Quoting from the Arkansas Floater's Kit, "Let's face it: given Richland Creek's steep drops, big rocks, and narrow chutes, the stream probably shouldn't even be in the Arkansas Floater's Kit. It's seldom floatable, and even when the water is up, most of us should keep the canoes and kayaks on top of the cars where they're safe. Richland is too fast, furious, and unforgiving for all but the real experts." That admonition should be taken to heart by anybody contemplating coming to Richland Creek to paddle.
However, Richland Creek may well be the most beautiful stream in the most beautiful part of the beautiful state of Arkansas. Situated in Newton and Searcy Counties, its upper tributaries drain west to east dropping some 1,400 feet in elevation from its headwaters near scenic SH 7 to the confluence of the Buffalo National River at Woolum, between Mt. Hersey and Gilbert. Along the way is some of the most rugged country to be found in "the natural state". For much of its 33-mile length Richland Creek is only accessible on foot, and just getting there can be half the fun. Be aware that there are TWO Richland Creeks in Arkansas - this one and the one that is a White River tributary near Fayetteville that uses the Goshen, Arkansas USGS gauge.
Land ownership in the area is partly public and partly private, so take care to avoid trespassing on private property. But, along the way you may find wild turkeys, deer, mink, beavers, raccoons, squirrels and possibly a black bear or two - DO NOT FEED THE BEARS! The creek is home to smallmouth bass and panfish, offering some of the best fishing in this part of Arkansas.
Let's be clear about this - Richland Creek is NOT for casual paddlers. In fact, intermediate level skills are probably inadequate for this stream above Richland Campground, where the creek is rated Class III to IV with Class V consequences. Advanced to expert level skills are highly recommended for anybody seriously contemplating a run on Upper Richland Creek where paddlers will encounter narrow gorges, waterfall drops of 7 feet or more and a lot of technical whitewater. Below the campground the creek is rated Class II to III+ with large standing waves and haystacks that can swamp an open canoe. There are no rental liveries and no emergency services in the immediate or nearby vicinity. Paddlers venturing here should be trained, skilled and experienced in swiftwater rescue, First Aid and CPR, should be outfitted for heavy whitewater (Class II-V) and should be paddling in a group with others of similar qualifications and preparation.
Nobody would question the absolute beauty of Richland Creek, but there will be little time to "stop and smell the roses" when paddling a narrow, twisting creek with waterfalls dropping up to 8 feet or more. Late winter through early spring, and particularly right after a heavy local rainfall, is the best time to run the creek. At the very least, wetsuits are necessary and drysuits would be preferable. The gradient above NFR 1205 falls at 55 feet per mile (fpm), escalating to nearly 80 fpm in some areas. Even the "flatter" part of the river below NFR 1205 drops at a whopping 20 fpm. As sated earlier, Richland Creek is no place for casual paddlers, and should be avoided by all except advanced to expert skill level river runners. Some people get to have all the fun!
Newton and Searcy Counties in northcentral Arkansas, a few miles south of and flowing into the Buffalo National River at Woolum, between Mt. Hersey and Gilbert.
Little Rock 125 miles; Fort Smith 110 miles; Texarkana 269 miles; Dallas 350 miles; Austin 540 miles; San Antonio 620 miles; Houston 600 miles; Oklahoma City 290 miles; Tulsa 226 miles (all distances are approximate and depend upon starting point, destination point on the river and route taken.)
Water quality is excellent, flowing clear, clean and unpolluted along its 30 miles from near Ben Hur to the Buffalo National River near Woolum. The flow is generally navigable from late winter through early spring, and may be adequate for paddling at other times, depending upon recent local rainfall amounts. Richland Creek is totally dependent upon heavy local rainfall, and is a very seasonal stream.
Generally, late winter through early spring is the best time to run Richland Creek. It is totally dependent upon heavy local rainfall for its flow, so any time after a good rain can have adequate water for paddling. Winter air and water temperatures will be cold, so dress for the conditions to avoid hypothermia, because you are going to get wet.
