Written By: Elisabeth Shirk
Not even the sporadic rain storms of spring could keep fishers from wading waist-deep in the waters of Bennett Spring State Park to reel in the largest rainbow trout. This is a testament to the park’s abundance of prime catch and serene waters, where anyone with a fishing license and hip-waders can cast a line.
Located just over 10 miles from Lebanon Missouri, Bennett Spring State Park offers some of the best fishing in Missouri, a rich history and nature’s finest experience.
For those who consider themselves fishing novices, it might be tempting to drop a line in one of the pools of the fish hatchery, which according to fish hatchery manager, Ben Havens, has nearly one million trout in various stages of maturity.
The staff at the fish hatchery work around the clock breeding, feeding and releasing trout into the waters of Bennett Spring State Park and other streams around Missouri as far away as Columbia.
Havens said the park draws an average of 140,000 anglers each year and the hatchery staff stocks about two trout per expected angler.
The park also has a store where visitors can go to get fishing supplies, souvenirs and information on the park’s accommodations.
Randy Waugh, a sales clerk at the park store and avid fisherman, said there have been fish weighing in at 13 pounds caught at Bennett Spring State Park. Waugh has been coming to Bennett Spring to fly fish for nearly 40 years and remembers coming to the park as a young child. Waugh’s experience goes to show that Bennett Spring State Park is a place for people of all ages. There are also activities and sights for people who have interests beyond fishing.
For people who enjoy history or science, the Nature Center has many intriguing exhibits which include artifacts from native inhabitants of the land, the story of the Bennett family, photos from scuba divers who explored the massive cave inside the spring and a grain elevator used when the park was primarily a site for grist, flour and saw mills.
Patricia Chambers, an Interpretive Resource Specialist, manages the Nature Center. Chambers’ job consists of interpreting occurences in nature and wildlife of Bennett Spring State Park, such as how the springs in the area came about. Many exhibits in the Nature Center highlight her work.
Chambers said Bennett Spring is one of the largest springs in Missouri where over a million gallons of water flow each day within its 265 square miles of land.
“Anytime it rains in this entire area the water seeps into the ground and ends up coming out at Bennett Spring,” Chambers said.
Chambers said having the water source year-round was vital for establishing a homestead for early settlers.
In the back of the public viewing area of the Nature Center are a few models of the different habitats one might find around the park, from underwater to deep in the forest. Many of these habitats can also be experienced by visitors of the park as they wander out of the Nature Center and onto the hiking trails.
Bennett Spring State Park might be a fisherman’s paradise, but it is also a hiker’s dream. The park offers seven hiking trails, the most popular of which is the Natural Tunnel Trail.
Natural Tunnel Trail is approximately seven and a half miles long and contains a grand natural tunnel, several springs, small caves and a cemetery dating back to the 1800s.
Hikers can choose to begin the trail on one of two paths which eventually meet up and lead to the Natural Tunnel.
Chambers explained that the Natural Tunnel was an underground cave for many years.
“Over time the soil just washed out from around it so that you can go through it now,” Chambers said.
Hikers will want to have their most comfortable shoes on with some ankle support if possible because a great portion of the trail is rocky. The path seems like creek bed and that’s because when it floods the path guides the water to Bennett Spring.
Along the way to the Natural Tunnel there are many small caves, springs and other natural features to inspire photos. There are also a few seating options placed at varying intervals if a little rest or a water break is needed.
As if expecting the hikers’ arrival, the Natural Tunnel sends out a breeze cooled by the chilly waters inside, like nature’s air conditioning. It is a much deserved reward for making it that far and a needed resurgence of energy for the trek back.
Chambers recommends that hikers bring some sort of light source when they go through the tunnel. The light from each end of the tunnel can barely penetrate the middle portion and hikers must be careful of their footing because the ground is nothing but rock and moisture. Flashlights can be bought at the park store if need be.
Other amenities the park offers are cabins for overnight lodging, campgrounds and a rustic style dining lodge.
Fishers can take their catch of the day to the dining lodge and ask the staff to prepare and serve it to them. This offers a true stream-to-table experience and perhaps more motivation for fishers to reel in the big ones.
Bennett Spring State Park offers an ideal trout fishing destination, a weekend family getaway and seven trails for a hiker to add to their experiences, but any conversation with a local will reveal a deep affection for the history and beauty of the area.