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Big Sugar Creek, Missouri
Report by Marc W. McCord

Big Sugar Creek, Missouri

Roller Bridge to the Elk River
~ 24.5 Miles

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SOAR Inflatable Canoes - Somewhere On A River

General Description

Most reviews of Big Sugar Creek tend to suggest a waterway of about 24.5 miles in length, starting near Powell and ending at the Little Sugar confluence, where the Elk River is born of the meeting of the two creeks. However, Big Sugar actually begins in Barry County many miles east of Powell, and flows an estimated 45-50 miles, possibly longer, from its headwaters to the Elk River. The upper reaches of the creek are usually too low to paddle, which probably accounts for those sections not being mentioned. The navigable section begins near Powell in McDonald County, then flows as a Class I to II stream with an average gradient of about 6.5 fpm, giving the creek a good, steady current that carries boaters downstream. In addition to being an absolutely gorgeous place to paddle a canoe, kayak or raft, Big Sugar is also noted for its excellent fishing opportunities. All around the creek is a very natural area that is condusive to camping and other outdoors recreation activities.

A recent addition to the area is the Big Sugar Creek State Park, in which about 80% of its more than 2,000 acres have been designated as the Elk River Breaks Natural Area, and is protected as a perpetual, undeveloped area that features a wide diversity of wildlife, birds, plants and forests. The waters of Big Sugar are very clean and very clear, making it a favorite with fishermen. Many outfitters, while not actually located on the creek, provide rentals, shuttles, campgrounds and other services that cater to paddlers and others who come here for the joy of being in such a beautiful and serene place. With few serious hazards and a world of natural scenery, this is a stream that is growing in popularity, and just one trip here will let you know why. If you run the full 24.5 miles and don't get enough paddling time for your satisfaction, then just continue on down the Elk River another 20 miles. If you still need more time on the water, then Indian Creek, Little Sugar Creek or any of the many great streams in southern Missouri and northern Arkansas are close enough to satisfy any craving.


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

Distance from major cities

Joplin 55 miles; Springfield 100 miles; Kansas City 205 miles; St. Louis 310 miles; Oklahoma City 271 miles; Little Rock 225 miles; Dallas 476 miles; Austin 666 miles; San Antonio 746 miles; Houston 732 miles; Albuquerque 813 miles; Phoenix 1,252 miles; Denver 896 miles; Salt Lake City 1,372 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 almost year-round, especially below Cyclone.

Best time to go

Almost any time except during a drought period is the "best" time to visit Big Sugar Creek. Spring and fall offer the best combination of water flow and climate conditions. Paddlers with appropriate clothing will be treated to a winter wonderland of icicles hanging from ledges and outcroppings along the banks. Summers bring out tubers for a lazy trip downstream.

Hazards to navigation

Like the other streams that are part of the Elk River system, Big Sugar Creek is basically free of significant waterfalls and rapids, but presents some potential problems with dead-fall strainers, log jams and debris piles in its bends, especially at above normal flows. Vigilance and careful boating will avoid almost all true hazards. Low-water bridges at Mike's Creek (6.8 miles below Roller Bridge) and Cyclone (14.6 miles) offer potential pinning and wrapping "opportunities", where caution should be exercised to avoid a mishap, especially when flows are higher than usual.

River Access Points

Roller Bridge on SH 90 and Highway KK at 0.0 miles (this is a high-water access ONLY!). A McDonald County road parallels the creek most of the way between Roller Bridge and Powell; Powell, at about 5.5 miles, where a McDonald County road parallel to the creek has several bridges, any of which offer access; Bentonville Hollow, at the Highway E bridge, at about 6.0 miles; Low-water bridge on creek road at about 6.8 miles (Mike's Creek on river right); Kings Valley, on river right, at about 7.8 miles; End of Highway V at Little Cedar Hollow, on river right, at about 12.3 miles; Cyclone low-water bridge (best starting point in normal water level conditions) at about 14.6 miles (good access with camping, swimming and creekside road on north from here to Pineville); MDC Deep Ford Public Access at about 20.4 miles; Low-water bridge at "Craig 'O Lea" at about 20.9 miles; Sugar Beach, by some cottages, at about 22.4 miles; US Highway 71 bridge on the Elk River at about 24.5 miles.

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, including their new location on the Elk River just below the confluence of Big Sugar and Little Sugar Creeks. There are several other commercial campgrounds, as well as conventional accommodations providers, located along or in close proximity to Big Sugar Creek and 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 Big Sugar Creek and the Elk River. There are several other commercial outfitters offering rentals, shuttles and river information along Big Sugar Creek and the Elk River.

Reviewer's comments

I like to think of Big Sugar Creek as a warm-up for the Elk River, taking two moderate length trips and combining them into one long 2-day or easy 3-day run on pristine waters that flow through magnificent forests, tall cliffs, wooded uplands and gorgeous glades. This is a place for all seasons, though trips above Cyclone need to be restricted to those times when flows are higher than normal. The lack of serious whitewater is more than offset by the crystal clear, clean, steady-flowing currents of Big Sugar and Elk, where an abundance of natural, scenic beauty surrounds the stream and invites nature lovers to a truly incredible place to camp, paddle, hike, fish, take photographs, observe birds and animals in their natural habitats and otherwise enjoy everything that Mother Nature has carved out of this area of the Ozarks. Having the added choices of paddling the Elk River, Little Sugar Creek, Indian Creek or any number of nearby Missouri and Arkansas waterways makes this a perfect destination for those who find comfort in the great outdoors. Several campgrounds with boat rentals and shuttle services, as well as just about everything else you will need, make this place just about perfect. You will be hard pressed to realize how close you are to Joplin and Springfield when you are surrounded by a natural wonderland of immense beauty. You know the drill - BRING YOUR CAMERA!

Technical Data
Class Rating I to II
Length 24.5 miles
Minimum Flow cfs
Optimum Flow cfs
Maximum Flow cfs
First Put-in Roller Bridge
Lat. / Long.
Last Take-out US Highway 71 bridge
Lat. / Long.
Elevation msl
Gradient 6.5 fpm av. / 9 fpm max.
USGS Gauge Web: Powell
Boats Canoes, Kayaks, Rafts
Permits No

Cyclone low-water bridge
Cyclone low-water bridge

MDC Deep Ford Public Access
MDC Deep Ford Public Access

Craig 'O Lea low-water bridge
Craig 'O Lea low-water bridge

Indian Creek, Elk River, Big Sugar and Little Sugar map courtesy MDC
Big Sugar Creek map courtesy MDC
Canoeman River Guide Services - guided river trips, trip planning, and instruction on rivers in Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Missouri, New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado and Utah

Ozark Wilderness Waterways Club - a non-profit organization dedicated to the preservation of Ozark streams

Missouri Whitewater Association - promoting whitewater paddling in the Ozarks

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

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

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

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