Nothing says carefree summer day like the words “float trip.” It’s one of the oldest pastimes in Missouri — heck, in the whole Midwest — presenting a unique opportunity to get up close and personal with nature and the pioneer history of our region. Or, maybe it’s just a great way to lay back and drain some icy cold beverages as you drift down the river. Whatever you want to make of it!
Of course, hundreds of other people have the same idea each weekend as the seasonal temperatures start to soar. To get the inside scoop on some of the floatable rivers in the Show Me State that aren’t a waterborne shit show (don’t act like you don’t know what I mean), we contacted five outfitters and asked them for their off-the-beaten-path suggestions and tips.
ELEVEN POINT RIVER – Alton, Missouri
“We’re the place people go to get away from the crowds,” said Brian Sloss, 13-season float veteran and owner of Eleven Point Canoe Rental.
Thanks to a 44-mile stretch of the Eleven Point River being part of the protected National Wild and Scenic Rivers System, “You’re not going to float down the river and see a bunch of cabins,” said Sloss. Rather, you’re going to see “springs, bluffs and lots of forest.”
Indeed, the river runs primarily through Mark Twain National Forest and abounds with wildlife: fish, birds, mink, otter, muskrats, deer, turkeys. Sloss said he recently spotted his first black bear in the area.
The U.S. Forest Service, which manages the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System, maintains several float camps along the river (first-come, first-serve), or you can just pull over and throw up a tent. Either way, the Eleven Point is ideal for a multiple-day float trip.
Secret spot: Greer Spring, the second largest in Missouri and the 10th largest in the world, might not be the best-kept secret, but it does make the river usable even during the worst draughts. Be sure to explore the cave-like wonder on foot before or after your float — a definite “do not miss” in Sloss’ book.
Pro tip: Canoes rentals include paddles, life jackets, transportation and a trash bag, but if you’re going to stay overnight, Sloss recommends you invest in a dry bag or two. There’s nothing worse than trying to sleep in cold, wet gear.
Newbie tip: Eleven Point Canoe Rental will be hosting a two-day beginner’s canoe and kayak class with certified instructors on June 7 and 8, so new floaters can learn to operate the boats in a safe environment.
UPPER MERAMEC RIVER – Steelville, Missouri
A good current, scenic views and an abundance of wildlife is how Brigette McCormick, general manager of Bird’s Nest Lodge, describes the Upper Meramec River. She has seen bald eagles and cardinals nesting along the river, as well as turtles, snakes, cranes, vultures and deer.
“It’s one of the best floats on the Meramec; everybody has a good time,” said McCormick. “It’s not crowded, and you always have your own space.”
She recommends floaters start early in the day to give themselves plenty of leisure time. Trips through Bird’s Nest range from 3 to 21 miles, with the option of remote riverfront camping or overnights in the business’ rustic-yet-modern cabins, with home-cooked meals in the lodge.
Secret spot: If a “polar plunge” is on your bucket list, sign up for the 6-mile float and stop off at a beautiful freshwater spring that pumps out 90 million gallons of water a day for a quick dip in 32-degree water. The 3-mile float is not without its merits: a small spring forms a waterfall about a mile-and-a-half in.
Pro tip: If you’re crowd-averse, head down Monday through Thursday, when your company will be a quiet cadre of fishermen looking for trophy smallmouth, largemouth and trout.
JAMES RIVER – Galena, Missouri
He might be new to the business, but Lance Clayton of James River Outfitters knows a thing or two about his river. Because it’s quiet (Class I) and less crowded, the waterway is ideal for families and fishing, he said — and frequent sightings of bald eagles, mink and even fox seem to support his claim.
Near Branson and Table Rock Lake, the James River often flows through steep-sided valleys with high rock bluffs. The water is mostly clear with gravel, rubble and bedrock bottoms. Numerous springs and other factors (such as weather) influence the flow, said Clayton, so always pay attention to what’s in front of you; the river changes every day.
James River Outfitters offers trips of 4 miles, 5.2 miles, 11.4 miles and 21.8 miles in a variety of craft: canoes, tubes, kayaks, rafts and Jon boats.
Secret spot: On the 5.2-mile trip to Kerr — a popular choice for newcomers — look for the gravel bar about a mile in. It’s a well-known spot for to pull over and enjoy the shore.
Pro tip: If you’re in the mood to catch your lunch, the James River is home to smallmouth, goggle eye, walleye, catfish, black bass and largemouth bass. The trick is to float from the campground down-river for better fishing, said Clayton. It means a little more work on the return trip, but it can be worth it.
NORTH FORK OF THE WHITE RIVER – Dora, Missouri
Myron McKee, owner of the River of Life Farm, describes the North Fork River as a “wonderland of wilderness,” with the added claim of being fed by the eighth-largest spring system in the state for year-round floating. The numerous fonts that feed the river keep it refreshingly cool even during the hottest summer afternoons.
Overlooking a key rubbernecking spot called “The Falls” — a 2-foot-tall rock ledge that paddlers drop over (often unsuccessfully) — the River of Life Farm takes floaters upstream to put in at Hammond Blue Spring, James Bridge or Twin Bridges for 7-mile, 11-mile or 12-mile trips.
Like the Eleven Point, North Fork’s proximity to the 10,000-acre Mark Twain National Forest means lots of wildlife: “We have it all!” said McKee. River of Life Farm guests will especially enjoy watching a pair of southern bald eagles who have taken up residence there, and the farm’s free-roaming alpacas.
Secret spot: On your way back from up-river, keep an eye out for North Fork Spring, located on a gravel bar and a popular pit stop where you can sip the cool water right out of the ground.
Pro tip: River of Life Farm sits in the heart of Missouri’s “Blue Ribbon” Wild Trout Management Area, ranked as one of America’s 100 top trout streams. Bank access to this mile of prime rainbow trout fishing is exclusive to the farm.
NIANGUA RIVER – Lebanon, Missouri
Another “very mild” river (Class I), the Niangua is also family-friendly. Clear and calm, it is fed by Bennett Spring, which pumps out 100 million gallons of water a day, said Linda Patrick, owner of Adventures Float Trip, a local outfitter that rents rafts, kayaks and canoes for 4-mile, 7.5-mile and 15-mile trips. (The latter is good for an overnight float by special arrangement.)
Known as one of the best fishing streams in Missouri, the Niangua is close by Bennett Spring State Park and one of the Conservation Department’s trout hatcheries. The river can be crowded on hot, summer weekends, but Adventures Float Trip has weekday floats and camping that are more laid-back, with plenty of time to fish and play.
Secret spot: Not so much a secret location as a secret time, Patrick recommends floaters visit in late September or early October, when the leaves on the trees begin to change colors. Fishing is great, and wildlife is abundant, she said. Don’t miss out, enjoy one last day on the Niangua River before the winter months.
WHAT TO KNOW
Check with your outfitter for a full list of rules, but here are a few general guidelines:
- No glass bottles
- No Styrofoam coolers
- Purple paint on trees and fences means “No Trespassing”
- Pack out all trash and apply “Leave No Trace” principles
WHAT TO BRING
- Water; freeze a couple of bottles the night before to have a refreshing beverage in the middle of a hot day
- Sunscreen, even on gray and cloudy days (hats and sunglasses are a good idea on hot days, too)
- Snacks, and lots of them
- Electronics (phones, cameras) might get wet. Talk to your trip operator about what to do with these valuables.
Author: Kimberley Donoghue is a regular contributor to Terrain magazine