The Black River forms as three forks near Pilot Knob in the Mark Twain National Forest of Iron County, then flows southward through Reynolds, Wayne and Butler Counties into Arkansas to its confluence with the Current River at Pocahontas. The three forks converge near Taum Sauk Mountain near Lesterville, then flow across the lowest point of elevation in Missouri. The West Fork forms near Centerville above SH 21 as a very narrow, shallow stream. The Middle Fork forms near Black in the area just west of Johnson Shut-Ins State Park, but is not truly navigable until reaching SH 21 above Lesterville. The East Fork forms near County Highway M just east of Johnson Shut-Ins State Park and remains a very small stream all the way to its confluence with the main stream east of Lesterville.
It is characterized by its lazy, slow-moving current on Class I flatwater with occasional Class II rapids surrounded by beautiful forests and the southeastern Missouri Ozarks. The Upper Black River, above Clearwater Lake, is extremely clean and clear with plenty of creeks and streams to constantly provide fresh water. Smallmouth bass fishing is excellent on the Upper Black River. Below Clearwater Lake the river is slower and a little murkier, but fishing is still good there. The lower river is more dependent upon dam released water whereas the upper river is dependent upon local run-off.
While canoeing and kayaking can be done from the SH 21 bridge above Centerville on the West Fork, the most popular starting point, especially in normal to low-water conditions, is Mill Creek at about 10.7 miles below SH 21. The river features several "shut-in" areas. Johnson Shut-Ins State Park on the East Fork is a very popular spot with river runners and landlubbers alike. As a rule, the upper shut-ins of the Black River are non-navigable because the river flows through jumbles of rock and potholes in gorge-like valleys that make boating very difficult to impossible, and always dangerous. For that reason this description will begin at Mill Creek and continue southward from there. Nearby major waterways include the Big, St. Francis, Current, Jacks Fork and Eleven Point Rivers, all eventually finding their ways into Arkansas, though the Jack's Fork does so after converging with teh Current River.