Park, Play & Paddle
Shorter trips mean big fun
By Jill Rohrbach Photos Courtesy Of Arkansas Department Of Parks And Tourism
While paddling long sections of a river is fun in its own right, simply playing in waves has an appeal all its own. Arkansas has some fine streams to paddle, and with that comes great spots where paddlers can park and play for an afternoon.
Steve Runnels, member and past president of the Arkansas Canoe Club, is a 30-year veteran paddler of rafts, canoes, kayaks and catamarans in waters near and far. “I’ve paddled a little bit of everywhere and I keep coming back to here,” he says. Runnels has paddled all the top park and play spots in Arkansas, and recently received funding for a feasibility study regarding his plans for a possible kayak park in Fayetteville.
Here are five great paddling spots Steve recommends. They don’t require a shuttle to get to, and each offers water for surfing and tricks:
Located near Malvern, Rockport has good access; just walk down the cement ramp to the river’s edge. A ledge of whitewater with multiple play spots runs 300 yards wide. “It’s only one ledge, but there are about six major spots,” says Runnels. Some of those spots have names like Tiger’s Jaw, Spin Hole, Suck Hole, Cartwheel Hole and Surf Wave. Like all park and plays, there’s often a line of kayakers waiting to get on the ledge. As soon as someone washes out or swims, the next person in line moves in. “Rockport has the most holes to play,” Runnels adds.
To get there, take the Malvern exit on Interstate 30; turn right on River Creek Road; turn left onto South River Creek Road; turn right at the stop sign and follow this road upstream and under the I-30 bridge, where you will see the parking area near the restrooms and pavilion.
SILOAM SPRINGS KAYAK PARK
While the Siloam Springs Kayak Park (a.k.a. Fishers Ford) may be new, the play hole also known as Fishers Ford has been popular for decades. Previously, the land was privately owned, but it’s now owned by the city, which made improvements that include a second play wave, parking, change rooms and portable bathrooms.
“It has three-and-a-half feet of drop, and there are two major drops in it that are Class I-plus,” Runnels explains. “The beauty is that everything is out there: calm pools, chutes, ladders and waves.” He says it’s a great place to learn to kayak, tame eddies or how to roll. The kayak park is the only play area in the state that runs year-round, and the only one on the Illinois River.
Find the park from state Highway 412 in Siloam Springs. Take Lincoln Street (state Hwy. 59 S) south 1.9 miles to Devor Road. Take a left on Devor Road and travel 0.4 miles to Fisher Ford Road. Turn right on Fisher Ford Road and follow it to the park.
Trigger Gap is rain-dependent. You have to know when it’s running. A sure sign that the water is in the right zone is the number of vehicles with colorful boats strapped on top heading toward it. That’s what Runnels calls “cactus flowers.” Runnels says the best access to Trigger Gap is to head to Kings River Outfitters in Eureka Springs, owned by Ernie Kilman, and pay him a few bucks to park. Then walk up the river about 500 yards to the play hole. The land with direct access to Trigger Gap is privately owned and inaccessible.
“It’s one of our more remote play holes,” Runnels explains. “It’s mainly you and the other paddlers only. You get a few floaters that come through.”
Trigger Gap is the result of an old dam that washed out in the middle in a 20-25-foot section, with a wave below that’s probably 40 feet wide. “It’s nice that the old concrete bridge there washed off so no one can drive across it anymore, but you can walk out on it, so it’s great for shooting video if you want,” says Runnels. It also makes a good place for non-floating friends to hang out and watch the boaters.
“I’ve paddled a little bit of everywhere and I keep coming back to [Arkansas].”
“It’s like nothing until it rains and then all the colors come out.”
LOWER SALINE RIVER
Also called “Dierks,” the Lower Saline River play waves are dam-release-dependent as well. When the water is flowing, the Lower Saline has a series of about three drops in a row, one of them being premium. It also has a retentive wave that will suck you back in, meaning safety is important. He says throw ropes and equipment needed to rescue yourself and others are a must.
For access, put in below Dierks Lake at the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers campground; there is a nominal day-use fee. Follow the signs to Dierks Lake Dam from U.S. Highway 70 just west of the town of Dierks.
WHOOP AND HOLLER ON THE MULBERRY
Roughly between Fort Smith and Fayetteville on the Mulberry River, access to this play hole is found at Byrd’s Adventure Center. Stop in, pay a nominal fee to park and get a pass to the hole. “You go down to the oldest existing home in the Mulberry valley to a perfect, beautiful, natural wave,” says Runnels. The wave is runnable if the Mulberry is at a level from 2.5 to 6 on the gauge. “It has a large window of opportunity,” he says.
There are two or three waves but one prominent one that everyone waits in line for. It also has good car access and good places on rock formations for folks to watch from. Byrd’s is located at 7037 Cass Oark Road in Ozark.
The best way to know when Arkansas’ whitewater streams are floatable is to visit www.ozarkpages.com. This site takes the USGS gauge and converts it to color codes representing low, medium and high water levels. Blue is too high. Green means go. Red equals low.