Arkansas River headwaters. The waters are primarily formed by ice melt in the Rocky Mountains. There are times when it is a mild flow, as in the photo, but other times, during a fast warm-up or thunderstorms, it turns into a dangerous torrent (flash flooding).
It is a beautiful area with great trout fishing for people and bears alike.
Those accustomed to the muddy lower Arkansas River would not believe that this is the same river that they see in the state of Arkansas.
The path of the Arkansas River was already set when the granite uplift that would eventually form the Rockey Mountains began. About 3 million years ago as the mountains began to rise from the surrounding plains, the Arkansas River—then only a small stream—began to wear away at the stone it flowed across.
This amazing canyon, called the Royal Gorge was cut by the Arkansas River. The bridge is a popular tourist attraction and doesn't actually go anywhere. At 1,053 feet it was the highest suspension bridge in the world until it was surpassed in 2003 by a new bridge in China.
Near Buena Vista, Colorado, white water rafting is very popular in the gorge area. The rapids range in intensity to class 5. Some of the rapids names would give anyone a good idea of what to expect:
Shark's Tooth Rapid
Satan's Suckhole Rapid
The Fishbole Rapid
Boat Eater Rapid
Wall Slammer Rapid
Harvey's Wallbanger Rapid
While most rivers continue to enlarge as they flow downriver, the Arkansas actually diminishes to being bone dry in some places. The photo is near Dodge City Kansas during a dry period. The water is sucked out for irrigation purposes and droughts are not uncommon.
The dry riverbed continues until large tributaries begin to flow into it and by the time the river reaches Wichita, it usually has flowing water again and continues to enlarge all the way to the Mississippi River. The amount of water, or lack of water, depends on rainfall and snow melt in the Arkansas River Watershed.
There are many dams on the Arkansas River, like the Kaw Lake Dam in Oklahoma (photo).
The dams were built to provide a reservoir. The reservoirs proved a somewhat controllable water source for drinking, irrigation, flood control, and recreation. Some of the dams have hydro-electric plants for generating electricity, like the Kaw Lake Dam.
For those paddling the river, the dams are an obstacle because no dams above Tulsa have locks. This means a long portage around them.
Even though small craft can navigate the Arkansas River from Tulsa, commercial traffic must use the Verdigris River to and from Tulsa. The Head of Navigation on the Arkansas River begins near the confluences of the Verdigris and Neosho Rivers. Head of Navigation means that the Arkansas River is maintained by the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers from that point on. They keep a deep enough channel for 9 foot draft vessels and have locks to help do that, along with dredging and wing dikes. The U.S. Coast Guard maintains navigation aids (buoys and daymarks).
The lower 445 miles of the Arkansas River is navigable.
The McClellan-Kerr Arkansas River Navigation System begins at the Tulsa Port Of Catoosa on the Verdigris River. The system is made up of 18 locks and dams, three different rivers and one man-made canal. All are managed to ensure year-round nautical navigation.
Beginning in the navigable portion of the Arkansas River, there are many port facilities and other industry. Towboats pushing many barges loaded with grain and other materials are common.
The Arkansas becomes an important waterway for moving goods to and from the Mississippi River, then north to the Ohio River Valley or south to New Orleans. Even then the cargo may be loaded onto ships to be transferred to places all over the world.
The little rock at Little Rock
The rock that the city took it's name from, originally estimated to rise about 18 feet above the river, was first identified as a significant river landmark in 1722 by French explorer Jean-Baptiste Bénard de la Harpe. The story goes that the rock marked a place to portage the river, due to being shallow there.
In 1818 the rock was used as a survey marker, and formed the starting point for land surveys in the region south of the river
The Yancopin Bridge is an abandoned railroad bridge that was built in 1903 and the last crossing of the Arkansas River before it flows into the Mississippi River. This is on the natural non-navigable portion of the lower Arkansas River.
Notice the span in the center. It was a swing bridge that could be disconnected and rotated on the pier to allow steamboat to pass, since they were too tall to pass under the bridge otherwise.
The Arkansas River is a bit complicated at it's end. Due to the amount of silting and course changes near the end of the river, the Army Corp of Engineers built a canal connecting the Arkansas River to the navigable White River. Vessels must use this canal (and lock) to go into the White and Mississippi Rivers. The natural mouth of the Arkansas River is still there but there is a dam (with no lock) and it is shallow, so no traffic can go that way. So the Arkansas River has two mouths (ends), one navigable and one non-navigable.
This is the natural end of the Arkansas River, where it pours into the Mississippi River. If flows around a large island before going into the Mississippi. In the photo you can see the difference in water colors of the Arkansas and the Mississippi Rivers.
This ends the journey of the Arkansas River from the Rocky Mountains to the Mississippi River in the states of Arkansas and Mississippi.
In the 1,469 mile flow it changes from mountain stream to a desert-like wash, through farmland, through wilderness, to a commercial river with giant barges, to a meandering remote area (known for it's rattlesnakes) before flowing into the Mississippi River near Rosedale, Mississippi.
It is a river that floods often, proving time and again that man-kind will never completely control the river.
Free downloads for Arkansas River navigation charts. Mile markers begin at the end of the river and go upriver.