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Washita River, Oklahoma
Report by Marc W. McCord

US Highway 77 to SH 53
~ 21.7 miles

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SOAR Inflatable Canoes - Somewhere On A River

General Description

The Washita River forms in Hemphill County in the Texas Panhandle, just south of the Canadian River, then flows about 295 miles to Lake Murray and the Red River at Lake Texoma. Most of the river, however, is not a navigable stream and the section that is suitable for recreational paddling is a short stretch of about 22 miles located in southcentral Oklahoma, near Turner Falls and Price Falls, adjacent to the Chickasaw National Recreation Area. The Washita is a tame river for all but 1.2 miles of its 21.7 total miles. The section called "Big Canyon", starting at 11.3 miles below the Highway 77 put-in below Davis, Oklahoma, can have standing waves of several feet that can swamp an open boat or capsize any boat if not run properly or portaged around. While the general gradient of the river is a modest 3.9 fpm it reaches 30 fpm in Big Canyon. The big standing waves may reach 6 feet or more in high water conditions, which is rally the only time you can paddle this reach of the Washita River. Aside from this one potential hazard the rest of the river is enjoyable by familes or paddlers with little to no previous paddling experience. In modern parlance, it is a user-friendly river.

The trip downriver is scenic and colorful, with significant rock formations near the Arbuckle Mountains where the river runs. The area is steeped in ancient Native American cultures and many members of old tribes still live in the area, as well as all over Oklahoma, today. Spring and early Summer are the best times to catch the Washita with water - it tends to run low most of the year, and particularly during droughts. Oklahoma has its own version of the Grand Canyon, where southeast of Davis the Washita cuts through the granite and limestone in the Arbuckle Mountains, carving out a river valley with 300 foot walls running for several miles. Paul's Valley, Sulphur, Ardmore and Gene Autry (the town, NOT the singing cowboy!) are all just a few miles away. On the drive up there from anywhere south take note of the fields with symmetrically spaced boulders going on for miles. It is a geological anomoly.


Murray and Carter Counties in southcentral Oklahoma, almost equidistant between Dallas and Oklahoma City. The runnable section of the river flows through the Arbuckle Mountains near Davis.

Distance from major cities

Dallas 110 miles; Austin 310 miles; San Antonio 390 miles; Houston 360 miles; Oklahoma City 95 miles; Tulsa 175 miles; Ardmore 15 miles; Little Rock 342 miles; Kansas City 430 miles; St. Louis 560 miles; Albuquerque 587 miles; Phoenix 1,085 miles; Denver 695 miles; Grand Junction 907 miles; Salt Lake City 1,182 miles; (all distance are approximate depending upon starting point, destination at the river and route taken.)

Water Quality and Flow Rates

Generally good, becoming cloudy to muddy depending upon the severity of recent rainfall, with heavier rains producing the greatest amount of discoloration. Generally, the flow is adequate for a trip, but the river will run dry or non-navigable during prolonged droughts, paricularly in the dead of summer. Optimum flow conditions are 2,400 to 7,000 CFS.

Best time to go

Most people prefer Spring and Fall because of usually higher flows and milder temperatures. The river is dependent upon run-off from local rains within the drainage basin, so it may run high and fast, moderate and smooth, slow and meandering or not at all according to what Mother Nature decides to give us. Summer months are not preferred for great paddle trips due to normally low water conditions.

Hazards to navigation

Heavy local rainfall will reach dangerous proportions as the waters reach Big Canyon at 11.3 miles downriver. Big Canyon is a series of rapids in the Class I-II+ range packed into 1.2 miles inside a deep canyon with six-foot standing waves that can swamp or capsize a boat quickly, sending you swimming in a fast current over a rocky roller coaster (and you forgot to wear your steel cup!) The E-ticket ride ends at 12.5 miles downriver, after which there are no other hazards other than downed trees and debris clutters, especially after a flood.

River Access Points

US Highway 77 Bridge (N 34° 27' 17.76" / W 097° 07' 51.91") on river right at 0.0 miles; Dougherty Bridge (N 34° 23' 50.58" / W 097° 04' 01.84") on Kay Star Trail on river right at about 7.5 miles; 7 Sisteres Hills Road (N 34° 17' 58.19" / W 096° 59' 54.88") on river left at about 19.9 miles; SH 53 Bridge (N 34° 17' 16.17" / W 097° 00' 49.46") on river right at about 21.7 miles. There are no other access points on this section of the Washita River.

Campgrounds and accommodations

The Arbuckle Mountain Area is a tourist-friendly area with abundant places to camp nearby. Oklahoma is particularly good about providing public camping areas throughout the state. Arbuckle Reservoir, east of Highway 177, has numerous campsites available. Turner Falls (580-369-2917), west of IH-35, offers camping with picnic areas and electrical hookups, RV park with hookups, cabin rentals, and stores and shops in addition to a beautiful 77-foot waterfall. Chickasaw National Recreation Area (580-622-3161) offers year-around, 24 hours a day service with 455 camp sites, outdoor grills, picnic areas, public boat ramps, and docks, pull-throughs and 2 sanitary dump stations. There are at least two known commercial campgrounds located on or near the Washita River.

Liveries, outfitters and shuttle services

There are at least three known commercial outfitters offering rentals, shuttles and/or river information on or near the Washita River.

Reviewer's comments

As a youngster my parents used to bring us to Turner Falls to swim and play at the park. We were always struck by that big waterfall in the middle of nowhere, though I never did get the nerve (or the brain fart) to actually try climbing up and jumping off that 77 foot plunge into the pool below. There were rocks sticking up! Little did I know that the Washita River was just a very short distance away from there, and that it so magnificent a place to paddle for pure scenic beauty without having to drive a thousand miles or more. Trips of 7.5, 13.4 or 21.9 miles can be taken between US Highway 77 off SH 7 south of Davis down to SH 53 east of Gene Autry.

If you like pointing the bow of your boat at big haystacks, then running right at them fast and furious, the Big Canyon is definitely a super joyride. If your idea of fun on the river is somewhat tamer, then scout your line through Big Canyon carefully and hit your line! It's not too bad except in high flow levels after heavy rains send an abundance of water cascading down the river channel.

Technical Data
Class Rating II to III
Length 21.7 miles
Minimum Flow cfs
Optimum Flow 2,400-7,000 cfs
Maximum Flow cfs
First Put-in US Highway 77
Lat. / Long. N 34° 27' 17.76" / W 097° 07' 51.91"
Last Take-out SH 53 Bridge
Lat. / Long. N 34° 17' 16.17" / W 097° 00' 49.46"
Elevation 768 - 683 feet msl
Gradient ~ 3.9 fpm average
USGS Gauge Web: Dickson
Web: Paul's Valley
Boats Canoes, Kayaks, Rafts
Season Spring, Fall
Permits No

Dallas Down River Club - Promoting paddlesports, safety and environmental protection

Canoeman River Guide Service - Guided river trips in Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Missouri, New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado and Utah

Lone Star Paddler - the paddlesports web site of Marc W. McCord

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