The Kings river rises in the Ozark National Forest north of Fallsville in Madison County, Arkansas, then flows north crossing Arkansas SH 74, US Highway 412, US Highway 62 between Eureka Springs and Berryville, and into Table Rock Lake at SH 86 in southwestern Missouri. It cuts through sandstone, limestone and shale formations to create a clear and cool-running stream. The river flows about 93.5 miles, beginning as a Class III+ whitewater stream for the first 11 miles between Dripping Springs and Arkansas SH 74 (the Upper Kings River), then becoming a more gentle Class I to I+ run for the remaining 82.5 miles into Missouri in the Mark Twain National Forest on the Barry-Stone County Line (the Lower Kings River.) The Kings River is a gorgeous stream that is surrounded by equally beautiful and scenic natural grandeur in a very remote part of the country where animals outnumber people by a substantial margin. War Eagle Creek is nearby to the west, flowing parallel to the Kings River.
The Kings River is one of those that flows backward - south to north, but that is what happens whenever a northern hemisphere river flows down the north side of a high elevation toward a lower elevation. The Upper Kings River begins near Dripping Springs in a very remote area of the Boston Mountains Range of the Ozark Mountains in northern Arkansas where it is very easy to see why the state calls itself "the natural state." The upper reach of this section is not as good for paddling as for hiking, observing birds, animals and plants, and nature photography. The Kings River Falls Natural Area features a 6-foot waterfall over naturally sculpted rock ledges, the site of a former grist mill. This area, where the Buffalo (National River) roams, is drop-dead beautiful. This area is inundated with wild azaleas, ferns, umbrella magnolias, and many other beautiful plants. Fishing for smallmouth bass, rock bass and channel catfish brings a lot of anglers to this area. Boulder garden rapids create a Class II to III+ whitewater run that is perfect for intermediate level paddlers wanting to develop higher level skills for more technical rivers. Access is easy, and riverside natural campsites are abundant, though you are not likely to need one if you are just running the upper 11 miles of this stream. The run is short enough to allow fast paddlers to start early, make a run, eat lunch, then run it again in the afternoon.
This one does not rate highly on the favorites list of most paddlers, but that is probably because they have never done it - the best flows are in early-spring through early-summer months. However, if you are coming to Ponca to run the Upper Buffalo and have some extra time, then you may want to check out the Kings River and discover a hidden gem in the Arkansas Ozarks. Just be sure to dress for cold weather and climate conditions to prevent hypothermia. Other than the Buffalo, there are several great Arkansas rivers in the near vicinity including the Mulberry River, Frog Bayou, Big Piney Creek, Little Red River, White River and others, so there are plenty of places to paddle in this northwest corner of "The Natural State".
Madison County, in northwestern Arkansas, near Dripping Springs and just north of Fallsville. SH 16 crosses the river a few miles southeast of Fayetteville, and this run ends at SH 74 just west of Boxley and Ponca, near the headwaters of the Buffalo National River.
Fort Smith 100 miles; Little Rock 130 miles; Kansas City 420 miles; Memphis 267 miles; Oklahoma City 280 miles; Dallas 460 miles; Austin 656 miles; San Antonio 736 miles; Houston 569 miles; Albuquerque 822 miles; Phoenix 1,280 miles; Denver 905 miles; Grand Junction 1,201 miles; Salt Lake City 1,439 miles (all distances are approximate and depend upon starting point, destination point on the river and route taken.)
Water quality is usually very good to excellent, flowing clean, clear and very cold. A stage of about 3.0 feet is considered minimum for good boating.
The Upper Kings River usually flows best in mid-spring through early-summer months, starting around April depending upon recent local rainfall in the Boston Mountains. Without significant recent rainfall the river will not be boatable after late-June or early-July.
The reach from the headwaters to SH 74 west of Boxley and Ponca has numerous boulder garden rapids in the Class III to III+ range, depending upon flow, any of which can be challenging and dangerous if not run properly. The biggest threats are in pinning and/or wrapping a boat, and swimming in very cold water. Lines are usually easy to see, but when in doubt, SCOUT! Be sure to wear a wetsuit or drysuit with a base layer of water-repelling garments to prevent hypothermia, which is probably the single biggest hazard on this river when it flows. Some rapids create holes to one side or downriver of a pourover, but none should pose a major hazard for rafts, though canoes and kayaks need to be paddled by boaters with at least strong intermediate level whitewater skills to safely negotiate this stream above SH 74.
Madison County (unnamed?) road between SH 21 and SH 16 north of Fallsville at 0.0 miles; SH 16 bridge at about 1.5 miles; SH 74 bridge west of Ponca at about 11.0 miles. There are no other access points for the Upper Kings River.
There are no campgrounds located along the Upper Kings River. However, abundant natural campsites are available all along the entire run of the river. Abundant natural (NFS) campsites are available nearby on the Buffalo National River. Buffalo Outdoor Center at Ponca offers excellent campsites with restrooms, drinking water, a store, rentals, shuttles and other services. Several campgrounds with amenities are available nearby on the Mulberry, Big Piney and other streams.
There are at least three commercial outfitters offering rentals, shuttles and river information on the Kings River. Rentals and shuttles may be obtained from outfitters on the Buffalo, Mulberry and Big Piney, all very near the headwaters of the Kings River. Shuttle rates are higher than on most rivers and will vary according to access points used, but they reasonable considering the time and distance required to ferry boats, gear and paddlers to or from the river.
I have only had the opportunity to paddle the Kings River once, and that was several years ago, but it sticks in my mind as a beautiful and exciting run. In the area to run the Upper Buffalo, where the ONLY whitewater on that river can be found, I discovered and ran the Upper Kings River in March. It was cold in the Ozarks, but the river was flowing and we had a blast. The trees still showed all signs of winter, so the scenery was not as pretty as in late spring through mid-fall, but the water was great. None of the rapids proved to be particularly challenging, though it was an E-ticket ride through those cold water haystacks in the boulder gardens. I was wearing a SEAL suit of 0.25 inch foam rubber (my diving suit) with Neoprene river boots and gloves, and they provided excellent insulation from the cold air and water. Unfortunately, I did not have my camera with me, because it was the only time I have run this stream. It will NOT be the last! Late March to the middle of April is probably the optimum time for Upper Kings River runs IF there is adequate water - daytime air temperatures are more tolerable at that time!