The significant hazards on Richland Creek start in the section below NFR 1203, and include severe hydraulic currents, undercut rock ledges and monster rapids, as well as several waterfalls of considerable size. Safe, runnable levels for the creek can be gauged by the water level at the first two bridges. The bridge at NFR 1203 should have a maximum of 18 inches and a minimum of 5 inches of airspace between the surface of the water and the bottom of the bridge. The bridge at NFR 1205 (at Richland Creek Campground) should have a maximum of 3 feet and a minimum of 1 foot of airspace. When there is less air space than the minimums stated above the creek rises to Class III-V, and becomes even more dangerous that it already is at runnable levels.
The first mile below NFR 1203 is relatively calm and uneventful. However, that quickly changes over the next 5 miles, where you will encounter a number of Class III-IV rapids that demand your full attention and all the skills you can muster. Richland Falls is a 100-foot wide cascading waterfall with a 6-8 foot drop followed by Crack in the Rock (Class III+), Knuckle Buster (Class III+), Upper Screw Up (Class III), Lower Screw Up, aka Shaw's Folly - the most dangerous drop on the river (Class IV), and Maytag (Class III). The preferred entry to Lower Screw Up is through a slot on the far right side where a badly undercut rock awaits. Any of these rapids can be extremely dangerous, especially if a paddler rolls upside-down in them, and more especially if that happens at lower water levels. Being knocked unconscious, getting broken bones, being severely cut and bruised, or even getting killed are all highly possible scenarios for those who fail to keep the hole (the opening where you enter your boat) up.
There are many Class II rapids between Magtag and the take-out at Woolum, but for those with the skills to test the ones just described they barely deserve mention, and for the rest of us they deserve no mention at all because we should not be paddling there in the first place. If Richland Creek is not equal to the 'Tot in terms of severity, then it is surely a close second!
NFR 1203 crossing north of Ben Hur at 0.0 miles; NFR 1205 at the Richland Creek Campground at about 12.0 miles; Pope CR 37 (NFR 1201) at about 20.5 miles; Woolum (NPS) Access at the confluence of the Buffalo National River at 33.0 miles.
Richland Creek Campground in the Richland Creek Wilderness Area off Pope CR 68 (NFS 1205) at Falling Water Creek offers primitive campsites with pit toilets, picnic tables, plenty of parking, a rocky beach and a great swimming hole. There are no other campgrounds on Richland Creek. Many natural campsites are available all along the Buffalo National River, and are free of charge to use. Most have no facilities of ANY kind, and vehicle access to several is very difficult, though easy from the river.
There are no known rental liveries or shuttle services operating on Richland Creek. Bring your own boats and gear, and arrange your own shuttles. When the creek is up there will be other paddlers there with whom you can coordinate shuttles, if necessary.
Richland Creek is a whitewater paradise for those with the skills and experience to safely run it. However, it is a very seasonal stream, requiring heavy local rainfall to provide enough water to paddle. The creek is not recommended for anybody with less than advanced level paddling skills, and should never be paddled alone, or with others who lack proper skills to safely make the run. But, Richland Creek can be enjoyed by anybody who wants to hike near it and see some of the most spectacular sites to be viewed on or near a river. These include the Twin Devils Fork Falls, where Big Devil's Fork and Long Devil's Fork converge with side-by-side drops of 20 to 25 feet, as well as numerous rocky ledges, bluffs and outcroppings that offer magnificent vistas and excellent photographic opportunities.
Most of the creek and surrounding area is inaccessible except on foot, so bring a great pair of hiking boots. Be prepared to see a wide variety of wildlife including wild turkeys, javelina, razorback hogs (the 4-legged kind, not the 2-legged red and white ones, though they are probably there also) deer, mink, beavers, raccoons, squirrels and possibly black bears. Richland Creek, when it is navigable, offers excellent Class II-IV rapids, rising to Class III-V in high water, and even if you don't paddle, it is still a great place to watch those with advanced to expert level skills ply their art, mostly in kayaks. You can also put in below the major rapids and paddle a beautiful Class II river all the way to Woolum and the confluence of the Buffalo National River where you can take out, or paddle on down to Gilbert on one of the most scenic rivers in America, if not the world.