BOB JONES / SPECIAL TO THE STAR-BULLETIN
Most people hit the Ozarks to fish for trout, weighing up to 40 pounds, and smallmouth bass. Licenses are sold at marinas for $3.
Embark for the Ozarks
Float on a river, catch fish and eat 'Throwed Rolls' where the Missouri River flows
Pack the kids. Get some tents or a camper van. Forget about Las Vegas and Disney. Head to the Ozarks of Missouri and Arkansas.
Caves, rivers, lakes, tubing, canoeing, easy hiking and old mills are among area attractions, and how many restaurants have an ordering system in which signaling for dinner rolls means you'll have one lobbed at you from across the room? Also, you'll discover the World's Biggest Biscuits, smothered in gravy, for $3.89.
The Ozarks are for anyone who enjoys fantastic, small roadways with knockout sights, and I've come up with the perfect itinerary for a camping trip. Make sure to reserve your campsites or B&Bs now for next year's travels because space is hard to come by in summer. This route begins and ends in St. Louis, where you can rent bikes and a bike rack from the Bike Center (www.bikecenterstl.com), but there are many possible variations.
Your first overnighter should be in this old German town west of St. Louis, right on the Missouri River. Highway 100 or 94 will get you there by way of the quaint towns of Dundee and New Haven.
The best food in Hermann is at the Stone Hill restaurant and winery. The red made from the Norton grape is quite passable and very near a Cabernet. Tin Hill Brewery is also bringing back German beer.
There's a city campground for tents and RVs and plenty of nice walkways along the river.
South to the Ozarks
Take Highway 19 south into the Mark Twain National Forest. You'll likely kill a lot of freshwater turtles as you drive. They sun themselves on the highways, necks sticking out full stretch. I tried to miss them but it's not always possible. The other common roadkills are possum and armadillo. But the little turtles, that really hurts you.
Head for Cuba, a town named by the founder who'd once visited that island country. You'll be able to pick up provisions for your second stay, at the Onondaga Cave State Park. It's six miles west of 19 on Interstate 44 and then about 12 miles south on Highway H. This is a must-do.
Onondaga is a fantastic campground. I wrote on my comment card, "Would that Hawaii parks were so well maintained," but the real attraction is the cave network, two-hour underground walking tours and the deep river that runs through the site.
There are no hotels or B&Bs close by. But you prefer restaurants to camp cooking, try stopping at tiny Ike's Chat and Chew at adjacent Leasburg. Ike is a woman in her 80s. It's a place for locals but they welcome visitors, and you'll experience small-town chat as you chew at shared tables.
BOB JONES / SPECIAL TO THE STAR-BULLETIN
The author, Bob Jones, and his canoe partner take a break in Jack's Fork River. River floating is a mainstay of Ozark tourism, along with fly fishing and trolling.
River Float Country
Back south on Highway 19, you'll have a choice of campgrounds, cabins and river activities -- the latter always dependent on the state of the Meramec, Current and Jack's Fork rivers.
If the rivers are too high, Missouri State Parks closes them. When they are open, what's too high and too fast for floating is a judgment call for every tuber, canoer and rafter. Missouri law says the float renter isn't liable if you misjudge your ability to maneuver on the water and kill yourself.
Able water enthusiasts can rent gear at the Rafting Co. just off Highway 19 near Steelville, the Akers Ferry float company in the village of Akers, and from many float outfits in the little town of Eminence.
There are no public campgrounds at Steelville, but in Akers you can stay at Pulltite State Park, and in Eminence, the Alley Spring State Park, both of them on a river. All have private campgrounds.
Our outfitter in Eminence sent us out in a canoe at Jack's Fork, where waters were too high and fast for our amateur abilities. We capsized once and could easily have drowned had we not kept our wits about us. But our tubing in the Current River at Akers Ferry was safe and comfortable. Just keep in mind that you're on your own for these two- to five-hour river trips. It's possible to hire a guide. Unguided canoe trips are $35 to $50. The cost of a tube rental is about $10. But if you miss the haul-out point, well, shucks, you could be on your way to the Mississippi and New Orleans!
This area of Missouri is known for old mills that once ground grain or powered sawmills. Two are very worth seeing. Dillard Mill, southwest of Steelville on Highway 49. And there's a similar red mill in the park at Alley Spring. They are open for free guided visits in the summer.
BOB JONES / SPECIAL TO THE STAR-BULLETIN
Liquor is hard to come by in Ozark supermarkets, but liquor stores, even the drive-through kind, abound.
The drive along Highway 19 through Missouri's forests and Ozarks is scenic, and there's little traffic outside of June, July and August when the RVs hit the road. It's during the summer that you have to be patient.
The towns from Eminence south to Thayer are uninteresting, and the campground at McCormack Lake is not well rated by users whose comments I've read on the Internet. So my recommendation is to cross into Arkansas (Highway 19 becomes 9) and get onto 62/412 west to Mountain Home.
Mountain Home is as big as Arkansas towns of the Ozarks go. It's a major resort destination because of the huge Norfolk Lake. You can fish for trout and smallmouth bass in the rivers you've passed, but these Arkansas lakes yield lake trout that can weigh in at 40 pounds! Mountain Home has a plethora of B&Bs, cabins and boat rental firms.
What I recommend is a stop and a lunch in Mountain Home but continuing on to Bull Shoals State Park, another 15 miles away and full of lakes. There are two major public park-campgrounds here, Bull Shoals State Park and the Corps of Engineers Dam Park. The latter is small, the former is huge. You'll have no shortage of entertainment here. Aside from the hikes, biking and water sports, there is a dam, cavern tours and an 1890s village preserved as it was.
