Long before county lines were drawn, long before towns were platted, or before fishermen and tourists proclaimed it an ideal trout fishing site, the area around the fourth largest spring in Missouri was a wilderness that provided hunting and fishing for Native Americans. In the mid-19th century, settlers discovered this spring - with a daily flow of 100,000,000 gallons - was an ideal location for development of grist, flour and saw mills. James Brice was one of the earliest settlers, and established the first grist mill here in 1846. Although several mills were built here at different times, none was more successful than the mill owned by Brice's son-in-law, Peter Bennett. Eventually, Bennett became the namesake for the spring, and later, the park. The spring valley became a popular camping ground for farmers while waiting for their grain to be ground at the Bennett mill. To pass time, campers would fish, hunt and visit with local residents.
By the turn of the century, recreation was gaining in importance. Already a favorite among fishermen, in 1900 the Missouri Fish Commissioner introduced 40,000 mountain trout into the spring and a privately owned fish hatchery was built in 1923. In 1924, the state purchased the spring and part of the surrounding area to create one of the first state parks. The park is now owned and operated by the Missouri Department of Natural Resources, and the Missouri Department of Conservation operates the hatchery.
Stone bridge at Bennett Spring State Park.The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), created by the federal government in the 1930s, contributed much to the present-day character of the park. Their projects included cabins, shelter houses, roads and trails, and the beautiful arched bridge across the spring branch. The best example of CCC construction in the park is the rustic dining lodge. Noted for its fine food, the dining room features stone walls, beamed ceilings and blacksmith-made iron chandeliers with a trout motif.
The 3,338 acre state park offers ample opportunity for camping, hiking and nature appreciation. There are both basic and improved campsites, as well as a sanitation station, modern restrooms, showers, coin-operated laundries and a camper store, fully stocked with groceries and fishing supplies. The adjacent Niangua River has long been popular as a float stream, and canoe rentals are available nearby.
Exhibits interpreting Missouri's springs and the natural environment are on display at the nature center, where a naturalist offers programs throughout the year. Guided nature walks, spring wildflower hikes, fall foliage hikes and a variety of other presentations are all offered free.
More rugged hikes can be made on your own. The two and half mile Savannah RidgeTrail will challenge those wanting to see more Ozark backcountry. The seven and one-half-mile Natural Tunnel Trail extends along Spring Hollow to the Bennett Spring Natural Tunnel - an intact segment of a collapsed cave that is 15 feet high, 50 feet wide and 100 yards long. All together, 12 miles of hiking trails wind through Bennett Spring State Park, providing scenic views of the spring and spring branch as well as access to bluff tops, hardwood forest and small Ozark streams. There is also extensive oak-hickory forest, with an understory of redbud, dogwood, serviceberry trees and an abundant variety of wildflowers that provide a contrasting array of colors throughout the seasons. Beaver, muskrats, deer, turkey, mink, great blue heron and other wildlife all call the park home.