Though parts of it are seldom paddled, the Upper Cossatot actually begins just southeast of Mena, in Polk County, where it flows down out of the Ouachita Mountains in the southern Arkansas Ozarks. The 'Tot flows about 26 miles from its headwaters down to Gillham Lake in northern Howard County, through the Ouachita National Forest, then from below Gillham Lake on down to the confluence of the Little River in Sevier County near the Texas-Oklahoma-Arkansas border. The uppermost part of this section is usually off-limits to paddlers because of insufficient water levels and flow rates, but whenever the river is up the 3 miles from lower Forest Road 31 to Arkansas SH 246 is a Class II-III whitewater run of great fun. The scenery is awesome, and the area is frequented by hikers, photographers, backpackers, bird watchers and other nature lovers who, unlike the paddlers who go to run the Class III-V whitewater downriver, do NOT have a death wish.
Below SH 246, down to the Ed Banks Road low-water bridge, is another 3 miles of Class II-III whitewater in a fast current. This section is a warmup for the terror that awaits paddlers below Ed Banks Road (FR 52000). Many paddlers spend a weekend running this section again and again before heading home with bodies and boats still intact. It has been said that, if you have ANY trouble running this section, then do NOT attempt a run below Ed Banks Road, and that most especially applies to the section below FR 52600, where Cossatot Falls is located.
About 1.25 miles below SH 246 is 5-Step Rapid, a solid Class III drop, followed by an unnamed Class II drop about a mile below that. Leaving Ed Banks Road (FR 52000), the 'Tot begins to get gnarly, and only properly outfitted expert paddlers should attempt runs in this section down to US Highway 278 (Arkansas SH 4.) The 2 miles between Ed Banks Road and the low-water bridge at FR 52000 drops some 60 feet in elevation, starting with "Zig-Zag" rapid, a solid Class III drop that is immediately followed by "The Esses", a Class III boulder garden of 200 yards in length that has been described as "narrow, noisy and non-stop". Two more unnamed Class III drops and one unnamed Class II drop take you down to FR 52600, where the REAL terror begins.
Below FR 52600 is what easily resembles a Mother Nature train wreck. The river is littered with huge boulders and rock shelves that (1) offer a great vantage point for watching super whitewater paddlers plying their skills, and (2) a place where you could become a feature on the local evening news. A quarter mile below FR 52600 is Cossatot Falls, a series of 6 sequential drops that plunge about 35-40 feet in elevation within a very short span. The Falls is a Class IV-V drop with big standing waves, strong and tricky cross-currents and drops of 6-8 feet amid tricky, narrow channels that flow between house-size boulders from which other paddlers watch you try to keep from wiping out. The noise level at the Falls is incredibly loud. Discretion being the better part of valor, if you feel that the Falls is too much for you to run, then you always have the option of a very difficult portage along the far left side, if you are up to the task. The portage has been described as being like "carrying your boat six flights down a fire escape". If you survive running or portaging the Falls, then you can look forward to Deer Camp Rapid (Class III) and Devils Hollow Rapid (Class III) and Devils Hollow Falls (Class III-IV), followed by about 2 miles of quiet water down to the SH 4 bridge about 87 feet above the river. This is a good time to reflect upon what it was that you just did, and WHY!
Most paddlers take out at the US Highway 278 (Arkansas SH 4) bridge, but it is possible to paddle another 12-14 miles down to Gillham Lake on a mostly flatwater section that can be enjoyed for its sheer beauty alone. Or, having successfully lived over the run you just made, you have the option of shuttling back to the top and testing fate again. The section below US Highway 278 (Arkansas SH 4) can be a great fishing area if the water is not flowing too fast, and many people you see down there will be anglers looking for the many species of fish to be caught in the Cossatot River.
Polk and Howard Counties in far southwestern Arkansas. The Cossatot flows from the Ouachita Mountains near Mena down past Vandervoot, Wickes and Athens, and relatively close to Texarkana, Hot Springs National Park and Little Rock.
Little Rock 160 miles; Texarkana 95 miles; Dallas 240 miles; Austin 435 miles; San Antonio 515 miles; Houston 350 miles; Oklahoma City 265 miles (all distances are approximate and depend upon starting point, destination point on the river and route taken.)
Excellent, cool and clear flowing from the Ouachita Mountains down to Gillham Lake. The flow is usually adequate much of the time except during summer months, but the river depends upon heavy local rainfall for sufficient water to paddle. If the gauge on SH 246 reads below 3.5 feet, then the water is probably too low. A reading of 3.5 to 4.5 feet is optimum. Any reading over 4.5 feet should be avoided by all except the most experienced expert paddlers, and then done with extreme caution.
Avoid the hot summer months or anytime after an extended drought. Immediately after local heavy rainfall is generally best, and the river is historically at its prime from mid fall through late spring, though the Ozarks are cold in the winter.
