ACCESS ANSWERS: Lower North Fork River
Editor’s note: Floating Ozark County’s cold, clear streams is a favorite summertime activity for both local residents and tourists, but accessing Bryant Creek and the North Fork of the White River takes more effort now than it did before the historic 2017 flood heavily damaged or destroyed many put-in and take-out points. Ozark County outfitters still offer convenient services for their float-focused patrons, but floaters who prefer to use their own canoes or kayaks must navigate rough terrain and reduced parking in several former official or popular access points. This story, focusing on the lower stretch of the North Fork, is the final part of a three-part series that shares updated information about the access points and outfitters on the two streams. In the May 22 edition of the Times, we profiled Bryant Creek, and in the May 29 edition we profiled the upper North Fork. To read those stories, visit ozarkcountytimes.com and click on “News” then “Local news.” Scroll through the articles until you find the Access Answers stories.
The lower section of the North Fork of the White River is by far the most popular stretch of flowing water enjoyed by floaters and river-goers in Ozark County. Much like the rest of the county, this stretch of river was affected by the historic flood of 2017. The most notable change came when the Missouri Department of Transportation rebuilt James Bridge, making the bridge taller and the bridge’s footprint wider, covering a popular area alongside the bridge that was used by floaters to access the river. Although James Bridge was never an official access point, it was nevertheless a popular take-out point, and its loss as a river access has really restricted float trip options, especially for floaters who prefer to use their own boats.
River access is currently further restricted with Hammond and Tecumseh accesses both closed while undergoing construction, leaving some river-goers unsure what float trip options are currently available. Hoping to clear up some of the confusion and get floaters back on the water, we’ve put together this comprehensive list of access options on the lower stretch of the North Fork of the White River.
North Fork Recreation Area/Hammond – river mile marker 29.2
The North Fork Recreation Area/Hammond Bridge access on CC Highway in Mark Twain National Forest southeast of Dora is currently closed while construction crews continue working to renovate the access. The new design features two ramps in separate areas instead of the single ramp offered at the access prior to 2016. The two different ramps will separate those backing vehicles down to the water to launch or load boats from river-goers enjoying swimming and “water play.”
The access is heavily used by both river outfitters and boaters shuttling themselves, so its closure has put a kink in many float plans this summer.
Since last week’s report (“Access Answers: Hammond is closed for construction, but other accesses provide float trip options,” May 29) MTNF’s Facebook page has included an update on the North Fork Recreation Area that indicates contractors laid asphalt in the day-use area of the access last week. “Work remaining to be completed before opening the day-use area includes letting the asphalt cure, striping lanes and parking areas and installation of traffic control devices,” the post says. “A timeline for the work to be completed on the boat launch and campground is yet to be finalized, as it is highly dependent on the weather; but efforts will continue to be made to get as much done as quickly as possible.” (See related story, above, about recent vandalism.)
Construction at the access first began in 2016. The historic flood of 2017 wiped out all the progress that had been made up to that point; it also took down the CC Highway bridge adjoining the recreation area. The access has been under construction ever since.
“We appreciate the public’s patience with the project, as it has experienced several unforeseen setbacks to its original timeline. The 2017 flood put the project behind schedule and ... resulted in contract design changes and reprioritizing work to be completed first in the day-use area of the site. Weather this past winter and spring also delayed construction efforts. The goal remains to open up the original day use area during the 2019 season, which is expected to happen soon,” the Facebook post says.
For more information: Watch the Ozark County Times and the U.S. Forest Service - Mark Twain National Forest Facebook page for updates about when the access will be opened.
Kelly Ford - mm 34.2
Although Kelly Ford is not on public land, for years it has been used as a river access by those who know of its remote location. On the Ozark County plat map, the access sits squarely in a plot of land owned by Rainbow Springs, Inc., but it’s generally understood that as long as floaters are conscientious and responsible in their use of the roadway, parking area and land, it can be used as a river access for people shuttling their own boats.
