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 one of the largest springs in Missouri was a wilderness that provided hunting and fishing for centuries. In the mid–19th century, settlers valued the abundant waters of the Ozarks as ideal locations for grain and saw mills. James Brice was one of the first settlers in the area and homesteaded near the spring, which has a daily average flow of more than 100 million gallons. He established his first mill in 1846. Although several other mills were built here at different times, the most successful mill was operated by Peter Bennett, Brice’s son-in-law. 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.
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 park offers ample opportunity for camping, swimming, hiking and nature appreciation. There are basic, electric and full hook-up campsites, as well as a sanitation station, modern restrooms, showers, coin-operated laundries and a camper store, fully stocked with groceries and fishing supplies. Summer visitors can cool off in the modern public swimming pool. The adjacent Niangua River has long been popular as a float stream, and canoe rentals are available.
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. Spring Valley Trail will challenge those wanting to see more Ozark backcountry. 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. These and other 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.