Missouri Wilderness: A Hidden Gem

“…we are pleased to offer you a job in the Mark Twain National Forest in Missouri.”

Missouri? Do they even have wilderness areas there? Was Missouri even listed as a potential location? Everyone else is going to places like Colorado, Alaska, and Montana and I’m going to Missouri?

These were some of my first thoughts upon learning my placement. However, those initial feelings would be proven wrong over the course of my time in Missouri. The Mark Twain National Forest covers 1.5 million acres across southern Missouri and actually has seven wilderness areas! The area is blessed with a bounty of hidden natural treasures. It truly is a beautiful area but unlike the other states mentioned above, it is off the radar for most people. The majority of tourists are residents of Missouri or come from the nearby state of Arkansas. And yet, some of the sights are ones that rival the tourist hot spots out west; but without the associated crowds.

Where to start? How about springs? The Ozark’s karst limestone topography means the region has the world’s largest collection of first-magnitude springs (those with over 65 million gallons of daily water flow). For example, Blue Spring (well, one of them in any case) is a stunning shade of blue and Missouri’s deepest spring. It is deep enough that you could place the Statue of Liberty in it and her torch would still be 5 feet below the surface! Or, take a short peaceful hike down to the base of a steep ravine. You are rewarded with the sight of the beautiful and tranquil Greer Spring; where you can find a secluded spot to relax and listen to the sound of nature. Smaller springs are strewn all across the Ozarks, waiting to be discovered.

Feel the need to do more than observe such inviting water? Take your pick of over 350 miles of perennial streams (including the 11 Point River which is a Wild and Scenic River) in the Mark Twain National Forest. You can float, kayak or canoe. Alternatively, find a nice shallow spot and cool off with a refreshing swim. Up north, the Lake of the Ozarks is well-deserved of its reputation, with more miles of shoreline than the coast California (really!). Choose your mode of transportation to enjoy the lake, or take a dip after hiking one of the trails.

Although there are no snow-capped mountains, a hike to the peak of one of Missouri’s mountains still rewards you with spectacular views. Some of the peaks in the Ozarks have never been underwater (one of the only areas in the Midwest to have these bragging rights) and are three times as old as the Appalachian Mountains! If you are more of a history buff, the stories of the early settlers will enthrall you. Learn how the Irish Wilderness got its name. Visit one of numerous mills (or mill ruins) scattered across the landscape. Visit the Twin Pines Conservation Center and view old logging equipment and read about the early 1900s.

Of course, I would be amiss to not mention the wilderness areas. You can hike for hours and not see another person, nor hear anything besides the melodious birdsongs, the gentle whisper of the wind through the trees, or the rustle of leaves. And the stark beauty of the glades ecosystems is a unique sight; the forest disappears as you look on an expanse of grassland filled with wildflowers. Although, upon seeing cactus and scorpions you might wonder if you are still in Missouri. The oak-woodland forests rise above you forming a broad canopy and providing much-needed shade on a hot day. See if you can spot a wild turkey hiding amongst the forest floor leaves, or higher up look for a woodpecker, wren or warbler. Challenge yourself in Hercules Glades Wilderness, named for the terrain which was said to be a Herculean task to conquer!

Missouri and the Mark Twain National Forest offers all of this and more. And I’ll leave you with this cool fact: The Mark Twain National Forest is located in more counties than any other National Forest.


Alyssa Thomas is a Wilderness Fellow in USFS Region 9 working on 7 Wilderness Areas in the Mark Twain National Forest.

Alyssa has wanted to save endangered animals since participating in a “Sprint for the Seals” at the age of 3. But a trip to Kenya while in college made her realise that it is impossible to save animals without fully considering the humans who share their environment. Since then Alyssa has pursued a career in conservation and has earned a Masters in Conservation Biology and PhD in Environmental Studies, both from Victoria University (New Zealand). Her doctorate focused on the human dimensions of a popular recreational fishery in New Zealand; with the aim of improving the management and sustainability. Since completion of her PhD, she has worked for a local NGO in Belize and the Wildlife Conservation Society in Fiji. She also serves as a consultant for the Central American NGO MarAlliance. As the human population continues to grow and development continues, preserving wilderness areas becomes more important. These areas are essential for many plants and animals; but also serve as a reminder to humans about what the land used to look like. Alyssa is looking forward to learning more about land management in the United States and gaining experience working for a government agency. In her free time, she enjoys reading, photography, and being outdoors.


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