Located 4 county road miles off H Highway, this access to the river is tiny, remote and at the end of a skinny, one-lane road. Parking is extremely limited, with space for only two or three vehicles. Those attempting to use the access should know that vehicles will have to drive through a large muddy hole that wouldn’t be easy to navigate in a low-clearance vehicle. Continued rains have kept the mud soft and deep, and a four-wheel drive vehicle is advised.
That being said, Kelly Ford can be a great put-in or take-out option for those shuttling their own boats, especially while North Fork Recreation Area/Hammond is closed for construction.
It is worth mentioning that huge trees were uprooted and deposited at the riverside in this area during the historic flood of 2017. Funds from the St. Louis-based fundraiser RiverStrong were used to clear some of the trees out of the way, so a path to the river is accessible to those hoping to float to or from the Kelly Ford access, but a large area of the riverbank is still blocked by downed trees.
Trip options: A float trip from Kelly Ford to the public access at Blair Bridge is 5.2 river miles with an estimated float time of three to four hours. A trip from Kelly Ford to the Patrick Bridge public access is 7.9 river miles with an estimated float time of five to seven hours.
Floaters looking for a longer stretch of river may consider parking upstream at Twin Bridges (a $3 parking fee is required; call Twin Bridges at 417-256-7507 for more information) and floating downstream 10.1 miles to Kelly Ford. That trip is estimated to take seven to eight hours of float time.
When the North Fork Recreation Area/Hammond reopens, floaters may also choose to put their boats in there and float to Kelly Ford for a 5-mile option that will take approximately three to four hours of floating.
Directions: At the intersection of Highways 181 and H at Crossroads, south of Dora, turn onto County Road 365. In seven-tenths of a mile, the road becomes County Road 372. Go 2 miles and then turn left onto County Road 368. Continue for a little over a mile until County Road 368 dead ends at the river.
Blair Bridge - mm 39.4
Missouri Department of Conservation’s Blair Bridge access is one of the most popular accesses on the North Fork River, giving both river outfitters and floaters using their own boats a place to easily put in or take out.
MDC lists “public use” hours of the 7.1-acre access area as 4 a.m. through 10 p.m.; however, the MDC website says those using the access to fish, camp or launch boats are permitted to be there 24 hours a day.
Three primitive campsites are available on a first come, first serve basis. Camping is limited to a period of 14 consecutive days within any 30-day period, and groups of 10 people or more must obtain a special use permit. Quiet hours are in effect from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. daily, and visitors who are not occupying the campsite are required to leave the campground by 10 p.m. Only two camping or sleeping units are permitted at each campsite.
A privy is located above the boat launch area across from one of the campsites, and a decent amount of parking is available in a paved area near the water. Vehicles can also be parked along the circular drive within the access.
Trip options: Upstream float trip options include floating from Twin Bridges to Blair Bridge, a 15-mile float that takes all day; North Fork Recreation Area/Hammond (when it reopens) to Blair Bridge, a 10.2-mile float with an estimated float time of five to six hours; or Kelly Ford to Blair Bridge, a 5.2-mile trip with an estimated float time of three to four hours. Those choosing to shuttle their own boats can pay a $3 fee to park at Twin Bridges.
Downstream options include Blair Bridge to Patrick Bridge, a 2.7-mile float that is estimated to take two to three hours.
Outfitters Twin Bridges Canoe & Campground, Sunburst Ranch and Dawt Mill all provide float trips with rental canoes and shuttles from Blair Bridge to/from their resorts. The trip from Twin Bridges downstream to Blair Bridge is 15 miles and takes a full day. The trip from Blair Bridge to Dawt Mill is 7.6 miles and is estimated to take four to six hours. For pricing information, see each outfitter’s description, below.
Directions: Turn onto County Road 354 off H Highway, south of Dora. Continue for a little over a mile. The access is located on the right just after you pass over Blair Bridge itself.
Pettit’s Canoe Rental - mm 39.9
Those heading to Blair Bridge will pass by Pettit’s Canoe Rental, which is also located on County Road 354, about a half mile before the public river access. Pettit’s sprawling campground and canoe launch site are located right at the bridge, on the other side of the river from the public access.
