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Whether visitor to or resident of St. Louis, if you haven’t ventured out to the Mark Twain National Forest, you’re missing out on one of Missouri’s hidden treasures. At only 75 miles southwest of St. Louis, and around an hour and a half’s drive, this is a great year-round outdoor destination. If you’re itching to escape the city and breathe in some fresh air, Missouri’s National Forest may be just what you need to hit the “reset” button.
Land overview and history
Located in southern-central Missouri, the MTNF spans about 1.5 million acres, most of which are in the Ozark Highlands. This land extends from the rocky glades in the southwest up to the St. Francois Mountains in the southeast and along the Missouri River prairie lands. It was originally established as both the Clark National Forest and the Mark Twain National Forest, named after Missouri’s native author, on September 11, 1939, and was officially created on February 17, 1976. The characterizing features you’ll find in this forest include caves, large permanent springs, scenic spring-fed rivers, and rolling hills. The landscape here makes it a playground for all kinds of outdoor activity.
Floating, Kayaking, Canoeing:
Visitors can bring a raft or tube to float their way down the Current River, enjoying beautiful views along the way. Canoeing and kayaking in the river under the canopy of trees is popular here as well. There are also shut-in creeks where large boulders create renowned white-water opportunities. A peaceful spot to start your paddling is at the Eleven Point National Scenic River. One highlight that’s not to be missed is the Greer Spring, known for being the second-largest and most scenic and clear spring in Missouri.
With over 35 campgrounds near the major attractions in the forest, there’s a variety to choose from — some more developed and some more primitive, depending on your needs. They offer wilderness camping for more experienced campers who seek solitude over a more organized camping experience.
Hunting and Fishing:
The Mark Twain National Forest is open to public hunting in certain designated areas and seasons with no hunting fees charged by the U.S. Forest Service. Be sure to check regulations on Missouri Department of Conservation website beforehand. There are plenty of lake, pond, river, and stream areas to fish in the MTNF as well — just make sure you have a valid Missouri Department of Conservation fishing license.
The MTNF consists of over 750 miles of trails which provide the perfect opportunity for visitors to hike, mountain bike, horseback ride, or explore on motorized vehicles. Depending on what you’re looking for, you can choose trails based on their length and difficulty.
Lower Rock Creek/Cathedral Canyon Trail
This trail is known for being one of the most scenic and pristine areas in the Ozarks, with a tumbling creek and waterfall. Offering stunning views, this wilderness trail is best for experienced hikers.
The Smith Creek Loop
This loop trail is hilly and winds 5 miles along the bluffs with overlooks above the creek.
Devils Backbone Wilderness
This rugged wilderness area gets its name from the long ridge, reaching a 1,020-feet tall at its highest “vertebra”. North Fork Recreation Area Trails is a great 9.9-mile moderate loop.
While there are plenty of trails to mountain bike within the MTNF, one recommended trail is the Berryman Trail. This 25-mile loop is considered an intermediate trail, and it begins at the Berryman Recreation Area. In the Swan Creek Wilderness, you’ll find 20 miles of more remote riding. For an easy, family-friendly route, the Kaintuck Hollow Trail is located south of the Mill Creek Recreation Area, with 16 miles of trails that loop through the forest.
Whether you’re looking for an outdoor adventure or a family weekend getaway, the Mark Twain National Forest provides the perfect outdoor playground. No matter how you choose to explore this beautiful park, it’s absolutely worth a visit.