Running parallel to and east of the Cossatot River is the whitewater Saline River, as opposed to the flatwater version that runs through Hot Springs. This Saline River (Arkansas has two with the same name - go figure!) is in Polk and Howard Counties near southeastern Oklahoma and northeastern Texas. The river begins in the Caddo Mountains and Ouachita National Forest of the Arkansas Ozarks Range near Mena, then flows south to Dierks Lake, continuing from there down to Millwood Lake where it meets the Little River. (The Cossatot joins the Little River at US Highway 59 / 71 just northwest of Millwood Lake.) This upper reach is rated Class II to III at the top of this approximately 22.6 mile reach, mellowing to Class I to II as it nears Dierks Lake. It is an extremely scenic river with many of the same characteristics as the 'Tot, though not as hairy as the serious part of that river.
The Upper Saline is a fast-moving whitewater run utilized by many boaters as a warmup for the larger rapids and drops of the Cossatot. It features boulder garden rapids and dead-fall strainers on a very narrow channel lined with willow trees along both banks. A typical run will require portages around trees that lie across the river blocking passage of boats and paddlers, so paying attention to what lies ahead is of paramount importance. The river channel flows through a heavily vegetated forest area of farmland where there are few signs of civilization. The remoteness of the area makes this a special place for those looking to get away from the hustle and bustle of big city life. The maximum gradient of about 50 fpm (average 25.7 fpm) gives a great ride that requires more steering control than acceleration. About a couple of miles into the run from the dam is an island below which is a blind left turn leading into a short drop of about 6 feet that is runnable with sufficient flows, but for which canoes should be outfitted with air bags to reduce the amount of water taken on. At low flows, which are a more common condition on this river, a portage will be necessary at numerous lefges and at a few low water bridges, the latter of which can pose significant hazards to boaters and boats. At stages over about 11-12 feet paddlers should be looking for another river to run. Though not quite as challenging as the 'Tot, the Upper Saline River can still be very testy and dangerous. Boaters in canoes and kayaks should have at least strong intermediate whitewater skills for runs on the Upper Saline River, and rafts are just not practical for this small stream, which at times become quite narrow.
Numerous access points allow for runs of various lengths to fill almost any trip plan. Starting in Polk County just below Shady Lake Dam, this trip finally concludes in Howard County on the headwaters to Dierks Lake at Blue Ridge Road on river left. This river is as different as night and day from the Benton County river of the same name. The Howard County Saline is not a lazy day on the river type of stream, and paddlers should expect some challenges regardless of water level. You might see all manner of wildlife, but you will not see many people other than those in your own group.
Polk and Howard Counties in far southwestern Arkansas. The Upper Saline River flows from the Ouachita Mountains near Mena down to Dierks Lake, and then to Millwood Lake and its confluence with the Little River. It is relatively close to Texarkana, Hot Springs National Park and Little Rock.
Little Rock 130 miles; Fayetteville 175 miles; Texarkana 80 miles; Fort Smith 113 miles; Oklahoma City 293 miles; Kansas City 434 miles; Dallas 260 miles; Austin 450 miles; San Antonio 530 miles; Houston 370 miles; Albuquerque 928 miles; Phoenix 1,262 miles; Durango 1,046 miles; Denver 918 miles; Grand Junction 1,112 miles; Salt Lake City 1,394 miles (all distances are approximate and depend upon starting point, destination point on the river and route taken.)
Water quality will be good to excellent if there has been heavy rainfall in the local area. Quality will be poor during periods of extended drought, when the water will become seriously deoxygenated. Flow is heavily dependent upon local rainfall and occasionally snowmelt from the Caddo Mountains for sufficient water to paddle. This section needs a stage of at least 7-8 feet, and a maximum of 11-12 feet, at the Dierks USGS gauge for good boating.
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.