The outfitter provides canoe, kayak and five-person raft and tube rentals, as well as tent and RV camping alongside the North Fork of the White River. Campground amenities include flush toilets, hot showers, RV sites with electric and water hookups, fire pits, picnic tables and complementary firewood.
Four cabins on the property, sleeping six to eight people each, are available for rent.
Trip options: While Hammond is closed, Pettit’s is offering one float option, a downstream trip that allows floaters to launch at Pettit’s campground at Blair Bridge and float downstream to Dawt Mill, a 7-mile float that takes approximately four to five hours. Staff from Pettit’s will pick you up at Dawt Mill and bus you back to Pettit’s campground when your float ends. Rental prices for this trip are $40 per canoe, $30 per kayak or $120 per five-person raft.
When the North Fork Recreation Area/Hammond reopens, Pettit’s will offer a float from Hammond to Blair Bridge, a 10.2-mile float that takes approximately five hours of float time. Rental prices for this trip will be $40 per canoe or $30 per kayak.
Inner tube rental is $15 per tube for floaters who are shuttling themselves, or $20 per tube for a shuttled trip that allows tubists to put in at Pettit’s campground and float down to Patrick Bridge, a 2-mile float that takes approximately two hours in a tube.
Directions: Turn onto County Road 354 off H Highway, south of Dora. Continue for about a half mile to the Pettit Canoe Rental office. The campground is another half mile down County Road 354 just before you cross Blair Bridge.
Patrick Bridge - mm 42.1
Patrick Bridge is a low-water concrete-slab bridge that crosses the North Fork on H High-way. Like Blair Bridge, it’s a Missouri Depart-ment of Con-servation public river access that is heavily used during the summer. The MDC access incorporates 161 acres of land, but the most heavily used areas include the boat launch area on the south side of the river and the campground on the north side.
The boat launch area includes a circular gravel roadway and parking lot that will accommodate a dozen or so vehicles. The riverbank at the boat launch area is a popular summertime hangout and is often lined with lawn chairs and those using the access to swim.
A large white gate at the back of the parking lot marks a gravel path that pedestrians can use to visit Althea Spring, the 23rd largest spring in Missouri. It’s a short walk to the MDC sign perched at an offshoot trail that leads down to the spring itself. The sign says the spring was named for the daughter of Dr. Paul Patrick, an early owner of the land. From 1958 to 1977, Karl W. Schmidt and his sister Willa K. Schmidt lived there, and Karl used the spring’s flow to power a domestic power plant that he designed. Follow the main trail beyond the sign to reach an appealing waterfall created where the spring water flows over the old mill dam.
If you haven’t been to Althea Spring since the flood of 2017, you’ll be surprised by the changes. Many of the large trees that once shaded the area were swept away by the flood, leaving the area much more exposed now. It’s still a picturesque and beautiful place (with the spring’s icy cold water) to spend a hot summer afternoon.
The campground area, located on the north side of the river, features 13 campsites along a gravel drive; the campsites are available to campers on a first-come, first-serve basis. The campground is fairly flat and well shaded. Each campsite has a concrete picnic table, fire ring and trash hanging pole. There are two pit toilets, one at either end of the campground. Campers can park at the campsite; a large overflow parking lot for floaters, swimmers and campers is located nearby.
The MDC website lists hours of operation for the Patrick Bridge access and campground as 4 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Trip options: Floaters with their own boats who are interested in taking out at the Patrick have a few different choices. Blair Bridge to Patrick Bridge is 2.7 miles and will take two to three hours. A float from Kelly Ford to Patrick Bridge is 7.9 miles and will take six to seven hours. When Hammond/North Fork Recreation Area reopens, floaters can put in there and float down to Patrick, a 12.9-mile float that will take five to seven hours.
Floaters with their own boats who are interested in putting in at Patrick can float to Tecumseh, a 7.4 mile-trip that will take five to seven hours or more. Floaters should understand that the final 2 miles of this float will be in lake water with no current so paddling is require. Also, floaters should be aware that Dawt Mill allows only its own customers (and those of outfitters with whom it has an agreement) to take out at its access. Another thing to consider is the water level under the bridge on County Road 318 at Dawt, which may be too high to allow passage beneath the bridge.
