Arkansas' Ultimate Boating Bucketlist
By Michael Roberts and Jill Rohrbach
Photos By Novo Studio / Chuck Dovish / Laramy Ridley / Courtesy Of Arkansas Parks And Tourism
The Natural State lives up to its name, especially for those that love floating. Arkansas has rivers perfect for family float trips, whitewater rapids for experienced boaters and fish-filled streams for those that like to cast a line as they drift along. While there are plenty of well-known waters in Arkansas, here are some that are also worthy of your Bucket List, whether you’re a serious boater, angler or recreational floater.
Cossatot River: “Cossatot” comes from a Native American word that roughly translates to “skull crusher.” For thrill seekers chasing whitewater adventure, that makes this southwest Arkansas river a don’t miss. Rapids run from Class II to IV-plus, while a section at Cossatot Falls is considered one of the most challenging stretches of whitewater between the Great Smokey and Rocky mountains.
Where to stay: Bring your RV or book a cabin stay at Sugar Creek Lodge in Mena, right on the banks of the Cossatot. Grab dinner in the on-site restaurant, get your hook wet, or rent one of the lodge’s canoes or kayaks to test yourself against the river.
Hailstone: On the upper reaches of the Buffalo National River is a place only experienced whitewater paddlers should float. “It’s a 15-mile wilderness run,” says B.J. Heilman, manager at Ozark Mountain Trading Co. (OMTC), a paddling outfitter in the Ozark Mountain region of Arkansas and Missouri. “It’s a narrow little stream at that point.” He adds that it’s not the most extreme, but it’s fun. Known as the “Hailstone,” this wild stretch of the Buffalo is from Dixon Ford to Boxley and has solid Class III-plus rapids. Suit up, as it’s usually November through April when it has enough water.
Where to stay: Buffalo Outdoor Center in Ponca provides cabins with spectacular views, hiking trails, ziplines through the Ozark terrain, a chance to venture out to some of the area’s famous limestone caves—and of course, some of the best floating available in the state.
East Fork of the Little Buffalo: This stream has a Class III to IV gorge with a Class V drop as well. When the water is real high, boaters can paddle feeders such as Barberry Creek and Stepp Creek into the East Fork as well as enjoy a nice run down the East Fork itself. “It’s similar to Richland Creek in regard to difficulty with maybe a slight step up,” says OMTC's Heilman. “It’s a little bit more boulder-choked and narrower. It’s a beautiful stretch that not a lot of boaters really paddle in comparison to the Cossatot River, Hailstone and Richland Creek.”
Where to stay: The Buffalo River area is home to some of Arkansas’ best and most diverse lodging options. Like to camp? Pitch a tent or pull your RV into Buffalo Point campground in Yellville, right in the heart of the Buffalo National River. Secluded cabins like Cooper’s Ozark Cabin in Ozone provide comfort along with great views, while Dogwood Springs RV park in Jasper is a great place to make camp.
Buffalo Point 36.0817057, -92.5835979
Cooper’s Ozark Cabin 35.7247683, -93.428687
Dogwood Springs RV Park 36.0203056, -93.179129
Crooked Creek: In north central Arkansas, Crooked Creek is the Bucket List smallmouth bass stream to put your boat on. “There’s both quantity and quality,” says Heilman. “You can catch one after the other all day long.” You’ll find peace and solitude on this stream, although it is rain-dependent and can rise to a torrent quickly, especially during heavy spring rains. Popular access points are found at Snow and Lower Pyatt.
Where to stay: There aren’t any campsites on Crooked Creek itself; camp out at nearby Bull Shoals State Park.
Piney Bay, Lake Dardanelle: Lake Dardanelle is a bass fishing paradise, but there are also bream, crappie and huge catfish to be had. It’s no wonder that Arkansas’ kayak fishermen chose the lake for their 2016 State Championship. Stay in one of 60 campsites—each has electric hookups and access to hot showers. Two boat ramps provide easy access to some of the best fishing in the state.
Where to stay: The Piney Bay Campground has everything you need for a great stay on Lake Dardanelle. Two boat ramps provide easy access to the water, so you’ll be floating, playing and catching fish in no time.
Mulberry River: While the Mulberry might be a little bit advanced for novices, recreational paddlers with a little bit of experience will love the whips and sharp turns along the remote and lovely Mulberry. When the river is up, expect Class II to III rapids, but drier times spell easier floating and great swimming.
Where to stay: Byrd’s Adventure Center on the Mulberry in Ozark is the place to be for just about any sort of outdoor activity. Lodging options like the Riverside Retreat, Cedar Cabin and Hillbilly Hilton offer a wide range of convenience and rustic charm, while RV enthusiasts will find Byrd’s hookups to be top-notch. Back-country aviation enthusiasts are sure to be enamored with the ease of access provided by Byrd’s grass airstrip. Kayaks, rafts and canoes are all available for rent.
Visit byrdsadventurecenter.com for more details.
Kings River: Try the Marble to Marshall Ford low-water crossing section of this popular float stream for a beautiful day on the water. “It’s going to be the most similar to paddling the upper Buffalo but you’re not going to see that many people on it on a busy weekend,” Heilman says. The section is about 11 miles with deep pools, overhanging trees, occasional rapids and several large bluffs.
Where to stay: Kings River Outfitters in Eureka Springs has canoe and kayak rentals alongside campgrounds and cabins, making it an all-in-one spot for river recreation.
Wattensaw: Flat water bayous like the Wattensaw near Hazen are nice boating opportunities for people who don’t feel comfortable on the running waters of the Ozarks and Ouachitas. “I’m going to go completely away from whitewater paddling in the Ozarks and say if you’ve never done anything like a bayou in eastern Arkansas, you should,” Heilman says.
Where to stay: The Wattensaw Wildlife Management Area has several primitive campsites and a concrete launch ramp, or book a room in nearby Hazen.
Bayou Bartholomew: The longest bayou in the world, Bayou Bartholomew is surely worthy of your Bucket List. It begins northwest of Pine Bluff and flows about 375 miles to join the Ouachita River in Louisiana. It has a one-million acre watershed. Following a meandering course, it’s lined with majestic cypress and tupelo swamps, is inhabited by alligators, turtles and frogs, and is visited by wintering waterfowl. Plus, 117 species of fish and at least 40 species of mussels have been documented in Bayou Bartholomew, making it the second most diverse stream in North America.
Where to stay: Just to the west of Bayou Bartholomew lies Moro Bay State Park in Jersey near Eldorado, home to five rental cabins and several campsites. A full marina will let you get some warm-up paddling done among the cypress trees before heading to float the bayou.