mud and silt onto the adjacent floodplains. Water may cover flat areas several times a year, or not at all. River cane, our only native bamboo, once grew here in vast thickets called canebrakes. Early 1800s settlers used the cane for animal fodder. When the overgrazed cane disappeared, farmers planted crops in the bare fields. Today canebrakes are being restored along riverbanks, slowing erosion and providing nesting for rare Swainson's warblers.


Ozark forests are testimony to nature's resilience. A century ago the hills were nearly stripped bare by timber companies bent on supplying lumber for the rapidly developing nation. Today large white oaks and shortleaf pine, Missouri's only native pine, cover the hillsides. Sycamore and green ash thrive along rivers. Dogwood, Missouri's state tree, decorates the understory, providing shade for ferns and wildflowers. Wildlife, from white-tailed deer to chipmunks, find shelter and food in these recovering forests.


Dry rocky areas on hilltops are called glades. These are much like deserts, with bare rock and gravel exposed to harsh summer sun. Glades require periodic fire to keep them open and check vegetation. Plants and wildlife are desert-like too. Cracks in the rocks might harbor enough soil for a clump of grass, a prickly pear cactus, or a few cedar trees. A collared lizard may use a rock to survey his territory or to watch for a juicy scorpion or tarantula. Watch for armadillos; they run fast on those short legs.


For decades ferries transported vehicles and people across the Current River, including crossings at Powder Mill and Akers. Eventually bridges replaced ferries at busy crossings. Today Akers Ferry is the last in the Ozark NSR; it holds two cars. Year-round (except Dec. 25), weather permitting. Fee. On Rt. K, 23 miles south of Salem.


This sinkhole formed when a cavern roof containing a lake collapsed. A spiral staircase leads to a viewing platform. The lake, 80 to 100 feet below the platform, is larger than a football field. The gravel road to Devils Well is very steep; use caution. Open daily. Free. Off Rt. KK, east of Akers.


Ranger-led lantern tours take about two hours. Wear a jacket and sturdy shoes—areas may be slippery, and the cave is 58°F year-round. You must climb stairs to get to the cave; stooping is required inside. No reservations needed, but group size is limited. Open Memorial Day through Labor Day. Fee. On Mo. Hwy 19, 20 miles north of Eminence.


Alley Mill, with its three-story building and turquoise water, is a photographer's delight. Much of the original equipment—a turbine instead of a water wheel and rollers rather than grinding stones—is still in place. A one-room school house is nearby. Grounds open all year; mill in summer. Free. Mo. Hwy 106, 6 miles west of Eminence.

BLUE SPRING on the Current River

At 310 feet, this clear spring is Missouri's deepest. If the Statue of Liberty was placed on the bottom, the top of her torch would be underwater. The blue comes from minerals dissolved on the water's underground journey. A ½-mile trail starts at the parking lot. Spring and trail open year-round. Free. Off Mo. Hwy 106, 12 miles east of Eminence.


Rocky Falls is an example of a shut-in, an Ozark term for a river naturally confined in a narrow channel. A steep cascade pours into a pool of water. Part of the 550-mile Ozark Trail passes by the falls. Trails and park open year-round. Free. Off Rt. NN, 9 miles southeast of Eminence.


Big Spring, designated Missouri's first state park in 1924, was a Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) project in the 1930s. CCC crews built trails, roads, bridges, and buildings. Today it has a dining lodge, rental cabins, and picnic shelters. Trails and park open year-round. Lodging and food, seasonally. Rt. 103, south of Van Buren.

Planning Your Visit

park map
(click for larger map)

Things To See and Do Many people come to Ozark National Scenic Riverways for its refreshing water and premier opportunities for boating, floating, and fishing. The park offers more than watersports. You can camp, hike, tour a cave and historic sites, examine springs, ride horseback, and join ranger-led activities, offered seasonally.

When To Visit The park is open year-round. Most people float the rivers from late May through Labor Day. Weekends in summer are especially crowded. If you enjoy solitude or discovering wildlife, why not try something different? Visit on a weekday or in the off-season.

