The Path Less Paddled

By Tim Kjellesvik | July 1, 2024
From Missouri Conservationist: July 2024
Kayak on Big Piney
The Path Less Paddled

If Missouri had an official pastime, it would be the float. Our beautiful streams beckon people from all over the state and even beyond our borders, but that popularity can lend itself to crowds.

What if you’re in the mood for the path less paddled? What about those often-overlooked float destinations? Those out-of-the-way sections of stream that, for some reason, just tend to flow beneath the collective radar. Let’s dip our paddles into some of these nontraditional float destinations and find your next aquatic adventure.

But before we drift too far ahead, a brief note about how water is classified. The International Scale of River Difficulty is the standard for classifying rapids and rates water on a continuum from I to VI. The higher the rating, the more difficult the water. For our purposes, we’ll only be looking at Missouri streams with Class I to Class III potential.

They’re defined as:

  • Class I: Easy — Smooth water with clear passage and slight riffles. No maneuvering is required.
  • Class II: Novice — Moderate difficulty with identifiable rapids and clear passage between hazards. Some maneuvering is required.
  • Class III: Intermediate — Moderate difficulty with fast water, standing waves. Rocks and other hazards exist with narrow passage through them. Maneuvering is required.

Shoal Creek

You can find Shoal Creek tucked away in the far southwest corner of the Show-Me State, just south of Joplin. What it lacks in notoriety, it makes up for in spunk. This stream is over 81 miles long, with 43 of those miles here in Missouri. The remainder of this river flows through Kansas.

Running Shoal Creek breaks the mold of the traditional, demure Missouri float. Locals know this boisterous stream’s Class I waters can quickly bump up to Class II and Class III rapids with a good rain, so be sure to know the water conditions ahead of time and match your skill to the float.

Shoal Creek earned its name due to its chert rock ledges, riffles, and even a few spectacular waterfalls. Depending on recent rainfall and water conditions, there may be sections that require portaging your boat, like the rocky drop at mile marker 4.0 near the old mill dam.

If water levels permit, a great 15-mile float can be enjoyed like a good book, from the very beginning. Put in at the headwaters of Shoal Creek at the Smack-Out Access and travel through to the Cherry Corner Access.

A must-see on any Shoal Creek float itinerary is Grand Falls in Joplin. An eyeful of hydrological delight, this vast set of falls is a dance between man- and nature-made water features. Terminating your trip at the falls is a great way to see the best of what Shoal Creek has to offer. The Grand Falls North Access is at mile 37.6, so work in reverse by picking your mileage and choosing an access that suits your schedule.

Shoal Creek crosses the Missouri-Kansas border, so if your adventure takes you across the state line, please be aware that Kansas laws related to floating through private property differ from Missouri.

For up-to-date, detailed information on planning your trip to Shoal Creek, check out

Bourbeuse River

Though not as crystal clear as an Ozark stream, the Bourbeuse River crazily meanders over 100 miles through just 27 miles of gorgeous Franklin County forest and agricultural ground. The Bourbeuse River hides in plain sight, less than an hour from St. Louis, while thousands of people drive over it on I-44 heading to float other streams, unaware of this gem in their own back yard.

The Bourbeuse River is a genteel river with all Class I water, so expect to do some paddling, especially if your time is short or you have a headwind. It is not in a hurry as it slowly rolls toward its confluence with the Meramec River.

Bass fishermen should definitely pack a spinning rod and an assortment of crawdad and shad mimicking crankbaits and jigs. The turbid waters of the Bourbeuse River are fertile and a great fishery for large and smallmouth bass. If you have time, the long, slow, and deeper pools of the river are great for channel catfishing.

An 11-mile trip that offers MDC access points at each end is Reiker Ford Access to Mayers Landing Access. This section boasts some beautiful bluffs. Extend that section to a full 20-mile trip by continuing to the Highway 50 Bridge and Union Access.

Paddling Pointers

Regardless of your nontraditional float destination, here are some universal bonus pointers to ensure you have the best experience on your adventure. Many of our Missouri rivers are fed by springs. While attractive to people, these are delicate and often legally protected ecosystems, home to some species that are found nowhere else. Please be cautious around springs and follow the local regulations for them.

Make a mesh onion sack part of your float trip loadout. These are perfect for collecting your trash and any other garbage you may encounter on your travels. Wear your personal flotation device (PFD). No one ever plans on an accident. PFDs are the best way to keep your adventure from becoming a misadventure.

