EDITORS NOTE: Today begins an ongoing series in which West Plains Daily Quill Sports Editor Cody Sanders explores the region looking for must-visit Ozark day trips.
Alley Spring is the seventh largest spring in Missouri with the spring’s conduit known to extend at least 3,000 feet underground and reaches a depth of at least 155 feet below the surface, according the Missouri Department of Conservation.
Rainfall and runoff entering sinkholes around the nearby town of Summersville, 15 miles to the northwest, has been determined to enter the labyrinth of cave passageways formed in dissolved dolomite (a type of limestone) under the Missouri Ozarks and exit at Alley Spring.
Just outside of the natural area is Alley Spring gristmill that was built in 1894. Despite the historic use of the spring to power a mill, Alley Spring has retained its biological integrity.
According to Ozark National Scenic Riverways, the mill was vital to community life, where grain was ground to provide the daily bread. The present building was constructed in 1893 and 1894 by George Washington McCaskill as a merchant mill.
It was larger than most mills in the Jacks Fork area and replaced an earlier mill on this same site that was built by 1868. Originally unpainted, it was first painted white with green trim, then later the red color associated with Alley Mill today.
The cool waters issuing forth from Alley Spring flow through a spring branch for a half-mile before entering the Jacks Fork River. In the spring branch cool water (58 degrees Fahrenheit) provides habitat for colorful Ozark fishes including the southern redbelly dace, the Ozark sculpin and the bleeding shiner.
On the dry rocky ridges of this natural area are some of the highest quality old-growth stands of white oak and shortleaf pine woodland known in the Ozarks. These stands were spared the heavy, indiscriminate timber cutting of the Ozarks that occurred from 1880-1920.
Looking up at the sentinel pines found on the ridges one can get a glimpse of what the six million acres of shortleaf pine woodlands that were in Missouri in 1860 looked like. Today only about 600,000 acres of shortleaf pine remain in the state.
Underneath Alley Spring is the now state-protected Branson Cave, one of the most biologically diverse caves known in Missouri. The natural area conserves five species of conservation concern dependent on spring and cave natural communities. As you walk the trails keep in mind that deep below you cave passageways support at least seven cave-adapted animals or “troglobites” including the grotto salamander, a species of conservation concern.
Visitors can see plants such as wild hydrangea and walking fern near the spring and then ascend the hill to see shortleaf pine and low bush blueberry on dry cherty slopes.
Birds to look for in the woods include ovenbird, summer tanager, red-eyed vireo and black-and-white warbler.
Alley Spring is located six miles west of Eminence on State Route 106.