Lodging, Food, Services, Camping Neighboring communities offer lodging, food, and services. For details about camping and services in the park, see the chart (below) or www.nps.gov/ozar.

Family Friendly Park! The park, communities, and partners are working together to clean up the riverways—and it is making a difference. Rowdy behavior, excessive noise, and the abuse of drugs or alcohol are not tolerated. All laws are strictly enforced. For information about laws and policies, contact the park or visit www.nps.gov/ozar.

Your Safety Floating, caving, and exploring can be fun but if you get hurt, you may be a long way from help. Cell phone service is unavailable in most areas, and getting medical help to you can be difficult. Your safety is your responsibility.

Regulations and Safety Tips
• Springs are delicate ecosystems and are more sensitive to disturbance than the rivers. Please protect the plants, animals, and water quality. Do not pick plants, drink the water, or wade, swim, or fish in the springs or spring branches.
• Dont swing from ropes or dive or jump from trees or cliffs. Every year someone dies or is seriously injured.
• If exploring a cave always take four sources of light. Never go into a cave alone. Some caves are closed to protect bats; obey closure signs.
• Glass and plastic-foam food containers and coolers are prohibited on the rivers and trails, within 50 feet of rivers and springs, and in caves. (Bait containers are permitted.)
• Pets must be on a leash. Do not leave them unattended or in vehicles.
• Hunting, trapping, and fishing regulations apply.
• Use fire rings and grills; extinguish all campfires.
• Be alert for poisonous snakes, poison ivy, ticks, and stinging insects. Wear insect repellent, and watch where you step, sit, or place your hands.
• Carry plenty of fresh water and wear sunscreen.
• ATVs are prohibited in streams or off road; ride on unpaved roads only.

Safety on the Rivers
• Always wear a life jacket (PFD). Children six years and younger must wear a PFD on the river.
• Swim at your own risk; there are no lifeguards.
• NEVER tie a person in a watercraft. Do not lash tubes or canoes together.
• If you hang up on a rock or log—lean downstream to keep water from filling the canoe.
• If you capsize—stay upstream from the canoe to avoid being pinned against a rock or log. • As you approach obstacles look for a glassy "V." This is the chute—the safest route through.
• Flashfloods are a risk at all times. Watch the weather and be aware of changing river levels.
• Inboard motors and motorized personal watercraft (PWC) are prohibited.

Emergencies: Contact a ranger or call 911.

Canoes, Rafts, Tubes
Nineteen concessioners in the Riverways provide rentals and shuttle service. For a list contact the park or check our website: www.nps.gov/ozar.


Group Sites*
(7-45 people)



Round Spring

Two Rivers

Powder Mill

Big Spring

Alley Spring

*Reservations required.

Horsepower Limits

Current River
Above Round Spring-Lower Access
(except above Akers May 1 to Sept. 15)
Round Spring-Lower Access to Big Spring
Below Big Spring to park boundary
No Limit

Jacks Fork River
Above Alley Spring Campground
(except above Bay Creek March 1 to first Saturday before Memorial Day)
Alley Spring Campground to Two Rivers

Note: none of these limits apply from two miles above to two miles below Eminence and Van Buren.

Source: NPS Brochure (2011)


Ozark National Scenic Riverways — Aug. 27, 1964

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A Homeland and a Hinterland: The Current and Jacks Fork Riverways, Historic Resource Study, Ozark National Scenic Riverways (HTML edition) (Donald L. Stevens, Jr., 1991)

A Study of Log Raft Steering Sweeps Recovered from the Current River, Ripley County, Missouri (James E. Price, May 1991)

Accessibility Self-Evaluation and Transition Plan (SETP), Ozark National Scenic Riverways, Missouri (March 2021)

An Evaluation of Three Archeological Sites in the Ozark National Scenic Riverways (Mark J. Lynott, 1982)

An Intensive Cultural Resources Survey of the Route of a Buried Power Conduit Across Current River, Ozark National Scenic Riverways, Shannon County, Missouri: 1990 (James E. Price, December 1990)

