Wild Roads: The Ozarks

The only mountain range between the Appalachians and the Rockies, and the oldest landform on the continent, the Ozarks fall just shy of 2,000 feet. But a trip here isn't about altitude, it's about atmosphere. Anthropologists consider Ozark culture something of a national treasure, with its local dialect and centuries-old traditions--think mountain music, mushroom foraging and Where the Red Fern Grows.

In these parts, paddling is a passion. By April hundreds of springs are spilling over into rivers where the current is swift and the trout are plentiful. "Being a guide, you hate to admit it, but it's easy fishing," says Carolyn Parker, who runs fly-fishing trips out of Branson, Missouri. "There's dogwoods and cherry blossoms this time of year, and water is everywhere--but people aren't."

Drive the ridgeline byways, stop at roadside smokehouses for a little bluegrass, then raft the Jacks Fork and Current Rivers through 210-foot dolomite cliffs to appreciate the local maxim: "Our mountains may not be high, but our valleys sure are deep."

Your Four-day Plan

Day 1
Unwind upon arrival in the heart of the Ozarks at the 1886 Crescent Hotel & Spa in Eureka Springs. Pamper yourself then ring Leonard Keeney at Taneycomo Nights to schedule your wake-up call. Around midnight, he'll take you out on the water to cast flies for 20-pound trout by the light of the moon.

Day 2
The Blue Buck Knob Scenic Byway winds 228 miles through the blooming poplars of Mark Twain National Forest. Refuel with a Superburger at Main Street Cafe in Willow Springs, then check in to Big Spring Lodge and Cabins along the Current River, where canoes are ready for a sunset paddle.

Day 3
Mid-April in Eminence means Cross Country Trail Ride's Bluegrass Festival: Horsemanship and mountain music are on display beside the Ozark National Scenic Riverways. The event peaks April 13 and 14, which happens to coincide with the best paddling on the Current.

Day 4
Any local will tell you that 1,772-foot Taum Sauk Mountain is the Show-Me State's highest point. Less known is its neighbor, Bell Mountain. Just 70 feet shorter than Taum Sauk, it's a nicer climb--with a summit you can enjoy in solitude. Eat dinner at the Gallery Bistro in downtown Springfield.


The Pit Stops

DO: Taneycomo Nights fishing trip ($125 for four to six hours; $55 per additional person; taneycomonights.com); Blue Buck Knob Scenic Byway (byways.org); Mark Twain National Forest (fs.fed.us/r9/forests/marktwain); Main Street Cafe (417-469-3304); Cross Country Trail Ride's Bluegrass Festival (crosscountrytrailride.com); Ozark National Scenic Riverways ($14; nps.gov/ozar); Current River Expeditions ($140 for a half-day guided trip; currentriverexpeditions.com); Bell Mountain Wilderness (fs.fed.us/r9/forests/marktwain/recreation/sites/bell_mtn_wilderness);
Gallery Bistro (gallerybistrodowntown.com)

SLEEP: Crescent Hotel & Spa ($159; crescent-hotel.com); Big Spring Lodge and Cabins ($65; bigspringlodgeandcabins.com); Riverside Motel and Cabins ($90 for a cabin on the Jacks Fork River; riversidemotelonline.com); Walnut Street Inn, in Springfield ($89; walnutstreetinn.com)

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