Floating Oklahoma Waters

Canoe, Kayak or Tube Along Oklahoma’s Loveliest Rivers

Deer crossing the Lower Illinois River a little after sunrise. Via: Scott Hood

“Just around the next bend.” For those of you who understand the simple pleasure of floating—in a canoe, kayak retired inner tube or a plain rubber raft—these words are music to the ears. Some seek the serenity of gliding over quiet, clear water as hawks sail the updrafts overhead. Others crave the excitement of not knowing exactly what lies ahead—a pristine swimming hole, plunging waterfall or a set of thundering rapids that might topple your canoe and send you swimming after the paddle, boat and a Zip-locked baggie holding your car keys, a wallet and one sad, soggy sandwich. Whatever your reason for hitting the river — to cool off, relax, do a little stream fishing or simply revel in the awesome scenery—you’ll find the ideal river in Oklahoma. From the ever-popular Illinois to the remote mountain waters of the Glover River, there’s a river run waiting for you. Pack your ice chest, throw in a dry change of clothes, and prepare yourself for an aimless afternoon on the water. After all, the joy of floating is all in getting there. Enjoy!

THE ILLINOIS RIVER

Ask anyone where to float in Oklahoma and the first answer is always the Illinois River. Entering the state near Watts and snaking some 58 navigable miles through the wooded Ozark foothills in Adair, Delaware, and Cherokee counties, more words have been written about this state-designated scenic river than any other. With many river outfitters ready to supply you with canoes, kayaks, rafts and shuttle service and your choice of floating distances — two hours to full-day floats and even overnight camping trips— the Illinois earns its popularity by catering to every paddler’s needs. Most outfitters are located within the first 15-mile stretch northeast on Highway 10, but it’s possible to find others scattered along the entire length of the Illinois. Public campgrounds, convenience stores, and cabin rentals dot the riverfront highway, making an overnight or weekend river trip an attractive option. Several “put in” spots are found along the river and offer easy trips for floaters of all skill levels. Peak floating time is June and July, tapering off through late summer and fall depending on water levels. Mant float rental facilities kick off their season on May 1, so calling ahead is advised.

If there is a downside to all this service and convenience, it is this: The Illinois is popular so be prepared to share its swimming holes, pebbled beaches, and rope swings with an array of other floaters. If peace and quiet are what you’re after, opt to float on a weekday when you are less likely to encounter floating cities of graduating seniors, fraternity kids, and good ole’ boys looking for a wet, wild water fight. Once you get past the crowd, the Illinois offers spectacular Ozark scenery, clear water, good fishing for smallmouth bass, catfish, and perch, or fish year-round for rainbow trout on the Lower Illinois, just below Lake Tenkiller. To ensure ideal floating conditions, check the USGS site on water levels here. Ideal floating stages for the Illinois fall between 3.5 to 4.5 feet. Flood stage is 11 feet.

Canoe Rentals: Diamondhead Resort (800-722-2411)

EagleBluff  (800-657-4837)

Falcon Floats (918-456-8058)

Hanging Rock Camp (918-456-3088)

Riverside Resort (800-749-2267)

Sparrow Hawk Camp, (918-456-8371)

Arrowhead-Thunderbird (800-749-1140)

War Eagle Resort, (800-722-3834).

THE MOUNTAIN FORK RIVER

Like the Illinois, southeast Oklahoma’s Mountain Fork River is a two-part pleasure with outstanding floating and fishing on both its upper and lower portion. The Mountain Fork is also one of Oklahoma’s designated scenic rivers included in the Oklahoma Scenic Rivers Act of 1970.

