The Illinois River is a remote, natural, scenic flatwater river that is enjoyable by people of all ages and abilities. The river offers many liveries that provide canoe, raft, kayak and tube rentals, shuttles, campgrounds, RV parks, cabins or other improved acommodations and/or general stores conveniently located along Highway 10 (a high-speed River Road, if you will) outside Tahlequah. The river is navigable for about 65.4 miles from Twin Falls at the Watts, Oklahoma Public Access Area where US Highway 59 crosses the river down to Carter's Landing at the headwaters of Tenkiller Lake. Public access along this route is excellent thanks to the endeavors of the Oklahoma Scenic Rivers Commission and Oklahoma Department of Transportation.
The majority of recreational paddlers who come to the Illinois paddle the sections between Chewey Bridge and Highway 62 with the highest concentration of liveries located for the first 15 miles northeast on Oklahoma Highway 10, toward Ellerville, though there are outfitters all the way up to Watts. Technically, you could start at trip on the Illinois River at Saloam Springs, Arkansas adding a few more miles to the adventure, but large logjams are known to exist between Watts and Chewey Bridge, so be prepared to portage.
The Illinois River is a basically a free-flowing stream down to Tenkiller Lake below Tahlequah. Its waters are usually cool and clear, with excellent visibility and abundant fish life to be seen and/or caught, provided you possess a valid Oklahoma fishing license. The riverbanks offer many flat gravel bars for stopping to rest, eat, take photos or just kill a little time on a gorgeous river. The topography is awesome, topped off by seeing Elephant Rock come into view, then paddling very close to it. Elephant Rock is on the section known as the Sparrowhawk Loop, so named because the river and the road wind around Sparrowhawk Mountain. (NOTE: This is a GREAT place for canoeing trips. The distance between two public access areas with parking for the put-in and take-out is only about 2 miles, perhaps less. But, the trip distance is about 12.5 miles by river. If doing self-shuttles, then this trip is ideal because of the short shuttle after a day on the river.
The Illinois also offers good fishing for small mouth bass, buffalo, catfish and other species. The river is especially well known for its small mouth bass fishery. The natural look of the river creates an excellent fishing environment for the occasional as well as the serious fisherman. Canoeing and fishing are great year round, and if you are prepared for cool to cold days and often very cold nights, then winter paddling offers a serenity that is not found in warm months when the river is inundated with people.
The Oklahoma Scenic Rivers Commission has recently instituted some restrictions regarding coolers and alcohol on the river. Coolers larger than 48 quarts are prohibited. Styrofoam coolers, regardless of size, are prohibited. Beer stronger than 3.2% alcohol is prohibited. OSRC Rangers are strictly enforcing these prohibitions with stiff fines and, in some cases, incarceration.
Adair, Deleware and Cherokee Counties in northeastern Oklahoma, near the Arkansas border at Fayetteville. Tahlequah, Oklahoma is just a few miles east on SH 10/US Highway 62.
Tulsa 65 miles; Oklahoma City 195 miles; Fayetteville 65 miles; Little Rock 236 miles; Kansas City 275 miles; Dallas 260 miles; Austin 450 miles; San Antonio 530 miles; Houston 506 miles; Albuquerque 737 miles; Phoenix 1,176 miles; Denver 820 miles; Salt Lake City 1,296 miles (all distances are approximate and depend upon starting point, destination point on the river and route taken.)
The water quality in the Illinois River is generally considered to be excellent and very clear, though the qualify can degrade a little during prolonged periods of low water and hot temperatures. The Illinois River usually has an adequate flow for paddle trips, though the section of about 22 miles above Chewey Bridge will be too low for enjoyable river trips during long droughts. Stages between 3.5 - 4.5 feet on the Tahlequah gauge indicate optimum flow for goods trips. Flood stage is 11 feet.
The Illinois River offers year around river trips, though most liveries are not open during winter months except by prior arrangement. Abundant public access areas assure that you can get on the river anytime there is adequate water - the Illinois is seldom too low to paddle with the exception noted above regarding the section above Chewey. Non-commercial camping and boat launching are allowed from all public access areas on the Illinois River above Tenkiller Lake.
The Illinois River is generally hazard-free except for downed trees spanning or alongside the streambed, especially between Watts Public Access and Chewey Bridge, and around the Sparrowhawk Loop. There are no rapids worthy of mention and the gradient of the river is very shallow. Occasionally, there are tricky currents caused by water passing over a submerged obstacle such as a boulder or, most likely on this river, a downed tree. Watch for surface signs of something you cannot see. For the most part the river is shallow and clear with excellent visibility.