Directions: Patrick Bridge is located about 4 miles north on H Highway from Highway 160 near Caulfield.
Sunburst Ranch - mm 43.6
The entrance to Sunburst Ranch is located off H Highway just up the hill from the campground on the north side of Patrick Bridge. The resort features a mile of river frontage, several cabins and lodges, a large campground, a canoe launch and an onsite office/campstore.
A second plot of land owned by Sunburst, known as “The Landing,” is located 7 miles downstream from the main campground, about a mile above James Bridge. The two pieces of property allow the resort to offer float trips continually, no matter what may be happening at the public access sites.
A large flat and grassy area on the edge of the North Fork River forms the Sunburst campground, which features sites for tents and RVs (electric and hookups available). For those who aren’t interested in camping, several lodges, cabins and a renovated airplane hangar provide nice lodging options for 8 to 16 people.
Sunburst Ranch offers rental of canoes ($40), kayaks ($35), tubes ($15) and rafts ($135). Shuttling for trips is included in the rental price.
Reservations should be made by phone or online for floating, camping or lodging.
Trip options: Sunburst Ranch offers two main float trip options. One option allows floaters to put in at Sunburst Ranch and float downstream to The Landing, a 7-mile trip that takes approximately three to four hours in canoes or kayaks and four to six hours in rafts or tubes. Floaters interested in this trip must leave Sunburst no later than 2 p.m. The Sunburst bus retrieves floaters from The Landing every hour, on the hour. Customers can relax at a gravel bar and pavilion at The Landing while waiting for the next bus to arrive.
The second float option usually involves Sunburst Ranch employees busing floaters to Hammond/North Fork Recreation Area, a 12-mile trip that takes approximately five to seven hours. Until Hammond is reopened, Sunburst has made alternate arrangements with a private landowner upstream who is allowing the outfitter to use their river access. The alternate trip is 17.1 miles and takes approximately seven to eight hours.
Directions and more information: Sunburst Ranch is located off H Highway about a quarter mile north of Patrick Bridge. For more information, visit sunburstranchcanoe.com, call the resort at 417-284-3443 or search for Sunburst Ranch on Facebook.
Dawt Mill Resort - mm 47
Dawt Mill, the southernmost resort on the North Fork River, offers camping, lodging, dining, live entertainment and float trips in canoes, kayaks, rafts and tubes.
The resort’s open-air Beach Bar, overlooking the river, operates from Memorial Day weekend through Labor Day weekend, offering specialty drinks, draft beer and frozen cocktails, while an onsite food truck gives river-goers a casual dining option including burgers, brats, fries and other fare. The Beach Bar and food truck are open from 4 p.m. to midnight on Fridays and from noon to midnight on Saturdays. On Sunday, it opens at 11 a.m.; closing time varies on Sundays depending on how busy the resort is that day. Dawt Mill manager Dallas Getson told the Times it’s best to call ahead to ensure the Beach Bar and food truck are open if guests are hoping to dine on Sunday.
Live music is scheduled at the Beach Bar each Saturday night. Some acts will be full-blown performances on the large stage located on the lower deck overlooking the river. A cover charge will likely be required for these performances. Other times, live music will be more low-key performances inside the Beach Bar and there will be no cover charge. A lower deck offers ample seating and space to dance.
A fine-dining option, the Chef’s Table, features imaginative dishes prepared by Chef Ryan VanWinkle in a unique and intimate kitchen/bartop dining setup. Getson said the meals at the chef’s table are made almost completely with locally sourced ingredients, including many herbs and vegetables grown in gardens on the property. The Chef’s Table has formerly been available only by reservation; however, Getson says this year Dawt Mill is offering walk-in dining availability from 5 to 9 p.m. every Friday and Saturday night at the Chef’s Table through Labor Day. Reservations can also be made by calling the resort.
An on-site general store is open seven days a week, offering hand-dipped ice cream, sodas, packaged beer, snacks, candies, supplies, ice, T-shirts and other souvenirs and supplies.
