Rising in Iron County, Missouri, and flowing from southwest to northeast just an hour's drive from St. Louis, is the Big River, a Class I run in a slow currrent. The river begins near Elephant Rocks State Park in the Mark Twain National Forest and flows 138 miles down to St. Francois State Park, then through Washington State Park and on down to the confluence of the Meramec River about 1.5 miles (as the crow flies - about twice that by canoe) north of Hoene Spring. The most popular section paddled is from Turkey Creek near Bonne Terre to the Meramec, about 83.2 miles. It has a gentle gradient, from a high of 3.6 feet per mile between State Highway E and State Highway 21 above Washington State Park, to a low of 1.5 feet per mile as it enters the Meramec River.
The Big River has plenty of access all along the 83 mile section described here. Campsites, both natural and public, private or commercial, are abundant along the river. Washington State Park is located about 20 miles below the Bonne Terre put-in on Highway E, and provides an excellent stopover for a two or more day trip.
Mineral Fork enters the Big River at 21.8 miles on river left. This creek is considered by reptile collectors to be a good place to find cottonmouth water moccasins, if you are so inclined. On that note, water moccasins are poisonous, but usually not aggresive. Most snakebites usually occur whenever you step on a snake or disturb a nest, and even then most bites do not involve a venom release by adult snakes. Water moccasins are territorial, but will give way in a heartbeat to something bigger, like a human being with a paddle. (Snakes read the B.C. comic strip, and know about women with clubs in their hands!) Don't mess with them, and it is very unlikely they will mess with you! Mineral Fork is often floatable, with a gentle gradient of about 9 feet per mile.
The closer you paddle to St. Louis the more you encounter the effects of urban growth and pollution. Many paddlers prefer not to paddle that section even when there is plenty of water. But, the sections from 20 miles above to about 63 miles below Washington State Park are scenic and ideal for canoe/kayak or canoe/kayak-overnight camping trips of one to several days. Considering the normal flow, the entire 83 miles could require 5 to 10 days, depending upon physical condition of paddlers, headwinds, or just a more leisurely trip enjoying the interesting sights to see on parts of the Big River, things like old mills and sites of former mills from the days of the Industrial Revolution that improved lifestyle conditions for many people around the world. If you have the time, and are so inclined, you could paddle the Big River to the Meramec, then down to the Mighty Mississippi, where the BIG boys play!
Iron, St. Francois, Washington and Jefferson Counties southwest of St. Louis. The Big River starts in the Mark Twain National Forest and flows to the confluence of the Meramec, which feeds into the Mississippi River at St. Louis. The section covered in this report is from Highway E crossing just west of US Highway 67 in St. Francois County to the confluence of the Meramec River in Jefferson County, about 50 miles southwest of St. Louis.
St. Louis 50 miles; Joplin 267 miles; Springfield 195 miles; Kansas City 295 miles; Chicago 300 miles; Tulsa 378 miles; Oklahoma City 483 miles; Dallas 693 miles; Austin 883 miles; San Antonio 963 miles; Houston 945 miles (all distances are approximate and depend upon starting point, destination point on the river and route taken.)
Generally good to very good above Cedar Hill, gradually getting more polluted and littered with debris as it flows toward the confluence of the Meramec River southwest of St. Louis. The flow is usually adequate for paddle trips, thought he current is almost always very slow and meandering.
You can paddle the Big River almost anytime of the year. The springs that feed the river maintain a good flow and fairly warm water temperature, even when the outside air temperature is much cooler. Proper paddling clothing is recommended for colder months.
The only real hazards on the Big River are decaying old dams around mills that were water-powered during the Industrial Revolution around the turn of the last century. The Mineral Fork enters on river left at 21.8 miles. This creek is a good place for an encounter with the much-feared and even more misunderstood cottonmouth water moccasin. The Mineral Fork is runnable most of the time, but take care to avoid contact with snakes whenever possible. Morse Mill Dam at 52.4 miles is a dangerous impoundment with a potential for causing injury, death or damage to boats and property. You may portage on river right. A break in the dam on the left side near the foundation of an old mill is dangerous, but a concrete sluice to the right of this break may be used to slide canoes down when the water is low enough to stand on the dam. MDC Cedar Hill Access at 63.2 miles is the site of the Cedar Hill bridge and mill dam. The mill still operates, but has not used water power since about 1960. Portage on river left. This is also the best take-out in the area. A private dam at 68.9 miles can be portaged on river right. Byrnes Mill Dam (privately ownd) at 74.6 miles can be portaged on river right. There are no other significant hazards on the Big River.
