The North Fork of Illinois Bayou forms near the community of Ben Hur in Pope County, then flows southward for about 23 miles to the mainstream near Hector and SH 27. Its entire run is within the boundries of Ozark National Forest, and forest roads afford easy access along most of its length. Its headwaters are very close to those of Big Piney Creek, Richland Creek, the Little Red River and the Buffalo National River, while its lower reach is just west of Cadron Creek. Area geology includes forested mountains and rolling hills, dense stands of hardwood and willow trees, rocky shoals and boulder gardens, as well as two significant creeks, Nowlin and Payne, feeding additional flow into the bayou. Numerous USFS campsites are located in the general vicinity of the North Fork. This narrow stream has a moderate gradient that produces a good, but not particularly swift, current when it flows.
The North Fork is primarily a Class II wilderness whitewater run with willow jungles and dead-fallen trees as its major hazards. It is a runoff stream requiring heavy local rainfall to raise it to navigable levels, as with most waterways in this part of Arkansas. The upper 9 miles are very narrow, and finding boatable conditions there is all but impossible. When the rains fall great runs begin at Victor (NFR 1000) and continue about 14 miles to the West Fork confluence at NFR 1818. As with other nearby streams, the North Fork is drop-dead beautiful, and offers paddlers an experience uncommon to most places we paddle. There are few signs of civilization. Nearby roads are well hidden by dense forests, making it seem more remote than it is really the case. You just need a little luck and a lot of local rainfall to enjoy this gorgeous Ozark run.
Pope County of northcentral Arkansas very near the headwaters of the Buffalo National and Little Red Rivers, Big Piney, Little Piney and Richland Creeks, and just a few miles north of Russellville.
Russellville 35 miles; Fayetteville 180 miles; Fort Smith 118 miles; Little Rock 111 miles; Texarkana 211 miles: Kansas City 439 miles; Oklahoma City 298 miles; Dallas 436 miles; Austin 631 miles; San Antonio 711 miles; Houston 545 miles; Albuquerque 840 miles; Phoenix 1,298 miles; Denver 923 miles; Salt Lake City 1,457 miles (all distances are approximate, and depend upon starting point, destination at the river and route taken.)
Water quality is generally good to very good, flowing clean, clear and cold from the drainage basin around Divide Mountain. Navigable flows require recent local rainfall to provide sufficient water for paddling, most of which is found during late-fall through mid-spring months, though not for any consistent period.
The prime time to run Illinois Bayou is shortly after a significant rainstorm hits the Pope County area. October through November and late-February through mid-April are the most likely seasons, though the river can be boated almost any time after heavy local rainfall.
From the perspective of rapids and drops there is nothing particularly hazardous about the North Fork of Illinois Bayou. However, as flows increase standing waves, hydrualic currents around rocky shoals and the ever-present willow jungles along the banks all pose potential significant hazards to boats and paddlers. Maintaining good boat control is mandatory at all times. As the waters rise be sure to watch out for those low-water bridges!
NFR 1000, about 5 miles east of Rotary Ann Campground and SH 7, at 0.0 miles; NFR 1310A west of NFR 1310 (which parallels the river) at about 5.5 miles; NFR 1818, at the West Fork confluence, at about 14.0 miles. There are other access points along NFR 1310A, which crosses the river at several locations on the lower 8.5 miles of the North Fork.
Primitive camping is allowed all along the river in Ozark National Forest, and several improved campsites can be found along or very near the stream. Bayou Bluff Campground, on the east side of SH 27 at the put-in for the mainstream above Hector, offers tent campsites, 7 family campsites, three sheltered campsites, drinking water, chemical toilets and picnic facilities between April 16 and November 15. There are no other campgrounds along Illinois Bayou, but numerous great campsites are available in close proximity: 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 are no known liveries or outfitters serving Illinois Bayou or its forks. Bring your own boats and gear, and run your own shuttles.
For everything that was said about the mainstream, DITTO! The surrounding area is wild while the bayou is mild. Willow strainers are the primary source of paddler troubles, but usually reserve their surprises for high water conditions. Natural scenery is abundant, and adds a characteristic to the North Fork that enhances the thrill of paddling here if one is fortunate enough to catch it right after a big storm hits Pope County. A very positive aspect is that, when Illinois Bayou and its forks flow, then so do many other excellent paddling streams in this part of Arkansas, and that is pure bliss for serious paddlers who relish the surrounding scenery as much as the thrill of the ride downriver. Ozark National Forest offers an undeveloped, serene, and awesome place to camp and paddle. Wildlife, birds and plants are everywhere, so be sure to bring a camera and use it religiously.