Paddling the Big Niangua River Trail

The summer was ending, and after months of constant upheaval and change, I was desperate to get away. A pricey vacation wasn’t in the cards (thanks to our awesome wedding!), so Mike and I settled for a weekend close to home at the Lake of the Ozarks.

We rented what seemed to be a cute Air BnB along a less traveled cove of the lake. The description’s promise of a serene couple’s getaway was slightly misleading as the rumble of boat motors and drunken diners at the restaurant next door filled our tired ears when we arrived.

I was tempted to sink into disappointment, Mike’s logical optimism kept me off the edge. Or, maybe it was the bottle of wine and box of gluten free cookies he bought me…

We had a beautiful view, the cabin had everything we needed, and my overnight bag was fully stocked with earplugs. And, though we didn’t have any solid adventure plans, we would certainly figure out something.

Bleary-eyed and a little hungover, I stared at my phone for about an hour the next morning until I found it. A trail. Only instead of hiking it… we could paddle it. Eeee!

The Big Niangua River Trail is a tour of points beginning near the spring at Ha Ha Tonka State Park and ending along the larger portion of the Niangua River. It’s slightly confusing, because even though the flow of water moves toward Ha Ha Tonka, and theoretically, one would end there, the points start at the park with letter A, and go all the way to T at Whistle Bridge, just over 13 miles away.

Without a way to shuttle our kayaks, we put in at Ha Ha Tonka State Park kayak launch (letter A) and set out on the 4-mile portion of the trail that is still considered “lake paddling”. We planned to kayak up the trail until we were tired and ready to paddle back.

The next stop, letter B, is apparently called Spencer Creek/Bank Branch. It’s a tiny cove that flows into an even tinier stream… so tiny, in fact, that I don’t think I even saw it. Lol. I did get a picture of the sign, though! According to the information pamphlet, it’s called Bank Branch because back in the 1800’s, counterfeiters chose this corner of the lake to hide their dough. Interesting.

We looked everywhere for letter C marking a place called Sugarloaf Winery. Eventually, I saw something white resembling a sign and paddled like hell to get to it. Mike waited patiently while I investigated. I was sure it had to be it, but when the shore came into clearer view, I realized it was only an old broken lawn chair. Frustrated, I looked up Sugarloaf Winery on Google Maps and discovered that it had closed down several years prior. Our hankering for a glass of wine? Destroyed.

Next on the trail was Onyx Cave (letter D) 0.7 miles away. We paddled toward it and as the minutes passed by, the shoreline grew more remote and the water more peaceful. The sun beat down, warming our skin, forcing us to shed some layers, but I didn’t mind. The promise of a cool cave quickened our pace.

We spotted the cave on our right, and discovered it was large enough to paddle inside. Pulling on our headlamps, we ventured inside to see the gorgeous cavern. I was thankful to have light so we could enjoy the glittery rocks and recessed arches formed in the walls and ceiling. It was breathtaking, and impossible to capture accurately in a picture. I still tried, though.

I felt anxious in the eerie stillness. It felt like a bear could emerge at any moment, angry at our disturbance. But even as we moved further in, there wasn’t any other sign of life besides our own. I relaxed slightly as we continued to gawk at the cave’s beauty.

Reluctantly, we emerged from Onyx Cave and continued down the river trail toward letter E – a wetland area. By this point, I had to pee something fierce, and was tired of paddling. We found a nice gravel bar, stopped, and disembarked to take care of business and to relax. The water was ice-cold, but a quick dip was quite refreshing after a long hard paddle. Two miles doesn’t seem like a lot, but without a river current to propel you forward, it feels like a lot. I wanted to find more letters along the trail that day, but our food and water supply was dwindling, so we needed to head back.

Arriving back at the Ha Ha Tonka kayak launch put us at 4 miles for the day. I was tired and hungry. We hauled the kayaks up the hill to the truck and loaded everything in. As soon as we drove away, I busied myself Googling for dinner options. Pappo’s Pizza was pretty darn close and they had gluten-free/dairy-free options for me. Perfect! Twenty minutes later, I had a hot pizza on my lap. I may snuck a couple pieces before we made it back to the cabin… Shhhh.

Bellies full of delicious pizza, we headed to our next adventure – the Honey Run Trail – South Loop. This was an actual hiking trail on land. No paddling required. I wish we would have carried a paddle, though – the spider webs were relentless! Between dodging webs and swatting at the horsefly stalking Mike, we were ready to be DONE. The underbrush was as thick as the humid August air – not the best time for a hike in Missouri. We did manage to spot a cute turtle, a toadstool, and some wildflowers.

Back on the deck of our Air BnB, we rested and enjoyed the sun set over the lake. The patrons of Mike’s Steak Chalet, the restaurant next door, sang loudly with the cover band hired for the night. We procured a bottle of wine, and pretty soon our annoyance transformed into amusement.

The next morning, bleary eyed and slightly hung over… again… I searched online for an outfitter that would be able to shuttle us for another section of the Big Niangua River Trail. After a few calls, I reserved a spot with Mother Nature Riverfront Retreat near Mack’s Creek. The man on the phone was polite and helped us choose a section of the river that would fit our schedule.

We packed up our things and headed down highway 54, then followed a few windy roads through the countryside until we lost cell reception. Thankful for GPS, we pulled into Mother Nature’s without a hitch. The grounds were gorgeous, and the folks who manage the place were incredibly nice.

I was a little nervous to take a ride from the shuttle driver – he was a little on the rough side, and the entire left back pocket of his jeans was ripped off. Thank goodness he was wearing underwear… I think… Mike assured me that it would be fine, and it was. He drove us to put in at their river access along the Niangua (letter S) , and we floated the slow current toward their take out about 2 miles down.

It was a pretty day, the sun peeking out after a passing storm. We were the only paddlers out that day, and the woodsy scenery was gorgeous. Colorful wildflowers and interesting rock faces dotted the shoreline, and every so often I needed to stop to investigate. It was a super short float, so procrastination was entirely welcomed.

We found letter R (Nettle Hole), and somewhere between that and letter Q, we heard a calf mooing. As we rounded the bend, there it was. Mooing loudly and nervously walking through the water. We think it must have been separated from its mama. Poor little guy.

Letter Q was next – Flat Rock Hole. Apparently good for fishing. We were fresh out of poles. So we paddled on.

Letter P, our takeout, came at just the right time. The sun blazed down, and just like the day before, we needed water and food. Though it was possibly the shortest float I have ever done, it was enough for the day. Sometime I’d like to come back and paddle all the way from Whistle Bridge to Ha Ha Tonka to catch letters F – O. The entire trail is 13.3 miles – a doable day float if you’re ready to paddle.

It would be nice if the Conservation Department would update the trail pamphlet to reflect the closure of Sugarloaf Winery and a few others I noticed – and if there were more options for shuttling. It wouldn’t be terribly difficult to self-shuttle if you live nearby like we do.

All in all, I’m glad we explored the Big Niangua River Trail. It was much more peaceful than any float trip I’ve done on the main Niangua (near Lebanon), and I enjoyed searching for the letter markers along the way – even if they were a bit outdated or missing.

I also appreciated having an option that wasn’t heavily populated and busy. There is another aquatic trail through the main channel of the lake, but I’m not sure I’d feel comfortable paddling it in a kayak. I did, however, feel very safe on the BNRT even when we were in more “lake-like” areas. Even if there was a speeding boat or jet ski, we could easily stick close to the shore.

Have you ever paddled an aquatic trail? Let me know where and what you thought of it!

Published by adventurewithkatie82

Newbie adventure writer! Learn more about me at

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