The Ouachita River generally flows west to east through Montgomery County in west central Arkansas, near the Town of Mena, winding through towering rocky bluffs covered in wildflowers that adorn the riverbanks. From SH 88 between Acorn and Inks to Arkansas Highway 27, there are about 60 miles of river that are hospitable to almost every paddler 12 months a year, water levels permitting. The water is clean and clear with several moderate rapids, long flatwater pools, exceptional natural beauty along the banks and good fishing.
As with many Arkansas streams, the surrounding land areas of the Ouachita River basin are ideal for most outdoor recreational activities including horseback riding, mountain biking, road biking, hiking, backpacking, hunting, fishing, rock climbing, nature photography, ATV treks and other activities that let you sample the scenic, natural beauty of Arkansas. Most of the area is rugged and undeveloped, with few signs of civilization to interrupt the attraction to "The Natural State" of Arkansas.
With abundant US Forest Service camps (9 in the area above Lake Ouachita) and several commercial camps on the lower 23 miles, river trips can be made for 1 to 5 days or more. The Ouachita River is a photographer's paradise. For the most part the Ouachita is a river that is safe for all able-bodied paddlers, but some dangers can arise after significant rains, when crooked, narrow rock channels flowing through rocky ledges and rocky terrain begin to fill. The REAL "danger" is getting there and finding the water too low to paddle, especially in mid-summer.
Several companies provide canoe rentals, shuttles and river guiding as well as offering tent camping, cabin rentals, supplies, fishing tackle and bait and other things necessary for a great trip downriver. Most liveries are open year around for camping and canoeing, and many of them cater to those seeking recreational activities off the river in addition to paddling.
West Central Arkansas, in Montgomery County, near Mena, Hot Springs and Fort Smith, and within Ouachita National Forest.
Dallas 290 miles; Fort Worth 320 miles; Austin 490 miles; San Antonio 560 miles; Houston 540 miles; Oklahoma City 275 miles ; Little Rock 110 miles (all distances are approximate and depend upon starting point, destination point at the river and route taken.)
Excellent - clean and unpolluted water that is almost drinkable right out of the river. Other than during hot summer months the Ouachita is generally navigable most of the rest of the year. With adequate rainfall it is a year-around river.
Spring and fall offer the best water for paddling, though recent local rainfall will make summer and winter paddling possible. You will need to be prepared for the hot temperatures in the summer and for cold air and water temperatures in the winter, especially at night when the mercury can dip many degrees below daytime highs.
Narrow channels that twist their way downriver can pose hazards to boats and boaters, especially at high water levels that also make low water bridges dangerous. There are no major rapids or other hazards on the Ouachita. Beware of the low water bridge at 35.4 miles during high water - it is a well-known hazard that must be carefully negotiated.
SH 88 crossing near Inks at 0.0 miles; Pine Ridge Access south of SH 88 at about 17.0 miles; Shirley Creek (USFS) Float Camp and Access off dirt road south of SH 88 at about 23.0 miles; Oden Access off SH 88 and SH 379 crossing about a mile south of Oden at about 27.2 miles; Pencil Bluff Access off a dirt road south from US Hwy. 270 at about 31.2 miles; Rocky Shoals (USFS) Float Camp and Access off US Hwy. 270 southeast of Pencil Bluff at about 37.2 miles; Sims Access off SH 298 south of SH 88 at about 41.2 miles; Fulton Branch (USFS) Float Camp and Access off dirt road south of SH 88 at about 44.2 miles; Dragover (USFS) Float Camp and Access off dirt road south of SH 88 at about 46.2 miles; Dragover Pullout off dirt road south of SH 88 (foot path back to Dragover Float Camp) at about 48.2 miles; River Bluff (USFS) Float Camp and Access off FR 138 north of SH 27 at about 48.4 miles; SH 27 (Army CoE) Recreation Area Access above Lake Ouachita at about 59.4 miles.
The Ouachita River above Shirley Creek Access is NOT recommended in periods of low water. Other sections of the river may also be too low for enjoyable paddling during periods of prolonged drought conditions. Check the USGS gauges, or contact a local outfitter for river conditions prior to driving any long distance.
The US Forest Service maintains 9 public campgrounds along the river above Lake Ouachita (some roads are very poorly marked, so get there in daylight, if possible!) and riverside campsites at Shirley Creek Access, Rocky Shoals Access, Fulton Branch Access, Dragover Access and River Bluff Access, all without fees. These include tent camping areas, picnic areas and sanitary facilities, but no drinking water. Camping is available at the US Army Corps of Engineers Recreation Area at the top of Lake Ouachita off SH 27. There are several commercial campgrounds and conventional accommodations located along the Ouachita River.
There are at least six known commercial outfitters offering rentals, shuttles and/or river information on this section of the Ouachita River. Some outfitters offer other recreational activities including nature trails, hiking, mountain biking, road biking, ATV rentals, fishing boat rentals and other services to enhance your outdoor recreation pleasures.
The Ouachita River is a gorgeous gem of Arkansas rivers, flowing through Ouachita National Forest and the Caddo Mountains in Polk and Montgomery Counties of west central Arkansas, though most paddling is done in Montgomery County starting at Pine Ridge. The headwaters are at Queen Wilhelmina State Park on the Arkansas-Oklahoma border. The river is generally a hazard-free stream that almost every paddler can enjoy, and what it lacks in whitewater excitement is more than made up for by the lush vegetation and natural beauty of the Caddo Mountains area of the Ouachita National Forest. It is an idyllic place to enjoy the solitude of a canoe or canoe-camping trip with photographic opportunities abundant all along the way.
Free of commercial development, the Ouachita is a gentle river with occasional Class I-II rapids separated by long flatwater pools. Fishing is excellent, with an abundance of bass (mostly smallmouth, largemouth and spotted), bluegill, catfish, green and longear sunfish, walleye and any number of other species. While there are numerous campsites and access points along the river, you will find these easier to reach from a boat than a car in many cases. Plan your trips carefully, especially if you are going downriver and have landlubbers shuttling cars and camping gear from one place to another. Many of the access roads are improved or unimproved dirt paths leading from a highway to the river.
One of the distinguishing features is the large number of creeks and streams that feed the Ouachita. There are about 17 significant creeks running into the river on this 59.4 mile stretch, as well as others which do not merit particular attention, but which help supply the river with fresh, cool, clean water to make your trip more enjoyable. Of course, they also can add to the flood dangers during heavy local rains, so be careful of the weather when in this area. There are a few points (around Oden, Pencil Bluff, Sims and Gibbs where the river is within two miles or less of a town where you can re-supply or explore the local sights.