Originating in the Ouachita National Forest just below Mena, Arkansas, the Upper Mountain Fork crosses into Oklahoma and tumbles through 28.6 miles of scenic pine-shrouded wilderness and over rock shoals, falls, and through mountainous chutes of granite before spilling into Broken Bow Lake, south of Smithville. Several sets of long- running rapids keep your adrenaline pumping and require basic paddling skills to navigate successfully. When in doubt, always scout the rapids ahead before paddling in or prepare yourself to get a little wet. Upper Mountain Fork flows vary depending on rainfall and tend to run extremely low in late summer. Check levels with local outfitters before heading out, and by all means, bring your fishing gear. The Upper Mountain Fork offers some of the best smallmouth and black bass fishing in the state and is rarely populated with other river runners. Half and full-day trips are easily arranged through
Boondockers Landing Resort near Smithville. For those of you who appreciate invigorating floating, the Lower Mountain Fork offers all the mountain scenery you can stand, year-round trout fishing along the first 12 miles, and the necessary brisk water temperatures that allow the trout to thrive. Fed from the depths of Broken Bow Lake, the Lower Mountain Fork is also one of the few rivers in Oklahoma that are navigable most any time of the year. Trust us, a few goosebumps are a small price to pay for the outstanding fishing and visions of towering bald cypress trees that grow along its banks. Note: Neither the upper nor lower portions of the Mountain Fork River should be floated when waters are high. Always call ahead before heading out to float the Mountain Fork.

Canoe Rentals: Boondockers Landing Resort (Upper Mountain Fork),(580-306-3431/479-234-5964)

Ambush Adventures Kayak Rental (includes the Mountain Fork and Little Rivers)(580) 584-2273

 WW Trading Post and Canoe (580-584-6856)

Wild Goose Canoe and Kayak Rental(580-584-2277).

THE GLOVER RIVER

It’s not uncommon to float the entire 27-mile length of the Glover River and never see a soul. With no dams to hinder its passage through the isolated mountain country of McCurtain County, the Glover is known as Oklahoma’s last free-flowing river. Suffice to say it is unequaled in beauty and is truly a state treasure.

With its steep banks, gorges, and massive boulders, the Glover is not a river for most first-time paddlers. That said, any soul who takes to the Glover should go prepared for an extraordinary, scenic adventure. Bring plenty of water, a good map, and your own canoe, tube, or kayak. Eight portage points are found within the bounds of the Three Rivers Wildlife Management Area. Be sure to purchase a Three Rivers land use permit ($40/year/residents; $85/nonresidents) and a map before entering. A spare tire or two isn’t a bad idea, either.

Camping along the banks of the Glover is allowed within the Three Rivers area, but for a real treat—and a hot shower after a day on the river— consider booking a cabin at one of
the facilities (see below) located along the Glover and its upper tributaries. You’ll appreciate the fine accommodations, plus guests enjoy free use of canoes and shuttle service. Remember to bring your fishing pole or fly rod—the Glover is renowned for its smallmouth bass fishing—and check flows before making your trip. If the river is low, logs and rocks can make for difficult portage.

Cabin Rentals on the Glover (includes canoes): Tree Top View Cabins (580-306-2867/)

Crooked River Cabins (479-244-0716/)

River’s Bend Resort (580-584-2233).

THE SPRING RIVER

Northeast Oklahoma’s Spring River flows for 22-miles from Baxter Springs, Kansas to Twin Bridges State Park, where it meets the Neosho to form the Grand River before spilling into Grand Lake. Wide and quiet with a few ripples and rapids, the Spring River flows through scenic 50 to 100-foot bluffs and is the ideal trip for novice paddlers. The river is navigable year-round for canoes or kayaks. Primitive campsites are found at Spring River Canoe Trails State Park, www.oklahomacampers.com, or Twin Bridges State Parks. Bring your own canoe, kayak, or track down the local Quapaw-based outfitter.

Canoe Rentals: Blue Hole Canoe Floats (918-542-6344).

THE KIAMICHI RIVER

Float for seven, ten, or even one-hundred miles along Southeast Oklahoma’s Kiamichi River, an ideal river for paddlers of all skill levels and a fisherman’s dream come true. Beginning in Le Flore County near the Arkansas border, the Kiamichi winds 165 miles southwest before emptying into the Red River. This river gem offers remote rafting through mountain wilderness, ample wildlife sightings, and at least one terrific swimming hole with a rope swing and big rocks, the perfect platform for an exciting leap in. Canoe and kayaks are available for rent through the K River Campground or bring your own and K River will provide shuttle service. All K River trips end up at their campsite, eight miles north of Antlers on Highway 2. The best time to float the Kiamichi is March through June or October through November.

Canoe Rentals: K River Campground (580-298-2442).

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