Paddling the Arkansas Water Trails

By Zoie Clift Photo By Michelle Edmonds

A stunning sunset on the Islets Cove Paddle Trail at DeGray State Park near Bismarck.

A stunning sunset on the Islets Cove Paddle Trail at DeGray State Park near Bismarck.


Arkansas has an abundance of waterways for paddlers to explore. The Arkansas Water Trails project, created in 2009, is at the forefront of developing a system of mapped water trails throughout the state. A goal of the project, initiated by the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, is to highlight the diversity of paddling terrain that can be found in Arkansas. Trails are added to the system as site assessments are completed and maps developed. Twelve trails are currently part of the program. Kirsten Bartlow, watchable wildlife coordinator and director of the Arkansas Water Trails program, shared details on a few of the trails one can find in the program:

Bayou De View Water (Sheffield Nelson Dagmar Wildlife Management Area)
Bayou De View is special. It’s one of the largest tracts of bottomland hardwood forests in the nation and has been designated a “Wetland of International Importance.” It is known for cypress trees that can be hundreds of years old. It’s a pretty wild trail. People need to pay attention to the signs, and if you do have GPS, it’s good to bring it along. Flooded timber can be a fairly easy place to get lost. The area is rich with wildlife, including migratory songbirds and waterfowl, and is popular with duck hunters. There are a lot of different options you can do on trip lengths. You can paddle one section of trail, paddle out and then paddle back to your vehicle, or do the entire 15-mile trail with an overnight at Hickson Lake. There is now a USGS gauge to help people determine when Bayou De View is accessible by boat (generally when water levels are around 14 feet).

Little Maumelle Water
In general, the Little Maumelle can be paddled year-round. Put in at the Pinnacle Mountain State Park boat launch, paddle down the river as far as you like and then paddle back up to the launch. Heavy rain and water flow occasionally make it hard to get back up—check in with park staff. Boat launches are also available at Two Rivers Park or at the River Mountain Park Access. This trail is nice because it is so near an urban area, but you can quickly get out and be in nature. It’s a wonderful area for watching wildlife and offers nice fishing opportunities. In the upper portions of the river up by the state park you can get out in some of those riffles and wade around and cool off. You can do parts of the Arkansas River Trail or hike Pinnacle Mountain and combine that with a float. It’s pretty neat to have this water trail right here by the city center.

Grassy Lake Water
This route is in the Bell Slough Wildlife Management Area. From Little Rock, you can be out there and on the water trail in 30 minutes. What’s really unusual about this trail is that it’s a loop. It goes through flooded timber into wider pools and then back in cypress and tupelo trees. The wildlife viewing along this trail is excellent. There is a heron rookery, and you get a lot of migratory songbirds that come through in the spring and fall. There are beaver lodges, frogs and toads and migrating waterfowl. This trail is within a green tree reservoir, which means we hold water on it for the winter months for waterfowl. And then we lift the gates and start letting the water back out in the spring so the trees don’t die.

Felsenthal National Wildlife Refuge Water
For this trail, the AGFC partnered with the Felsenthal National Wildlife Refuge and the Friends of Felsenthal. Felsenthal NWR lies within the Mississippi Flyway—this highway in the sky is used by a vast number of migrating waterfowl, songbirds, birds of prey and shorebirds. These water trails within the refuge offer a tremendous way to view all sorts of wildlife in their watery world. Both black bears and alligators call the area home. There are currently two loop trails and a linear trail, and certain times of year paddlers can enjoy blooming water lilies and water lotus. Be sure to check out the refuge’s visitor center and nature trails.

Crooked Creek Water
This route is unusual compared to the others in that it is the only Ozark stream currently in the program. It is known for smallmouth bass fishing, but offers much more for visitors seeking solitude, exploration and a float down a river. It is a beautiful little stream. The greatest thing about Crooked Creek is that while people know to go to Ozark streams to paddle, a lot of them don’t know about this one. It is predominately private property along the creek, but the Game and Fish and the Nature Conservancy offer some primitive camping sites along the way. Like other Ozark streams, this one is also rain-dependent and also prone to flash flooding.

Islets Cove Paddle
A sign at DeGray Lake Resort State Park’s marina marks the access point for the three-mile trail, which is a flatwater paddle on the lake. Eight numbered, yellow markers along the lakeshore correspond to a brochure developed by park interpreters that highlights points of interest and history of the area. The brochure is available at the park’s marina, lodge and visitor center. Paddlers can enjoy stops at black willow trees, a beaver lodge, wood duck boxes and a wildlife viewing station. DeGray Lake is a good spot to look for wintering waterfowl and bald eagles

Bayou Bartholomew Water
South Arkansas’ Bayou Bartholomew is considered the longest bayou in the world. It begins near Pine Bluff and twists and turns 359 river miles to Sterlington, La. Three small sections have been added to the Arkansas Water Trail system. The Arkansas River created the bayou about 2,000 years ago when it moved east and the leisurely bayou developed in the old river bed. Paddlers can watch for alligators and basking turtles, wintering waterfowl and a variety of migratory songbirds among the cypress and tupelo trees. If visiting the Cane Creek Access on Bayou Bartholomew, be sure to visit the nearby Cane Creek State Park, which has miles of hiking trails and the Cane Creek Kayak Trail. 

For further details on the Arkansas Water Trails program, check out