The first tip for staying at Echo Bluff State Park is to arrive during daylight, for a couple of reasons. First, the winding highway can be unnerving in the dark to the unfamiliar driver. Second, you won’t have to wait to see the towering sheer bluff the park is named after.
The new state park opened in mid-2016 in Eminence, Mo., deep in the Ozarks, about 140 miles east of Springfield or 380 miles east of Wichita. Echo Bluff is now the centerpiece of the Missouri state park system, which celebrates 100 years this year and includes 91 state parks and historical sites. The park’s lodge, cabins and campground bring first-rate lodging to an area already known for the quality and diversity of its outdoor recreation. In fact, this area was home to the state’s first state parks.
This brings us to our second tip: book early. Since opening in July 2016, the lodge and cabins have sold out months in advance during warm weather months. They see brisk business in the cooler months, too, but you’re likely to find an opening this winter.
“The area is picturesque all year so Echo Bluff State Park was designed to be used year round,” said Jim Newberry, superintendent of Echo Bluff and Current River state parks. “Spring, summer and fall are beautiful, of course, with the foliage but when the trees drop their leaves you can actually see the bluffs better. And it’s neat to see the huge icicles coming out of the bluffs in the winter.”
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A newly paved road takes you into the 476-acre park, set in a valley with towering bluffs and hillsides covered in oak, hickory and shortleaf pine trees. The largest dolomite bluff on the property is named Echo Bluff and the lodge sits directly in front of it, across Sinking Creek.
“The lodge looks like one you’d see in a national park out west,” Newberry said. “It has that classic, old-style lodge look with a new, modern feel using native stone that fits into the scenery of the Ozarks.”
A day-use area is alongside the creek, providing a playground, splash pad, picnic shelters, amphitheater and access to the creek for swimming, paddling, floating and fishing. Sinking Creek flows a mile and a half through the park before joining the Current River. It has deep holes for smallmouth bass fishing but is mostly shallow for wading and relaxing. An accessible two-mile concrete path winds through this area of the park and connects to seven miles of hiking and biking trails. Get a trail map at the lodge’s front desk, and don’t miss hiking, riding or driving up to the bluff top pavilion for a view of the entire valley. Bring your own water gear; bicycles are available to rent at the lodge.
On-site lodging includes 20 hotel-style rooms and suites ($94-$119) inside the lodge, nine fully equipped cabins with two, three and four bedrooms ($139-$239), and the full-service Timbuktu campground for tent and RV camping ($12-$39). The campground has 43 sites with electric/water/sewer hookups, 19 electric/water sites and 12 walk-in sites with wooden tent platforms. Rooms offer balconies and cabins have large decks with furniture.
Common spaces also include indoor and outdoor options. The lodge has a large deck with perfect views of the creek and bluff, and the on-site restaurant serves breakfast, lunch and dinner indoor or outdoor. The menu includes burgers, pot roast, Buffalo meatloaf and other American fare, along with Missouri wine and Missouri Mule IPA or Float Trip Ale from nearby Piney River Brewing Co. There is also a small convenience store inside the lodge. The nearest places to stock up on groceries are 30 miles north in Salem or 15 miles south in Eminence.
“We want Echo Bluff State Park to be the hub for exploring all there is to do in this region of the state, from fishing, floating, hiking and biking to seeing an abundance of springs, the old mill and our wild horses,” Newberry said.
Among the top attractions within one hour of the park are:
▪ Roger Pryor Pioneer Backcountry is adjacent to Echo Bluffs and has 45 miles of trail.
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▪ Just across Highway 19 from Echo Bluffs is Current River State Park, which has 10 miles of trails, fishing lakes and tours of its historic buildings. Another nearby state park, Montauk State Park is at the headwaters of the Current River and is known for its rainbow and brown trout fishing.
▪ The Ozark National Scenic Riverways, which preserves the Current and Jacks Fork rivers and is flush with beautiful springs. The Current River is on Trout Unlimited’s list of 100 best trout stream and is popular with floaters. Among the most popular springs in the National Scenic Riverways is Big Spring, considered one of the largest in the country with an average daily flow of 286 million gallons of water; the century-old red mill at Alley Spring and Mill; Blue Spring, the eighth largest in Missouri but considered to have the deepest blue color; and Round Spring, where we found one of the area’s bands of wild horses during our visit. There are several bands of horses freely roaming the area, and because their ancestors are said to have been horses set free by cash-strapped farmers during the Great Depression, they are more accurately feral than wild.
▪ A portion of the 1.5 million-acre Mark Twain National Forest is in the area, offering hunting, hiking, wildlife watching, mountain biking, horseback riding and fishing.
▪ Several conservation areas and nature centers, including Peck Ranch, where elk have been reintroduced.
Echo Bluff State Park
Hours: Open year-round. Park office is open 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Grounds are open sunrise to sunset.
Location: Eminence, Missouri, about 140 miles east of Springfield, or about 380 miles east of Wichita
Cost: Admission is free to all Missouri state parks; lodging fees vary.