Cossatot River State Park Protects Stream, Environs
Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism
Cossatot River State Park/Natural Area, Arkansas’s 48th state park, is jointly managed by the state Department of Parks and Tourism and state Natural Heritage Commission to preserve while allowing public use of a scenic, pristine stream that irregularly offers skilled floaters challenging whitewater. The park is located in west-central Arkansas mostly between Ark. 246 and U.S. 278 near Wickes. It is the largest natural area in the state. For more information, phone (870) 385-2201 or visit www.ArkansasStateParks.com.
Wikes – The Ouachita Mountain shiner and the leopard darter have been found nowhere on earth except in streams of the Ouachita Mountains. The darter, in fact, has been found in only three of those. Like many minnow-like species, they are particularly susceptible to changes in their habitat and both require the kind of clean, moving water found in the upper stretch of Arkansas’s Cossatot River.
While they might not be extinct without it, the outlook for the rare fishes – as well as the rare Caddo Mountain salamander and a number of plants endemic to the Ouachitas – has been enhanced by the creation of the Cossatot River State Park/Natural Area, which includes the stream and a corridor of riparian forest up to a mile wide.
Preserved within the park are the Cossatot Falls, where the river snakes over and between upturned Ouachitas strata to create the most challenging stretch of whitewater in Arkansas. That area’s rocks, polished smooth by the river, are among the state’s most scenic geological creations.
Recognizing the pristine qualities of the Cossatot, the state Natural Heritage Commission (then named the Environmental Preservation Commission) began in 1974 an effort to acquire from the Weyerhaeuser Corporation (a wood products company) the river’s corridor below its beginning in the Ouachita National Forest southeast of Mena. The company, however, was concerned about the ability of the commission’s limited staff to manage such an intensively used and large recreation area.
After the state Parks and Tourism Department joined the effort, an agreement was approved in 1988 under which a private preservation organization, the Nature Conservancy, purchased more than 4,000 acres along the river for $2.9 million and held it in trust until state funding became available for the acquisition. Since the property had been appraised for $3.7 million, the reduced sale price, in effect, represented an $800,000 contribution to the state by Weyerhaeuser.
The subsequent state funding came from the Natural and Cultural Resources Council, which was created in 1987 to oversee the spending of revenues from the state’s real estate transfer tax.
Additional donations, leases and purchases have increased the park’s size to about 5,400 acres.
The park’s first facilities and 160 acres in the vicinity of the Ark. 246 bridge were donated by the Arkla Gas Company in exchange for a natural gas pipeline right of way across the park. Picnic sites, two restrooms, a hiking trail and parking areas were constructed, as was a pedestrian walkway atop the pipeline immediately south of the bridge.
Developed campsites (no hook-ups) and restrooms are available at Cossatot Falls, while primitive camping is available as well. In order to preserve the park environment, bags are provided for campers to transport their trash home and all restrooms are solar-composting. Access to the park’s interior is by way of gravel roads. A new campground is located at the Sandbar River Access with 15 sites.
A 16,000 sq. ft. park visitors and education center hosts an exhibit room focusing on the river, a wildlife viewing area, a gift shop, two classrooms and park offices. “A big part of our mission with this building is natural resource education,” said Stan Speight, the park’s superintendent since its creation.
The park’s 17-mile River Corridor Trail extends between the Ark. 246 and U.S. 278 areas. The Harris Creek Trail is a four-mile loop starting near U.S. 278. Waterleaf Trail begins at the east end of the visitor center parking lot. One quarter mile is ADA accessible with benches and wayside exhibits. The final quarter mile is not ADA accessible but leads hikers down the North Slope to the Highway 278 River Access. Brushy Creek Nature Trail, located at the Brushy Creek Recreational Area, has an ADA accessible portion that allows access to the pedestrian bridge over the river just south of the Highway 246 Bridge. The total trail is ¾ mile in length and connects the east side of the recreational area with the west.
In addition to its rare fauna and flora, the park hosts common Arkansas woodland species such as deer, turkey, squirrel and raccoon, and a breeding-bird count yielded 55 species, Speight said. “In the winter,” he added, “we have bald eagles on the river.”
Though renowned for its whitewater, Speight said, the Cossatot is not consistently at floatable levels. “Some people head down here expecting to see the kind of water they’ve seen in photographs and are disappointed when they arrive,” he said. “We advise everyone to check the water levels beforehand.” The stream’s upland watershed means that it “goes up and down really, really fast,” Speight said, and it is generally floatable for at most a few days after significant rainfall. “It’s a pretty short window of opportunity,” he said.
The Cossatot is only for very experienced floaters, sporting rapids rated up to Class V in difficulty. “It’s not ever a stream where Mom and Dad can get out there and float with the kids,” Speight said.
Education is a major role for the park and natural area.
“We want people to be able to see and realize things they generally don’t think about, like ecology and watershed concepts,” he said. “We want them to understand, for example, that the smallmouth bass in the Cossatot aren’t just out there cruising around in their own little world; they are dependent on the aquatic insects and other parts of the natural cycle, like clean water, in order to live. We want to get those kinds of concepts across to people so they can understand how the whole system works.”
The park will be offering eco-kayak tours this year along a 5 mile stretch of the river. Groups are limited to 6. scheduled when the river gauge is between 2.0-3.0 feet. Interested parties can make reservations by calling park interpretive staff at 870-385-2201.
Submitted by the Arkansas Department of Parks & Tourism
One Capitol Mall, Little Rock, AR 72201, (501) 682-7606
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