Exploring the Niangua River valley

We enjoy short road trips, hopscotching around Missouri backroads to find interesting landscapes, locations, and views. Missouri is such a diverse state, we’ll never run out of worthwhile places to explore. Last fall we took a great overnight tour of NW Missouri, exploring a variety of state parks, conservation areas, good food, and more. This year, we headed southwest for an overnight trip to the Niangua River valley of west-central Missouri. The first day was a little odd, as things didn’t turn out quite as we hoped/expected, but the second day was near-perfect and sent us home feeling quite happy and refreshed.
Day 1, we got up before dawn, did animal chores, and hit the road as soon as we could, with the truck loaded up on sleeping pads, blankets, and good farm-sourced food. We take back roads as much as possible when we travel, as we hate and fear highways while much preferring the relaxation and scenery of normal roads. The extra time it takes to get somewhere is, in our view, more than paid back by lower risk and greater happiness. So after an enjoyable drive, we arrived at a Niangua outfitter to rent a canoe for the day.
The Niangua has a reputation as a party river during the summer, but we hoped it would be quieter in mid-October. Relative to normal, I guess it was, but there were still plenty of people around. The outfitter, who had promised us an 8-mile float until dark on the phone the day before, informed us on arrival that we could only do a 4-mile float and had 4 whole hours to do it in. So we took a very slow-paced float, pausing often to rest and watch birds, and hardly paddling at all except for one stretch of strong upstream wind. The river was still pretty populated, as we dodged oblivious fly fisherman at many riffles, eventually starting to bang our paddles on the canoe as we approached to avoid getting a backcast in the eye. We also paused often to let other floating parties pass by, trying to maintain some solitude. The scenery was pretty, the water nice and clear like a good Ozark river such that the fish-watching was as good as the bird-watching, but it was definitely the Niangua: a regular pattern of sunken beer cans along the bottom was an obvious reminder of the river’s dominant visitors, as were all the lures in the trees. It was nice to be in a canoe again, but it wasn’t the highlight of the trip.
With our shorter-than-expected float, we got off the river by late afternoon and headed for our overnight destination, Bennet Spring State Park. This was a new location for us, and we hoped it would be similar to Roaring River State Park, one of Joanna’s favorites which combines a trout hatchery with beautiful scenery and lots of good, remote hiking trails (we wrote about it here, toward the bottom). Bennet, though, felt like it belonged on the Niangua: packed with trout fisherman in expensive gear angling in the spring-fed channel for released fish, rampant screaming kids, highly developed features (the “park store” looked like a Bass Pro outlet; we couldn’t find a single book), and crowds of RVs with satellite dishes. We hiked a few of the shorter trails in the immediate spring/campground area and found them poorly maintained if not entirely neglected: badly signed/marked, with lots of ankle-threatening washouts and holes. We also didn’t see another person on these trails, despite the population density; neither did we see anyone else in the very well-done Nature Center. We shrugged, enjoyed a dinner of squash-and-leek lasgna, cabbage-pepper slaw, homemade rolls and more, before bedding down in the truck for a mercifully quiet night. Luckily I woke up the next morning before dawn, preventing the indignity of being rousted by the tornado-like “time to fish” siren.
To be fair, it’s great that state parks and other outlets provide lots of different ways for people to enjoy the Missouri outdoors. What we found on this day just wasn’t what we were looking for, any more than the long remote hike we took the next day would appeal to some others. 

 The next day, we needed to get away from people and chose a long hike into the hinterlands of Bennet, heading for an intriguing natural geologic feature miles up the valley. The trail led us through an enjoyable diversity of landscapes, ecosystems, and elevations, rambling from upland oak glades to stream-bottom forests, open fields, and lots of interesting rock outcrops. It still wasn’t well-marked and the printed trail map was poorly done and nearly worthless, but the trail itself was clearly visible and enjoyable. Photos above show the dry stream branch miles above Bennet Spring (which steals its water), and Joanna investigating a large and well-preserved stromatolite in the stream bed.

We encountered plenty of birds, including large flocks of robins & yellow-rumped warblers, along with clouds of crows and vultures more than 50 strong. This baby three-toed box turtle was a highlight, along with various butterflies and more on a gorgeous warm fall day. Then we arrived at our destination, the Natural Tunnel:

This glorious feature tunnels beneath a limestone ridge for more than 200′, forming a cutoff for the stream  branch which used to circle well around this ridge before typical Ozark karst erosion developed a shortcut (similar to our local Rock Bridge State Park but longer and more remote). Now the old stream channel is an abandoned bed, and the stream plunges through this instead. We had the place to ourselves, and spent plenty of time exploring and photographing it. Here’s my favorite shot:

We did eventually have to leave, and headed back along a different trail, which offered even more scenic, ecological, and geologic variety, including this impressive stream bluff:

 Heading north for home, we intentionally took a lot of back roads, exploring the remote parts of the Niangua valley that aren’t overrun by beer- and trout-fueled tourism. A good map, good instincts, and patience can reward you with very neat finds in almost any part of rural Missouri, and this was no exception. Small dirt roads gave us this blufftop view of the river, and these well-preserved cross-beds in sandstone.

Oak-prairie glades and savannas are common, on steep hillsides and valley bottoms, as the back roads wind through a mix of private and conservation lands. We’d particularly like to return to the 7,000+ acre Lead Mine Conservation Area, which we couldn’t do much more than poke our noses into at a few points. It’s also worthwhile to have some interesting guides and references; one of our favorites is Geological Wonders and Curiosties of Missouri, available from the Missouri DNR online store. This book is old and somewhat outdated, and many of the features described and listed are on private land where you can’t (or shouldn’t) get to them. But they’re still fun to read about, and enough are findable with some skill and patience that the book is a worthwhile asset. For example, at one point we noticed some unusually folded rocks in a roadcut, looked up the area, and confirmed Joanna’s rough memory that there were several suspected meteorite impact structures nearby.  Cool.

The entire afternoon, I was searching for one thing in particular: a good open view of the overall landscapes. The Ozarks are difficult to photograph well; in person you can see and feel the rolling topography, the glades and forests and open ground, and feel the remoteness and variety of the ground as you wind through it on dirt roads and rugged trails. As one writer noted, what the Ozarks lack in elevation they make up in steepness. But a camera’s lens is almost always too small to convey the sense of place, and ends up looking like just another forest or hill. Then we rounded a hilltop bend on an obscure one-lane gravel track, crossed a cattle guard, and hit the brakes in satisfaction. A quick hike up into an unposted ridgeline bluestem pasture, and I had my Ozark scene. Prairie grasses, rock outcrops, hills in fall color, small farms in the bottoms, and a nice limestone bluff along the Niangua in the background. Here was the Ozarks we’d been enjoying all day, captured in one perfect location.

 I could have stayed on that ridge for hours, but the sun was dropping west and we had to get home by dark to take care of farm animals. So we wound north a while longer, eventually emerging onto “better” roads that took us north, across the Missouri River at Boonville, and back into the familiar terrain of home as the sun set. A thoroughly enjoyable day, and one that nicely balanced the deep sense of place we get from rarely leaving our own farm. This is the Missouri we love.

Our deep thanks to the friends who did evening and morning animal chores so we could be gone overnight.

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