The Ozark Scenic Riverways is a hidden jewel of the National Park system tucked along the backroads of southern Missouri. When this park was established in 1964, it became the first federally protected river system and provided the inspiration for the National Wild and Scenic Rivers Act of 1968. While this region may be more off the beaten path, it offers crystal clear rivers, turquoise-blue natural springs, and historic structures. Today, Sara Lesire, mom of two and founder of Midwest Nomad Family, shares why her family loves visiting this beautiful area. Read on to learn how to explore the Ozark Scenic Riverways with Kids.

Exploring the Ozark Scenic Riverways with Kids

About the Ozark Scenic Riverways

This national park site is visited by about 1.2 million visitors a year. The Ozark Scenic Riverway park protects the spring-fed and free-flowing Current and Jack’s Fork rivers as well as several springs and historic sites located near these rivers. Since the park boundaries follow along the rivers, the park boundaries are long, narrow, and spread out. 

The Ozark Scenic Riverways are a budget-friendly park to visit as there is no admission fee. The park is also open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. 

Ozark Scenic Riverways with Kids

Tips for visiting the Ozark Scenic Riverways

Since the area around the riverways is more remote, cell service can be spotty. It is recommended to download, print, or use paper maps as a backup. The majority of the park features can be found along paved highways. However, some points of interest are located along gravel roads which could be in rougher condition. 

The towns along the Current and Jacks Fork rivers in the area are small and spread out. Most of them do have gas stations and restaurants, but it’s recommended to keep the tank topped off and the cooler full of food and drinks. Most of the major attractions have picnic areas and make a great spot for a scenic lunch stop. 

As this is a Scenic Riverway, the points of interest are located along the water. Use caution with kids around the water, as the springs, in particular, are very deep and cold. 

Ozark Scenic Riverways with Kids

Best time to visit the Ozark Scenic Riverways

If you wish to explore the park from the water, summer will be the best bet for visiting. Since the rivers are spring-fed, the water is cool and refreshing during the hot and humid summer days. Fall is another beautiful time, as the park is a wonderful place for great fall colors. If you visit in spring, you can enjoy the sites with mild temperatures and without the summer crowds. Winter can be a nice time to explore as well, but use caution as the roads are curvy and hilly and not a place to drive in winter weather conditions. Some of the lodging options and activities may also be closed in the off-season. 

Ozark Riverways visitor centers

One of the best first places to stop when visiting a new park is the Visitor Center. The main park headquarters Visitor Information Center is located in Van Buren, Missouri (about a 2.5 hour drive from St. Louis). This center is open year-round with park exhibits and information. A smaller information center is located at Big Spring. Alley Spring also has an information center at the Alley Spring General Store. 

Alley Spring Mill

Explore the Ozark Scenic Riverways by water

The Current and Jack’s Fork Rivers are known as some of the best rivers for floating in the Midwest. Due to the fact that the rivers are spring-fed, they are crystal clear and beautiful. You can also enjoy great views of rugged bluffs, deep woods, and cave openings. (Although most caves are closed to the public due to white-nose-syndrome.)

Many different outfitters are located in the area offering various options, including tubes, canoes, kayaks, and rafts. For younger kids, the canoes or rafts are great and are a safe option for all ages. Older kids and teens might enjoy the freedom of riding their own tube or kayak down the river. 

At one time, this area was known for attracting more of a party-crowd. Missouri Department of Conservation, park rangers, and local law enforcement have really cracked down on rowdy behavior on the water and gravel bars to make this area safe and family-friendly. Styrofoam coolers and glass containers are also not allowed anywhere along the rivers. 

Visit Alley Spring and mill

Alley Spring is the 7th largest spring in Missouri, pumping out 81 million gallons of water per day. The Alley Spring Mill is the most photographed spot in the Ozark Scenic Riverways, and for good reason. This stunning red mill stands tall and lovely next to the turquoise-blue spring waters. The mill was constructed in 1894 and was once part of a small community. This is a great family spot to visit, with a large parking area, restrooms, picnic areas, and a short and flat path. 

The grounds of the mill are open anytime, while the inside of the mill is open during the summer months. You can step inside to view the milling equipment and stamp your National Parks Passport book. The Alley General Store is located near the mill and offers cultural exhibits and another passport stamping station. 

The site also has a one-room schoolhouse. The doors of the schoolhouse are often open during the summer to take a peek inside and show kids what schools looked like in the past. 

If you wish to stretch your legs a bit, you can take a short 0.3-mile hike around the spring pond and stream. The path starts behind the mill, circles the spring pond, and then crosses a bridge back to the front of the mill. 

For a longer hike, consider the Alley Overlook Trail. This 1.3-mile trail is a bit more rugged. Starting behind the mill, it makes a steep climb to a birds-eye overlook of the mill and spring below. The trail levels off at the top for an easier hike before descending a set of switchbacks down to the river floodplain near the parking area. 

Alley Mill Ozark Scenic Riverways

 alley Spring Ozark Scenic Riverways

Alley Spring Ozark Scenic Riverways

The Big Spring area

If you only visit one spring of the Ozark Scenic Riverways, head to the grandaddy of them all…Big Spring. Big Spring has an average daily flow of 286 million gallons, making it one of the three largest springs in the United States. Underground passages carry water from as far as 45 miles away to emerge at the spring. The spring carries dissolved limestone, which turns the water into a beautiful turquoise blue.

Located near Van Buren, Big Spring was originally established as one of Missouri’s first state parks. During the 1930s, the Civilian Conservation Corps arrived and constructed trails and stone structures. Many of these rugged structures still stand today, although the dining lodge and cabins are currently undergoing extensive renovation. When the Ozark Scenic Riverways Park was created, the state of Missouri donated the land to the National Park Service.

