There's a place in the Ozarks where wild horses still roam and where the most adventurous of hikers can wander the wilderness for days.
For those listeners looking for a fall adventure, I took a day trip with my daughter to Missouri’s newest developed state park, Echo Bluff State Park, and brought along a recorder so we could create an audio postcard.
We begin by loading up the bikes since Echo Bluff has plenty of trails.
We make one last check of our directions since GPS is spotty in some of the very rural areas we’ll be driving through. If you’re driving from Springfield, Echo Bluff State Park is two and a half hours’ drive to the East, in Shannon County, near Eminence.
Bikes are secure. Picnic basket? Check. The last thing we need before setting out is a little music.
We turn up the volume on my “It’s Gonna Be An Awesome Day” playlist. And we’re off.
We’re eager to get a glimpse of the wild horses that roam there. Liz Morris, who works for Guest Services, the hospitality company that operates Echo Bluff State Park, tells me that many of the horses are gleaming white, and they’ve been in the area for decades. Often, they roam the campground and walk right up to guests, she said.
Sure enough, as we get closer, we see a sign warning us to look out for horses.
Upon pulling into the park, we drive to the lodge. The bluff that bears the park’s name, Echo Bluff, sits right behind the lodge, towering over the landscape and the Sinking Creek below (locals pronounce it "Sinkin' Creek").
We’re a little hungry, so we grab the picnic basket.
But we get sidetracked by a high-tech playground with swinging pods that can hold several kids at once.
After our playground detour, we venture down to the riverbank. Sinking Creek is a tributary of the Current River. It’s known for its fishing holes and small mouth bass. Sycamore trees tower high overhead.
Then, we hit the bikes. We go past the old cabins left behind from the children’s camp, Camp Zoe. And the amphitheater dug into the hillside.
Before long, we’re down on the river again. We see signs that horses have been here, but no wild horses.
Out on the back patio behind the lodge, visitors can get a great view of the bluff and catch a whiff of pine.
Echo Bluff State Park covers nearly 500 acres; many visitors don’t realize that the park is surrounded on three sides by privately owned wilderness. The LAD Foundation owns the backcountry wilderness forest, but has donated a lease to Missouri State Parks so that visitors can come to Echo Bluff and use it as a base for serious backcountry hiking. The Roger Pryor Pioneer Backcountry is about 62,000 acres worth of backcountry forest land.
“To the north of us, the Current River State Park trail connects Echo Bluff and Current River. And then in the future year, which is just coming up here, Missouri State Parks already has a plan to connect that Current River State Park trail so that a guest or a hiker or a biker or even a backpacker can go from Current River State Park through Echo Bluff State Park and then down into Roger Pryor Backcountry,” Morris said.
More than 85 years ago, this area opened as Camp Zoe, a summer youth camp that provided outdoor experiences and life-long memories for thousands of young people.
We end our day trip inside the lodge, where three stories of glass windows offer a stunning view of the river and the bluff. And the showstopper has to be the towering stone, walk-around fireplace, the hearth of which is about 20 feet wide. Overnight visitors can stay at the lodge, they can camp, or they can rent cabins.
A receptionist in the gift store tells us the herd of wild horses was just in the campground that morning. But we didn’t see them. And we think that calls for a return trip.