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Elk River, Missouri
Report by Marc W. McCord

US Highway 71 to SH 43
~ 20.8 Miles

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SOAR Inflatable Canoes - Somewhere On A River

General Description

Forming at the confluence of Big Sugar Creek and Little Sugar Creek near Pineville, among heavily-forested, towering cliffs in the pristine and undeveloped far southwest corner of Missouri, is the Elk River. The Elk is a bedrock stream of immense natural beauty and clear, clean water that flows west by northwest through McDonald County to Grand Lake of the Cherokees in northeastern Oklahoma. The river's total length is about 55 miles, though an additional 24.5 miles can be paddled by starting on Big Sugar Creek at the Roller Bridge where SH 90 and Highway KK meet. About 20.8 miles of the Elk River, from US Highway 71 to SH 43 near the Oklahoma State Line, offers excellent opportunities for canoeing, kayaking, rafting and tubing, camping, hiking, cave exploration, fishing, photography, bird watching and many other outdoors recreational activities. While generally unknown to most paddlers, the Elk River and its tributary creeks are fast becoming popular with local boaters, and development of Big Sugar Creek State Park is sure to attract millions of annual visitors in years to come.

The Elk is rated as a Class I to II stream with no significant rapids or waterfall drops. The upper end of its difficulty comes from potential dead-fall strainers and log jams that collect at bends in the streambed where lazy or inexperienced paddlers could get into trouble, especially at high flows. With all there is to see around the river it is easy to become distracted from what awaits ahead. Paddling between Pineville and Noel, boaters will see numerous cottages lining hills above the riverbanks, but below Noel the land starts to flatten and become much more remote as the river winds through wooded uplands and beautiful glades on its way toward Grand Lake of the Cherokees. Aided by the attractions of Indian Creek, Big Sugar Creek and Little Sugar Creek, all great paddling and fishing streams, this area is soon to become very popular, but for now, paddlers can still enjoy a rather remote paddle trip where they may not be sharing the waters with too many other boaters except during the peak of the spring and summer season, especially on Saturdays. There are a number of local outfitters who can provide boat rentals, shuttles, campgrounds and other services in this area. Be sure to bring your camera!


McDonald County of far southwestern Missouri, very near the Oklahoma State Line to the west and the Arkansas State Line to the south. Joplin is less than an hour's drive to the north.

Distance from major cities

Joplin 35 miles; Springfield 90 miles; Kansas City 185 miles; St. Louis 300 miles; Oklahoma City 251 miles; Little Rock 228 miles; Dallas 360 miles; Austin 550 miles; San Antonio 630 miles; Houston 610 miles; Albuquerque 793 miles; Phoenix 1,232 miles; Denver 876 miles; Salt Lake City 1,352 miles (all distances are approximate and depend upon starting point, destination point on the river and route taken.)

Water Quality and Flow Rates

Water quality is generally very good to excellent, flowing clean, clear and cool from natural springs and rainfall runoff. Navigable flows usually are found year-round on the Elk River other than during periods of prolonged drought.

Best time to go

As a rule, you can paddle the Elk River just about any time, though flows will be lower and slower in mid-summer and early-fall unless there has been significant local rainfall to charge the springs and keep them feeding fresh water into the river.

Hazards to navigation

There are no major rapids or waterfall drops of consequence on the Elk River between Highway 71 and the Oklahoma State Line. However, the river bends frequently, and dead-fall strainers or log jams can become serious threats to safe boating, especially in high-water conditions. A modest average gradient of about 4 fpm gives a steady current that accelerates in or near flood stage conditions, making boat control even more demanding and important. The dam at Shadow Lake, at about 11.3 miles, should be portaged by most boaters most of the time. Do not get lulled into submission by the gorgeous surrounding landscape, then forget to steer clear of obstructions.

River Access Points

US Highway 71 bridge near Pineville at 0.0 miles; Kozy Kamp, across US Highway 71, at 0.0 miles; Road on river left at about 1.4 miles; Road on river left near Riverside Inn at about 2.9 miles; Low-water bridge just below railroad bridge at about 6.2 miles; Ginger Blue Resort on river right at about 6.7 miles; Shady Beach Campground on river right at about 7.2 miles; MDC Mt. Shira Access on river right at about 7.5 miles; SH 59 / SH 90 intersection at the mouth of Butler Creek at about 10.5 miles; SH 59 bridge over Shadow Lake at about 10.9 miles; Road on river right at about 11.8 miles; Henderson's Campground at about 13.3 miles; MDC Cowskin Access at SH 43 bridge at about 20.8 miles. There may be other access points at commercial outfitter locations along the river.

Campgrounds and accommodations

Shady Beach Campground (800-745-6481) offers cabin rentals, tent and RV camping and day use facilities on the banks of the Elk River. There are several other commercial campgrounds, as well as conventional accommodations providers, located along or in close proximity to the Elk River.

Liveries, Outfitters and Shuttle Services

Shady Beach Campground (800-745-6481) offers canoe, kayak, raft and tube rentals, as well as shuttle services, on the Elk River. There are several other commercial outfitters offering rentals, shuttles and river information along the Elk River.

Reviewer's comments

Okay, so you've never heard of the Elk River, or of anybody paddling it. That is quickly changing as this beautiful Ozark stream gains in popularity. Its near year-round flow and gorgeous surroundings make it a great place to canoe, kayak or raft, and for those too lazy to make that much effort on a day at the river, many outfitters also rent tubes. Numerous campgrounds, most also providing rentals and shuttles, round out the convenience of paddling the Elk and its tributary creeks. In recent years Big Sugar Creek State Park has sprung to life, and is being developed for boat access, camping, hiking and numerous other outdoors activities. It would be impossible to overstate the fun and enjoyment of coming to this part of Missouri, where the "Show Me" state will show you the time of your life, and this ain't even Branson, in case you thought that was all Missouri had to offer, though it is not very far away. In addition to the Elk, paddlers can enjoy Indian Creek, Big Sugar Creek and Little Sugar Creek for a day or several days, depending upon how much time you have available and how much fun you can stand to have on one trip. As Commander Cody once said,"...There's a whole lot of things that I ain't done. I ain't NEVER had too much fun!..."

Technical Data
Class Rating I to II
Length 20.8 miles
Minimum Flow cfs
Optimum Flow cfs
Maximum Flow cfs
First Put-in US Highway 71 bridge
Lat. / Long.
Last Take-out SH 43 bridge
Lat. / Long.
Elevation msl
Gradient 4 fpm av.
USGS Gauge Web: Tiff City
Boats Canoes, Kayaks, Rafts
Season Year-round, weather permitting
Permits No

Elk River, Indian Creek, Big Sugar and Little Sugar map courtesy MDC
Elk River map courtesy MDC

The Elk River forms at the confluence of Big Sugar and Little Sugar Creeks
The Elk River forms at the confluence of Big Sugar and Little Sugar Creeks

Old US Highway 71 bridge 3/10th mile below the confluence
Old US Highway 71 bridge 3/10th mile below the confluence

Bald Eagle on the Elk River
Bald Eagle on the Elk River

The Elk River looking downriver from the Shady Beach Campground
The Elk River looking downriver from Shady Beach Campground

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

[ Elk River Homepage ] [ Indian Creek ] [ Big Sugar Creek ] [ Little Sugar Creek ]

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Last updated September 13, 2014

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