For 20 years I’d remembered it as one of the most beautiful and pristine places I’d seen in the Ozarks.
When I returned this summer after the two-decade absence, things had changed at Dogwood Canyon.
The mouth of the valley I’d remembered as dense woodlands was coated in a broad parking lot of concrete.
A fleet of bicycles, Segways and trams were ready to take scores of people along a long a paved path.
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I was first there in about 1991, not long after Bass Pro’s Johnny Morris bought the valley near his Big Cedar Lodge south of Branson. His P.R. person insisted I take a day away from another assignment, to see what he termed the “Yellowstone of the Ozarks.”
Back then we followed a rutted two-track trail up a valley bathed in ivory dogwoods and lavender redbuds.
Ancient sycamores and oaks rose from the flats beside the stream, reaching far into the sky, but often not as high as the vertical limestone cliffs that towered above the valley floor like sky-scrapers over a city street.
It seemed like every new view had its share of “wow” pauses.
Several caves reached back into the stone, some with small rivulets of water flowing from their mouth.
Multiple springs gushed from well up the cliffs to form as many waterfalls.
All tumbled down into the rushing stream of the clear, toe-numbing water where we waded from pool to pool, being some of the first anglers to cast for fat rainbow trout stocked in the stream.
This summer trout were one of the main reasons for our return, and Jerrod and I found them big and plentiful when we fly-fished on an early morning tour with park manager Chad Phillips.
On the trail once dirt and rock, Phillips drove us from favored pool to favored pool.
Obviously used to humans passing streamside, the fish were only mildly skittish. Trout to three pounds took floating dry flies and we coaxed fish to five pounds from hidden underwater lairs with sub-surface streamers.
And it was at the last spot that the first of the people arrived.
There seemed to be everything from families with children riding rented bikes to some seniors who needed help from a towed tram on a guided tour. Their numbers grew as Phillips drove us down the canyon.
I have to admit it was a bit unsettling, since I’m someone who has never equated extreme natural beauty with loud voices, laughter, pavement and mowed grass. It’s because of the crowds and traffic jams I find little joy in Wyoming’s Yellowstone, or the common places of Rocky Mountain National Park.
But I’ll be the first to admit I’ve been spoiled by places accessed by hiking boots, consecutive days on horseback, tiny planes making rough landings in huge wilderness areas and fishing boats amid wild rivers and remote oceans.
I left the tour with Phillips a bit disappointed at what I’d seen, but found myself returning to Dogwood Canyon twice that week, once casting for more trout and again just touring with family.
And it was while exploring the canyon with them, and seeing their reactions, that I realized little of importance had really changed.
The rising cliffs and trees were still striking. Even in serious drought the waterfalls still fell, and were actually easier to see because of some landscaping changes.
In the stream, deeper pools and faster riffles made by human hands had helped nature’s gift support more and bigger trout. Taking my time and arriving early or late in the day, there was plenty of quiet times and places.
I still think it’s one of the most beautiful valleys in the Ozarks. It’s good that thousands of others annually get a chance to see if they think the same.
And the place is about 10,000 acres. Next time, I’ll start looking for special places off the paved paths, too.