Watts Public Access Area off Highway 59, north of Watts at 0.0 miles; Carnes Ford Public Access at 7.3 miles; Chewey Bridge Public Access on river left at 20.5 miles; Round Hollow Public Access on river right at 24.6 miles; Stunkard Public Access on river right at 24.9 miles; Buck Ford Public Access on river right at 25.4 miles; Peavine Hollow Public Access on river right at 29.3 miles; Edmondson Public Access on river left at about 32.9 miles; No Head Hollow Public Access on river right at 38.4 miles; Sparrow Hawk Landing (Private - Fee Required) on river right at about 43.4 miles; Todd Public Access on river left at about 43.9 miles; Sparrow Hawk Camp (Private - Fee Required) on river right at about 48.8 miles; Echota Public Access on river right at 50.1 miles; Highway 62/51 bridge at 52.0 miles; Riverside Park Public Access on river right at 52.2 miles; Murrell Home Road Public Access at about 58.9 miles; Horseshow Bend access at about 62.5 miles; and Carter's Landing at about 65.4 miles. The Oklahoma Scenic Rivers Commission (OSRC) has conveniently placed mileage markers referenced to the Oklahoma State Line at strategic points along the river, and access points are clearly marked with large brown signs and white lettering, so identifying where you are along the river is easy. (NOTE: recent floods have eradicated most of the mileage marker signs, though most of the public access signage is still present.)
Several access points are designed as non-alcohol accesses, which means that you cannot launch, stop or take out at these points if you are carrying alcoholic beverages, which are already limited to 3.2% beer ONLY. These access points are: US Highway 59 bridge (Watts Public Access), Carnes Ford, Round Hollow, Todd and US 62/51 Bridge.
Many other private accesses (fee required) are available at outfitter locations along the river. One such access is at Sparrow Hawk Camp (918-456-8371), located at 21985 N. Ben George Road off SH 10 at the bottom of the Sparrowhawk Loop.
Sparrow Hawk Camp (918-456-8371), located at 21985 N. Ben George Rd. (off SH 10), Tahlequah, OK 74464 offers tent and RV camping, a bunkhouse, a pavilion, restrooms with hot/cold showers, a playground (for the kids), volleyball, trampoline, log roll, ca camp store, firewood and other amenities for the convenience of guests on the banks of the Illinois River.
Camping is available at any of the OSRC public access areas along the river, including Watts Public Access Area off Highway 59, north of Watts; Carnes Ford Public Access at 7.3 miles; Private Resort at 14.0 miles; Chewey Bridge Public Access at 20.5 miles; Round Hollow Public Access at 24.6 miles; Stunkard Public Access at 24.9 miles; Buck Ford Public Access at 25.4 miles; Peavine Hollow Public Access at 29.3 miles; Edmondson Public Access on river left at about 32.9 miles; No Head Hollow Public Access at 48.4 miles; Echota Public Access at 50.1 miles; Highway 62 bridge at 52.0 miles; Riverside Park Public Access at 52.2 miles; and Murrell Home Road Public Access at about 58.9 miles;. There are also many gravel bars and beaches along the river suitable for overnight camping during downriver trips. Numerous commercial campgrounds are located all along the Illinois River.
OSRC has implemented a fee of $12.00 per night per campsite. This fee is subject to a 50% reduction in rate if one or more campers in a group can prove that they are at least 62 years old.
Sparrow Hawk Camp (918-456-8371), located at 21985 N. Ben George Rd. (off SH 10), Tahlequah, OK 74464 offers canoe, kayak, raft and tube rentals, private boat shuttles and other services on the gorgeous Illinois River.
Numerous commercial outfitters offering canoe, kayak, raft and tube rentals, shuttles and river information are available all along the Illinois River. People with private boats are required by OSRC to purchase a launch permit ($2.00 per person per day) and wear a wrist band to indicate payment of fees. Wrist bands can be purchased at the OSRC offices or at any of several (but not all) outfitters along the river.
The Illinois River, located in the Capitol of the Cherokee Nation at Tahlequah, Oklahoma, is the first river I ever paddled, so it has fond memories for me. The Illinois is a favorite destination because of the scenic beauty and recollections of all the fun we have had on this river over the years. Anyone, regardless of age or skill level, can find something fun to do on the Illinois as long as you are not seeking whitewater excitement. The river is great for overnight canoe-camping trips due to the diligent efforts of the Oklahoma Scenic Rivers Commission and the Illinois River Recreation Area to develop a natural environment into a fun adventure for the whole family. You do need to be aware of and take precautions to avoid the many downed trees littering the riverbed during periods of higher flows, as these become boat-grabbing strainers that can cause you to lose many paddling hours while extracting a pinned boat. The many public access areas are ideal for those wanting frequent places to rest, use a restroom, or camp overnight. Public camping is allowed for up to 7 nights at a time.
In winter, eagles can be seen soaring above the river where they nest. Hawks and falcons also inhabit the area, as well as many other species of birds. Of particular beauty are Eagle Bluff, the Sparrowhawk Loop and Elephant Rock, which is a prominent landmark along the river in the Sparrowhawk Loop. Black bears are known to frequent the Illinois River area, though I have never seen one.
The close proximity to Highway 10 and the many public access areas along the river give a safety margin that is seldom paralleled by other rivers, and the frequent general stores along the highway provide plenty of places to replenish food, beverages and ice during your trip downriver. Private campgrounds with flush toilets and hot/cold showers are available all along the 32 miles between Chewey Bridge and State Highway 62 / State Highway 10 intersection.