Kansas City Weekend Getaway For $150: Canoeing the Elk River

Sometime in mid-September, when back to school is once again routine, our family craves adventure.  After school one Friday, we headed south to Pineville, Missouri and the Elk River for an impromptu getaway.  We didn’t call ahead, and we didn’t spend all week planning.  We just drove south on Hwy 71.  Depending on the route, it takes about 2.5 to 3 hours to get to Pineville, so we were able to load up the car and be in our cabin before bedtime.

It’s hard to believe that we could have a wonderful getaway in nature in just a couple of hours for $150, but prices are really reasonable in McDonald County.  Here’s the general breakdown:

Gas for the 185 mile round trip:  $30

Camping for 2 nights/2 people:  $52 (we paid more for the cabin, but the campsites are awesome)

Canoeing for 2 + kid:  $40

2 restaurant meals for 3 (we brought snacks and picnic stuff from home, too):  $28

Total:  $150

Eloise is all ready to paddle!
The perfect escape into nature is close enough for a weekend trip.

I think the Elk River is one of the prettiest rivers for paddling near Kansas City.  Of course, you can drop your canoe in the Kaw, the Muddy Mo, or one of their tributaries, but for the scenic, Ozark experience, the Elk River is wonderful.  It’s also a pretty easy float, so it’s family friendly, too.

Gracie's re-purposes canoes to mark their campsites!
Gracie’s re-purposes canoes to mark their cute campsites.

Most of the campgrounds offer canoe rentals, too.  We stayed at laid-back, reasonably priced Gracie’s Canoe Camp.  They have a range of options from affordable camping to cabins with kitchens and private baths.  We picked a simple cabin with just a bed so we could be cozy and unwind.  Crunching through the night with a flashlight to brush our teeth in the shared bathroom reminded me of summer camp.  We all giggled, told ghost stories, and I felt like a kid again.

I love the easygoing atmosphere at Gracie’s. You can put your canoe in anytime between 9 am-1 pm, and at the end of the trip, just call and they pick you up.  It’s really simple and their relaxed attitude makes it even easier to go with the flow.

We stayed in the duplexes next to these cute little cabins.
We stayed in the duplexes next to these cute little cabins.

Riverside campgrounds and efficiency cabins dot the banks of the river between Pineville and Noel.  Most places require that you bring your own bed linens, and the accommodations are really basic.  For a less rustic stay, Joplin, which is just north of the Elk, or Rogers, AR, which is just to the south, have all  the budget hotels.  Sometimes, if we get a late start, we’ll just stay the night in Joplin since it’s barely over 2 hours from our door. You could also stay at Kozy Kamp, Lazy Days, or Elk River Floats for a similar camping experience.

All of the campgrounds are tucked into the woods by the river, and they’re surrounded by idyllic farms and the wizened Ozark hills.  The oldest mountain range with her winding roads and rustling leaves makes it impossible to do anything but slow down.   The morning hills with their soft, stooping shoulders, shrugged softly as the sun came up over the ridge.  Waking up to a scene like this made us all stop and savor the moment.

The misty morning sparkled outside our cabin door.
The misty morning sparkled on the mountains outside our cabin door.

The trip gave us a chance to unwind, unplug, and really connect as a family.  With limited cell service in our cabin and no TV, we curled up to read and chat into the night.  In the morning, mist rose off the river and the surrounding farmland glittered with dew.  In the night, we heard coyotes and owls, and in the morning, cattle and hens roused us from our cozy bed.

The misty morning view from the back of out cabin.
Our bucolic campsite neighbors quietly stirred before dawn.

The Niangua in Bennett Springs is also around two and a half hours from KCMO and great for families, but I love floating the Elk River because there are so many other fun places to explore nearby.  There are hikes in the bluffs, nearby Big Sugar State Park, and tons of other state parks and national forests just a hop away. We even popped down into Arkansas on Saturday morning!

I also love the rivers a little further east, like the Current and Jack’s Fork, and the Buffalo River in Arkansas is so beautiful.  For a quick weekend in nature, it’s nice to have an option that doesn’t require a ton of gas money or time, and the Elk River is that place for me.  Nobody got bored or whiny in the car, and we really had a chance to get out and explore!

The wide lazy river was perfect for Eloise's first try at paddling.
The wide lazy river was perfect for Eloise’s first try at paddling.

I’ve heard mixed reviews for Missouri canoe trips.  Through July and August, the rivers are packed with noisy groups swigging beer.  While this is fun in it’s own right, there isn’t as much room to connect with nature when the river is crowded.  With careful timing, you can also have the river to yourself.  After Labor Day, the river clears out considerably.  We picked a quiet weekend in September, at that magic point when the wildflowers are still blooming and the leaves are just starting to turn and curl.  We chose to put our canoes in right at 9 on a Sunday, too, so we only saw a few folks on our 4 hour trip.