Hazards are everywhere on the middle part of the Upper Cossatot, below Lower Forest Road 31 and above US Highway 278 (Arkansas SH 4). Between FR 31 and the SH 246 crossing are three miles with some Class II-III rapids that can pose problems for paddlers without moderate whitewater skills, or for more experienced boaters at high water levels. From SH 246 down to Ed Banks Road is another 3 miles of Class II-III whitewater in a fast-moving current. If you have difficulty running that section, then do not even contemplate a run below Ed Banks Road, and live to paddle another day.
"Zig-Zag" Rapid (Class III) is about 0.25 miles below Ed Banks Road, with a hard 90 degree turn followed by a 4-foot drop. About 0.1 mile later is "The Esses", a 200-yard long boulder garden with a 3-foot drop near the midpoint. About 1.5 miles below Ed Banks Road is the first of three unnamed rapids, the first two of which are Class III drops followed by a Class II rapid that takes you down to FR 52600, where the really hairy stuff begins. Leaving FR 52600, you will encounter Cossatot Falls, a series of 6 drops where the river plunges about 35-40 feet in a very short distance. The Falls consists of Cossatosser (Class III-IV), Eye Opener (Class III), B.M.F. (Class III), Washing Machine (Class IV-V), Whiplash (Class III) and Last One (Class III).
If you survive running or portaging the Falls, then you can look forward to Deer Camp Rapid (Class III) less than a mile below, followed by Devils Hollow Rapid (Class III) and Devils Hollow Falls (Class III-IV), a 6-8 foot ledge with a possible portage on the far right. Devils Hollow Rapid is considered by experts to be the most technical drop on the Cossatot River. As with all serious whitewater rapids and drops, each of these hazards should be carefully scouted, routes planned and safety teams in place BEFORE an attempt is made to run them. The upside to playing here is that you will NOT be alone. Many highly trained and experienced expert paddlers will be watching and waiting to assist in the event your run goes awry. The price you should be prepared to pay for their help is to be equally prepared to assist somebody else when it is their turn.
Forest Road 31 low-water bridge at 0.0 miles; SH 246 low-water bridge at 3.0 miles; Ed Banks Road (FR 52000) low-water at 6.5 miles; FR 52600 (Sandbar) low-water bridge at 8.5 miles; US Highway 278 (formerly SH 4) high-water bridge at 12.7 miles; Gillham Lake at 24.0 miles.
The final practical take-out point is the US Highway 278 high-water bridge at 12.7 miles, however, it is possible, water levels permitting, to paddle all the way to Gillham Lake about 24 miles below the FR 31 put-in.
Cossatot River State Park (870-385-2201) offers 6 tent sites without water or electricity; Queen Wilhelmina State Park (479-394-2863) at Mena offers 41 campsites of three classes; Daisy State Park (870-398-4487) at Kirby, near the Little Missouri River, offers 117 campsites including 21 tent sites, picnic areas, a screened pavilion with restrooms, boat launch ramps, hiking trails, a playground, and a motorcycle/mountain bike/ATV trail; There are limited primitive campsites at the SH 246 crossing, Ed Banks Road crossing and SH 4 crossing, as well as at Gillham Lake.
There are no liveries or shuttle services operating on or in the immediate vicinity of the Cossatot River. Bring your own boats and gear, and arrange your own shuttles.
One of these days I am going to get the nerve to run the 'Tot. For the moment, I still have some living to do! For those who are experienced in extreme whitewater and well trained and skilled at swiftwater rescue the Cossatot River is the best whitewater playground anywhere between the East and West Coasts or the mountain areas of Idaho, Montana, Utah and California. When it has adequate water the sections above and below the "skullcrusher" section (SH 246 to SH 4) offer a scenic and skills testing Class I-III whitewater experience. The Cossatot is very dependent upon recent local rainfall, and without it the river is frequently too low to paddle. By the same token, when the level at the SH 246 bridge reads higher than about 4.5 feet the river is a real killer for the unprepared paddler. This is not a place to test your ego. It is a place to be prepared, have plenty of well-earned self-confidence and to get ready for a real adventure, even if you do not choose to run the bone-breaking rapids and falls where the expert boaters go to play.
If you are a fisherman, and you are lucky enough to catch the 'Tot when it lacks sufficient water for fast paddling, but enough for the fish, then you will be treated to a stream rich in walleye, grass pickerel, bluegill, longear and green sunfish, channel catfish, warmouth, white, rock and largemouth bass and other species that can be caught on a variety of tackle and bait. For the camera buff, the 'Tot is a beautiful place to expose some film, so take plenty. You do not have to risk life and limb to enjoy the area around the Cossatot River. It is some of the very best of Arkansas Ozarks beauty.