Top 5 Ozark Rivers to Float

Above photo: The top of the North Fork of the White River is bordered by national forest and offers a wilderness experience.

Story and photos by Tom Uhlenbrock

During his career as a travel writer, Tom has won top awards in competitions sponsored by the Society of American Travel Writers and the North American Travel Journalists Association.

After 50 years of enjoying the water, our author reveals his favorite river journeys.

Missouri and Arkansas have a friendly rivalry going when it comes to claiming who was first in the nation to preserve its wild and scenic, free-flowing rivers.

Arkansas advertises its Buffalo River as “America’s First National River.” That designation came in 1972.

But in 1964 - eight years earlier - Congress established the Ozark National Scenic Riverways, a national park that preserved the Current and Jacks Fork rivers in southern Missouri as the first in America to get federal protection.

In fact, that action prompted passage of the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act in 1968, and one of the original eight rivers to get protection under that legislation was the Eleven Point River, also in southern Missouri.

No matter. When selecting pristine rivers to float in the Ozarks, the Buffalo, Current, Jacks Fork and Eleven Point all would be in my top five, along with the North Fork of the White in Missouri.

One of the finest floats in America is the 10.6 miles on the Buffalo from Ponca to Kyle’s Landing. The route is lined with majestic bluffs and includes Hemmed-in-Hollow and the dancing waters of its waterfall.

Buffalo Outdoor Center is an outfitter in Ponca that offers a variety of lodging, including ridgetop cabins with unobstructed views of the Boston Mountains. With 10 bedrooms, its River Wind Lodge is perfect for groups, who can rent the entire lodge.

The one drawback for the Buffalo River is that it depends on rain for floating. The four Missouri rivers all are spring fed and floatable year round.

The best stretches of the Current river are from the headwaters at Montauk State Park to the Round Spring access. The river is bounded by bluffs, and fed by springs. Pulltite, Medlock and Welch springs are along the way and make for nice short hikes back to the gurgling, turquoise waters of the spring pools.

The top of the Jacks Fork River is known as The Prongs, and it has the reputation of being the prettiest float in Missouri. That part of the river is best floated in spring, when it gets a boost from recent rains.

The Eleven Point River is true wilderness on the seven miles from Greer to the Turner access. Be sure and make the mile hike down to Greer Spring, which pumps 222 million gallons of cold, clear water into the river each day. The spring is in a Garden of Eden setting at the bottom of a canyon green with ferns, mosses and watercress.

The North Fork of the White River is near Dora in far southern Missouri on the Arkansas border, with national forest bordering its upper stretches. The river is one of the few in the Ozarks where wild rainbow trout reproduce, rather than being stocked.

The best float on the North Fork is the seven miles from Hammond Camp to River of Life Farm, an outfitter and resort with “treehouse” cabins on a hillside overlooking the secluded river valley.

Floating is a year-round sport, but my favorite times are spring, when the wildflowers and redbud and dogwood trees are blooming, and fall, when the Ozarks is decorated in autumn colors.

One floatation device is required for each floater. Other recommended equipment includes sun screen, a wide-brimmed hat and tight-fitting water shoes that keep out the gravel. A cooler with food and water and a folding chair make lunch on a gravel bar an enjoyable stop.


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