Lee Creek, a spectacular Class II to III whitewater playground near the Oklahoma State Line, forms south of West Fork in Washington County, then flows to the southwest and its Arkansas River confluence near Van Buren and Fort Smith in Crawford County. It is a typical western Ozark stream with boulder garden rapids, banks lined with willow trees, small waterfall drops, a very narrow channel, steep banks covered with elm, oak and pecan trees and the classic Creme de Menthe colored water found only in northern Arkansas streams. It is also very remote and unspoiled, sitting within the boundries of Ozark National Forest. Lee Creek is fed by runoff into Fall Creek, Mountain Fork Creek, Cove Creek and Blackburn Creek. It is a very tight and technically demanding run that is well-suited for paddlers with at least strong intermediate level whitewater skills in creekboat canoes with flotation (spray covers are also nice) and kayaks. Tripper XL's and expedition kayaks won't cut the mustard on Lee Creek.
To be sure, Lee Creek is not quite the gem it was until a few years ago, when the people of Fort Smith decided it needed a dam so they could claim its waters for the population of the city, but it still offers much to appreciate about northern Arkansas waterways. Popular runs start at Devil's Den State Park on the Washington-Crawford County Line between Fayetteville and Fort Smith, ending about 18.5 miles downstream at Arkansas SH 59 between Uniontown and Rudy, where Frog Bayou ends. This pristine creek offers moderate rapids with difficulty increasing due to standing waves, keeper holes, willow strainers, ledge drops with strong hydraulic currents and very tight turns amid boulders that can pin and wrap a boat in a heartbeat. About the only thing missing on Lee Creek is consistent flow, but when it rains along the northern part of the Arkansas-Oklahoma State Line, and the creek swells, it becomes a run that will test the skills and judgement of anybody who ventures here to play. There are two "dont's" for Lee Creek - Don't run it alone, and Don't run it without the company of somebody who has been here before and who knows what to expect. There are surprises everywhere, and some of them will not be pleasant if you miss a line or fail to control your boat. Scenery in the area is A+, but that is just par for the course in Arkansas! As the seasons change in the fall, colors around Lee Creek are just awesome, and are worth a trip just to photograph them.
Washington and Crawford Counties of northwestern Arkansas very near Van Buren, Fort Smith and the Oklahoma State Line.
Fort Smith 20 miles; Fayetteville 42 miles; Little Rock 180 miles; Texarkana 200 miles: Kansas City 300 miles; Oklahoma City 200 miles; Dallas 380 miles; Austin 576 miles; San Antonio 656 miles; Houston 489 miles; Albuquerque 742 miles; Phoenix 1,200 miles; Denver 825 miles; Salt Lake City 1,359 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 on the upper reaches, decreasing in quality the closer one gets to Van Buren and Fort Smith. The reservoir above Fort Smith causes stagnation near its backwaters, extending a few miles upstream, especially during periods of drought or below normal rainfall.
Lee Creek is usually best right after a major rainstorm along the Arkansas-Oklahoma State Line in the area of Fort Smith and points north. Summer paddling is less than great, but fall through spring months can bring exciting opportunities in years with above average rainfall.
There are numerous moderate hazards to be encountered on Lee Creek. Willow strainers and dead-fall debris are everywhere. The channel is narrow, with very tight turns requiring a good line and effective boat control. Below Blackburn Creek are two ledge drops about 50 yards apart, each with a creekwide hydraulic current that is very tricky and which can become a keeper. Scout these ledges, then plan your run or portage around them, as necessary under then-current conditions. Immediately after Fall Creek the channel narrows considerably, then flows fastly through a right-to-left S-curve turn that offers plenty of opportunity to go swimming and/or pin and wrap your boat. Lee Creek splits around an island just above SH 220 low-water bridge - take the left channel. About a half mile below SH 220 is a very bony Class II drop that is best run on river left and very tricky at low flow conditions, when the rocks act as magnets for boats and paddlers. Another quarter mile downstream is El Horrendo, so named by members of the Arkansas Canoe Club because of its character. The creek decreases to half its normal size, then turns to the right, followed by about 100 yards of adrenaline-pumping excitement/terror as the creek drops over two ledge waterfalls of about 3 feet and 4-5 feet, respectively. To make matters even harder, the second drop is diagonal to the first, and strong turbulence forms standing waves that can swamp an open canoe, thus the need for flotation and perhaps a spray cover. Haystacks and standing waves up to about 3 feet are found throughout the ensuing 75 yards or so before the creek again widens and things calm down for a short distance. Where the river next turns left is a ledge drop with a strong hydraulic current and a keeper hole where extreme caution should always be exercised. It is a great surfing spot for playboaters.
Another quarter mile downstream the creek again narrows substantially because of a river left ledge that produces about 40 yards of standing waves and another excellent surfing spot. Just above Lee Creek Community a fast chute carries paddlers through a tight channel and willow strainers. Failure to maintain control will usually result in boats being pinned and/or wrapped on the trees, and difficulty changes as a function of flow, becoming much harder as flows increase. About 2 miles below Lee Creek Community and the river ford that can serve as an access point there used to be a bob war (barbed wire) fence strung across the creek at just about head-high level. It may or may not still be there, but paddlers should expect it and be vigilant to avoid serious injuries. The fence used to be visible as boaters passed through a willow jungle. It is just a short distance from this point to where Pine Mountain Dam now is being built to create the reservoir that will rob Lee Creek of some of its luster. At the natural dam, where the last take-out (at SH 59) is located, are a couple of islands and a Class II rapid that work together to form 3-foot standing waves. This is the last of the "fun" stuff on Lee Creek, and depending upon lake levels, this rapid may not even exist.
Devil's Den State Park, about 8 miles off SH 220 on NFR 702, at 0.0 miles; SH 220 low-water bridge, downstream on river right, at about 10.0 miles; River ford near Lee Creek Community on river left at about 13.5 miles (this road will be very muddy after significant rainfall, and may require 4-wheel drive, high clearance vehicles); SH 59 low-water bridge at the natural dam, upstream of the bridge on river left at about 18.5 miles. There are no other public access points for this reach of Lee Creek.
There are no campgrounds located along Lee Creek. However, Devil's Den State Park, at the put-in for this run, offers excellent campsites and facilities. Many other campgrounds are available in and around Ozark National Forest east of US Highway 71 and Frog Bayou near Rudy.
There are no known liveries or outfitters serving Lee Creek. Bring your own boats and gear, and run your own shuttles.
Lee Creek is an example of how damming a waterway changes, and often ruins, the character of Mother Nature's handiwork. The need for water in and around Fort Smith outweighed the need to preserve a very beautiful stream, and has led to the lower reaches of Lee Creek becoming flooded with stagnant water extending upstream for a few miles of slackwater. But, all is not lost! The upper part of this run is still as gorgeous and challenging as it ever was, and most of the really good stuff is still unspoiled. Lee Creek is very remote and very demanding of paddlers venturing here to boat it. Many opportunities to practice your scouting techniques come into play on Lee Creek, and you would be well served by carefully looking over anything before plunging headlong into trouble. None of the drops are big, but the river is very tight and technical, requiring precise boat control and heads-up paddling to avoid potential disaster in standing waves, keeper holes, willow strainers and numerous other problem spots. What it demands in skill and attention is far more than repaid in excitement and natural scenic beauty. Even after the dam construction, Lee Creek remains a gorgeous place to paddle if you are fortunate enough to catch it with adequate water.