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Ozark National Scenic Riverways is hidden gem in south-central Missouri

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EMINENCE, MO (KTVI)- When you think about U.S.  National Parks, what do you think of? Yellowstone or Yosemite?  Did you know there are six National Parks right here in Missouri? As the celebration of the National Park Service centennial comes to a close, FOX 2 takes you to some of the best kept secrets in the Show Me State, starting with a first of its kind.

Fans of float trips may know about the Current and Jacks Fork Rivers. But did you know they are part of the first national park site created to protect a river system? Made up of over 80,000 acres in south-central Missouri, the Ozark National Scenic Riverways was created in 1964 to protect the rivers from development, especially from damming.

Ranger Josh Chilton, Jacks Fork River Interpreter for the National Park Service, explains, “It was thought that by building a dam, you brought economic vitality to an area. You brought jobs. You brought recreational opportunities.”

By the mid-20th century, more than 17 percent of America’s rivers had been dammed. But people started to question the ecological effects of those projects.

“And one of the things we questioned was once we dammed these special areas up, they’re gone forever,” said Ranger Dave Tobey, Upper Current River Interpreter. “So, this was the first time that people stepped in and said, no, you are not going to dam up this river. It is too special. And it is our gift to the nation and to the world.”

The Current and Jacks Fork Rivers are spring-fed and clear making them ideal for those who like to paddle, swim, or fish.  It’s always great to float the beautiful rivers, but if you are looking to explore, Ozark National Scenic Riverways has some hidden gems you can discover.

Ranger Tobey rattled them off, “Just in the riverways alone, over 400 caves, and hundreds of springs, sink holes, losing streams…”

The springs in the Ozark Riverways rank among the world’s largest, delivering billions of gallons of water to the rivers every week. Alley Spring, one of the best known, adds  81 million gallons of water to the Jacks Fork River every day.

Alley Spring is also where you’ll find the bright red Alley Mill, which once used the constant flow of water to run its turbine powered flour mills. The mill would have been the life blood of the small communities in the area. Now, Alley Mill is a photographer’s dream and will even be featured on a U.S. quarter in 2017.

Downstream, you’ll find Rocky Falls, a popular swimming and climbing spot. Water cascades down a 40-foot-tall series of chutes in the purplish rock known as rhyolite, the remnants of an ancient volcanic eruption.  Follow the Ozark Trail and you’ll find Klepzig Mill, a historic mill located at another cascading falls.

“Fishing and hunting become an excuse to be on the river, or on the trails, or to be outdoors,” says Ranger Tobey. “But you don’t need an excuse out here. I’m mean, just the paddling itself, and the hiking, and going to some of these unique spots. It’s just so worth it.”

The area is also home to old-growth shortleaf pines and white oaks that once covered large parts of the lower Ozarks. Following the ruin of the Civil War, railroads connected the isolated region and drew in big lumber companies. Initially an economic boom to the area, excessive logging ultimately stripped the countryside bare.

“Most of the timber they were after was yellow pine, native yellow pine, and that all grows at the same growth rate,” explains Ranger Chilton. “It was all ready to harvest at the same time. Plus, we had an insurmountable appetite for that timber as the country expanded.  And they cut and cut and cut until the last tree hit the ground.”

Thankfully, the Civilian Conservation Corps’ Tree Army replanted many of Missouri’s forests in the 1930s and regrowth was robust. Today the forests are healthier than they were 150 years ago.

To commemorate the centennial of the founding of the National Park Service, Missouri’s national parks are hosting the  “Show-Me National Parks Passport Challenge.” Pick up a free passport stamp book at any of Missouri's six national parks and visit the stamping station located in each of the visitor centers.  After collecting stamps from your first three parks, have your Passport signed by a park ranger to receive your first prize, a Passport Challenge water bottle. After visiting and collecting stamps at all six parks, you’ll  receive another prize, a Passport Challenge backpack. Register your Passport at any time to enter to win the Grand Prize Drawing for four tickets to a 2018 season St. Louis or Kansas City home baseball game with a one-night stay at a hotel.