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Big Piney Creek, Arkansas
Report by Marc W. McCord

Big Piney Creek, Arkansas

Limestone to Rushing Bridge
~ 36.8 Miles

General Description

Big Piney Creek forms east of Limestone in the Ozark National Forest in Newton County, then flows south by southeast about 67 miles through Pope and Johnson Counties to Lake Dardanelle on the Arkansas River east of the Town of Piney. The boatable section begins at the CR 29 access at Limestone, crosses SH 123 at Fort Douglas, CR 107/112 east of Helton's Farm, SH 164 at Twin Bridges and ends at Rushing Bridge on SH 27 just north of the Town of Piney, about 36.8 miles below Limestone. It is possible to paddle past Rushing Bridge down to Lake Dardanelle State Park near Russellville.

Big Piney Creek is rated Class I to III with several major rapids that challenge experienced whitewater boaters. Intermediate or high level whitewater skills are necessary to safely navigate this stream, especially at high flows (see table at right for safe boating levels along various reaches of this run.) The normal season is November through May, so expect cold water and colder air temperatures. Wetsuits or drysuits with a base layer are recommended to prevent hypothermia, especially when the combined air and water temperature is less than 100° F, which is most of the time during its normal season. Much of the creek is a pool and drop format with long pools punctuated by occasional rock garden rapids in the Class I to II range. However, the middle section between SH 123 and SH 164 is home to three very technical Class III rapids that will test your whitewater boating skills.

Most adjoining land is privately owned, so camping along the creek is strongly discouraged. The U.S. Forest Service operates two excellent campgrounds at Haw Creek Falls near Fort Douglas and Long Pool Campground at the end of CR 15 and the creek. Moore Outdoors operates a creekside primitive campground just below the SH 164 bridge. Camping is also available at Lake Dardanelle State Park. Please respect private property and avoid trespassing except in the case of an emergency.

Big Piney Creek is characterized by banks lined with a mixture of hardwoods and pines, as well as indigenous vegetation. You may see black bears, beavers, deer, turkey, canadian geese, wood ducks, Great Blue Herons and many other species of wildlife. The creek is an excellent fishing stream for smallmouth, largemounth, spotted and rock bass, longear and green sunfish for those possessing a valid Arkansas fishing licence.

Location

Newton, Johnson and Pope Counties of northwestern Arkansas. Russellville is very near the end of this run to the southest. Fort Smith is a short distance away to the southwest. Fayetteville is nearby to the northwest. The Mulberry, Buffalo and other great rivers are just a few miles away.

Distance from major cities

Russellville 57 miles; Fayetteville 70 miles; Fort Smith 100 miles; Little Rock 133 miles; Kansas City 454 miles; Oklahoma City 313 miles; Dallas 493 miles; Austin 689 miles; San Antonio 772 miles; Houston 603 miles; Albuquerque 855 miles; Phoenix 1,313 miles; Denver 938 miles; Salt Lake City 1,472 miles (all distances are approximate, and depend upon starting point, destination at the river and route taken.)

Water Quality and Flow Rates

Water quality in Big Piney Creek is usually excellent, flowing clean, clear and cold, but not drinkable without purification. Optimum flow is at stages of 2 to 4 feet. Stages over 4 feet require open canoes to have flotation and/or spray covers to prevent swamping in standing waves.

Best time to go

The prime season for Big Piney Creek is late fall through mid spring in the months of November through late-May or early-June. Summer and early fall months usually have too low water levels to paddle. Expect cold air and water temperatures, and dress for cold weather paddling conditions during late-fall through mid-spring months.

Hazards to navigation

Most rapids on Big Piney Creek are Class I to II rated rock gardens that pose little risk to competent boaters. However, there are three significant rapids, located between SH 123 and SH 164, that merit serious consideration because of their tight technical turns amid a usually fast-moving current of cold water. These rapids are solid Class III boulder gardens with willow strainers called Surprise 1-2-3 (about 11.5 miles below SH 123), Surfing Rapid (about 16.5 miles below SH 123) and Cascades of Extinction (at about 17.6 miles below SH 123.) Care should be exercised to scout the runs, then hit your lines properly to avoid capsizing and swimming. Pinning and wrapping are definite possibilities at any of these Class III's. The creek has a gradient of about 16 fpm down to about 6 miles below SH 123, then drops at a rate of about 25 fpm between Helton's Farm and Long Pool Campground before leveling out to about 12 fpm down to Lake Dardanelle.