Latch any loose items to your boat. If you tip, it’s easier to keep all your gear together than it is chasing it down the river. Do not leash pets to your boat. River conditions can change rapidly, so check flow rates from the U.S. Geological Survey ( before you go to ensure it’s both safe, and that there’s enough water to float.

Different sections of water can have different angling regulations. Be sure you know all the rules and have your fishing license before you cast. Cell service can be spotty on our rivers, so be sure to file an itinerary with friends or family.

Finally, be courteous to other people on the river. Your encounter is part of someone else’s experience, and they are a part of yours. Make it a positive one. Be friendly, helpful, and encouraging. These rivers belong to us all.

Big Piney River

Predominantly Class I water with the occasional Class II sections after a good rain, the Big Piney River flows into our list of nontraditional floats because its reputation as a smallmouth angling destination often overshadows its floating credentials.

Carving its way north over 110 miles through Texas, Pulaski, and Phelps counties and through majestic pine-crowned limestone bluffs, this river has enough twists and turns to keep any paddler on their toes. Its ultimate destination is joining forces with the Gasconade River.

In addition to keeping a fishing rod handy, be sure to keep your camera handy, too. Since this river sees so few people, wildlife abounds along this corridor, and each bend brings a new opportunity to experience nature.

For a quick day trip on the Big Piney River, drop in at the Sandy Shoals Ford access and float for just over 6 miles down to Boiling Springs. The spring is an impressive attraction, pumping 10 million gallons of water per day.

Pack your camping gear for an epic, 40-mile adventure and put in at Mineral Springs Access and float to the Ross Access.

The Big Piney River flows through lands managed by U.S. Forest Service, Ft. Leonard Wood, MDC, and private landowners. If you’re camping, be sure to know the rules for the ground you’re on.

Eleven Point River

Make travel to the river part of your nontraditional float adventure by experiencing the Eleven Point River. The Eleven Point River’s course carries it 49 gorgeous miles through 

the Missouri Ozarks in Oregon County before crossing the state line into Arkansas. It is designated as a National Wild and Scenic River for good reason but is overlooked by would-be floaters in Missouri because its location is far away from major population centers.

For most of us, that means we’ll be spending some time on the road to get there, but the drive is worth it. Bejeweled by gorgeous, brisk, clear-flowing springs and hemmed by looming dolomite bluffs, the Eleven Point River boasts a multitude of options for floats, all with their own unique beauty and charm. No matter how long it takes you to get there, choose from a wide variety of float distances.

Short on time and want to catch some trout? Try the 6-mile section from Greer Spring to Turner Mill. Thanks to the 200 million gallons of water contributed by the spring daily, this section is never too low to float and is a designated Blue Ribbon Trout Area.

Just be sure to pay attention to the special rules that apply in Blue Ribbon waters. This float can take between two to four hours…longer if the fish are biting.

If you’re looking for a multi-day camping float adventure, start your float on the western half of the upper section of the river at Thomasville and pull out at Riverton. With over 35 miles of river to explore and about 20 hours of paddling, you’ll watch as the river grows in stature with each passing spring and tributary. Overnight opportunities on this epic adventure are numerous and varied, including primitive float camps, gravel bars, and privately operated campgrounds.

Are you ready for a nontraditional Missouri float adventure? Make your plans now to beat the crowds with these off-the-beaten-path paddling destinations. 

A Paddler’s Guide to Missouri

While this story outlines four great rivers for nontraditional floats, Missouri is blessed with many options for canoeing and kayaking, ranging from its nationally recognized spring-fed Ozark rivers to slow-moving rivers of its northern glacial plains.

Regardless of your preferred float style, the updated and expanded A Paddler’s Guide to Missouri can help you plan your next outing. Whether you’re an experienced floater looking for new challenges or a novice looking for help planning a trip, A Paddler’s Guide to Missouri can help. This 102-page, 

spiral-bound guide includes trip planning, equipment, paddling pointers, and maps of 54 Missouri streams and rivers. New to the 2023 edition are maps of the upper Mississippi River from Hannibal to St. Louis and an expanded section on the Big River.

A Paddler’s Guide to Missouri is available for sale at most MDC nature centers. Order online at or call toll-free 877-521-8632.

Also In This Issue

This Issue's Staff

Magazine Manager - Stephanie Thurber
Editor - Angie Daly Morfeld
Associate Editor - Larry Archer
Photography Editor - Cliff White
Staff Writer - Kristie Hilgedick
Staff Writer - Joe Jerek
Staff Writer – Dianne Van Dien
Designer – Amanda DeGraffenreid
Designer – Marci Porter
Photographer - Noppadol Paothong
Photographer - David Stonner
Circulation – Marcia Hale