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Middle Fork of the Little Red River, Arkansas
Report by Marc W. McCord

Lydalusk to Shirley
~ 22 miles

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SOAR Inflatable Canoes - Somewhere On A River

General Description

The Middle Fork of the Little Red River flows just east of Tilly starting along the Searcy-Van Buren County Line in northcentral Arkansas, then turns southeast under US Highway 65 between Denard and Leslie, across the far southwestern corner of Stone County, back into Van Buren County, under SH 16 / 9, then into Cleburne County where it flows into Greer's Ferry Lake. Below the lake it flows as the Little Red River southeast under US Highway 67 / IH 30 to its confluence with the White River near Gregory. The Middle Fork is very near Richland Creek and the Buffalo National River, as well as numerous other tributaries of the White River system. The surrounding area is very remote and natural with few signs of civilization. The popular section is the Class II to III reach of about 10 miles between Lydalusk and Arlberg, and the Class I to II reach of about 12 miles from Arlberg to Shirley.

Getting there is half the adventure. No major roads offer a direct access. Following the old L&N railroad grade from SH 110 northwest of Old Lexington and Arlberg leads to the put-in for the upper reach. The roadway will be impassable after heavy rainfall, and it is very likely that paddlers will encounter several gates marked with "No Trespassing" signs - obtain landowner permission and/or contact the Van Buren County Sheriff about access points and rights. Upon arriving at the river paddlers will find a classic pool-and-drop stream with an over abundance of willow strainers, sharp bends, occasional standing waves and Class I to III whitewater rapids that must be negotiated while dodging downed trees, boulders and willow strainers along the banks. The water flows fast, clean, clear and green. At least strong intermediate level whitewater skills are recommended for canoeists and kayakers on the Middle Fork, which is not well suited for rafting.


Van Buren, Searcy, Stone and Cleburne Counties in northcentral Arkansas above Greer's Ferry Lake. The Ozark National Forest surrounds the river, which is a couple of hours from any major population center, the nearst being Little Rock to the south.

Distance from major cities

Little Rock 90 miles; Fayetteville 232 miles; Fort Smith 170 miles; Texarkana 234 miles; Oklahoma City 434 miles; Kansas City 491 miles; Dallas 415 miles; Austin 610 miles; San Antonio 690 miles; Houston 524 miles; Albuquerque 971 miles; Phoenix 1,415 miles; Denver 1,031 miles; Salt Lake City 1,528 miles (all distances are approximate and depend upon starting point, destination at the river and route taken. Bear in mind that Arkansas does not have many straight-line roads because of mountains and valleys around which they must pass. Allow adequate time based on distance and the often slow driving conditions that prevail in this area.)

Water Quality and Flow Rates

Water quality is usually good to very good, flowing fast, clean and clear. Navigable flows depend upon recent local rainfall, and are usually better in spring and fall months, but not good in hot, summer months when the river tends to run too low for enjoyable paddling. Minimum stage on the USGS gauge at Shirley (07075000) should be 8.5 feet. Optimum conditions occur when readings are between 8.75 and 10.5 feet. Maximum flow conditions for safe navigation should be about 11.0 feet. Flows over 11.0 feet are dangerous and the river should be avoided.

Best time to go

The Middle Fork is heavily dependent upon recent local rainfall for navigable flows, which can occur any time of the year. Late-February through early-June and Late September through November offer the best combination of favorable water and climate conditions. Winter paddling is great for those who have the cold weather gear and the ability to withstand cold-weather paddling, but DON'T FALL IN!

Hazards to navigation

While not generally a hazardous river for skilled whitewater boaters to paddle, there are numerous Class II to III rapids that, if not negotiated properly, can bend boats and injure paddlers. Walter Diggs Rapid, about 5 miles below the put-in at Lydalusk, is a serious class III hazard that sits where the river constricts between high bluffs on river right and a willow jungle on river left. The channel is about 15-16 feet wide, with a boulder garden of about 200 yards through which paddlers must maneuver. The rapid can be scouted from the road on river right. The next four miles are Class II rapids, standing waves and willow strainers before encountering another Class III drop where the river is split by an island. The right channel drops over a rock ledge, and is very difficult at low to medium flows, becoming easier at higher flows. The left channel is easier, but paddlers may need to backferry to avoid wrapping on boulders in the river. The Low-water bridge at Arlberg is about a mile below this drop, and can pose a significant danger if approached improperly - AVOID WRAPPING YOUR BOAT ON THE BRIDGE!

A low-water bridge about 5 miles below Arlberg is dangerous and usually must be portaged. Approach it with caution, and take out safely above the bridge to avoid becoming pinned. If water is sufficiently high, then the option to paddle over the bridge exists, but be careful. The entire run of 22 miles is frought with willow strainers and standing waves on one of the most ruggged river reaches in Arkansas. Competent boaters should encounter no major problems, but the river can be dangerous for those without sufficient whitewater skills, good boat control, good decision-making skills, an ego that is in check and careful vigilance, all of which are required for safe boating on the Middle Fork.

River Access Points

This is the tricky part - Take US 65 north from Conway to SH 110 at Botkinburg, then turn right (east), or take US 65 to SH 16 at Clinton, turn right (east) and turn left (north) on SH 110. After finding SH 110, look for the L&N railroad grade, and follow it through the gates to the river, heeding the admonition about the "No Trespassing" signs given in the description of the river above. Put in near Lydalusk at 0.0 miles; Arlberg low-water bridge at about 10.0 miles; Shirley low-water bridge at about 22.0 miles. There are no other access points for this reach of the Middle Fork. Do not hesitate to ask for directions in this area! If getting there is half the fun, then this one should be a real blast for most people who are not familiar with this part of Arkansas!

Campgrounds and accommodations

There are no campgrounds along the river, and property is privately owned, so avoid camping on the river unless having first obtained landdowner permission. Several great campsites with drinking water, toilets and recreational facilities are available nearby at Greer's Ferry Lake (US Army CoE parks).

Liveries, outfitters and shuttle services

There are no liveries or outfitters operating along the Middle Fork of the Little Red River. Bring your own boats and gear, and run your own shuttles.

Reviewer's comments

Finding the river is harder than actually running it! However, this wild and rugged area does offer a plethora of willow strainers, standing waves, boulder garden rapids, rock ledges, shoals, rock outcroppings, low-water bridges and fast currents that make paddling it fun for competent whitewater boaters and dangerous for anybody else. The river is not conducive to rafting, but canoeists and kayakers can have a blast IF they can find the place! The river can be paddled above Lydalusk and below Shirley, but the distances are long and a lack of access and public camping means long days and often hard work.

Technical Data
Class Rating I to III
Length 22 miles
Min. Stage 8.5 feet
Opt. Stage 8.75-10.0 feet
Max. Stage 10.5 feet
First Put-in Lydalusk low-water bridge
Lat/Long 35.7711105 / -92.4424973
Last Take-out Shirley low-water bridge
Lat/Long 35.6536102 / -92.3191681
Elevation msl
USGS Gauge Web: Shirley
Boats Canoes, Kayaks
Season depends upon local rainfall
Permits No

Little Red River map courtesy Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism and the Arkansas Floaters' Guide
Little Red River map courtesy Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism and the Arkansas Floaters' Guide

Arkansas Canoe Club

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