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Featured Photo by Missouri State Parks

4 Missouri Ozarks State Park Experiences Nearby Salem

Salem, MO

The Ozarks in southern Missouri are a popular natural attraction full of National and State Parks, rivers, lakes, and beautiful, natural geological features. Outdoor enthusiasts, nature fans, and tourists alike visit the Missouri Ozarks for an endless list of reasons and recreational activities but come with a shared motivation for experiencing the natural wonders of the area.

If you’re traveling along the Great River Road you’re in luck because you can easily access the Missouri Ozarks in the southeastern region of the state. One of the largest geological areas in the Missouri Ozarks, the Salem Plateau, begins a few miles from the Mississippi River and stretches across almost the entirety of the southern part of the state until meeting the Springfield Plateau in the west. The plateau is named after Salem, Missouri, a great place to stay while you explore the surrounding areas and natural attractions in the Ozarks. Some of the best places to fully experience the Missouri Ozarks are Missouri State Parks and these are five great ones you can find nearby Salem.

5 Ways to Get Outside on the Turtle River

Like most Ozarks areas, Elephant Rocks State Park is known for its interesting and unique geological formations. These formations called the Elephant Rocks for the way they resemble a train of circus elephants, are formed from 1.5 billion-year-old granite and have stood the test of time to fascinate visitors today. While this park is located 40 miles east of Salem in Belleview, the drive will be worth it when you view and explore all the beauty, history, and adventure Elephant Rocks has to offer.

Another plus is that the Elephant Rocks are easily accessible for all people. Travel through the main area on the Braille Trail, a looped and paved park trail specifically designed for people with visual and physical disabilities, to see the quarry pond, the Elephant Rocks at the top, and the quarry site from the 1860s. From the Braille Trail, you can explore the Engine House Ruins Trail which features an old railroad engine house from the 1890s and remnants of the quarrying and railroad history. After hiking, there are picnic areas, a playground, rock climbing and rappelling areas, small lakes for fishing, and an onsite food truck for the perfect day out in the Missouri outdoors.

5 Ways to Get Outside on the Turtle River

Found east of Salem in Lesterville, Missouri, Johnson’s Shut-Ins State Park is one of the most unique State Parks in this region of the Missouri Ozarks. The park offers endless geological and natural beauty due to its home in the St. Francois Mountains Region, including woodlands, glades, rivers, and amazing shut-ins. A shut-in, if you didn’t know, is a rock formation formed by Ozarks streams as they carve through a mountain range, creating a string of pools, rivulets, rapids, and plunge pools. The shut-ins at Johnson’s are one of Missouri’s most outstanding examples of this special formation and the main feature of the park.

The natural beauty of the park makes it a popular place for camping, hiking, picnicking, swimming in the shut-ins, and exploring the outdoors. Another reason it is so popular is that the park supports the East Fork Wild Area and Goggins Mountain Wild Area, two designated Missouri wild areas without paved trails or park amenities that are perfect for backcountry camping and hiking. In the main area, though, there are plenty of park amenities including spaces for tent and RV camping, cabins, a general store, a visitor center, hiking, and equestrian trails.

5 Ways to Get Outside on the Turtle River

A couple of miles down the road from Current River State Park, Echo Bluff State Park sits in a beautiful valley surrounded by towering bluffs, as the name suggests, deep forest, and Sinking Creek, the second largest tributary of the nearby Current River. If you are planning on hitting both Echo Bluff and Current River State Parks, Echo Bluff can serve as a great base camp for a couple of nights. You can stay at a rustic campsite, one of 62 full-service camping sites, or a night in the park’s iconic lodge or cabins.

Echo Bluff State Park is the ideal Missouri Ozarks park for outdoor recreation. On a nice day, start out on the crystal clear Sinking Creek in a canoe or kayak and head west to the nearby Current River for a day of endless fun and floating. You’ll float right past Echo Bluff, a monumental geological wonder in the park that amazes most visitors as it has been shaped by water into a unique concave shape. There are also miles of scenic hiking trails for both families and less experienced hikers and serious backpackers looking to explore the rugged backcountry. Other great ways to enjoy the park are fishing for smallmouth bass, mountain biking, and of course, relaxing and taking in the natural beauty.

5 Ways to Get Outside on the Turtle River

A short twenty-mile drive to Current River State Park outside Salem and you’ll be able to explore another feature of the Ozarks, the Current River. Built around a former retreat for the Alton Box Board Co. from Alton, Illinois, Current River State Park features Alton Club buildings from the late 1930s and early 1940s in the historical architectural style used by the National Parks Service in the early 20th century. This little slice of history, the scenic Current River, and the recreational options make Current River State Park a great place to visit.

Once here, you’ll have to decide where you want to start first. If you want to hit the trail, the park is home to Centennial Bluff Trail, Jones Hollow Trail, and Ninebark Trail and makes for a day of moderate hiking. Along with the Current River, the park has two lakes that are great for boating, canoeing, kayaking, or fishing for largemouth bass, bluegill, and crappie. If you aren’t able to bring your own watercraft, you can rent kayaks, canoes, floats, and rafts from Carr’s Canoe Rental just down the road on Highway 19. If you’re interested in the history of the park, you can go on an interpretive tour of the historical structures in the park and learn about the past life of the area.

I am a student, aspiring writer, and avid reader of books. My favorite things in the world are my two German Shepherds.

Maeve Miller

Writer , River Travel Magazine