Several lodging options are available for guests, including rooms in The Cotton Gun Inn,
Trip options: Dawt Mill offers canoe ($40), kayak ($30), four-person raft ($120) and tube ($20) rentals for the 8-mile float from Blair Bridge to Dawt. The rental fee includes the boat and shuttle ride to Blair Bridge on the resort’s buses. The float trip takes approximately four to six hours, but Getson says river-goers can stretch the 8-mile length for an all-day adventure if they stop to swim in the river’s deeper holes or relax on the gravel bars. Boats are launched every hour, on the hour, from 9 a.m. to noon seven days a week. Those wishing to float are asked to call ahead to make reservations and arrive at the resort’s general store 30 to 45 minutes before the reserved float trip time to fill out a waiver and load items onto the bus.
Private boat policy: Getson says the resort’s insurance requirements changed after the historic flood of 2017, and the resort’s policy now prevents it from offering shuttles for private-boat float trips or private-boat take-out for non-registered guests.
“It’s unfortunate, we know,” Getson told the Times. “We’re not real happy about it, either. We’d like to be able to provide those services to people, but the insurance company says it’s just too much a liability, and there’s no way around it. We wish we could, but we just can’t do it.”
The resort’s insurance policy does allow those who are registered guests, either camping or staying in a cabin or lodge at the resort, to use their private boats instead of the rental vessels if they prefer them; however, Getson says the cost is the same as if the guest was renting the same type of boat from Dawt Mill. For the fee, Dawt will haul the private boat and shuttle the registered guest to Blair and allow them to take out back at Dawt. If registered guests shuttle themselves and their private boats to various put-in locations, they can pay a $10 per boat fee to take out at the Dawt boat ramp. This service only applies to registered guests at the resort.
Directions/Information: From Tecumseh, travel 1.5 miles east on Highway 160. Turn left onto PP Highway, continue 1.2 miles and turn onto County Road 318 at the large Dawt Mill sign. Travel 3/4-mile to the resort. For more information call 417-284-3540, visit dawtmill.com or find Dawt Mill on Facebook.
Tecumseh access - mm 49.5
The North Fork of the White River and Bryant Creek converge at what is known locally as “The Forks,” located at mile marker 49.1, where both streams then pour into Norfork Lake near the Tecumseh bridge on Highway 160. The US Army Corps of Engineers access at Tecumseh, located at mile marker 49.5, was heavily damaged in the 2017 flood. The access is currently gated off and is supposed to be closed to vehicles, but a dirt-road path has been formed from people driving around the barricade. The renovation plan, which includes rebuilding the roadway, parking lot and boat ramp below the bridge but not rebuilding the campground above the bridge, involves construction scheduled to begin later this year and wrapping up in 2020. Until then, those wishing to use Tecumseh as a take-out point can do so by parking on the shoulders alongside Highway 160 and walking their boats down to the water. With the lake level high, as it is currently, it’s not too bad of a walk, but when the lake drops to its more normal level, it can be a task to haul a boat up and down the long and uneven surfaced hill.
Trip options: A float from Patrick Bridge to Tecumseh is a 7.4-mile trip that would take five to seven hours. The lower half of the float will be in lake water rather than the flowing river and will require floaters to paddle. Also, be aware that high water levels will make it impossible to float under the bridge at Dawt, and portaging will be required.
Those who aren’t afraid to paddle may also consider putting in at Tecumseh and paddling down Norfork Lake to Bridges Creek, also known as “Stump Hole.” This popular fishing spot is located off of County Road 551, known locally as “Smoky Road,” from Highway 160 at Tecumseh. Bridges Creek is roughly 3 miles from Tecumseh Park by water, and it is much slower going without the river’s current, so attempting this stretch on a windy day would not be advised. Currently, the boat ramp and parking area at Stump Hole are submerged beneath the higher-than-normal waters of Norfork Lake, but those using the access can park alongside the roadway.
Directions: Tecumseh Park is located on Highway 160 in Tecumseh, about 9 miles east of Gainesville.