Summer Travel: Gateway to the Ozarks
“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.” – Mark Twain, The Innocents Abroad
This summer we’re featuring some travel suggestions for our readers, and while last month we provided tips for a successful trip to Disney World, we realize that this may not fit into everyone’s budgets and time constraints. In this issue, we want to tell you about a string of small towns nestled along the Missouri-Arkansas border, just south of the Mark Twain National Forest. Blink and you’ll miss them, but if you have the time, it’ll be worth the trip. The Ozark Foothills are replete in history, lore, geology, and beautiful scenery. Come along with us as we explore some of our natural treasures...
Located about three hours north of Memphis, you’ll find the small town of Thayer, Missouri. There’s no hustle and bustle there—just friendly folks who cling tightly to tradition and family. The locals all know each other well but out-of-towners are a welcome addition, especially in the summertime. There is something for all ages to do, especially if you enjoy the great outdoors. Head on out Highway W, all the way to the end, and you’ll find Grand Gulf State Park. Often referred to as Missouri's “Little Grand Canyon”, at this geologic preserve, you’ll be able to view a canyon, cave, and even a natural bridge. What was once a huge dolomite cave partially collapsed many, many centuries ago, forming a natural bridge. Bring along some good walking shoes, as there are numerous trails to be explored. Recharge after your hike by packing a picnic basket to be enjoyed under the tree-shaded rim of the chasm.
Next, head south a couple miles to Mammoth Spring State Park. Here you’ll find the world-famous natural spring which bears the same name, and flows at an average rate of 9.78 million gallons per hour with a constant water temperature of only 58 degrees Fahrenheit. The icy water from Mammoth Spring contributes to Spring River, one of Arkansas’s most popular trout rivers. If you enjoy fishing for rainbow trout, walleye and bass, visit Spring River and even enjoy a guided fly-fishing excursion by Mark Crawford (870-955-8300). If fishing isn’t your thing, the constant water flow from the spring helps to make Spring River one of the State’s best float streams. You can literally tube, canoe, or kayak some 31 miles overall, from the spring’s origin to Williford, Arkansas.
A little history about the area—settled in the early 19th century and originally called “Head of the River”, the town expanded due to a grist mill powered by the spring’s water. In 1886 the Kansas City, Fort Scott & Memphis Railroad built lines into the area and constructed one of its first train depots in the town. The line was acquired by Frisco Railroad in 1901 and the dam was purchased by the Arkansas-Missouri Power Company in 1925, when they constructed a hydroelectric plant to provide the area with electricity up until 1972. Remnants of the old plant still stand and are viewable on self-guided tours. During your visit, be sure to check out the 1886 train depot. Although they no longer offer passenger services, it’ll sure feel like you’re waiting for your next ride the way they have it set up!
After leaving the railroad depot, drop by the Mammoth Spring National Fish Hatchery where biologists and conservationists alike are working together to promote better understanding and appreciation of the natural history of the area. Habitat protection, rehabilitation, and the reintroduction of endangered species is mission number one for these folks. Located in a LEED Building (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design), the team works on bat conservation, and breeding local fish species like lake sturgeon, paddlefish, and alligator gar. They also do some muscle work, where they aim to reduce the population of an invasive species of mussel which competes for food and suffocates native mussels by attachment.. Go see these folks and find out what you can do to make sure all these native species are around for years to come.
While you’re in the area, go ahead and explore Main Street Mammoth Spring. Be sure to pay extra close attention to Fred’s Fish House (once showcased on the late Anthony Bourdain’s Travel Channel show) and Riverbend Restaurant where you can get three square meals a day served with a smile. If you’re still hungry, as you’re leaving Mammoth and heading south, swing into Shorty’s Rib Shack and ask for a sample of the brisket, pulled pork, ribs, or sausage. Oh, and good luck leaving without buying everything on the menu—these folks know what they’re doing!
Continuing south, make sure and stop off in Historic Downtown Hardy Arkansas for some unique shopping and entertainment. If you’re lucky, local musicians will be performing anything from Ozark Bluegrass to Indie Rock on Saturday afternoons. Pop into each and every one of the idyllic shops full of collectibles, antiques, and handmade crafts from local artisans. Being the ‘Natural State’ that Arkansas is, you’ll of course find plenty of rocks and minerals if that is something you like to collect. You’ll also find hand-thrown pottery, locally made leather goods, and even an old fashioned soda shop. Oodles and oodles of Ozark-centric decor and toys can be found as well. For instance, have you ever wanted to pick up a new skill and play the dulcimer? Well, here you can do that and then take it home with you!
Before you leave the area, I highly recommend visiting one of the MANY canoe rental locations located along any of the rivers in the area. There’s the North Fork, Eleven Point, and of course, Spring River, to name a few—each offering something a little different for its visitors. I didn’t get to float this trip up because I like it to be the hottest part of the summer when I do it. That 58 degree water will surprise you at first, but trust me, it offers one heck of a relief from the scorching Mid-South Sun!