Flowing into the Arkansas River at Lake Dardanelle is Shoal Creek, a sister tributary to Big Piney and Little Piney Creeks. Shoal Creek forms about 18 miles south of the lake on Mount Magazine, then plunges through a steep-walled gorge on an average gradient of about 75 fpm. This stream features tree-lined banks in a very remote, unspoiled part of Logan County in the Ozark Mountains and Ozark National Forest of northeast Arkansas. This is a fast-water, Class III to IV creek with a narrow channel that seldom sees navigable flows, and then only whenever surrounding rivers and creeks are in or very near flood stage. It usually requires sustained rainfall in its very small drainage basin to bring it up to navigaable levels for a very short window of opportunity. Boatable levels are indicated by the amount of water flowing over Sorghum Hollow Road (NFR 1614) bridge at the take-out, and requires at least 6 inches of water over the bridge for paddling. A depth of 4 or more feet over the road is very dangerous and should be avoided.
The upper part of Shoal Creek features a narrow channel enclosed by a steep-walled gorge that makes self-rescue capabilities mandatory. Its big drops are solid Class IV's with Class V consequences because of remoteness and difficulty of rescues. It tests the very best a paddler can bring. The popular run is 7 miles of excitement/terror as boaters descend the gorge between Rocky Ford (NFR 1601) and Sorghum Hollow Road. Just when it seems like the creek is mellowing you will paddle past Brushy Creek where a willow jungle begins. Depending upon flow conditions, there may be numerous channels through the willows, most leading into strainers or other entrapments. If you cannot clearly determine a good line through the willows, then stop, get out of your boat, and scout ahead. Scenery along the run is about as great as it gets, so bring a camera if you can safely carry it down the creek, and start doing a raindance about a week in advance of your trip. While not located along the creek, several excellent campgrounds are conveniently located nearby in state parks and USFS facilities in Ozark National Forest.
Johnson County of northwestern Arkansas very near the Oklahoma State Line and just a few miles south of the Missouri State Line. Fort Smith is less than an hour to the west and Fayetteville is about 1.5 hours to the northwest.
Fayetteville 70 miles; Fort Smith 100 miles; Little Rock 133 miles;Texarkana 277 miles: Kansas City 421 miles; Oklahoma City 280 miles; Dallas 460 miles; Austin 650 miles; San Antonio 730 miles; Houston 569 miles; Albuquerque 822 miles; Phoenix 1,280 miles; Denver 905 miles; Salt Lake City 1,439 miles (all distances are approximate, and depend upon starting point, destination at the river and route taken.)
Water quality is usually good to very good. Flows are heavily dependent upon recent local rainfall to reach navigable levels. Late-fall through late-spring months normally offer the best conditions, though days will be cool to cold and nights will be very cold, often below freezing - dress for the conditions, especially if you plan on falling out of your canoe or Eskimo rolling your kayak!
The prime times to catch a good flow on Shoal Creek is a day or two after heavy rainfall in the drainage basin around the Buffalo, Mulberry, Big Piney Creek and Little Piney Creek watershed. Typically, these conditions will be found in mid-October through late-November and from late-February through late-April. Rare though they may be, summer showers can also produce boatable levels in the creek.
The biggest hazard is probably the general remoteness of this run - much of it is inside a deep-walled gorge where getting outside assistance is all but impossible, if possible at all. Most of the rapids and drops are Class III to IV with Class V consequences. A narrow channel, fast current, tight turns and boulder-dodging make runs potentially hazardous, especially for longer boats that cannot negotiate the course of the creek. Below Brushy Creek paddlers start to encounter willow jungles where entrapment risks increase. This entire run should be considered as potentially hazardous, and should be avoided by all expect canoeists and kayakers in creekboats with at least advanced level whitewater paddling, swiftwater rescue and First Aid training and skills.
Rocky Ford (NFR 1601), off NFR 1600 from NFR 1603 north of Blaine, at 0.0 miles; Sorghum Hollow Road (NFR 1614) low-water bridge across the creek (and hopefully, under the creek) at about 7.0 miles. There are no other access points for this reach of Shoal Creek.
There are no campgrounds located on Shoal Creek, and much of the adjoining land is privately owned, so avoid camping along the creek unless you have first obtained landowner permission. There are numerous excellent campgrounds nearby: Cameron Bluff Campground (USFS), offers campsites, drinking water, restrooms and showers; Mt. Nebo State Park offers excellent campsites with drinking water, restrooms, showers and other amenities; Cove Lake (USFS) and Spring Lake (USFS) on either side of the creek offer excellent primitive capsites in Ozark National Forest; Haw Creek Falls Recreation Area (USFS) off SH 123 near Fort Douglas offers excellent campground facilities; Long Pool Campground (USFS) at the end of CR 15 at Big Piney Creek offers excellent campground facilities; Moore Outdoors (501-331-3606); Lake Dardanelle State Park on the Arkansas River near Russellville offers excellent campground facilities and other amenities. There are two other USFS campgrounds near Big Piney Creek: Rotary Ann Campground, on SH 7 south of SH 123 in Pope County, offers excellent campgrounds north of the creek, and Ozone Campground on SH 21 south of SH 123 in Johnson County near Little Piney Creek, offers excellent campgrounds north of the creek.
There is at least one commercial outfitter located on Big Piney Creek near Shoal Creek. Unless planning to contract for rentals and/or shuttles bring your own boats and gear, and run your own shuttles. Because of the lay of the land, allow adequate time for setting up your shuttles. Driving distance will be much further than the downriver distance you will paddle.
Just about anything and everything that can be said about Richland Creek, Falling Water Creek, Big Piney Creek, Little Piney Creek or other nearby streams could be said about Shoal Creek. The natural beauty of this place is a feast for the eyes and the camera. The creek run is a whitewater adventure that is very exciting and challenging, but generally not death-defying. Unfortunately, its flow is erratic, and only provides navigable levels after big rains fall in this area around Lake Dardanelle and Russellville. Its close proximity to IH 40 and Russellville makes Shoal Creek and great place to visit, if just to camp out and appreciate the raw, natural scenery of this gorgeous state. Arkansas does a superb job of making its natural resources available for public use, and the USFS contributes significantly to that objective by maintaining convenient and comfortable campgrounds among the forests and mountains of the region. If you have the skills to paddle Shoal Creek and can catch it when it is flowing, then you can also double your pleasure by runs on Richland Creek, Falling Water Creek, Big Piney Creek and Little Piney Creek, all located nearby. And, if all the creeks are too low to paddle, then perhaps you can just settle for a gentle ride down the incredibly beautiful Buffalo National River, into which all these creeks feed. One trip here will make you want to return again and again.