River Access Points

CR 29 at Limestone, on river left, at 0.0 miles; SH 123 at Fort Douglas, on river left, at about 10.0 miles; River ford at CR 107/112, on river left, at about 18.6 miles; Helton's Farm, on river left, at about 20.6 miles; Long Pool Campground, on river left, at about 29.0 miles; Twin Bridges on SH 164, on river right, at about 33.4 miles; Rushing Bridge on SH 27, on river left, at about 36.8 miles. The only other access points would be on Lake Dardanelle, or below the dam on the Arkansas River.

Campgrounds and accommodations

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 the Creek offers excellent campground facilities including many campsites, flush toilets, hot/cold showers, potable water near campsites, RV hookups with water and electricity and other amenities; 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 east of the creek, and Ozone Campground on SH 21 south of SH 123 in Johnson County, offers excellent campgrounds west of the creek. At least one commercial campground is available on Big Piney Creek. Primitive camping is allowed almost anywhere within the boundaries of Ozark National Forest

Liveries, outfitters and shuttle services

There is at least one commercial outfitter located on Big Piney Creek. Plan on setting up and running your own shuttles if not contracting with a local outfitter. Avoid parking vehicles on private property at either end.

Reviewer's comments

Big Piney Creek is one of the most enjoyable Arkansas trips I ever took. The creek usually flows best in late-winter through mid-Spring, but may also be navigable anytime shortly after a significant rainfall event hits the area around Big Piney. USFS public access points make it easy to find a great place to launch, and Helton's Farm offers a privaye access for $3 per person about 9.54 miles above Long Pool Campground (USFS). Big Piney is a classic pool-and-drop river with numerous class I rapids and a few Class II to III rapids that can test your whitewater boating skills, especially when the flows are higher. In winter or earlu spring it is advisable to wear either a wetsuit or drysuit with a base layer to avoid hypothermia, especially if the air temperature is cool to cold. Spring brings an array of natural vegetation that adds spectacular scenic beauty to the creek and surround land areas. It also brings ticks, so carry some bug repellant with DEET.

Big Piney Creek is a popular canoeing and kayaking stream where rafts can also often be seen. When the Dover gauge is below about 1.9 feet expect some dragging and slower current. Be especially careful in high-water conditions because the creek can become dangerous regardless of skill level. Be sure to take along a camera to capture the awesome natural grandeur of the creek, but be sure to carry it in a drybag that is securely lashed to your boat. Arkansas law requires that all items carried downriver be attached so that they will not come out if you capsize, and coolers must have secure lids to contain their contents. Glass and styrofoam containers are prohibited.

Technical Data
Class Rating I to III (CR 29 to SH 123)
I to II+ (SH 123 to Long Pool)
I to II (Long Pool to SH 27)
Length 36.8 miles
Minimum Stage 5 feet (CR 29 to SH 123)
3 feet (SH 123 to Helton's Farm)
2 feet (Helton's Farm to SH 164)
Maximum Stage 15 feet (CR 29 to SH 123)
6 feet (SH 123 to Helton's Farm)
5 feet (Helton's Farm to SH 164)
First Put-in Limestone (CR 29)
Lat. / Long. 35.7875519 / -93.3611984
Last Take-out Rushing Bridge (SH 27)
Lat. / Long. 35.5054893 / -93.181015
(coordinates for SH 164)
Elevation msl
Gradient 16 fpm (CR 29 to SH 123)
12 fpm (SH 123 to Helton's Farm)
15 fpm (Helton's Farm to Long Pool)
9 fpm (Long Pool to SH 165)
USGS Gauge Web: Dover (07257006)
Boats Canoes, Kayaks
Season November through May
Permits No


Map of Big Piney Creek, Arkansas
Big Piney Creek map courtesy of the Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism
and the Arkansas Floaters' Guide. Click the map to view a full sized display.


Helton's Farm access on river left
Helton's Farm access on river left

The top section of Surprise 1-2-3
The top section of Surprise 1-2-3

The bottom section of Surprise 1-2-3
The bottom section of Surprise 1-2-3

Cascades of Extinction above Long Pool Campground
Cascades of Extinction above Long Pool Campground

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