The Upper Saline River does not have big rapids and drops, but what it has can be very dangerous, especially at high flows. The channel is narrow and lined with willow trees which can produce significant strainers, especially when uprooted and deposited in the river. Boulders can create small holes and cross currents that cause boats to spin out of control. Dead-fall debris is always a possibility, and creates hazards which must occasionally be portaged because of riverwide blockages. Low water bridges should be approached with caution and usually portaged at navigable flows. About 2 miles into the run from Shady Lake Dam is an island, beyond which is a blind left turn into a 6-foot drop that can be clogged with boulders and/or trees. Scouting is always recommended. With sufficient flows the drop can be run, but at low or high flows it should be portaged. Caution should always be the watchword for running the Upper Saline, just as it would be for the Cossatot. This run is a smaller version of the 'Tot, and paddlers need to be aware of the potential for serious injury or loss of boats from failure to properly negotiate hazards they will encounter.
Put in below Shady Lake Dam (N 34° 21' 35.00" / W 094° 01' 40.92") off SH 64 on river left at 0.0 miles; SH 256 Bridge (N 34° 19' 56.60" / W 094° 00' 42.85") on river left at about 2.9 miles; SH 84 Bridge (N 34° 18' 53.96" / W 093° 59' 26.20") on river right at about 4.9 miles; Weyerhauser Rd. 53323 (N 34° 18' 24.08" / W 093° 59' 42.66") on river right at about 5.7 miles; Weyerhauser (Weyco) Road 53220 (N 34° 17' 46.27" / W 094° 00' 04.97") on river left at about 7.25 miles; Weyco Road 200 (N 34° 17' 10.86" / W 094° 00' 28.86") on river left at about 8.1 miles; Faulkner Road (N 34° 16' 07.00" / W 094° 00' 18.85") on river left at about 10.0 miles; Curt short Road (N 34° 15' 29.21" / W 094° 00' 37.24") on river left at about 11.0 miles; Pinkerton Road (N 34° 14' 45.56" / W 094° 00' 23.94") on either side at about 12.0 miles; 725 Road (N 34° 13' 42.76" / W 094° 01' 45.33") on river right at about 14.5 miles; 32700 Road (N 34° 13' 17.70" / W 094° 02' 23.00") on river right at about 16.25 miles; 31756 Road (N 34° 12' 54.47" / W 094° 02' 42.35") on either side at about 17.0 miles; US Highway 278 (N 34° 12' 39.52" / W 094° 03' 03.10") on river right at about 17.6 miles; Blue Ridge Rd. (N 34° 11' 30.90" / W 094° 05' 53.54") on Dierks Lake on river left at about 22.6 miles. There may be other access points for the Upper Saline River.
There are no campgrounds located along the Saline River. Shady Lake and Bard Springs Campgrounds, both just north of the headwaters, offer excellent campsites. On or near the Cossatot River Gillham Lake offers primitive campsites; 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.
There are no liveries or shuttle services operating on or in the immediate vicinity of the Upper Saline River. Bring your own boats and gear, and arrange your own shuttles.
The Upper Saline river is an excellent Arkansas whitewater stream that is close to major population centers in Arkansas, Oklahoma and Texas. The river is a gorgeous place to paddle, with mountains, forests, willow-lined banks and boulder garden rapids with small drops in a very remote area that is extremely close to the Cossatot River for those wanting a much bigger thrill. Its only real downside is the limited season that is heavily dependent upon recent local rainfall for navigable flows, but when the river rises it can easily go over the top quickly, so boaters need to be cognizant of conditions in the general area to catch it when it is prime for running. In places the river channel is very narrow and constricted, sometimes having logjams at bends that could act as entrapment hazards, so great care needs to be taken, and low water bridges pose potential entrapment hazards that should be avoided. At least strong intermediate level whitewater skills are recommended because of the remoteness and technical nature of this river. It is fun in canoes with flotation and kayaks, but just too narrow and wooded to be a good rafting river. If you can catch it in spring, when trees and plants are blooming, or in fall, when the colors are changing, then you will be treated to an especially beautiful array of natural beauty that embellishes a river that really needs no extra help. Bring your camera, but carry it in a dry, bump-resistent case for when you are not using it. The Upper Saline River will offer an exciting whitewater thrill without risking life and limb at every drop. As George ( of jungle fame) would say, "Watch out for that tree!"