The town of Bull Shoals, created by the dam, is loaded with accommodations and restaurants. The best and most picturesque is Gascon's near the dam and on a river, with a grass airfield.
Boat rental companies abound. What's best for families are motor-driven pontoon boats that cost $150 to $200 for four hours, plus gas and oil.
BOB JONES / SPECIAL TO THE STAR-BULLETIN
Hot Springs, Ark., was best known in the early 1900s for its bathhouses. Today it heavily plays on the fact that Bill Clinton grew up and went to high school there. This sign at all the town's entrances has a rather poor likeness of him.
The Pig Trail is the local nickname for Highway 23 through the heart of the Arkansas Ozarks. The top of the trail is the resort town of Eureka Springs, possibly the most amazing little town you've never heard of. Built, like Hot Springs, in an age when people believed that spring water cured illnesses, it's perched on the side of an big uplift ridge to be near those curative waters, and is home to a warren of shops selling art and tourist trinkets.
Residents of Eureka Springs claims its Italian restaurants are great. But the real attraction for outsiders is the Smokehouse Cafe, home of the World's Biggest Biscuits. A New York Times article claimed they are the size of footballs. Ours were more like big softballs, and the gravy had no sausage in it. "Too many vegetarians these days," says co-owner Janet Balzumati. The price, at $3.89, is sure right. It costs a little more if you insist on sausage being tossed in your gravy.
Parking in Eureka Springs is a problem because little of it is public or free, but for $4 you can park at the Visitors Center topside and have unlimited rides on trolleys that cover the whole village and make frequent stops. This place is overdone with lodges, motels, cabins and rental properties. There's a fine city campground at Lake Leatherwood nearby or farther away at the state's Beaver Lake (both have boat rental marinas).
Two big attractions here are the architectural magnificence that is the light and modern Thorncrown Cathedral and the huge piece of statuary called the Christ of the Ozarks. Near the latter, there's a nightly Passion Play.
God rules in these parts. It's not unusual to see a billboard listing eight to a dozen churches as you enter a small town. In some places the main Baptist church is much bigger and impressive than City Hall or the courthouse. Atheists might exist here, but I doubt they would want to read Richard Dawkins' book "The God Delusion" in a public place.
Once you leave Eureka Springs south on Highway 23, you'll enter what the locals proudly call Hillbilly Country. This is where people seem very poor. They all seem to smoke. And they are alarmingly overweight.
When I say overweight, I'm talking morbidly overweight. People do eat huge amounts of food in restaurants, mainly smoked meats like ribs and chops, with lots of mashed potatoes, lots of baked beans, lots of bread and butter, and biscuits with gravy.
One of the most wonderful state parks is 70 miles east of the Pig Trail before you hit the town of Paris. It's Lake Dardanelle outside Russellville, a worthy detour off your south routing.
From Dardanelle you head back west to the town of Paris to pick up the south highway there to Mount Magazine State Park, the highest point in Arkansas.
On your way to Paris, you'll enter tiny Subiaco. The books tell you it's the home of the Subiaco Benedictine Abbey. What an understatement! It's immense. It's beautiful. It's filled with German stained-glass windows.
Paris is where you can pick up provisions and maybe lunch at the Grapevine Restaurant before following the signs up a curvy road to Mount Magazine's tippy-top park. There are views out over the Ozarks and well-separated campsites spread through the woods.
Do not leave food out at night. Ozarks raccoons have learned to unzip collapsible coolers, take the tops and cellophane off cottage cheese and unscrew the top of a peanut butter jar. They stole all our butter but disdained my beef kabobs after sampling some of the vegetables. They ate a red apple but left the green one.
If you'd prefer lowland camping in this area, follow the signs for Cove Lake State Park nearby at the base of Mount Magazine. Both have plenty of safe trails for youngsters and adults. True, there are snakes in the Ozarks, but we only saw one and it slithered away.
This old town was made famous by Al Capone, Bugs Moran, Franklin Roosevelt and Bill Clinton. It's worth a stop and you have two camping choices. Lake Ouachita (WAH-chi-tah) is 16 miles away and has lakefront sites, a nice swimming beach and full facilities.
The town is home to Bathhouse Row at the bottom of the Pig Trail. There are modern spas in Hot Springs hotels, but they don't have the old-time ambience of the old tubs and water tubes and stained glass of the Buckstaff on Central Avenue, the only one of the original bathhouses still operating. There, a bath, scrub, sauna, shower and massage is $50.
One of Hot Springs family attractions is the 200-foot Mountain Tower on a hill with open viewing on the top floor and a continuous video about Clinton's life in the town as a schoolboy.
Your Ozark itinerary ends here, where it's a quick hop from Hot Springs to Little Rock, then the seaboard freeway leading you back to St. Louis. But before leaving, do make a stop off the I-55 onto Highway 61 South to the well-marked Lambert's Restaurant at Sikeston, Mo., south of Cape Girardeau. That's the "Home of the Throwed Rolls."
Waiters with carts prowl the cavernous and cacophonous room yelling "hot rolls," and when you signal you want one, they toss one, or two, or three ... perfect 60-foot pitches to your outstretched hands. The entrees are indescribably huge. You cannot eat it all, and as you try, waitresses come by and shovel out fried potatoes, fried okra, macaroni and tomatoes and whatever else offered as "sides" that day.
Meanwhile, you already have a plate of food the size of a large pizza and heaped high. I had about 15 breaded chicken livers. The waitress decided I'd been shorted and brought me another dozen.
You'll have great fun in the Ozarks, but you won't lose any weight.