Aquatic Vegetation Monitoring in Springs at Ozark National Scenic Riverways, 2007-2015 NPS Natural Resource Data Series NPS/OZAR/NRDS-2016/1044 (David E. Bowles and Hope R. Dodd, August 2016)

Archaeological Investigations in the Ozark National Scenic Riverways, 1984-1986 (James E. Price, Cynthia R. Price and Roger Saucier, March 1987)

Archeological Investigations Associated with the Federal Land Highway Program, Ozark National Scenic Riverways, 1985 (Steven LeRoy De Vore, 1986)

Archeological Survey of Developed Areas, Ozark National Scenic Riverways (Mark J. Lynott, October 1981)

Cultural Affiliation Study: Ozark National Scenic Riverways, Missouri Final Report (Maria-Nieves Zedeno and Robert Christopher Basaldu, September 30, 2003)

Cultural Landscape Inventory: Cardinal Acres (September 2013)

Cultural Landscape Report and Environmental Assessment: Big Spring Historic District, Ozark National Scenic Riverways Public Review Submittal (December 13, 2016)

Cultural Landscape Report and Environmental Assessment: Big Spring Historic District, Ozark National Scenic Riverways (June 2017)

Cultural Landscape Survey: Preliminary Report on Akers Ferry Hamlet (Mary V. Hughes, Sherda Williams and Donald L. Stevens, Jr., December 1992)

Cultural Landscapes Inventory: Klepzig Mill and Farm (2013)

Draft General Management Plan/Development Concept Plan, Ozark National Scenic Riverway, Missouri (December 1981)

Draft General Management Plan/Environmental Impact Statement, Ozark National Scenic Riverways, Missouri (October 2013)

Fish Community Monitoring at Ozark National Scenic Riverways: 2005-2010 Summary Report NPS Natural Resource Data Series NPS/HTLN/NRDS-2013/599 (Hope R. Dodd, December 2013)

Fish Community Monitoring at Ozark National Scenic Riverways: 2005–2007 Status Report NPS Natural Resource Technical Report NPS/HTLN/NRTR—2009/224 (Hope R. Dodd, July 2009)

Five-Year Review and Recommendations for Revision of Aquatic Sampling Protocols at Buffalo National River and Ozark National Scenic Riverways NPS Natural Resource Report NPS/HTLN/NRR—2012/563 (M.D. DeBacker, D. E. Bowles, H. R. Dodd and L. W. Morrison, August 2012)

Foundation Document, Ozark National Scenic Riverways, Missouri (September 2016)

Foundation Document Overview, Ozark National Scenic Riverways, Missouri (January 2016)

General Management Plan / Environmental Impact Statement, Ozark National Scenic Riverways, Missouri Final (December 2014)

General Management Plan Summary: Ozark National Scenic Riverways (September 2015)

Geologic Resources Inventory Report, Ozark National Scenic Riverways NPS Natural Resource Report NPS/NRPC/GRD/NRR-2016/1307 (T.L. Thornberry-Ehrlich, September 2016)

History Basic Data: Ozark National Scenic Riverways, Dent, Shannon and Carter Counties, Missouri (Lenard E. Brown, October 31, 1969)

Invasive Exotic Plant Monitoring at Powder Mill Natural Area, Ozark National Scenic Riverways: Year 1 (2011) NPS Natural Resource Data Series NPS/HTLN/NRDS-2013/438 (Craig C. Young, Chris M. Kopek and Chad S. Gross, January 2013)

Living By the Land and Rivers of the Southeastern Missouri Ozarks (Jane W. Gibson, January 18, 2000)

Methods for Monitoring Fish Communities of Buffalo National River and Ozark National Scenic Riverways in the Ozark Plateaus of Arkansas and Missouri, Version 2.0 NPS Natural Resource Report NPS/HTLN/NRR—2018/1633 (Hope R. Dodd, James C. Petersen, B. G. Justus, David E. Bowles, Gareth Rowell, Lloyd Morrison, Janice A. Hinsey and Jeffrey M. Williams, May 2018)

