One of my goals for our Spring trip was to hike in some new states. Earlier in the week I had hiked in Mississippi for the first time. The hike we had planned in Louisiana had been foiled by massive thunderstorms, tornadoes, and flooding, but we still had Missouri and Illinois on our agenda. We broke camp Friday morning and left the Buffalo River, driving north. We headed up into Missouri, bound for the Ozark National Scenic Riverways. After doing considerable research on hiking in Missouri, I’d picked this area for our hike. This unit of the National Park Service includes the Current River and the Jack’s Fork. Both rivers feature numerous colorful cold water springs and caves.
Our first stop was at Round Spring, north of Eminence, MO. There we took a short stroll on a paved path to view the spring. The path actually crosses a ridge that divides the spring in two. On one side, the spring emerges from a cave into a huge green pool. The water then re-emerges on the far side in another green pool. From there it runs a short distance before joining the Current River.
We took a few photos and then drove up to the Devil’s Well Trailhead to start our hike. The Devil’s Well is a vertical shaft leading to a flooded cave. The lake at the bottom holds about 22 million gallons of water! Unfortunately, the entrance is gated. Even if it were accessible, reaching the lake would require a long rappel or a huge ladder. I did walk down the staircase to the opening and peered down into the depths. Unfortunately you can’t see much from there.
I’d selected a 5 mile loop hike to Cave Spring on the Current River. As you might guess, the spring is back inside a cave. A trail leads to the mouth of the cave, but exploring the cave and reaching the spring requires swimming or boating. Originally I thought we might swim it, but that cave water is cold! Instead, I brought my new pack raft. Christy bought the pack raft for me for Christmas, and I’d been itching to try it out. This seemed like the perfect opportunity.
The hike was mostly a pleasant stroll through the woods. There were a couple of extremely modest viewpoints, but the highlight of the first two miles was the wildflowers. There were numerous varieties, but the biggest thrill was a cluster of Paintbrush on an open, sunny hillside. I didn’t know that Missouri had Paintbrush! We eventually descended beyond some modest cliffs and followed a spur trail to a fantastic campsite on the Current River. Just beyond the campsite was the immense opening of Cave Spring Cave. It was an extremely sunny afternoon, and photography was challenging. I had to get in there.
The pack raft is not easy to inflate. Christy and I worked on it together, alternating between using the raft bag as a type of pump and blowing into one of the valves. After a few minutes of hard work it was fully inflated. I’d brought half of a kayak paddle along, since half of a paddle is a lot easier to carry than a full paddle. I figured I would just paddle it like a canoe. This was a mistake. It turns out that the pack raft is difficult to steer, particularly when you are paddling upstream against a strong current. I had to switch sides with each stroke to keep from spinning in circles. Doing this meant it was difficult to generate much power. In the future I’ll bring the full paddle.
I nearly fell in the river getting into the raft. I paddled up into the mouth of the cave and passed under some stalactites hanging from the ceiling. It turns out that wasn’t the only thing on the ceiling. My presence startled a squirrel that was doing who knows what up there. He actually fell from the ceiling and scampered across the rocks near the cave entrance before disappearing.
The current got stronger as I proceeded deeper into the cave. Paddling the raft became impossible – I was actually losing ground. Instead, I used my hands to pull myself along the wall of the cave. This was effective, and once I got into the actual spring the current diminished. It is an amazing place. I relaxed for a couple of minutes, listening to the water dripping from the ceiling. The view of the river passing the mouth of the cave was cool, too. It seemed very far away.
After a few minutes I let the current push me back out of the cave. Christy wasn’t interested in paddling the raft, so I went back in for a second visit. Afterwards, I rejoined Christy and we deflated and packed up the raft. We were about to depart when a group in canoes pulled up. They were a friendly bunch of guys doing a long weekend canoeing trip on the Current River. The current was really strong – it was ripping along at 5mph or so. They were way ahead of schedule, and were trying to figure out how to keep from finishing their trip a day early! They’d decided to camp at the lovely site near the mouth of the cave. They were thrilled to find out that we were just dayhiking and not camping there.
We completed the loop on the hike out. We passed one meager viewpoint of the Current River, but there were too many trees to get photos. We’d passed one other viewpoint earlier, but it was equally unexciting. This hike is all about the cave, the spring, the river, and the abundant wildflowers along the way.
We returned to the car and set the controls for southern Illinois. We had reservations at the campground at Ferne Clyffe Falls State Park for Friday and Saturday nights. We had a long drive ahead of us, and immediately got behind someone driving 20mph under the speed limit. Sigh. He finally turned off just before we reached the town of Eminence. Christy was driving, and she enthusiastically sped up. Unfortunately that coincided with the speed limit dropping to 20mph. It also coincided with Eminence’s official speed trap. The officer pulled us over in the parking lot of the local ice cream shop. He turned out to be very nice and let us go with a warning. What a relief! Honestly, a ticket would’ve been justified, coming into a small town with lots of pedestrian traffic. But we’ll take the good fortune, which we celebrated with ice cream.
Back to Missouri
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