Ouachita National Forest
For many first-time visitors, the most difficult thing about the Ouachita River is learning to say it correctly. For some reason, the pronunciationWash-i-tawbears little resemblance to the spelling. Regardless of how it's spoken, though, the Ouachita is a fine stream, ideally suited for family outings.
From its beginnings where two small creeks converge at the base of Rich Mountain in Polk County the river winds its way through the scenic Ouachita Mountains and beyond. It is in these higher elevations that the stream offers a good range of recreational opportunities for floating and fishing enthusiasts alike.
A major draw is its location within the Ouachita National Forest. The Forest Service provides campgrounds, picnic areas, and access points along the river and several of its tributaries. In addition, the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission maintain several access areas along the stream. These developments attract not only experienced river travelers, but many people venturing out for their first trip in a canoe.
In its upper reaches, the Ouachita is a narrow, fast-moving stream with Class I (and occasionally Class II) rapids. Farther downstream, the river still has some interesting shoals, but the pools are a little longer and deeper.
Headwaters to Lake Ouachita, a distance of about 70 miles.
The uppermost float on the Ouachita begins at the McGuire Access, a Game and Fish Commission development. It's located on the south side of Arkansas Highway 88, about halfway between the communities of Ink and Cherry Hill. The seven-mile trip down to the Cherry Hill Accessanother Game and Fish projectshould be scheduled after periods of extended rainfall to avoid a good deal of dragging. The float features narrow channels, tight turns, and quiet pools. Paddlers should be on the lookout for logjams and overhanging limbs.
Cherry Hill to Pine Ridge
The second Ouachita River float is the 13-mile journey from Cherry Hill to Pine Ridge. The take-out point is a county bridge about one mile east of Pine Ridge, just southeast of Highway 88. Like the earlier float, this one requires plenty of rain and cautious canoeists.
Pine Ridge to Oden
A ten-mile trip from Pine Ridge to Oden is next in the series of Ouachita excursions. Noisy shoals, quick turns, and a tunnel of overhanging trees characterize this section. The Arkansas Highway 379 bridge south of Oden is the take-out point.
Oden to the Rocky Shoals Campground
One of the most popular trips on the river is the journey from Oden to the Rocky Shoals Campground at the U.S. 270 crossing. This ten-mile trip features some of the best scenery on the Ouachita, including a towering bluff a few miles above the take-out. Deep pools, stimulating rapids, and shady banks are also found along this stretch. In the springtime, quiet canoeists may hear the calls of wild turkeys from the steep hillsides.
From Rocky Shoals On
Canoeists putting in at Rocky Shoals have several options. They can take out at the Sims Campground, located four miles downstream, or at the Fulton Branch Campground, which is another three miles down the river. Each of these camping/launching areas is also a good starting point for trips down to the last two public take-outs, Dragover and River Bluff. Both offer toilets, boat ramps, and campsites. The Fulton Branch to Dragover trip covers about two miles, while the float on to River Bluff covers another three miles. Several other take-outs are possible on the backwaters of Lake Ouachita around the Arkansas Highway 27 crossing.
For those interested, here is a sample itinerary for a float on the Ouachita from the old bridge at Pine Ridge to Lake Ouachita, a distance of 45 miles.
The Ouachita can be floated much of the year, particularly if its visitors don't mind getting their feet wet and pulling their boats through the shallows during drier months. The best period for good canoeing in the upper reaches is late fall to late springgenerally November through June. The lower stretches (below the 270 bridge) come closest to offering year-round floating conditions.
Major access points include the U.S. 270 crossing, the Arkansas 379 bridge, several county road crossings off Arkansas 88, and a handful of Forest Service Campgrounds.
The Ouachita River's scenic beauty is due in part to the noticeable bluffs along the route. Though they are common sights in north Arkansas's Ozarks, these occurrences are few and far between in the Ouachita Mountain range.
Other features of the Ouachita River are its clear water, intriguing rock formations, and a canopy of overhanging trees. In its upper reaches, the dogwoods and redbuds that bloom in the spring make for an unmatched setting of beauty. With only sparse population along its banks, the river also offers a sense of solitude. The Ouachita's long, lazy pools and sparkling shoals make the river especially inviting for families wishing to pause for a swim and/or picnic along the way.
Wildlife viewing is another distinct possibility on this river. Floaters report seeing beaver, deer, wild turkeys, and an assortment of wading birds.
The Ouachita has been a favorite fishing spot among sportsmen for decades. Heavy stringers of smallmouth and spotted bass come from the stream year-round, although the best angling for big bass (four-pounders are not uncommon) usually occurs during the cooler months, from October through March. In the lower reaches just above Lake Ouachita, the spawning runs of white bass always attract large numbers of spring fishermen, and, as might be expected, this cool stream supports large numbers of green and longear sunfish. Anglers will also land an occasional walleye, largemouth bass, rock bass, catfish, or bluegill.
Supplies can be obtained in Pencil Bluff, Mount Ida, or more distant towns like Mena and Hot Springs. In addition to the Forest Service campgrounds along the river, the Corps of Engineers has developed numerous camping sites on Lake Ouachita. Rental canoes are available in Pencil Bluff.
The Ouachita is the longest and largest river in the Ouachita Mountain region. The river is also "floatable" (and "fishable") below Lake Hamilton to Arkadelphia and well beyond. Supplies, including rental canoes, are available in Malvern for this stretch.
The newest recreation developments on the stream are found in extreme southern Arkansas where the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Corps of Engineers are constructing facilities within the Felsenthal National Wildlife Refuge. Hunters and fishermen are already giving the area rave reviews.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication