Fabulous floating, heart-pounding paddling—all in the Natural State
By Michael Roberts
Photography Courtesy Arkansas Parks and Tourism
In a place like Arkansas, the phrase "watchable wildlife" is just about as vague and all-encompassing as the term "paddling" itself. The Natural State's location between the Great Plains and the Gulf Coast make it a temperate, varied and fascinating place for all sorts of birds, butterflies and yes, even bears. Oh, my!
For many outdoor enthusiasts, catching a glimpse of the various critters that make the state their home is more than just a hobby—it's a way of collecting unique experiences and rewards, sometimes after long hours (and even days) of pursuit. And the best part, according to the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission (AGFC), is that "special equipment is not required; wildlife watchers need to come equipped only with a sense of appreciation for the state's living resources and the knowledge of where to look for them."
The AGFC divides the state into six regions: the Ozark Plateau, Arkansas River Valley, Ouachita Mountains, the Coastal Plane, the Mississippi Delta and Crowley's Ridge, and each has its own unique flavor of wildlife to snap with a camera—or just to gaze on in wonder. The opportunities are even greater, because Arkansas' numerous rivers and lakes provide a different kind of pathway into the wilderness, one that can only be experienced by slipping into a stream and working your way to where the wild things are.
No.1 OZARK PLATEAU
BULL SHOALS (36.3752393,-92.6263735)
While Bull Shoals and its parent stream, the White River, are known nationwide as some of the best fishing in the country, there are more than just fish in the area's wildlife repertoire. Bird-watchers in particular will find themselves in an avian ecstasy, surrounded by Lapland Longspurs, Meadowlarks and various finches, sparrows and orioles (and that's just for starters). Paddlers should keep their eyes peeled for the lake's population of herons, egrets and other water birds. In addition to these birds, falcons, eagles and other birds of prey are also common.
Of Interest: Visitors to the Bull Shoals area can find camping and facilities at Bull Shoals-White River State Park, or stay at some of the state's best fishing resorts like Gaston's in Lakeview.
For more information, including a birding checklist, visit arkansasstateparks.com/bullshoalswhiteriver.
LAKE FORT SMITH (35.6954003,-94.1209798)
The area around Lake Fort Smith in Mountainburg might be better known as a backpacking destination, but there are some wonderful wildlife-spotting opportunities on the 1,400-acre body of water. Interpreters at Lake Fort Smith State Park conduct kayak tours from the park’s marina—or take off on your own and see the glory of the Ozarks. The area is home to bears, bobcats and white-tailed deer, making Lake Fort Smith a great destination for those looking to branch out from bird-watching.
Of Interest: Lake Fort Smith is just south of Fayetteville, so visitors are just a short drive away from one of Arkansas' most exciting metropolitan areas. Once the paddles are put away, put wheels to trails in the International Mountain Bicycling Association's only "regional" ride center: northwest Arkansas.
For more information, visit arkansasstateparks.com/lakefortsmith.
No.2 ARKANSAS RIVER VALLEY
LAKE DARDANELLE STATE PARK (35.2853186,-93.2065808)
Its location in the Mississippi Flyway makes Lake Dardanelle one of the best bird-watching destinations in the state, particularly for migratory birds. The feathers fly so much in the area, in fact, that Lake Dardanelle has been named an “Important Bird Area” by the National Audubon Society. Various geese and swans are common to the area during season, and the ducks are plentiful and numerous. A park-specific birding checklist is available.
Of Interest: Camping is available at both the main park location in Russellville and the Dardanelle location. The lake also boasts great fishing and a world-class 1,861-square foot bass fishing tournament weigh-in pavilion. Kayaks and other boats are available for rent.
For more information, visit arkansasstateparks.com/lakedardanelle.
GULF MOUNTAIN WILDLIFE MANAGEMENT AREA (35.5439715,-92.6337341)
This area on the Little Red River in Van Buren County is home to wild turkeys, bears, quail and coyote. Trout fishermen have long loved the area, but not only are the cool, clear waters of the Little Red worth paddling, the landscape and wildlife-viewing opportunities are unparalleled.
Of Interest: Explorers will find a lot to love in the various limestone cracks and crevices located in the area. The nearby towns of Greers Ferry, Fairfield Bay and Heber Springs are all wonderful destinations for paddling, hiking, fishing and relaxing resort stays.
For more information, visit agfc.com.