(All descriptions are based upon the view looking downriver and referenced from the river at Turkey Creek of US Highway 67 north of Bonne Terre. Mileages are river miles.): Turkey Creek on the county road running north from Bonne Terre off US Highway 67, parallel to Missouri Illinois Railroad tracks, at 0.0 miles; SH E bridge at 1.8 miles has a difficult access because of a steep slope; Coles Landing (privately owned) at 9.1 miles on river right; MDC Jeremiah Blackwell Access on river right at 12.0 miles - No camping; Washington State Park at 20.0 miles; Bridge on Big River Heights Road just northeast of the state park boundary (private access) at 20.7 miles; MDC access at Mammoth Bridge on southwest side (river left) at 23.3 miles - No camping; MDC Merrill Horse Access at the new SH H bridge 2 miles east of Fletcher at 28.7 miles - No camping; MDC access at Brown's Ford bridge on river left at 34.0 miles (under development); Private access with camping at 43.4 miles; Ball Memorial Park on river left upstream of bridge at 52.1 miles; MDC Morse Mill Access on river right at 52.3 miles - No camping; SH B bridge at 52.5 miles; Klondike Road bridge at 55.0 miles; SH BB, along river on right side, at 62.4 miles; MDC Cedar Hill Access, on river left at 63.2 miles, is the best take-out point on this section of the river - No camping; SH 30 bridge at 63.5 miles; Byrnesville Bridge at 69.0 miles; MDC House Springs Access at the Highway W bridge at 73.0 miles - No camping; Hoene Spring (cottage development) on river left at 80.9 miles; Twin River Bridge (private access) on river right at 82.8 miles - THIS IS THE LAST TAKE-OUT BEFORE THE CONFLUENCE OF THE MERAMEC RIVER!; Meramec River confluence at 83.2 miles.
Coles Landing, at 9.1 miles, is a privately owned operation offering a local swimming hole with a good gravel bar, access to the river for boat launching and recovery and campsites; Washington State Park, on river left at 20.0 miles, offers good access, campsites, park store, dining room and other amenities as well as antiquities such as Indian petroglyphs about 1/2 mile up the road, left of the dining room facility and near the campground; Private camp with access at 43.4 miles; Rental cabins on river left at 54.0 miles. There may be other campsites on or near the Big River available to the general public.
There is at least one known commercial outfitter in Bonne Terre, offers canoe, Kayak, raft and tube rentals on the Upper Big River, camping and a stocked bass fishing lake; There are no other liveries or shuttle services known to be operating on the Big River at this time. The best option is to bring your own boats and plan and arrange your own self-shuttles.
The Big River is a dichotomy among rivers in that parts of it are really gorgeous and primitive while other parts of it show sure signs of urban sprawl and pollution in the air and water, as well as on land along the river. The surrounding area is just a few miles southwest of St. Louis, where spreading commercial and residential development has encroached on the river, endangering some animal and fish habitats and some species of the wildlife that lives there.
Around the Washington State Park area the river is probably at its very best. The few whitewater rapids you will encounter will be in the Class I range, and you should not have any difficulty negotiating them. The scenery is awesome, with deep forests lining the banks of a wide river. There are a few necessary portages on the river, usually around old dams where mills once operated, some of which are still standing. Some of the dams are decaying, and care has to be taken to avoid serious problems. Decent portages can usually be found around hazardous structures, so do not attempt to run them unless you have first scouted the carefully, then decide to run or portage according to your paddling skills and the threat posed by the hazard.
The Big River may not be at the top of the destination list of most paddlers, but if you live in the St. Louis area and want a good place to paddle without a long drive, or you are already in the area paddling the Meramec, Bourbeuse or other local rivers, then this may well be the place for you.