Rural Missouri Magazine

Missouri's laid-back lake
Slower pace, family fun await on the waters of Mark Twain Lake

by Jason Jenkins

For the Ousley family of Brazito, a trip to Mark Twain Lake wouldn’t be complete without spending a few hours relaxing at the swimming beach at the John F. Spalding Recreation Area, one of the lake’s public beaches.

It’s that time again. Pack up the kids and head out for another relaxing summer vacation adventure on the lake. Fill the cooler with ice, grab your fishing rods and tackle box, and throw in your flip-flops and swim fins. Oh, and don’t forget the sunscreen.

It’s time to break free from your humdrum routine. This is your chance to spend some quality time with the family and maybe drown a worm or two.

Only, it seems like everyone else has the same idea. The traffic is a nightmare. The parking lots are full. When you finally get on the water to fish, you find anglers — instead of the fish you hoped to catch — stacked up in your favorite cove.

Everywhere you turn, you find yourself waiting in line to get away. Instead of rested and relaxed, you’re more exhausted than when you left home. You’d like to throw in the towel, but you’re number 63, and they’re only now serving number 42.

If this sounds eerily similar to your last lake vacation, you didn’t spend it at Mark Twain Lake in northeast Missouri.

Since it opened in 1984, this reservoir stretching across more than 18,000 acres in Monroe and Ralls counties has provided affordable family getaways to those who don’t want to spend their vacation time arm in arm with thousands of their closest friends. Whether your interests are on or off the water, Mark Twain offers something for everyone.

Recreation at the 18,600-acre Mark Twain Lake in northeast Missouri takes on many forms. Fishing is by far the most common activity on the state’s fifth-largest reservoir, attracting both in-state and out-of-state anglers, but the lake also is large enough to accommodate pastimes such as sailing, as well as other forms of watersports, such as skiing, wakeboarding and tubing.

Operated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Mark Twain Lake and the Clarence Cannon Dam were first proposed in the 1930s as an answer to flooding on the Salt River. In 1962, Congress authorized the project, which cost $308 million to complete. In addition to recreation and flood control, the lake and dam also provide hydroelectric power, drinking water and wildlife habitat.

While other lakes are inundated with commercial and residential development, Mark Twain’s 285 miles of shoreline — with limestone bluffs reminiscent of the Ozarks — have remained unblemished.

“There are no private docks or homes on this lake,” says Doug Smith, president of the Mark Twain Lake Chamber of Commerce and owner of the Harbor Inn Resort. “It still has all its natural beauty, and that’s why people come here from Missouri, Illinois, Iowa, even Nebraska.”

In 2007, an estimated 2.2 million visitors traveled to Mark Twain Lake, which primarily is served by Ralls County Electric Cooperative. Even with that many people, the lake still offers remoteness and solitude to those who seek it.

“If you want some peace and quiet, this is the place,” Smith adds.

On the water
“Don’t tell fish stories where the people know you; but particularly, don’t tell them where they know the fish.”

It’s advice Mark Twain offered and at his namesake lake, fish stories typically revolve around the crappie. By far, this scrappy species is the lake’s most popular, but catfish and bass also attract their fair share of anglers.

When fishing for crappie at Mark Twain, especially in spring and early summer, be sure to plan for muddy water conditions. Because the reservoir drains such a large area, any rainfall in the watershed pushes sediment into the lake, creating water that locals sometimes refer to as “Yoo-hoo” because of its resemblance to the iconic chocolate drink.

For 9-year-old Taylor Ousley, crappie fishing is a fun way to spend time on Mark Twain Lake with family.

While there are areas for bank fishing, a boat is the preferred choice for fishing the lake’s submerged standing timber, coves, points and drop-offs. Mark Twain boasts nearly 20 boat ramps that ensure access to all parts of the lake. The Corps of Engineers does charge a $3 day use fee at its ramps, or you can purchase an annual pass for $30.

If you don’t own a boat, that’s no problem. Two marinas — Blackjack and Indian Creek — operate on the lake, and both rent johnboats and pontoon boats. Indian Creek also rents ski boats and personal watercraft. As the fishermen pull off the water by noontime, the pleasure boaters put in to enjoy an afternoon of skiing, wakeboarding and tubing.

“We don’t have a lot of cigarette boats on this lake,” says Suzanne Quigley, marina and dock operations manager at Indian Creek. “Instead of a rough-and-tumble lake, this is a quiet, relaxing lake.”

