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Upper White River, Arkansas
Report by Marc W. McCord

Pettigrew to Arkansas SH 74
~ 36.8 miles

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SOAR Inflatable Canoes - Somewhere On A River

General Description

Forming in the Boston Mountains of northwest Arkansas very close to the headwaters of the Hailstone (Upper Upper Buffalo), Kings and Mulberry Rivers, as well as Big Piney and Little Piney Creeks, is the Upper White River, a long river that flows northwest through Fayetteville and into Lake Sequoyah then north into Beaver Lake before crossing the Missouri State Line. In Missouri, the river flows into Table Rock Lake, then east to Bull Shoals Lake, from which it emerges as the White River of northeastern Arkansas that we all know and love. "Above" Fayetteville, and I use that term loosely since the river actually flows from south to north in this area, the Upper White River offers a Class I to II run of about 36.8 miles through Washington and Madison counties.

The river flows in very close proximity to Arkansas SH 16 from around Pettigrew to about 7 miles northwest of there, then along SH 16/23 to St. Paul, and finally along SH 16 through numerous small towns including Brashears, Combs, Delaney, Crosses and Durham to Elkins and the take-out for this reach at SH 74 on the southeastern edge of Fayetteville. While there are no major rapids of concern to competent paddlers there are several low-water bridges and numerous potential willow strainers, dead-fall debris piles and log jams that must be avoided, especially when flows are above normal. This area is not remote like most Arkansas streams, nor as scenic, but it does offer a great trip with several easy access points along the way so that paddlers can choose the sections and distances they want to paddle depending upon flow conditions and time available. Though not located along the Upper White River, there are plenty of great campgrounds in close proximity, most located along other nearby Ozark streams.


The Boston Mountains of Madison and Washington Counties of far northwestern Arkansas. Fayetteville is just a few miles northwest of the first put-in and touches the last take-out for this reach. Fort Smith is just over an hour to the southwest, and the Illinois River at Tahlequah, Oklahoma is about an hour away to the southwest.

Distance from major cities

Fayetteville 40 miles; Fort Smith 72 miles; Little Rock 197 miles; Texarkana 252 miles: Kansas City 276 miles; Oklahoma City 252 miles; Dallas 432 miles; Austin 628 miles; San Antonio 708 miles; Houston 541 miles; Albuquerque 794 miles; Phoenix 1,252 miles; Denver 877 miles; Salt Lake City 1,411 miles (all distances are approximate, and depend upon starting point, destination at the river and route taken.)

Water Quality and Flow Rates

Water quality is generally good to very good near the headwaters, diminishing slightly as the river approaches Fayetteville. Its flow is usually adequate for paddle trips year-round, weather permitting, though the river may run low during periods of prolonged drought or in hot, summer months.

Best time to go

Weather and climate permitting, the Upper White River can be paddled almost any time. The most favorable water and weather conditions usually occur from early-March through June and from late-September through November. It will be cold in winter months, but properly attired paddlers can usually find good flows between November and March.

Hazards to navigation

There are no major rapids or similar hazards on the Upper White River at normal flows. Brush and debris piles from dead-fall and log jams occasionally create potential strainers and entrapments that must be avoided. Low-water bridges can be problems at high flows, but they are usually minor problems for competent boaters.

River Access Points

Arkansas SH 16 bridge in Pettigrew at 0.0 miles; SH 16/23 bridge at St. Paul at about 10.0 miles; SH 16 bridge at Brashears at about 12.0 miles; SH 16 bridge at Combs at about 15.0 miles; SH 16 bridge at Delaney at about 19.5 miles; SH 16 bridge at Crosses at about 21.0 miles; Low-water crossing about 1 mile northwest of Crosses at about 22.0 miles; SH 16 bridge at Durham at about 29.3 miles; Gravel road north of Durham at about 31.3 miles; Gravel road east of Elkins at about 34.3 miles; and Arkansas SH 74 bridge just southeast of Fayetteville at about 36.8 miles. There may be other access points due to the very close proximity of SH 16, which parallels the river along most of the entire run.

Campgrounds and accommodations

There are no campgrounds located immediately adjacent to the Upper White River. However, there are numerous excellent campgrounds within a few miles in any direction. They include: White Rock Mountain Campground (USFS) near Combs, offering 8 campsites, drinking water and pit toilets (Food, supplies and gasoline are available nearby in Combs) and many USFS and State Park campgrounds on either side of US Highway 71 south of Fayetteville, near the Mulberry River and Big Piney Creek off SH 23 south of St. Paul and along both sides of US Highway 71/62 between Fayetteville and Bentonville.

Liveries, outfitters and shuttle services

There are no known liveries or outfitters serving the Upper White River. Bring your own boats and gear, and run your own shuttles.

Reviewer's comments

The Upper White River is an interesting place to paddle a canoe or kayak, though it is not too well suited for rafting. It offers less scenery that most Arkansas waterways, but is more consistent in its flow, and can be paddled almost any time of the year. The best part about this river is the number of easy access points located between Pettigrew and Fayetteville. With no major hazards to navigation, this stream is ideal for beginner or novice paddlers, though care does have to be taken to avoid getting caught in willow strainers, debris piles or an occasional log jam. At higher flows those low-water bridges become potential hazards, but are usually easily avoided by careful control maneuvers, and will need to be portaged in low or high water conditions. The close proximity of Fayetteville means paddlers can find gasoline, restaurants, grocery stores, supplies, motels or just about anything else they need, and while I am unaware of any paddle shops in the area it is highly likely that there is at least one. Sporting goods stores or local Target and Wally-World (Wal-Mart) Stores will have basic necessities such as cheap paddles, PFD's, aqua socks, sunglasses, sunscreen and other essentials. The best asset of this river may be its very close proximity to the Hailstone, Buffalo and Mulberry Rivers, as well as Big Piney and Little Piney Creeks, or the Illinois River about an hour away at Tahlequah, Oklahoma.

Technical Data
Class Rating I to II
Length 36.8 miles
Min. Stage
Opt. Stage
Max. Stage
First Put-in SH 16 at Pettigrew
Lat. / Long.
Last Take-out SH 74 near Fayetteville
Lat. / Long.
Elevation msl
Gradient fpm
USGS Gauge Web: NONE
Boats Canoes, Kayaks
Season Year-round, wather permitting
Permits No

Upper White River map courtesy Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism and the Arkansas Floaters' Guide

Arkansas Canoe Club

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

Click the links below for information regarding the section of the Upper White River and its tributaries where you want to paddle.

[ Upper White River Homepage ] [ West Fork of the Upper White River ] [ War Eagle Creek ]

Southwest Paddler
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