No.3 -‑OUACHITA MOUNTAINS
COSSATOT RIVER STATE PARK-NATURE AREA (34.2938235,-94.1796357)
The “skull-crusher” is known as one of the most exciting (and potentially dangerous) streams around to paddle, but the area is also known for a plethora of critters for folks to spy on. Like creepy-crawlies? Then check out the various aquatic worms, snails, clams and mussels that make this stream their home. Then keep a sharp look-out for the deer, squirrels and other fleeting furries that make the hardwoods of the Cossatot area their home.
Of Interest: Since this river is not recommended for inexperienced paddlers when water levels are up, it’s recommended that visitors call ahead to verify conditions. Or check out water levels from the United States Geological Survey’s site for up-to-date water info.
For more information visit waterdata.usgs.gov.
Islets Cove Paddle Trail (-93.1265629, 34.2230897)
This AGFC water trail is located on Lake DeGray and features a 3-mile loop with numbered, interpretive stops along the way. A trail-specific brochure is available. DeGray is famous for its bald eagles, so keep an eye out for their majestic flights.
Of Interest: Head north to experience the historic fun of Hot Springs—or perhaps a trip to the Magic Springs theme park.
No.4 COASTAL PLAIN
FELSENTHAL NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE (33.1494045,-92.0626003)
One of the AGFC’s designated water trails, this section of the Ouachita River bottoms in Ashley County is home to an incredible number of opportunities for wildlife watchers. Explore the sloughs, swamps and flatwater of the refuge—there are egrets, herons, wood storks and ibis seasonally; bald eagles, woodpeckers and osprey are seen all year. Beavers, otters, mink, various snakes and alligators also make their homes in the area, and are easily spotted.
Of Interest: Primitive camping is available in the refuge, and the cypress trees provide an otherworldly backdrop for some of the state’s best fishing.
For more information, visit agfc.com.
MORO BAY STATE PARK (33.3007478,-92.3518037)
Slide through the cypress on the murky waters of Moro Bay to catch a glimpse of water snakes and the many birds that make the area their home. Various mammals such as squirrels, fox, deer, otters, mink and coyote also make this lake their home. And like many southeast Arkansas bodies of water, elusive alligators are rare but not unknown.
Of Interest: Check out the Moro Bay Ferry exhibit which features a historic tugboat and barge, a testament to the area’s history as a thoroughfare for travelers and commerce.
For more information, visit arkansasstateparks.com/morobay.
No.5 -‑MISSISSIPPI DELTA
ARKANSAS POST WATER TRAIL (34.0210974,-91.3478851)A flat-water treat, the Arkansas Post Water Trail is one of the AGFC’s official “water trails.” Beavers, nutria, muskrats, deer and raccoons are all part of the bayou scene along the water trail—as are apex predator alligators. Songbirds, white pelicans, bald eagles and other waterfowl are also commonly spotted.
Of Interest: Get a little history in your life at the Arkansas Post National Memorial, then head to nearby DeWitt for some good eats at The Bull Pen restaurant.
For more information, visit nps.gov/arpo/index.htm.
CACHE RIVER NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE(35.0606059,-91.3167996)
The Cache rose to prominence some years ago with rumors that the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker, a presumed-extinct species once known as the “Lord God Bird” for its striking presence, had been sighted. Such rumors were never proven, but it’s a testament to the dank wilderness around the Cache. With over 200 species of birds, 50 species of mammals and 45 species of reptiles and amphibians, there’s a precisely zero chance that paddlers will make their float without seeing something interesting.
Of Interest: The various ox-bow lakes and backwaters of southeast Arkansas boast some fine fishing opportunities—bream, crappie and bass in particular.
For more information, visit agfc.com.
No.6 CROWLEY'S RIDGE
VILLAGE CREEK STATE PARK (35.168237,-90.7236273)
The thing about Crowley’s Ridge is that nobody really knows what the thing is. Known as a “geologic anomaly,” it is home to mixed hardwood forests. Paddlers will find themselves floating through this oddball area on Lake Austell and Lake Dunn, and in addition to great fishing, there are numerous waterfowl-sighting opportunities.
Of Interest: Once you’ve stowed your boat, play a round of golf at the Andy Dye signature Ridges at Village Creek golf course. It’s a PGA-caliber experience.
For more information, visit arkansasstatesparks.com/villagecreek.
LAKE FRIERSON STATE PARK (35.9729443,-90.7194435)
While Lake Frierson is known mostly for its year-round fishing for bream, catfish, crappie, saugeye and bass, it’s also home to herons, geese, ducks, hawks, woodpeckers and dozens of other bird species. A park-specific bird-watching checklist is available.
Of interest: Rental boats are available along with camping, playground and boat launch facilities.
For more information, visit arkansasstateparks.com/lakefrierson.