After a few hours of riding the waves, many boaters join other sun-seekers at one of the lake’s public beaches for a little relaxation. The beach at the John F. Spalding Recreation Area, which is accessible by car, is one of the most used facilities on the entire lake. The Corps charges a day use fee of $1 per person or $4 per vehicle, but there’s no charge for children 12 years old or younger.

Off the water

Fishing and boating aren’t the only activities to keep your family busy. More than 36,000 acres of public land surround the lake, and miles of multi-purpose trails are maintained for hikers, bikers, backpack campers, hunters and wildlife watchers.

The 32-mile Joanna Trail is a favorite with equestrians, who have access to a corral when camping at the Corps’ Frank Russell Campground. Mark Twain State Park off Highway 107 features four hiking trails varying in length from a half-mile to 2.5 miles.

Instead of walking in the woods, you can walk with your woods — and irons — on the links at Mosswood Meadows Public Golf Course just west of Monroe City off Highway 36. Actually, take a golf cart; it’s included in your greens fee. The nine-hole, par-36 course doesn’t require tee times, so come at your leisure.

Monroe City resident Gerry Quinn, right, tees off from the third hole at Mosswood Meadows public golf course as Leland Dickerson, left, and Josh Potterfield, also of Monroe City, wait their turn. Located just west of town off Highway 36, Mosswood Meadows is a nine-hole, par-36 course featuring bluegrass fairways and bentgrass tees and greens.

Whether on the trail or the links, you’re likely to work up a sweat. Cool off at the water park at Mark Twain Landing, located off Highway J between Monroe City and the dam. The facility features a 500,000-gallon wave pool and four water slides.

The towns that surround the lake all feature antique shops, but for the serious seeker of authentic treasures, such as blue willow china and Civil War-era artifacts, you must spend some time in downtown Perry. Here, you’ll find quaint shops and friendly people.

Don’t despair if it rains during your trip to the lake. There’s plenty to do inside, too. Just outside the tiny hamlet of Florida, off Highway 107, you’ll find the Mark Twain Birthplace State Historic Site. For a nominal fee, you can view the actual two-room cabin in which Samuel Langhorne Clemens was born in 1835, along with first editions of Mark Twain’s works and a handwritten manuscript of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.

On weekends, the Corps of Engineers offers a powerhouse tour at Clarence Cannon Dam at no charge. The self-guided tour provides a history of the lake and dam project and explains the basics of producing electricity from moving water.

If after all this, you still have energy, check out the area’s two country music shows, Grandma’s Country Music and the Cannon Dam Opry.

Mark Twain Lake is a magnet for wildlife, attracting birds of prey, such as this resident bald eagle who nested on the lake this spring, as well as thousands of migratory waterfowl.

Where to stay
Camping is king at Mark Twain Lake, and while there are a number of privately operated resorts and campgrounds around the lake, you can’t get much better than the facilities maintained at the state park or by the Corps at its recreation areas.

Both state and federal campgrounds offer basic camping sites for less than $10 per night, as well as sites with electric, water and sewer hook-ups. If sleeping in a tent doesn’t sound appealing and you don’t own a recreational vehicle, give the camper cabins at the state park a try. They combine aspects of tent camping with modern amenities such as a microwave, refrigerator and air conditioning.

Though the communities and businesses surrounding the lake ensure that visitors have plenty to see and do, a trip to Mark Twain is all about the lake.

“If you want some peace and quiet and I think, some gentler people, Mark Twain is the place to go,” Smith says. “Up here, because it is a slower pace, I think people seem to respect that a little more, too.”

So the next time you load up the family for a weekend getaway or a family vacation, avoid the congestion and headaches. Head straight to Mark Twain Lake, Missouri’s laid-back lake.

After a morning of fishing, anglers are replaced by pleasure boaters ready to play in the afternoon sun. Watersports, including water skiing, are popular on the lake.

Contact information for activities and destinations mentioned in this story are listed below. For more information about visiting Mark Twain Lake, contact the chamber of commerce at 573-565-2228 or; or the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers at 573-735-4097 or


Fishing - Missouri Department of Conservation Fishing Report
Boating - Indian Creek Marina, 573-735-4075; Black Jack Marina, 573-565-2233

Hiking - Joanna Trail, 573-735-4097; Mark Twain State Park, 573-565-3440
Golf - Mosswood Meadows, 573-735-2088
Waterpark - Mark Twain Landing, 877-700-9422
Antiquing - Perry, 573-565-1021
Tours - Mark Twain Birthplace State Historic Site, 573-565-3449; Cannon Dam tour, 573-735-4097

Camping - Mark Twain State Park, 573-565-3440; Corps of Engineers Campgrounds, 877-444-6777

Rural Missouri | June 2020 Issue

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