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Richland Creek

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Let's face it: given Richland Creek's steep drops, big rocks, and narrow chutes, the stream probably shouldn't even be on this website. It's seldom floatable, and even when the water is up, most of us should keep the canoes and kayaks on top of the cars where they're safe. Richland Creek is too fast, furious, although the oxygen-rich waters provide an ideal habitat for smallmouth bass.

Yet Richland Creek appears here for one reason: it may be the most beautiful stream in the state. And anybody familiar with the scenic streams, creeks and rivers of Arkansas will quickly realize the significance of that statement. Richland Creek should certainly be noted among Arkansas's scenic places.

SECTION DESCRIBED: Entire length--30 miles

Characteristics

Richland Creek is a classic Ozark stream with classic beginnings. Its uppermost tributaries drain off to the east from Arkansas State Highway 7--the state's first Scenic Byway and a road traditionally listed among the country's 10 prettiest drives. Dropping 1,400 feet along the way, these waters eventually join up with those of the Buffalo National River at Woolum--an access point for floaters which also features a primitive campground.

In this 30-mile journey, the creek works its way through some of the most rugged country to be found in the state. For much of its length, the stream is relatively inaccessible to all but those willing to put on their hiking boots. Because of this remoteness and isolation, quiet hikers may be able to sneak up on all sorts of wildlife--mink, beaver, turkey, deer, and perhaps a black bear. To top it off, Richland Creek itself provides some of the best smallmouth bass and panfish habitat in this part of the country.

In its early stretches the creek flows through a mosaic of public (Ozark National Forest) and private ownership. About midway in its route to the Buffalo, the stream enters the Richland Creek Wilderness, an 11,822-acre tract of forest service property containing the most outstanding features in the entire watershed. Highlights include:

  • Richland Falls--a 100-foot-wide cascade that drops six to eight feet;

  • Twin Falls--where Long Devil's Fork and Big Devil's Fork converge with side-by-side drops of 20 to 25 feet;

  • Rose Hollow and Jack Jones Hollow--both featuring canyon-like settings with lots of exposed rock;

  • Falling Water Creek--a picturesque tributary of Richland which flows along much of the eastern border of the wilderness area (note: Falling Water Falls, located about four miles south of the wilderness boundary and within view of Forest Service Road 1205, is a 10- to 12-foot cascade with lots of photographic potential).

One good way to experience Richland Creek is to hike the Ozark Highlands Trail, a 178-mile long (and expanding) path which includes an interesting route through Richland Valley. The trail enters the watershed a couple of miles north of Pelsor at Fairview, a Forest Service campground on Scenic Byway 7. The trail gradually works its way downstream, then skirts around the wilderness area before continuing to the Forest Service's Richland Creek Campground (immediately west of the intersection of Forest Service Road 1205 and the creek).

This campground, which is 19.1 miles from Fairview, provides a fine trailhead for excursions into the wilderness area. Richland Falls and Twin Falls are approximately two- and-one-half miles upstream from the camp, and can be reached following a primitive trail which parallels the stream. Hikers will enjoy the scenery, but should watch out for loose rocks, poison ivy, and slippery spots. Observant visitors will notice some spectacular fossils on the way.

The Ozark Highlands Trail follows Richland downstream past the campground and eventually leads to Woolum on the Buffalo National River, another one of Arkansas's most scenic streams. The distance is about 21 miles, and is scenic every step of the way. Hikers can expect to see lots of rocky outcrops, boulder-filled creekbeds, and numerous springs and seeps. Like the upper portion, this lower stretch is a good one for those wishing to observe wildlife.

Seasons

For those who insist on floating this creek (and we're not kidding; it's not for casual canoeists), the best times to catch it are during the late winter and early spring, particularly following abundant rainfall. Those wishing to explore by foot will also enjoy this period, although fording the creek can be a cold and risky proposition. The waterfalls, of course, are at their peak during the spring.

Many Richland Creek veterans save their hiking trips for the fall months. The pesky critters are out of the way by then, but the real treat is the foliage--gums, hickories, and maples that light up the landscape. Others opt for the dead of winter when the real lay of the land is clearly visible through the bare trees.

Access Points

Richland Creek is not very easy to get to, and that's one reason it's so special. And given the difficulty of successfully floating this stream, we're going to primarily describe access points for hikers.

As mentioned earlier, the adventurous can hike in off Scenic 7 at Fairview. Vehicular access is also available via Pelsor on Scenic 7. At Pelsor, go east on Arkansas 16 to Ben Hur where you'll have two options: 1) Going north on Forest Service Road 1203 which drops down into Richland Valley and serves in places as the western boundary of the wilderness area; and 2) Continuing east on Arkansas 16 for another two miles or so, then turning east on Forest Service Road 1205 which quickly swings north and follows Falling Water Creek all the way to the wilderness area and, ultimately, to the Richland Creek campground and its trailhead (note: this is a 10- to 12-mile drive over gravel). As Forest Road 1205 continues north past the camping site, it essentially serves as the eastern and northern borders of the Richland Creek Wilderness Area.

The lower stretches of Richland Creek can be approached from Snowball--a small town in Searcy County--via a county road that leads west to the community of Eula. County roads heading both north and south out of Eula lead to Richland Creek, and each crosses the stream by ford. These crossings can be tricky and should be avoided in average to high water.

For floaters, primary access points are the Forest Service Road 1203 crossing north of Ben Hur and the Richland Creek Campground off Road 1205. Woolum, at the confluence of Richland and the Buffalo, can serve as a take-out point for floating the lower half of the creek, but requires a lengthy shuttle.

Scenery

The Richland Creek valley is scenic whether seen by foot, car, canoe, or horseback. Chief attractions are the scenic streams - Richland Creek itself and its main tributary, Falling Water Creek. Both are characterized by pools, ledges, falls, and the music of moving water. Steep, tree-covered hillsides interrupted by occasional crags and bluffs are the norm in the upper two-thirds of the valley. In its lower third, Richland flows through a pastoral setting toward its union with the Buffalo River.

Fishing

Like the Buffalo, Richland Creek features ideal smallmouth bass habitat--a rocky streambed covered with clear, oxygen-rich water. The deep pools followed by noisy rapids are a fisherman's delight.

Considering the inherent difficulty in floating the creek, the best bet may be to wade-fish the stream. In addition to trying out the pools, anglers will also want to drift a line past good cover in faster water. Likewise, there's no need to stick with artificials; locals have had years of success with crayfish, minnows, and other natural baits.

Services Available

Canoe services and lodging are not present in the immediate area, and rescue services are also not readily available. Food, gasoline, and other supplies can be purchased in communities such as Pelsor and Dover which are in the general vicinity, though not particularly handy.

Other Information

An interesting sidetrip for Richland-bound visitors is the Pedestal Rocks/King Bluff area, a scenic "point of interest" between Pelsor and Ben Hur on the south side of Arkansas 16. A short hike from the parking area will lead to fascinating rock columns, bluff shelters, and good views.

Another interesting feature is "The Narrows," a thin ridge of rock rising between the Buffalo and Richland valleys just upstream from Woolum. It's a little scary at the top (especially on windy days), but the panorama is worth the climb.

While the Ozark National Forest, the Buffalo National River, and the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission own much of the land within the Richland Creek watershed, private holdings are not uncommon. Please take care to avoid trespassing problems!