Roaring River Area: Roaring River State Park
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Roaring River State Park is nestled in the Ozarks of southwest Missouri, featuring trout fishing, a fantastic trout hatchery, oodles of fun hiking trails, and lots of campsites.
Roaring River gets its name from the spring that gushes over 20 million gallons of water each day. A series of mills were here from 1836 through the late 1800s, and the last mill was converted into a hotel in 1905. Roland M. Bruner developed the property into a resort, with a dam at the foot of the hill from Cassville creating an upper lake stocked with rainbow trout. He lost the property to foreclosure in 1928 and St. Louis soap and patent medicine manufacturer Thomas M. Sayman purchased the property for $105,000. He promptly donated the entire tract of 2,400 acres to the State of Missouri for a park. One rumor was that he thought he was buying all of the trout, but they had been separately mortgaged and he gave the park away in a fit of indignation.
Roaring River as we love it today is primarily a product of the depression-era Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). From 1933 through 1939 Company 1713 built 33 buildings, 17 acres of beach improvements, six acres of landscaping, and miles of roads and trails. The Corps dammed the river to form a second “Bass Lake” in the lower part of the park area. A flood in May 1939 washed out the Bruner dam and the upper lake disappeared. The lower “Bass Lake” was eliminated in the 1970s and the area converted into a campground.
Especially popular with kids are the open-air rearing pools. You can buy fish food from dispensers and make the baby trout scramble for treats. The big pool by the spring has some immense trout you can feed and admire. A walkway allows you to walk up to the mouth of the spring, which divers have found extends downward 224 feet.
Personally, I’m not a fisherman. But many folks do love to fish for trout at Roaring River, lining the banks from the opening to the closing whistles. A big annual event is the opening of the season in March when they blow the whistle and release a truly large fish from the hatchery. And I do love being up on a mountain trail and hearing the closing whistle blow in the evening. You buy your fishing license at the park store, now at the junction of Highways F and 112. It is a great place to stock up on drinks and snacks for a day of hiking, or grab some ice cream after a hot summer hike.
There are two major campgrounds. One is up Dry Hollow on the east side of the park. Down south along Highway F is a small campground on one side of the river and then the big Campground 3, which was once Bass Lake but was converted into camping in the 1970s.
The old lodge just south of the hatchery was built in 1936-1938 and originally had concessions, restrooms, and a laundry on the ground floor. The second floor was originally a kitchen and dining room and later served as the park store for decades. The third floor once had 11 guest rooms, four of which had showers. They finally moved the store out in 2009, but you can still take a restroom break on the ground floor. Another major building left over from CCC days is the old camp kitchen north of campground 3, which is now a Nature Center.
The most popular is probably Deer Leap Trail over at the hatchery with its oodles of stone steps carrying you up over the spring for a great view of the hatchery. This is a moderately strenuous short hike and well worth the effort. But I like to make a huge loop out of several trails. I climb up Deer Leap and then take the steep side bit up to where it connects to the Firetower Trail, the longest trail in the park. That trail has some steeper sections, but also runs along the ridge lines for easy walks as well. It has a branch over to the Nature Center and you can then take the easy old CCC River Trail along the east bank of the river back to the hatchery area.
But a longer loop is to head the other way on the Firetower Trail to its namesake - an old short observation tower that once looked out over the park before the trees grew up around it. (There is a real immense fire tower a couple of miles away you can visit – see Sugar Camp Scenic Byway below.) If you go that way you’ll also travel through the Roaring River Wilds area, including a glen they maintain against invasive species. You’ll pop out on Highway F just east of the old stable. Then take the crosswalk across Highway F to take the unmapped and quite scenic Connector Trail back along the south side of the highway and the north bank of Roaring River back to the south campground. You can then return on the River Trail.
I like a long hike, so I further extend the loop. At the big grassy area east of the south campground there is a roadway bridge to the south bank of Roaring River and a short trail that intersects the Eagle’s Nest Trail. This is another good climbing trail up the south mountain and loops up top with the remains of an old homestead way up there. I can then take a short extension off the upper loop onto Highway 112 and walk down Seligman Hill to the Emory Melton Inn, or loop back down Eagle’s Nest all of the way to the entrance of Campground 2. At the Emory Melton Inn there is a short Spring House Trail loop around a former homestead. You can then walk south through the beautiful picnic area on the west side of the river, cross the Highway F bridge, and finally return to the hatchery by the River Trail.
That huge loop still leaves out two of the park’s best trails. Devil’s Kitchen is a great loop trail west of the hatchery with interesting rock formations. Pibern Trail is up in campground 1 and is another nice loop trail with a south trailhead at the entrance to the Paradise Valley RV Park and a north trailhead at the very north end of campground 1.
One of the old homesteads in the park was that of the Mountain Maid, Jeanne Wallace, who lived for half a century overlooking Roaring River. She was known for telling fortunes and walking 3.5 miles to get her mail from the nearest mailbox and 5.5 miles to Eagle Rock for her supplies and groceries. Originally from New York City, she homesteaded the land in 1892. Her health declined in the late 1930s and sadly she burned to death in her home in February 1940 after the CCC ended its building program.
Emory Melton Inn
Throughout my childhood there was a 1960s-vintage hotel and restaurant near the big hill from Cassville. It has been demolished and there is now the much grander Emory Melton Inn on up Missouri 112 that serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner. It has its own website.
Sugar Camp Scenic Byway
The so-called firetower in the park itself is a puny platform that doesn’t even clear the trees. But you can climb a real firetower nearby. Just take Missouri 112 toward Seligman and turn off at the Sugar Camp Scenic Byway. This gravel road will take you past a turnoff to the splendid firetower, which was built in 1936 by the CCC, and is just like the “observation tower” off US 62 near Eureka Springs. If you are driving east, you might miss the turnoff to the firetower, since it runs sharply westward off the main road. The turnoff is fairly close to Missouri 112 and you only go up that turnoff a bit before you pass the firetower. You can climb to the top and see for miles, but they have removed the lowest flight of steps to discourage you, so you’ll have to waddle up the step supports. And beware – the observation deck is thin and could give way.
There is also the almost-unmarked Onyx Cave picnic area much farther east along the forest road. It has a couple of picnic tables and a decent view out over a valley, although they are not keeping the trees down like they used to. There is a short hiking loop across the road that goes down to the cave. Unfortunately, the two cave entrances are blocked off (and this cave should not be confused with the show cave near Eureka Springs, Arkansas). The drive also provides some nice views of the surrounding valleys when the foliage isn’t too thick.
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