Over a decade ago, I arrived in St. Louis with a whitewater kayak strapped on my truck. I’d moved to the Midwest for grad school, and I didn’t know what to expect. I’d learned about the great float trip opportunities, but I figured my days of afternoon trips to whitewater rivers were done. My kayak would collect dust in a corner (maybe I’d store books inside?) and hopefully be used during road trips to the Southeast. Luckily, I was completely mistaken.
Within days of arriving, a beginner kayaker spotted my boat and introduced me to his instructor, a local enthusiast. In a flash, I learned about an entire whitewater community calling St. Louis and the Ozarks home. Over the next 10 years, I paddled hundreds of days on dozens of rivers and creeks, discovering what area paddlers have long known: Hidden between limestone bluffs and granite shut-ins, under forests of pine and oak, there’s a surprising amount of whitewater only hours from St. Louis. Most runs are short and fun class II or II+, perfect for learning. Other runs are longer or harder, including some class III and even IV options, which vary in difficulty depending on water levels.
Below are a few of the best whitewater runs in the Ozarks, with more paddling trips and info discussed in my book Paddling the Ozarks. The typical season for these runs is winter and spring, but summer and fall thunderstorms occasionally spike levels to runnable. Beginners will need instruction in paddling techniques, plus the proper equipment and necessary apparel for whitewater paddling, with several instructional opportunities listed below.
St. Francis River
Near Fredericktown, Mo.
The closet whitewater river to St. Louis is also one of the Ozarks’ best and most reliable options. We call it the “Saint”. An appropriate nickname, given how regional paddlers have canonized this amazing section. The granite shut-ins and bedrock features make for a pair of excellent runs. The 3.3-mile class II upper run is where most paddlers should start. If you need instruction, check out the spring clinic offered by the Missouri Whitewater Association.
Once you’re ready, the lower run offers 2.3-mile laps through class II+/III Tiemann Shut-ins. My record is five laps in a day, but many friends have done more. Every March brings the Missouri Whitewater Championship, celebrating its 53rd year in 2020, a fun event for both experienced paddlers and spectators.
Big Piney Creek
Near Dover, Ark.
Emerald waters. Limestone bluffs topped by pine forest. Pool drop class II and II+ rapids. Wave trains and surf spots. Did I mention it’s designated as a National Wild & Scenic River?
At one time, the remote Big Piney Creek was a major whitewater destination in the Ozarks. Over the years, it fell into the hidden gem category. Today, it’s still a great spot for learning or honing whitewater skills, but it’s more known for lower-water float trips on warmer spring days. But at higher levels, around 3 to 4 feet on the gauge at Long Pool Campground, there are some great rapids. The upper run is 8.3 miles of class II+, with a fun class III rapid called Mother through a big scenic canyon that feels more like a western river than one in the Midwest. The lower run is 4.4 miles of class II and ends near longtime river outfitter Moore Outdoors, which offers shuttles, rentals, and more.
Near Turner Bend, Ark.
Here is another great stream that’s designated in the National Wild & Scenic River system, offering numerous runs in the class II range with a bit of III. While these runs taper to float streams as spring temps rise, they offer great whitewater during the higher levels of winter and early spring.
Most whitewater paddlers aim for the more continuous sections above Turner Bend, though fun pool drop rapids await downstream as well. For beginners, Ozark Mountain Paddlers offers their spring clinic on the Mulberry. And the riverside outfitter at Turner Bend offers shuttles, rentals, camping, and more information.
Siloam Springs Kayak Park
Near Siloam Springs, Ark.
Playboating in the Ozarks? Check out this whitewater park, built into the channel of the other Illinois River, running through the foothills of the Ozarks near the Arkansas-Oklahoma border.
Yes, you read all that correctly.
This spot is particularly popular with paddlers from Fayetteville, Arkansas, and Tulsa, Oklahoma. But, since being built in 2014 with funding from the Walton Family Foundation, whitewater enthusiasts have increasingly come from further afield to practice their skills.
The park is designed to offer a useable feature at most times of year, with flows being ideal between 200 and 600 CFS. There’s a popular 3-mile float trip that continues downstream from the park. Check out the park website for more info.
Near (pretty much nothing), Ark.
Let’s wrap up our whitewater bests tour of the Ozarks with yet another Wild & Scenic whitewater creek. Although, few paddlers seem to notice the scenery since they’re too busy gawking at horizon lines.
This is the steepest and most challenging whitewater creek that’s regularly paddled in the Ozarks. With a gradient of 55 feet-per-mile, it should not be taken lightly. Paddlers will need advanced skills to tackle solid class III-IV rapids formed from boulders and bedrock ledges with names like Crack in the Rock, Devil’s Fork, Road Block, and Upper & Lower Screw-up. Because of the challenge, you’ll have to work out the details for this one yourself.
Just know this: There’s a lot more whitewater lurking among the rugged hills of the Ozarks. When you’re ready, it’ll take some looking, but you’ll find it.
Author: Mike Bezemeck is a contributor to Terrain Magazine.