Starting just north of Grainola in Osage County, Oklahoma, near the Kansas border, then flowing southward to its Arkansas River confluence near Ralston is Salt Creek, a moderate whitewater stream with Class II to III rapids, some of which may escalate to Class III+ or higher as flows increase substantially. The creek is a rural stream with limited access crossed by several low-water bridges that are suitable for putting in or taking out. Much of the land adjoining unpaved roads leading to the creek is privately owned, but the roads are public, though not particularly hospitable to low-clearance vehicles. While the total length of Salt Creek is probably about 50 miles, only perhaps 30-40 miles are boatable in canoes and kayaks. The creek is too narrow and congested for enjoyable rafting. SH 18 closely parallels the creek from source to mouth passing through Grainola, Shidler, Fairfax and Ralston. The main crossing roads are SH 11 just west of Shidler and US Highway 60 south of Shidler, between Ponca City and Pawhuska. SH 20 crosses SH 18 at Ralston.
While not significant in terms of size, some of the rapids can be technical because of the presense of vegetation, particularly trees, that may partially obstruct the best channel where the strongest current is found. Depending upon flow conditions, portages may be required to avoid getting injured or caught in the wood. A number of low-water bridges make excellent access points, but can also become hazards in high flow conditions. Limestone beaches along the creek offer excellent resting or camping sites, but many are on private land where advance permission should be obtained beforehand. Fishing is excellent, with largemouth bass and various species of catfish being prevalent. Crowds are non-existent, so Salt Creek offers a respite from rivers that resemble a "city on the water". This is another stream that will never be a major paddling destination, but one which offers good whitewater opportunities for those who venture here when it is running. Look for recent local rainfall near the creek as an indication of its condition. Bird Creek, near Avant to the east, may presage conditions that will be found on Salt Creek. Pack lightly, but bring your camera. This is a remote wilderness run of immense natural beauty.
Osage County in northcentral Oklahoma, just south of the Kansas border. Grainola is the nearest town to the headwaters, and Ponca City, located southeast of Kaw Lake, is the nearest city of significant size. Oklahoma City is about 2.5-3 hours to the south, and Tulsa is just a little closer.
Oklahoma City 150 miles; Tulsa 100 miles; Dallas 359 miles; Austin 549 miles; San Antonio 629 miles; Houston 605 miles; Little Rock 376 miles; Kansas City 349 miles; Albuquerque 692 miles; Phoenix 1,131 miles; Denver 775 miles; Salt Lake City 1,251 miles (all distance are approximate depending upon starting point, destination at the river and route taken.)
Salt Creek flows relatively clear, clean and cool except right after significant rainfall, when it becomes murky to muddy, depending upon the amount of runoff it receives. The undeveloped surrounding land contributed no significant pollution to the stream. Flows depend upon recent local rainfall to provide navigable currents, as Salt Creek is fed entirely by runoff.
Typically, Salt Creek has its optimum boatable conditions in late-February through early-June and from late-September through early-November. However, the creek can be an exciting whitewater run almost any time shortly after a major rain event in its drainage basin. There is no USGS gauge on Salt Creek, but the Bird Creek gauge near Avant may provide insight in general conditions for Salt Creek. The best indication is water barely flowing over the low-water bridges. If water is below the tops of the bridges, then some walking and dragging or carrying boats and gear may be necessary. If water is significantly above the tops of the low-water bridges, then the creek may be too dangerous for safe paddling.
At normal flows there are no significant hazards to navigation. Low-ater bridges and occasionally trees located where drops or rapids are encountered may necessitate portages for convenience. As flows increase and currents become stronger the creek will become more technically difficult. Portages may be required at some rapids to avoid getting trapped in tree brances and limbs extending from the banks. Low-water bridges may create strong hydraulic currents on their downriver sides which require scouting before running, or perhaps portaging, depending upon then-current conditions. There have been reports of barbed wire fences strung across the creek in some places, though these have not been confirmed. Keep a wary eye peeled for them, especially at higher flow conditions.
Unnamed Osage County road between Hardy and Grainola at 0.0 miles; Unnamed Osage County road between Foraker and Kaw Lake at about miles; SH 11 west of Shidler at about miles; Unnamed (and unpaved) Osage County road about 1.5 miles south of Shidler at about miles; US Highway 60 crossing near Burbank at about miles; Unnamed Osage County road near Ralston and the Arkansas River confluence at about miles. NOTE: There are at least 5 low-water bridges between Shidler and Burbank, the precise locations of which are not known. These are not shown on conventional road maps, but appear on detailed maps of Osage County. It is recommended that paddlers obtain a detailed map, then drive the roads to observe and learn to recognize access points and potential hazards before atempting to paddle Salt Creek, especially in high-flow conditions.
There are no commercial campgrounds located along Salt Creek. All adjoining land is privately owned, and advance permission should be obtained before camping there. Limestone beaches along the river offer excellent primitive campsites for overnight trips, or rest stops for day trips.
There are no commercial outfitters, liveries or shuttle services located along Salt Creek. Take along everything you need and run your own shuttles. Be VERY careful where you leave vehicles. It would be advisable to consult local law enforcement agencies as to the best places to park vehicles while on the creek.
Salt Creek is a remote wilderness stream that is not a crowded waterway smacking of urban sprawl. Rather, it is natural and untouched by signs of civilization, providing trips of solitude where paddlers can enjoy Class II to III rapids and sometimes drops over low-water bridges that resemble small waterfalls. The creek is navigable after significant rainfall most of the way between Grainola and the Arkansas River, though finding access points is often more difficult than actually paddling the stream. Awesome scenery is all around, and paddlers will enjoy mostly clear water with great fishing, but if you wet a hook, then be sure to have a valid Oklahoma fishing license, just in case the game warden shows up. Because this is a creek run it is necessary to pack lightly, and shorter boats are preferred, but make room for your camera. Several access points allow paddlers to choose the distance they want to paddle, with trips of 1 to 3 (or more) days possible, providing you obtain permission for camping on private land or find islands or beaches on which to stay overnight. It is best to avoid the dead of summer unless right after a major rainstorm hits Osage County. The creek can drop almost as fast as it rises, so keep this in mind whenever paddling here.