National Register of Historic Places Nomination Forms

Akers Ferry Archeological District (Cathie Masters, August 13, 1990)

Alley Spring Mill (The Red Mill) (Lenard E. Brown, August 20, 1969)

Alley Spring Roller Mill (Milton F. Perry, November 23, 1976)

Big Spring Historic District (Milton F. Perry and Jill M. York, November 23, 1976 and June 30, 1980)

Brandt Place (Lenard E. Brown, October 22, 1969)

Buttin Rock School (Kimberly Scott Little, August 17, 1990)

Cabin at Pulltite Spring (Lenard E. Brown, October 22, 1969)

Cave Spring Mill (Lenard E. Brown, c1969)

Cedargrove (Cedar Grove) (Lenard E. Brown, August 20, 1969)

Chilton (Lesh) Place (Lenard E. Brown, October 23, 1969)

Chubb Hollow Site (Cathie Masters, November 9, 1989)

Cold Springs School (Kenneth Story, July 15, 1992)

Culpepper-Pummil Site (Cathie Masters, October 16, 1985)

Gooseneck Site (Cathie Masters, December 12, 1989)

Isaac Kelley Site (Cathie Masters, August 15, 1985)

Chilton-Williams Farm Complex (Milton F. Perry and Jill M. York, November 23, 1976, June 30, 1980)

Lower Parker School (Kimberly Scott Little, August 17, 1990)

Nichols Farm District (Susie Nichols Cabin site) (Cathie Masters, James Price and Stephen Knight, May 24, 1989)

Old Eminence Site (Cathie Masters, August 8, 1985)

Owl's Bend Site (Cathie Masters, August 9, 1985)

Phillips Bay Mill, 23CT235 (Kelley and Dearing Mill) (Cathie Masters, February 26, 1987)

Pulltite Site 23SH94 (Steve DeVore and Cathie Masters, October 28, 1986)

Reed Log House (Kimberly Scott Little, August 17, 1990)

River Road/Cedargrove-Round Spring Road (Lenard E. Brown, October 1969)

Round Spring Archeological District (Cathie Masters, May 21, 1991)

Shawnee Creek Site (Cathie Masters, November 2, 1989)

Two Rivers Site (Cathie Masters, August 8, 1991)

Walter Klepzig Mill and Farm (James P. Corless, February 15, 1989)

Welch Cave Hospital (Lenard E. Brown, c1969)

Zion Church (Lenard E. Brown, c1969)

National Reservoir Inundation Study Research at Round Spring and Alley Spring, Ozark National Scenic Riverways, Missouri (Toni L. Carrell, J. Alan May and Ervan G. Garrison, 1980)

Ozark Rivers National Monument: A Proposal (HTML edition) (January 1960)

Spring Communities Monitoring at Ozark National Scenic Riverways, Missouri: 2007-2009 Status Report NPS Natural Resource Technical Report NPS/OZAR/NRTR—2011/511 (David E. Bowles, Hope R. Dodd, Janice A. Hinsey, J. Tyler Cribbs and Jessica A. Luraas, December 2011)

The Fire Ecology of Ozark National Scenic Riverways NPS Natural Resource Report NPS/HTLN/NRR-2008/031 (Angela Smith, Dan Swanson and Sherry Leis, March 2008)

The Road Inventory for Ozark National Scenic Riverways (October 1999)

Two Rivers: Archaeological Testing and Assessment conducted in areas to be disturbed by a proposed comfort station, sewer line and drain field at the Two Rivers Site, 23SH101, Ozark National Scenic Riverways Area, Shannon County, Missouri Historic Preservation Associates Reports 87-2 (Timothy C. Klinger and Richard P. Kandare, February 1987)

Two Rivers II: Archeological excavations at Two Rivers (23SH101), Ozark National Scenic Riverways, Shannon County, Missouri Historic Preservation Associates Reports 89-2 (Timothy C. Klinger, Richard P. Kandare, James E. Price and Roger T. Saucier, January 1989)


Ozark National Scenic River

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Last Updated: 23-Apr-2024