A great man once said, “You haven’t been to Missouri until you’ve enjoyed a river float.” Or that may have been me. I’ve traveled and lived all over the United States and the world, and in the three years I’ve lived in St. Louis, the most “Missouri” thing I have experienced is a lazy float down a serene river surrounded by lush green forest.

The James River Basin or watershed occupies almost a million acres of land in portions of eight counties in southwest Missouri. Running straight through the basin is the James River, which travels southwest past the city of Springfield and eventually drains into Table Rock Lake northwest of Branson.

The 130-mile-long river is the main attraction for paddlers in the basin. If water levels are medium-high to high, tributaries such as Finley Creek could offer additional floating options. A three-day excursion from the public access on the downstream side of the dam at Lake Springfield to the town of Galena is possible when water levels are up as well.

“The James River basin is a natural and cultural microcosm of the Ozarks. As you paddle the James from Springfield to Table Rock Lake, you encounter both urban and rural settings, Karst topography [a topography formed from the dissolution of soluble rocks such as limestone], prairies and forests, wilderness and conservation areas, and even a national battlefield — Wilson’s Creek National Battleground,” explained Todd Wilkinson, project manager at the James River Basin Partnership (JRBP).

JRBP float attendees shooting the rapids between Shelvin Rock and Hootentown at Jamesville.

The JRBP is a grassroots, not-for-profit, 501(c)3 organization working to improve and protect the water quality of the springs, streams, rivers, and lakes in the James River watershed. Since the partnership’s inception in 1997, its volunteers, members, and staff have committed — through action, education, and research — to preserve and protect water quality within the James River Basin and the surrounding Ozarks landscape.

Articles about floating the James date back to at least 1914, but the river gained its national popularity due to Jim Owen, who started a fishing/floating operation in 1935. Owen’s background in advertising helped get stories about the Ozark’s riverways into magazines such as Life, Sports Afield, and Outdoor Life. During the 33 years that his float service was in operation, Owens went through roughly 300 wooden johnboats and hosted more than 10,000 fishermen from all over the country.

“The river runs past some beautiful, tall limestone bluffs and offers opportunities for gravel bar camping. The river is also home to several fish endemic to the White River, including Largemouth, Smallmouth, Goggle-Eye, and Spotted Bass, as well as any major sport-fish found in Missouri, such as suckers, Paddlefish, and Walleye, just to name a few,” said Wilkinson.

The 22-mile trip from Hootentown to Galena is rumored to be fantastic for fishing floaters.

The Hootentown Bridge over the James River.

“The section [of the James River] around Hootentown is associated more with traditional float culture, and outfitters offer day floats along the lower James between Delaware Town and Galena, the site of some of the first guided floats by Jim Owen, Charley Barnes, Tom Yocum, and other Ozarks guides,” Wilkinson said.

Springfield 417 magazine suggests a 7-mile float from Shelvin Rock to Hootentown. Hootentown Canoe Rental & Store offers kayak, canoe, raft, and tube rentals, as well as shuttle service and camping/RV facilities.

If you have time, be sure to stop in Springfield, the third largest city in Missouri and the “Birthplace of Route 66”. It is home of the original Bass Pro Shops Outdoor World location and Springfield Brewing Company, which makes the Blue Canoe Pale Ale, a classic American pale ale brewed with “clean, crisp Ozark water”. A portion of the proceeds from sales of the beer helps to support the James River Basin Partnership. Kayaks and canoes can be rented at the Lake Springfield Boathouse, allowing paddlers to explore the approximately 6-mile James River Water Trail.

Travel + Leisure magazine listed the James River in its “10 Best Float Trips in Missouri for Beautiful Views and Serene Waters” article in 2020. Grab a paddle, put on your life jacket, and explore the rivers and tributaries of the James River Basin this summer. You’re guaranteed to encounter rich history, fascinating geology, and unique plants and animals along this alluring and charming watershed.

James River Basin Outfitters

Lake Springfield Boathouse

James River Outfitters

Y Bridge Canoe Rental & Kayak, Rafting, Camping Outfitter

Camp Tomahawk Tube Float

Hootentown Canoe Rental & Store

Volunteer Opportunities

James River Basin Partnership

Author: Morgan Paar is a regular contriutor to Terrain Magazine.