The new Echo Bluff State Park, billed as the gateway to the Missouri Ozarks, is the perfect base camp for a two-day treasure hunt in search of the turquoise springs hidden in the forested hills.
Located halfway between Salem and Eminence on Highway 19, the park’s entrance is the starting point for an easy drive to six of these sparkling gems.
The route over the rolling roadways is part of the adventure, especially in fall, when the Ozark forests glow in autumn colors. Winter also is special as the leafless trees allow a better look at the rugged landscape.
Here are six springs, starting with the closest to the park. Mileage and directions are one way from the park’s main entrance to each spring. All are worth the trip.
Round, Alley & Blue springs
• Round Spring (2.4 miles) — Heading south on Highway 19, the entrance to the spring is on the left after crossing the Spring Valley bridge.
The sign reads “Round Spring Campground.” (Not the group campground.) A short walk on a paved trail leads to a wood deck overlooking the spring that is “round as a silver dollar.”
The spring emerges from a sinkhole, then disappears under a natural tunnel, part of the cave system that hasn’t collapsed.
Round Spring pumps out a daily average of 26 million gallons of clear, cold water into the Current River. The National Park Service offers camping areas and a river access.
Round Spring Cave is open in the summer and offers lantern tours.
• Alley Spring (21 miles) — If you can visit only one spring, make this your destination. It’s gorgeous.
Heading south on Highway 19, turn right (west) on Highway 106 at Eminence. After crossing the Jacks Fork River, turn right at the Alley Spring and Mill sign.
The spring empties an average of 81 million gallons a day into the upper Jacks Fork. A short trail leads around the spring, along bluff walls decorated with hanging gardens of wildflowers and ferns.
The barn-red mill was built in 1894 and is now a museum operated by the park service. The three-story mill is open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. A one-room schoolhouse, furnished as if waiting for the students to return, is nearby. The visitor center, in a vintage general store, has interesting merchandise.
Park Ranger Leanna Bryson had a bit of news.
“The mill is going to be on the U.S. quarter in 2017,” she said. “They picked 55 national parks for the coins; Yellowstone was the first. They say we’re the most photographed mill in the United States.”
• Blue Spring (30 miles) — Head south on Highway 19 to Highway 106 at Eminence, then go left (east) for 15.3 miles to the sign pointing to the spring. A decent gravel road heads through a forest of mature oaks and pines to a parking area with a picnic table and restroom.
A half-mile walk on a trail along the Current River and the spring branch heads back to the bluest spring in all of Missouri. The Native American word for the beautiful color translated to “spring of the summer sky.”
A wood deck allows you to peer into the spring, which is the state’s deepest at 310 feet, with an average daily flow of 87 million gallons. The spring is said to be deep enough to hold the State of Liberty, with her torch still five feet under water.
You may be able to visit Round, Alley and Blue springs in one day and have enough time left for a stop at Rocky Falls, which is off Route H, seven miles west of the entrance to Blue Spring on Highway 106.
The 40-foot-tall falls is fun to climb, and it has a picnic area and great swimming hole.
Falling, Greer & Big springs
• Falling Spring (37 miles) — Take Highway 19 south to Highway 60 at Winona, go right (west) on 60 a short distance to get back on 19 south. About 10 miles down the two-lane blacktop, a sign on the left marks the gravel road that leads 2.3 miles back to the spring.
The spring is part of a small park maintained by the U.S. Forest Service. Next to the parking lot is a shaded picnic area and a log cabin that was built in 1851 but is surprisingly intact.
A footbridge crosses a pond covered with water lilies back to a small mill with a water wheel outside and gears inside. Falling Spring emerges out of a bluff and falls 13 feet into the pool next to the mill.
It is a peaceful setting, with the only sound coming from the splash of the waterfall.
• Greer Spring (45.7 miles) — Head south on Highway 106 through Winona, dogleg on 60 and get back on 19 south. After crossing the bridge at the Eleven Point River, the sign for the trailhead is less than a mile away.
The roller-coaster ride from Winona to the Eleven Point River is one of the best drives in Missouri, rolling up the hills and down into the valleys through national forest. The mile-long walk from the trailhead to the spring goes through mature woods.
Greer Spring is the most spectacular of the spring settings. The woodland wildflowers in April and May make this Missouri’s version of the Garden of Eden.
From a small overlook, you descend a metal stairway to the spring. To the left, a cave opening gushes water that tumbles over moss-covered boulders. Follow the flow about 50 yards and you come to the main spring boil, which explodes with an average of 220 million gallons a day to double the Eleven Point River 1.25 miles downstream.
The spring is the largest on U.S. national forest lands, and has a flow that could provide every American with a gallon of pure, crystalline water each day.
Sit for a spell and ponder the fact that this geologic marvel — a result of the Swiss cheese karst topography of springs, caves and sinkholes in the Ozarks — flows every hour of every day in a world where clean water is a cherished resource.
• Big Spring (about 50 miles) — Head south on Highway 19 to Winona, then left (east) on Highway 60 to Van Buren. A sign on the right points to the spring four miles away.
We’ve saved the biggest for last.
Like Round and Alley springs, Big Spring was a former state park that became part of the Ozark National Scenic Riverways when that national park was created in 1964 to preserve 134 miles of the Current and Jacks Fork rivers.
In the 1930s, the Civilian Conservation Corps built a rustic lodge and cabins at the site and they are still in use. A short walk from the parking area leads to picnic tables that sit by the spring flow.
The water emerges from openings at the base of a bluff that has several small cave entrances. A trail runs for a short distance above the spring.
With an average flow of 286 million gallons, Big Spring is the largest single outlet spring in America and could fill a typical pro football stadium in a day. The water travels underground from as far as 50 miles away.
The aquamarine color of Missouri’s springs is caused by dissolved minerals in the water. Big Spring is said to carry a load of 173 tons of rock each day on its way to the Current River.
These six springs are the easiest to reach by driving. Welch and Pulltite springs also are near Echo Bluff State Park but visiting them is more fun on a float trip down the upper Current River.
That’s another adventure.
By Tom Uhlenbrock