Before You Go
For more information, contact the Missouri Division of Tourism at 1-800-519-4800 or visit online at
To plan your Missouri float trip, stop by your nearest AAA service office for maps, TripTiks and TourBook guides.

The clean and clear Black River is one of the most popular rivers among floaters in Missouri. /Missouri Division of Tourism photos

Dip into Missouri
Drop a fishing line or a paddle into one of the numerous rivers and lakes of Missouri to beat the heat this summer

Published: Jul/Aug 2002
By Margaret Dornaus

There’s a reason Missouri boasts of being “Where the Rivers Run.” In fact, there are 120-plus reasons. With more than 30 rivers and creeks across its Ozarks region and more than 90 state lakes, as well as the Mighty Mississippi and its largest tributary (the Missouri), the Show-Me State offers a wide variety of “on the waterfront” activities for vacationers seeking to beat the summer heat.

Drift down scenic Ozark byways

In south central Missouri, the most popular way to keep cool is by floating down one of the many rivers fed by the crystal-clear springs of the Ozark Plateau region. Here spectacular mountain scenery is the backdrop for the Current, Jack’s Fork, Meramec, Elk, Big Piney, Eleven Point, Gasconade, and Black rivers to make them welcome destinations for those seeking either one-day or overnight canoeing and camping adventures.

Part of the Ozark National Scenic Riverways, the first scenic riverway to enjoy a national designation, the spring-fed Current and Jack’s Fork rivers encompass more than 134 miles of shoreline. Favorites among both novice and experienced floaters, these summer hot spots have reputations for being among the best canoeing and fishing rivers in the Midwest.

One of the wildest and most scenic of the state’s float streams, the Jack’s Fork attracts experienced floaters to its Class II stretch of rapids above Alley Spring. The Current River–with its absence of rapids–is by contrast one of the most popular family destinations in the scenic riverways system.

Managed by the National Park Service, the Ozark National Scenic Riverways provides floaters with a chance to sit back and enjoy spring-fed waters lined with spectacular limestone bluffs and densely forested shorelines, highlighted by bright bouquets of seasonal wildflowers. Outfitters, strategically located along the riverways, can help arrange everything from eight-mile to 100-mile canoeing or tubing trips through Missouri’s rugged Ozark country.

The mystique of the Meramec

Visitors are attracted to Missouri’s Meramec Valley by nearly 100 miles of water for floating, numerous caves and springs. The Meramec River winds past four state parks, including Onondaga Cave State Park, where rangers offer underground tours through a spelunker’s stalactite-and-stalagmite dream.

Calm currents along the river allow travelers to sit back and relax while taking in the valley’s panoramas. The Upper Meramec offers from five- to 30-mile float trips. Approximately 90 percent of the river is knee-to-chest deep, giving floaters ample opportunities for wading in cool waters.

Other popular floaters

South of Noel, the Elk River and Big Sugar Creek, its scenic tributary, are also popular with floaters, campers and anglers. The gentle and relatively secluded Elk River is an ideal choice for first-time floaters who relish the chance to luxuriate in the surrounding countryside’s unspoiled landscape.

Scenic upper and middle stretches are major enticements of the Big Piney River, named for the crowning pines atop its limestone bluffs. This, the largest tributary of the Gasconade River, is home to an abundance of wildlife, including deer, turkeys, otters, beavers, minks and herons.

Supposedly one of the most crooked rivers in the world, the Gasconade River also is the longest river completely within the state. It stretches nearly 300 miles from its source near Hartville to its confluence with the Missouri River. Like the Meramec, the Gasconade offers spelunkers plenty of chances for underground as well as on-the-water exploration. Some of the more accessible caverns along the river include Cave Lodge Cave, Bell Bluff Cave and Indian Ford Cave, while the best floating waters encompass the 150-mile expanse between Competition and Vienna.

Horseback riders enjoying an outing along the Huzzah Creek. /Missouri Division of Tourism photo
The three forks of the Black River join near Lesterville to flow rapidly toward the southernmost section of Missouri. Clear waters of the upper Black River travel through some of the state’s most unique scenery, including “shut-ins” where the water runs through rocks and potholes that create canyon-like gorges. At Johnson’s Shut-Ins State Park, natural waterslides and waterfalls provide a restful backdrop for picnicking, hiking, horseback riding and camping. For some of the river’s best floating, head 13 miles south of Lesterville.

Fed by wild springs, the Eleven Point River is known for its cool, fast waters. A National Scenic River, the Eleven Point flows through some of the most remote countryside in the Ozarks and runs through portions of the Irish Wilderness, where hiking trails lead to Whites Creek Cave, a 500-yard-deep cavern studded with crystalline formations. Of the 39 springs that feed into the Eleven Point, Greer Spring is one of the state’s most scenic. With an inflow that doubles the size of the river, Greer Springs also is the center of most of the river’s floating.

Many of Missouri’s other streams and tributaries also offer excellent floating. Other possibilities to investigate include: the Bourbeuse River, Big River, Niangua River, Huzzah Creek, Courtois Creek, North Fork River, Big Creek, St. Francis River, Castor River, Little Piney River, Bryant Creek, Beaver Creek, Finley Creek, James River, Flat Creek, Big Sugar Creek, Indian Creek, Shoal Creek, Pomme de Terre River, Osage Fork River, Sac River, Maries River and Little Niangua River. Visit the Missouri Canoe and Floaters Association’s Web site at for more details.

Up a lazy river

If the thought of pulling your own weight by pushing an oar through the water doesn’t float your boat, take heart. There are other methods of enjoying Missouri waterways. Along the state’s eastern border, pretend you’re Mark Twain as you hitch a ride on a paddleboat down the mightiest of Missouri’s great rivers.

At Ste. Genevieve, one hour south of St. Louis off Interstate 55, hop the Modoc ferry and cross the river to Prairie du Rocher, Ill. Both towns are historic and worth exploring. In Tom Sawyer’s Hannibal or below St. Louis’ 630-foot Gateway Arch, board a sightseeing riverboat and contemplate the rhythms of the Mississippi. See a show at the Goldenrod Showboat, billed as the world’s last remaining showboat, that’s permanently moored in St. Charles.

Drop a line

Missouri anglers have an abundance of rivers and lakes from which to select. The Lake of the Ozarks region, however, offers one of the largest and most concentrated bodies of water for all types of watersports, including swimming, sailing and skiing. Created in 1931, the 54,000-acre lake sits squarely in the middle of the state and is surrounded by 1,150 miles of shoreline and more than 200 resorts, from rustic retreats to luxurious lodges.

Some of the state’s best fishing also can be found in the Ozarks, where 44,500-acre (16,400 acres in Missouri) Bull Shoals Lake is popular with trout fishermen. Table Rock Lake, with a park located north of its dam on Highway 165, also lures trout to its waters, as does neighboring Taneycomo. When it’s time to head for land, the bright lights of nearby Branson beckon.

Three major lakes–Truman, Stockton and Pomme de Terre–dominate the landscape of western Missouri’s Osage Lakes Region. Together, these lakes offer more than 1,300 miles of undeveloped shoreline and more than a dozen marinas.

This sample of water recreation in Missouri is enough to whet your appetite to get wet this summer.

Margaret Dornaus is a contributor from Springdale, Ark.

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