New Arkansas Water Trails Program Creates Statewide System of Canoe Trails

By Zoie Clift, Arkansas Department of Parks & Tourism

First posted on 09-28-2009

Though Arkansas is overflowing with water trails for canoeists and kayakers to explore, chances are most people only know about rivers such as the Buffalo, the Cossatot, or the Mulberry.

Arkansas Water Trails is aiming to change this scenario.

The new program, initiated by the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission (AGFC), has been launched to create a system of water trails throughout the state.

“Canoe trails make wilderness areas accessible to everyone,” said Debbie Doss, Conservation Chair of the Arkansas Canoe Club (ACC). “Arkansas has unique treasures that many other places no longer have.”

Doss said in the U.S., the diversity of aquatic life found in Ozark Mountain streams is rivaled only by Alaska. “In addition we also have the largest untouched Big Woods wetland outside of the Atchafalaya Swamp in Louisiana,” she said. “These are beautiful amazing areas full of wildlife that are mostly unseen by anyone but hunters and fishermen.”

According to the Outdoor Industry Association, paddling is one of the fastest growing recreational sports in the nation. And the state is prime territory for it. “Arkansas has more than 90,000 miles of rivers, streams and bayous,” said Kirsten Bartlow, director of Arkansas Water Trails and Watchable Wildlife Coordinator for AGFC.

According to Bartlow, routes like the Buffalo are well known and inundated with paddlers but other water trails are harder to find out about and are mostly known either via word of mouth or by talking to local paddlers. “There are lots of water trails in Arkansas but many don’t know what they are or how to find them,” said Bartlow. “There wasn’t a source to get this information.” Bartlow collaborated with contacts at the ACC to do something about the situation. From this, the Arkansas Water Trails project was born.

This is a passion project for Bartlow, who grew up in Kansas and has been paddling since early childhood when she and her father went out on canoeing adventures. Due to the wealth of routes in Arkansas, she started getting into the sport more.

According to Bartlow, unlike hiking or biking trails that have to be built, water routes are already there and “our job is to get the infrastructure in place.” This includes providing route signs and trail maps for a trail. Once a route is part of the program, “we need people to be the eyes and ears of the trail,” she said. “We want the communities to be involved – it’s their trail.”

Bartlow said an added benefit of the program was as a avenue to bring tourism (such as nature tourism) to many of the towns that host the trails. “One of the best ways to observe wildlife is from the water,” she said.

Though whitewater paddling is a seasonal sport, flatwater paddling (the type found on these trails) can be utilized year round. Trails are added to the program as site assessments are completed and maps are developed.

The first route included in the program (the dedication took place this April) was the 7.8-mile Wattensaw Bayou (near Hazen) that winds through cypress and water tupelo trees on its way to the White River. Future water trails are being considered. Possible trails include Arkansas Post, the Cache River, Bayou Bartholomew, and Bayou Meto.

The stretch of Bayou Meto that flows through Jacksonville is known as an “urban” canoe trail. An “urban” canoe trail, as opposed to one like Wattensaw, is one that passes through a predominately urban area and is close enough to the city to make it possible for people to use after work or after school. “Like any nature trail it gives the community a chance to re-connect with the environment with the added benefit of being relatively easy to maintain,” said David McClanahan, Central Chapter President of the ACC.

McClanahan said the Bayou Meto trail is being created and cleaned up via a collaborative effort led by students known as the North Pulaski High Stream Team. The students are part of the EAST (Environmental and Spatial Technology) program at North Pulaski High in Jacksonville and are carrying out the project with help from the AGFC and the ACC. Around four miles of the route are completed via which canoeists and kayakers can view large cypress trees, beaver dams, and wildlife.

According to McClanahan there are numerous urban trails within cities that are still wild. “There is already a trail at Pinnacle Mountain State Park along the Little Maumelle River and another under development on Fourche Creek in Little Rock,” he said.

Whether the water trails are located in urban areas or secluded in the midst of a bayou, a main goal of the program is to not only spread the word on the variety of trails in Arkansas, but also help protect the state’s rivers, streams, and bayous.

According to Doss, hunters and anglers have been instrumental in preserving the big woods areas. “Whitewater boaters, many of them in the Ozark Society, have also been involved in saving beautiful mountain streams like the Buffalo River and Lee Creek,” she said. “We have worked to save these things because we know what they are worth. The human spirit is recharged by being alive in nature. We want as many people as possible to experience the Arkansas that we love…I believe the trail system we are beginning to build now will someday be the best in the nation.”

If you’d like to become a partner with the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission and create a water trail in your community, visit the Arkansas Water Trails homepage for more information at: or e-mail Kirsten Bartlow at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). The Arkansas Canoe Club was created in 1976 with a handful of members in Fayetteville and Little Rock. Since then, the club has grown to around 1200 members with seven chapters in Arkansas, Oklahoma, Texas and Louisiana. For more information on the Arkansas Canoe Club, visit