A great thing about Big Spring is that the view of the spring is handicap accessible. A flat path leads along the water to an overlook of the spring and a small cave opening. Another accessible trail, called the Slough Trail, starts just north of the spring. This path travels through a forest and past interpretive exhibits explaining the history and culture of the area. 

If you want a more rugged hike, consider the 1 mile Spring Branch Trail. The trailhead is found at the base of the limestone cliff from which Big Spring emerges. The path loops around the spring and follows the spring branch towards the Dining Lodge. 

The Big Spring area has several more beautiful springs, hiking trails, a campground, picnic areas, restrooms, horseback riding, and a boat launch. 

Big Spring Ozark Scenic Riverways

Big Spring Ozark Scenic Riverways

Big Spring Missouri

Explore Round Spring

Round Spring is another great place to visit on the Ozark Scenic Riverways. Located just north of Eminence, this area has several significant natural features, including freshwater springs. The spring can be viewed by following a short and flat path from the parking area. Like the other springs in the area, Round Spring is also a rich shade of blue. 

Another natural feature at this site is the Round Spring Cave. During the summer months, the park service offers two-hour lantern tours of the cave. The ranger-led tour of the Round Spring Cavern is somewhat strenuous. Tickets are only available for purchase on-site, with no reservations. We haven’t been able to tour this cave yet, but I have heard it is beautiful. 

The Round Spring area also has hiking trails, a campground, picnic areas, and restrooms. 

Round Spring Ozark Scenic Riverways

View the brilliant Blue Spring

The Ozark Scenic Riverways actually has two springs known as “Blue Spring.” Of the two, the one along the Current River is a must-see destination. Native Americans called this water “Spring of the Summer Sky” due to the vivid blue hue. At 310 feet deep, this is one of the deepest springs in the country. The Statue of Liberty would actually fit completely underwater if dropped into the spring!

This spring is a little trickier to reach compared to the others mentioned above. You must follow a long and steep dirt road for several miles off Highway 106. It is not recommended for RVs, but passenger cars should handle it fine in most weather conditions. (I have driven the road in both a car and SUV, and it was always well-graded.)

The dirt road leads to a parking area with vault restrooms. Follow the path to the left of the parking area, and it is an easy 0.25-mile walk along a dirt path to the spring. 

There is a wooden boardwalk that leads across the water for a closer look. Another path travels up the left side of the rock bluff to reach an overlook above the spring. 

Blue Spring Ozark Scenic Riverways

Blue Spring Ozark Scenic Riverways

Discover the unique Welch Spring and hospital

By itself, Welch Spring is just another lovely spring of the Ozark Scenic Riverways. However, this spring also has an interesting history and even mysterious ruins to view. 

Back in 1913, an Illinois doctor named Dr. Diehl actually purchased Welch Spring. He believed that the spring water and air had healing properties for those with breathing conditions or diseases such as asthma or tuberculosis. Dr Diehl decided to tap the clean air by building a hospital over the mouth of the cave where Welch Spring flowed. However, travel to this remote area was difficult. While visitors did come from the area and neighboring states, the hospital and resort were not a success and fell into ruin after the doctor’s death in 1940. 

 The spring and ruins can still be viewed today. A well-graded gravel road leads to the parking area for the Welch Spring Trail. A flat, 0.5-mile path leads along the river to a view of the spring and hospital ruins. However, you will be on the opposite side of the spring and only have a view of the hospital from a distance. 

Welch Spring

Make a splash at Rocky Falls

If your kids are looking for a safe and fun spot to play in the water along these beautiful spring-fed rivers, head to Rocky Falls. This scenic 40′ waterfall tumbles down a set of rocky shut-ins into a clear and shallow pool below. 

The falls are a very short walk from the parking area, and there are also benches and a restroom. 

Rocky Falls

Rocky Falls Ozark Scenic Riverways

Places to stay near the Ozark Scenic Riverways

You have multiple options for lodging in the Ozark Scenic Riverways with kids. If you wish to camp, there are both established campgrounds and backcountry camping options. Many of the campgrounds are located right next to scenic sites such as Big Spring or Alley Spring. 

The two largest towns near the riverways are Van Buren and Mountain View, Missouri. Both of these towns offer hotel options. The charming small town of Eminence is centrally located to many sites and offers several motels and cabin options. 

If you wish for a more plush stay, the lodge or cabins at Echo Bluff State Park can be a great option. This state park is located just north of Eminence and offers a restaurant, lodge, cabins, campground, playground, splash pad, hiking trails, horse trails, and a scenic view of Echo Bluff and Sinking Creek. Sinking Creek is clear and shallow and perfect for kids to play. You may even be lucky enough to see the wild horses that often roam through the park. 

Echo Bluff State Park

Echo Bluff State Park

Why you should visit the Ozark Scenic Riverways with kids

I hope learning about the scenic springs, rivers, and historic sites of the Ozark Scenic Riverways has inspired you to make a visit to this National Park site. These backroads destinations may be less well-known than other National Parks, but the natural beauty will take your breath away. 

Have you ever been to the Ozark Scenic Riverways?

About the author

Sara Lesire has been married to her high school sweetheart for 17 years, and together they have two children. Sara spent many childhood hours outside on her grandparents’ farm and strives for her kids to have similar carefree kid adventures. Based in the St. Louis area, she loves to share on her blog and social media all the scenic and fun places to explore around the St. Louis area and beyond. Hiking is the most popular activity for her whole family, followed by hitting up the best local playgrounds. Photography is also a passion of Sara’s, and she continues to be amazed at the natural beauty and wonder of God’s creation. When she is not hitting the trail, Sara works as a civil engineer.

You can find more from Sara online in the following locations:
Instagram: @midwestnomadfamily
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RWMC posts: Sara Lesire