Forming in far southwest Texas County, in the Mark Twain National Forest of the Missouri Ozarks, is the North Fork of the White River, a 78-mile long, Class I to II stream with an almost perpetual, spring-fed flow that runs south through Douglas and Ozark Counties to Norfork Lake along the Arkansas border. This beautiful wilderness river is characterized by excellent quality, crystal clear water, banks lined with hardwood trees, a usually swift current and many rapids, small ledge drops and standing waves that provide excitement, though not too much technical difficulty. The river is navigable by boaters with even modest skills and experience. A moderate gradient averaging about 7.5 feet per mile (fpm) maintains a gentle current that makes paddling easy.
From its headwaters to SH 76, the river flows about 28.5 miles along a narrow channel among dead-fall debris strainers. Access near the top is a little less inviting than on reaches below. The middle reach from SH 76 to SH 14, where popular paddle and fishing trips usually begin, is about 24.1 miles of gorgeous river, natural scenery and few people. This section is ideal for those looking for a trip away from crowds. The lower reach runs about 25.4 miles from SH 14 to Norfork Lake Public Access just below US Highway 160 at Tecumseh, and is the most popular reach of the river. Spring and summer months produce large crowds of canoeists, kayakers and tubers enjoying the gorgeous water with its steady 4 mph current where boaters can either paddle or float, depending upon their desires. Several springs feed additional water into the river, as well as contributing to the natural scenic appeal of the North Fork. Some of the ledges produce drops of 2-3 feet, just to make it interesting. The USFS operates excellent campgrounds at Hammond Camp and Patrick Bridge, two of the intermediate access points between the SH 14 put-in and Norfork Lake. True hazards are few, but depending upon flow conditions, the Dawt Mill low-head dam and the low-water bridge below it, as well as some of the ledge drops, can pose risks to less experienced paddlers, though easy portages offer ways around them. Bring your camera and enjoy this fantastic, moderate whitewater stream that is boatable almost year-round.
Douglas and Ozark Counties of extreme southcentral Missouri, in the Mark Twain National Forest just north of the Arkansas State Line. The Eleven Point, Current, Black and St. Francis rivers all flow generally parallel a few miles to the east.
St. Louis 170 miles; Springfield 90 miles; Kansas City 260 miles; Little Rock 230 miles; Oklahoma City 382 miles; Kansas City 259 miles; Dallas 555 miles; Austin 750 miles; San Antonio 830 miles; Houston 664 miles; Albuquerque 924 miles; Phoenix 1,363 miles; Denver 1,007 miles; Salt Lake City 1,383 miles (all distances are approximate and depend upon starting point, destination at the river and route taken.)
Water quality is usually very good to excellent due to the natural, undeveloped environment surrounding the North Fork. Flows are produced by many springs that feed the river, keeping it at navigable levels at almost all times.
Spring and summer months are very popular with recreational canoeists, though the river can almost always be paddled, provided you have adequate clothing for the seasons and climate conditions you may encounter. Seasonal changes will be milder than in the Ozark Mountains streams of Missouri and Arkansas, but late-fall through early-spring can still produce cold nights and very cool to cold days.
There are several potential hazards that, depending upon flow conditions and paddler skills, may present hazards to boaters. Looking downriver from the SH 76 access, these are: Highway CC low-water bridge ay Hammond Campground (29.2 miles) - portage in high water conditions; 3-foot, riverwide ledge drop (36.9 miles) that can be run, or portaged along either bank; Patrick low-water bridge (42.1 miles) must be portaged in high water conditions; Dawt Mill Dam (45.6 miles) can be run in the center at high flows, or portaged along either bank in any water conditions; Dawt Mill low-water bridge (45.8 miles) is very dangerous in high water conditions - take out well above the bridge and portage along either bank; Repeating Riffle (47.6 miles) is a playspot for kayakers, but can flip a canoe or kayak paddled by less experienced boaters; drop just above the take-out can be fun when the lake is low, but novice boaters need to be very careful.