With water like glass, we had miles of river all to ourselves.
We had miles of calm and glassy river all to ourselves.

The beaches and bridges that are normally packed with swimmers and paddlers were open and quiet.  A few anglers with their gossamer lines tried to catch the fat lolling fish, and the last quiet breath of summer whispered in the trees.  It was one of those weekends when the present moment is just so right that everything else slips away.

In the hotter months, this low water bridge is packed with swimmers.
In the hotter months, this low water bridge is packed with swimmers.

We soothed our souls with the break from the crowds, and saw more turtles and waterfowl than we could count.  At one point, we just drifted silently behind a stork, flowing with the river and the moment.

We saw blue heron, a stork, and so many ducks, fish, and turtles!
We saw blue heron, a stork, and so many ducks, fish, and turtles.

Our favorite swimming spot is by the low water bridge in Noel.  This is also where float trips end.  We jumped off the bridge, floated and swam, and watched blue heron dip into the river to catch dinner.  There are some campsites around this beach, too.  We always have so much fun swimming and floating near Noel, that we stopped there to swim on the first day of our trip, and then we played for over an hour after our day paddling the river.

We all jumped off a bridge! The water was a little low, but still deep enough to jump.
We jumped off a bridge! The water was a bit low, but still deep enough to jump.

Rivers always set my mind at ease.  They remind me that sometimes the best experiences come from drifting where life takes me instead of paddling up stream.  I certainly had time to relax and open my mind in the pretty spaces we floated through.

The river wends it’s way through beautiful towering cliffs.  The Bluff Cliff Dwellers interpretive center and hike is very close by, and a wonderful addition to an Ozark adventure.  We missed our afternoon hike because the sky ripped open for a much needed downpour, but we’ll be back to explore the spots we missed.

Float beneath the cliffs in the morning and then hike around them in the afternoon!
Float beneath the cliffs in the morning, then hike them in the afternoon.

I love the old fashioned, delicious, and affordable food in Southwest Missouri.  Noel has recently seen an influx of Mexican and Sudanese immigrants, so African grocers and Mexican Restaurants bring a new vibrant international flavor to the main street.  We ate at Paisas, and it was only $13 for all of us!  The friendly family made fresh Mexican dishes, and we chatted with the owners’ daughter, our server, about her upcoming quinceañera.  Classic American eateries serving pork tenderloins and lots of yummy pie are still the staples of this part of Missouri, which made the recent Mexican additions a tasty and surprising change of pace.

The orange booths at Cooky's remind me that some things don't need to change.
The orange booths at Cooky’s remind me that some things don’t need to change.

We also had a hearty breakfast at the friendly and low key Pineville Grill,  for less than $15.   On the way home, we stopped at Cooky’s for their famous pie.  It’s one of those places that really never changes, and they serve a staggering array of homemade pies.  We got there late in the afternoon, and people were still streaming in to chew the fat with their neighbors over a cup of coffee and piece of pie.  I ordered their veggie plate, and I’ve decided that I’ll order extra 3 bean salad next time as it was probably the best bean salad I’ve ever tried (and I’m kind of a connoisseur).

This place has pie! Lots of home cooked dishes served the same way since 1942
This place has pie! Lots of home cooked dishes served the same way since 1942.

While canoeing was the main objective of our trip, we also had time to hop down to Arkansas to visit Crystal Bridges, a world class art museum in Bentonville, AR.  Then, we went to War Eagle Mill, where they’ve been grinding flour using the power of the War Eagle River for nearly 200 years.  I try to get down there every year to buy freshly ground organic flour.  I can’t wait to share my vegan cornbread recipe with you soon!  We also cruised around Eureka Springs and checked out some of the state parks and conservation areas.  There are so many little corners to explore, that you just have to hop in the car and let the twisting mountain roads lead the way.

The chance to really connect as a family was the best part of the trip.  A day on the river without waiting on other canoes in the group or navigating crowds put the natural beauty of the Elk River first.   At some point in the trip, each of us sat alone for a moment to meditate on the wonderful late summer world around us.

We started out early on a Sunday, so we had the river to ourselves.
With the river all to ourselves, we had time to enjoy the quiet beauty.

While the best way to enjoy a weekend in Southwest Missouri, especially late in the season, is to just see where you end up, here are some links to help you plan.

Trip at a Glance:

Stay:  Gracie’s, Kozy Kamp, Elk River Floats, Lazy Days, or hotels in Joplin or Rogers

Eat:  Pineville Grill, Paisas, Bean Palace at War Eagle Mill (lots of other spots, but these are a few I’ve tried!)

I’d love to hear what you discover in this beautiful part of Missouri.

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