The shut-ins at Klepzig Mill
The word "vacation" has certainly taken on a different meaning in the middle of a pandemic. Long-distance travel has turned into a huge ordeal, so it makes sense to seek out vacation spots that are closer to home.
Meanwhile, everybody else is thinking the same thing. So getting away from it all may not actually result in getting away from it all.
One particularly hot destination is the Eminence area of the Missouri Ozarks. A recent news release from the National Park Service stated, "Ozark National Scenic Riverways and the surrounding communities are experiencing higher than normal visitation this summer, with many visitors discovering a new-found appreciation for outdoor recreation during the COVID-19 pandemic."
River landings, campgrounds, and swimming holes have been crowded, especially on weekends.
Here are four ideas for lesser-known places to visit near the Current River. Of course these do require leaving the paved roads, which is a benefit since it keeps the crowds away.
Klepzig Mill and shut-ins
Rocky Falls is an iconic swimming hole along Rocky Creek, but that's not the only scenic spot along the creek. Another shut-ins is located downstream, and this one features a rustic mill perched along the edge.
As explained by a historic marker, the mill was built by Walter Klepzig in 1928. Using a "Leffel Turbine", the mill took advantage of diverted water from the shut-ins to provice mechanical power -- and even electricity.
An unlocked door leads into the one-room mill, showing its primitive construction.
The shut-ins makes for a cool swimming hole. Just remember that wet rocks are slicker than snot. Or, as I like to say, wet rocks are not your friend.
Directions: From Eminence, take Highway 106 east to Route H and turn right. Drive 4 miles and turn left on Route NN. Continue 4.5 miles to the point where the pavement ends. Then turn left on County Road 522. Note that this gravel road is not shown on many maps, including Google Maps, but it is a public road.
Drive on this narrow and bumpy road for just over one mile (although it feels much longer). You will come to the shut-ins and mill on the right, with room for a few cars to park on the left.
Prairie Hollow Gorge
Two Rivers, located at the confluence of Current River and Jacks Fork, is a well-known landmark. Many float trips begin, end, or pass by this point. However, located just a short distance away from the river is a deep, dark canyon that is reminescent of something from Colorado.
Prairie Hollow Gorge sits between two sheer bluffs. Topographic maps indicates that the bluffs are at least 150 feet tall.
At the narrowest point in the canyon, a pool of water makes it impossible to continue without wading, although conditions may be easier in drier weather.
Although only a short hike from the nearest road, the boulder-choked gorge is quite the challenge to explore.
Directions: From Eminence, take Highway 106 east to Route V and turn left. Drive 2.3 miles and look for the "Ozark National Scenic Riverways" entrance sign. Make an immediate right on the unmarked gravel road just past the sign. Follow this gravel road 0.4 miles to a low-water crossing. Park in the pullout on the left just before the crossing. Look for the trail marker on the opposite side of the road. Hike on the short trail south into the canyon and explore as far as you are comfortable.
Missouri has several places that are called "Blue Spring", but the most impressive of the blue springs feeds into the Current River near Owls Bend.
This Blue Spring ranks as the sixth largest spring in Missouri, averaging 90 million gallons of water per day. It is also the deepest known spring in Missouri with a depth of 300 feet.
The water was cloudy when I visited following heavy rain, so it didn't have the vivid blue that is sometimes seen. Nevertheless, the torrent of clear water flowing down the spring branch into Current River is always an inviting scene.
Blue Spring does get a fair number of visitors, but the steep, washboardy access road keeps away the bigger crowds.
Directions: From Eminence, take Highway 106 east. After crossing the Current River bridge at Owls Bend, continue another 2.5 miles. Then turn right on County Road 535 (look for the Blue Spring Natural Area sign). A short distance down this gravel road, bear right at the first fork. Drive until the road ends at the parking lot and trailhead (about 2.5 miles from Highway 106). Watch out for the very steep descent and teeth-clattering surface along the way.
From the trailhead, the walk to the spring is one-quarter mile. A trail extension leads to an overlook above the spring, but the view is blocked by trees during the summer.
Peck Ranch Conservation Area is best known for its elk herd and other wildlife. It also boasts a hidden gem: Stegall Mountain Fire Tower. Perched on top of a mountain with an elevation of 1,348 feet, Stegall Mountain dominates the surrounding terrain and offers one of the most spectacular views from a fire lookout tower in Missouri.
The tower is open for climbing, if you dare.
Directions: From Eminence, take Highway 106 east to Route H. Turn right and drive 7 miles on Route H. Then turn left on Peck Ranch Road, a high quality gravel road. After just over 3 miles, the road enters the conservation area. Look for a turnoff on the left for Stagall Mountain Natural Area. Continue on this gravel lane for 1.7 miles (it's a decent road but does have a low-water crossing). Park at the gate and walk the rest of the way to the top of the mountain (about 1,000 feet away).
From Van Buren: Take Highway 60 west to Route P. Turn right and follow Route P to the end of the pavement, then continue across the low-water crossing and continue straight on County Road P-159. This gravel road leads into Peck Ranch. Follow it as it snakes around the conservation area and eventually reaches the Stegall Mountain turnoff on the right.