Dead-fall debris is the primary hazard to navigation on the North Fork. There are no major rapids or drops of concern to competent boaters. Most of the dead-fall will be on the upper half to two thirds of the river, clearing more as the stream approaches Norfork Lake. However, there are numerous ledge drops of 2-3 feet in swift currents, and small Class I to II rapids that can send paddlers swimming if not negotiated properly. Canoeists will find more stability paddling on their knees rather than sitting on seats when running these drops and rapids. Be sure to put everything that you want to stay dry inside waterproof drybags, and lash everything to your boat. While these minor obstacles do not classify as true hazards for competent boaters, they can cause anxious moments for novice paddlers who are unprepared for them. Be sure to wear your PFD - it may make a great seat cushion, but if you go swimming in a deep river amid swift currents you will wish you had it on! If you capsize, then get UPRIVER from the boat! Do NOT allow the boat to pin you between it and a rock or other immovable object in the river.
The USGS gauge for the North Fork is located at Tecumseh, at the end of the run. Be sure to take that in consideration when trying to determine conditions at the top of the run.
SH 76 bridge at 0.0 miles; Low-water bridge on connecting road between SH 76 and Highway E. Access at about 0.5 miles; Low-water bridge at Topaz at about 6.6 miles; Slab ford access at about 11.1 miles; Osborn Ford low-water bridge in Round Valley, on County Road AH-260 off Hwy. AH and County Road 284 off Hwy. 181 at about 12.2 miles; Hale Ford Bridge access on County Road 275 off Hwy. 181 and County Road W-278 off Hwy at about 14.8 miles; Hebron Access (gravel ramp) on CR 279 off SH 14 at about 18.7 miles; SH 14 bridge at Twin Bridges at about 24.1 miles; Highway CC low-water bridge at Hammond Camp at about 29.2 miles; Blair Bridge on Highway KK at about 39.2 miles; Blair low-water bridge on Highway KK at about 39.4 miles; Private campground (fee required) on river right at about 39.9 miles; Patrick low-water bridge on Highway H (gravel ramp on northeast side of bridge) at about 42.1 miles; Private campground (fee required) on river right at about 43.6 miles; Highway PP high bridge (old road leads to the low-water bridge) at about 45.3 miles; Norfork Lake Public Access just below US Highway 160 bridge near Tecumseh, at about 49.5 miles. Other access points may be available along the river and on Norfork Lake.
Hammond Camp (USFS), at about 29.2 miles, offers primitive campsites, pit toilets and picnic tables; Patrick Bridge Campground (USFS), at about 42.1 miles, offers primitive campsites, pit toilets and picnic tables (NOTE: the campsites have very few trees, so don't expect much cooling shade in mid-summer); Sycamore Campground (USFS), just northeast of SH 101 and SH 14 intersection, offers primitive campsites in Mark Twain National Forest. Numerous undeveloped, natural campsites can be found all along the river in the national forest.
There are at least seven known commercial outfitters providing rentals, shuttles and river information on the North Fork River and Bryant's Creek.
The spring-fed North Fork of the White River is a near-perpetual stream offering abundant opportunities for canoeing, kayaking and slow rafting on flatwater with occasional Class I to II riffles that is very well suited for just about any paddler regardless of experience. The river courses through Mark Twain National Forest in extreme southcentral Missouri, approaching the Arkansas State Line as it flows into Norfork Lake just above its confluence with the mainstream of the White River southeast of Bull Shoals Lake.
The area is very scenic, and the lower 25 miles are very popular with canoeists and kayakers in spring and summer months. Cool, clear waters and excellent shade from the sun make the North Fork a very enjoyable place for family outtings, and the nearly 50 miles of river that normally can be paddled without having to dodge dead-fallen tree debris offers opportunities for multi-day trips for those wanting more than just a few hours on the water.
Two USFS campgrounds are located along the river, and there are many places to camp in between. This remote wilderness retains its natural charm and scenic beauty in a place where development has not yet reached. The river is actually navigable almost any time year-round, as long as climate conditions don't interfere, but weather is milder in this part of Missouri than in the Ozark Mountains areas to the north and west. The two nearest major cities are Springfield, about 1.5-2 hours to the west, and St. Louis, about 3-3.5 hours to the northeast.
The North Fork offers an excellent place to experience river paddling and wilderness camping, so pack your gear (and your camera), then head for southern Missouri. If you need additional time on a river, then you also have options for the nearby Eleven Point, Current, Jacks Fork, Black, St. Francis and other great Missouri rivers, as well as numerous Arkansas streams that are about as close.