Many of us enjoy the great outdoors when on vacation with our family, and if you’re lucky enough to live near a river, chances are you’ve incorporated it into your getaway plans.
The state of Missouri is blessed with an abundance of lazy, gorgeous waterways that are easy for even a novice kayaker to navigate and enjoy. These natural treasures are easy to access, near amenities, offer gorgeous scenic views, and are just a lot of fun to float!
Here are eight of the best rivers to kayak in Missouri your entire family is guaranteed to love.
The Black River
The Black River — spring-fed and crystal clear — flows through southeast Missouri. A popular put-in spot is the small town of Lesterville, where there are plenty of kayak rental locations, campsites, and even resorts where you and your entire family can relax and enjoy (Wilderness Lodge is our favorite!). Johnson’s Shut-Ins State Park, one of Missouri’s best recreation spots, is also located on this picturesque body of water. There are no wild rapids here, just slow, cool water with the slightest of currents. You’ll likely see folks fishing during your float; smallmouth bass frequent the waters here, and they are easily viewed on quiet days through the glassy water.
The Current River
Part of the Ozark National Scenic Riverways, the Current River in southern Missouri is another terrific waterway to explore with your whole family. The Current — along with the Jacks Fork — are part of the first national park designated to protect a wild river system, and the care taken to preserve its natural beauty is indeed evident. From its naturally occurring cold springs, caves, and rock cliffs to its wide gravel banks perfect for picnicking, there are many things to see along your float. The Pulltite Campground, located right on the river, can arrange your float trips departing from nearby Akers Ferry. It’s a quiet spot, patrolled by U.S. Park Rangers. At night, there are special presentations for younger campers. For more space, consider reserving a group site.
The Huzzah River
Some call it a river, others a creek, but either way, the Huzzah also makes our list of best Missouri waterways to kayak. Rentals and accommodations along the Huzzah can be found in and around the small town of Steelville. As it’s a tributary, it empties into the Meramec River (more on it in a moment!). If you choose to float down this waterway, you’ll be treated to limestone bluffs and gorgeous stands of native forests. The Huzzah is a calm stretch but is prone to flash flooding so make sure you call ahead before you float, and pay attention to the current weather conditions.
The 11-Point River
Another southern Missouri favorite, the 11-Point National Wild and Scenic River meanders 44 miles through vast stretches of forests and along a mostly undeveloped shoreline. It’s Missouri wilderness at its finest, and it’s possible to go the entire trip seeing more animals than people. Eagles fish for trout in the clear waters that take on a turquoise hue as they get deeper; some lucky kayakers can even spot otters playing in the river! There are many places to camp along the 11-Point, most include picnic tables and primitive restroom facilities. Plan your route to include paddling through the Irish Wilderness, a strange and mysterious spot where a band of St. Louis Irish Catholics who had settled here simply disappeared just after the Civil War. This part of the state is rugged and gorgeous, and if you’re willing to rough it a bit, will give you the kayak experience of a lifetime.
The Niangua River
While it’s a popular party waterway, the Niangua River — which flows northwest from Missouri’s Webster County up through the central portion of the state — is cool and calm during the week, which could make it the perfect place for your family’s next on-the-water adventure. Fishing fanatics love it for the rainbow trout, bass, and goggle-eyes that make the river home.
Bennett Spring State Park is a great spot for camping with easy access to the river and prime fishing spots fed by the spring which in turn feeds the river. Mountain Creek Family Resort offers primitive camping, cabins, and even cottages in a quiet, serene setting. The staff here can also arrange your float!
The Big River
The Big River, located just outside the St. Louis metro area, is known for its slow, gentle water, with several old mills alongside its banks. Washington State Park makes for a great spot to put in or use as a home base, as it has watercraft rentals, cabins, campsites, and other amenities available. The park is also well-known for its petroglyphs, left behind generations ago by Native Americans who first lived in this area. Nearby St. Francois State Park also provides easy access to the Big River, which eventually meets up with the Meramec closer to St. Louis. If this river feels a bit more built up, that’s because it is… but that also means there are more amenities along the way.
The Gasconade River
The Gasconade, which winds almost 300 miles through south-central Missouri, is also worth considering for an excellent family float trip. The river, nestled in the Ozark hills, was once used as a main route to haul timber to St. Louis. Today, it’s well-known as one of the best and most beautiful places in the state to kayak. Pulaski County, Missouri — mid-way between St. Louis and Joplin on I-44 — is a hub full of outfitters, resorts, and campsites all catering to people wishing to navigate the Gasconade, as well as the nearby Big Piney. The Gasconade draws in serious anglers for its famed smallmouth bass, and it twists more than 65 miles through Pulaski County, packing in plenty of stunning views and access points for a kayak trip that will be a snap to plan for and a blast for everyone in your party.
The Meramec River
Last but certainly not least, the Meramec River provides kayakers plenty of places to explore a bit closer to St. Louis than many of the aforementioned locations. Kayaking the river, which curls its way nearly 200 miles from south-central Missouri all the way to the Mississippi, is an easy day trip from the city. You’ll float by towering limestone bluffs, caves, and springs, with plenty of sand and gravel bars that will be ideal picnic and rest stops. There are many resorts that offer kayaking rental from which to choose, all within an hour or so of St. Louis. One family favorite is Meramec State Park, which makes a terrific weekend getaway destination. In addition to its prime riverside location, there are also hiking trails, caves to explore, and fully-stocked cabins in addition to a campsite.
To ensure you have the perfect day or weekend on your kayak adventure, make sure to remember the basics! Don’t forget to pack food and drink in a cooler or insulated backpack. If you’re taking a phone, store it in a watertight pouch in case of a flip.
If you plan to stay overnight, be sure to make camping or lodging reservations well in advance, and if you are camping along the way, have your route planned. Stay hydrated and don’t over imbibe on the river, there are many remote stretches where it’s tough to get a signal to call for help. Even though it can get hot, we always wear our life jackets. And of course, apply — and reapply — plenty of sunscreen and bug spray the entire time you’re out on the water.
One more tip: most of these riverways can get crowded and congested on the weekends. For a quieter experience, consider planning your trip during the week when there will be far fewer people.
Missouri features plenty of opportunities for families to enjoy the outdoors and take advantage of a multitude of recreational activities: