Paddling Arkansas' Wild Waters: A Guide to Wildlife Watching from Your SUP!
Arkansas is a paddler's paradise, with abundant waterways winding through diverse ecosystems perfect for stand up paddleboarding. Gliding silently across glassy rivers, lakes, bayous and wetlands allows you to spot amazing wildlife from a unique on-the-water perspective. Here are the the best places to view wildlife from a sup in Arkansas!
Buffalo National River.
This free-flowing 135-mile river cuts through the Ozark Mountains, offering paddlers sights of grazing elk, bobcats prowling the shoreline, river otters swimming playfully, and beavers busily building lodges. As you paddle beneath majestic limestone bluffs, watch for belted kingfishers hovering above the water before diving for fish. Great blue herons and green herons stalk the shallows, while farther overhead you may spot red-tailed hawks and turkey vultures circling lazily on thermals. The best sections for wildlife watching are the broad placid waters near Ponca, where you can paddle close to the wooded banks at dawn or dusk to spot deer, raccoons, opossums and minks. Spring and early summer are great times to see young animals and new bird species like indigo buntings, orchard orioles, and Acadian flycatchers.
Surrounded by the Ouachita National Forest, this 40,000-acre lake offers excellent wildlife viewing opportunities. Paddle through quiet coves lined with pine trees to spot whitetail deer, squirrels, foxes, beavers and raccoons. With over 40 species of fish, watch for huge catfish swarming below the surface. Cormorants and anhingas often perch on submerged treetops with wings outstretched to dry. Watch for bald eagles, osprey, red-shouldered hawks and other raptors diving to snatch fish from the pristine waters. Prothonotary warblers flit along wooded shorelines while barred and great horned owls may peer out from nests inside hollow tree trunks. Spring and fall offer peak biodiversity.
Wapanocca National Wildlife Refuge.
Comprising 60,000 acres of wetlands, forests and fields in northeast Arkansas, Wapanocca provides a bird watcher’s paradise. Paddle through cypress swamps and oxbow lakes left by the winding Mississippi River to see wood ducks burst into flight. Great blue herons, great egrets and snowy egrets stalk the marshy edges watching for frogs, fish and crayfish. Glossy ibises probe the muddy bottoms with their distinctive curved beaks as noisy flocks of white ibis fly overhead. Migrating waterfowl like blue-winged teal, northern shovelers and gadwall can number in the thousands here. Around 200 bird species have been documented at Wapanocca, also including prothonotary warblers, pileated woodpeckers and barred owls.
Arkansas’ largest natural lake offers amazing wildlife viewing opportunities. Paddling across this oxbow lake formed by the Mississippi River allows close encounters with alligators basking on muddy banks as great egrets, snowy egrets and great blue herons hunt the shallows. Keep eyes peeled for ancient-looking alligators swimming just below the surface near cypress knees. Kingfishers dive for fish while prothonotary warblers flit through the Spanish moss draped trees. Migrating waterfowl flock here during summer and fall, including wood ducks, blue-wing teal, hooded mergansers and more. Lake Chicot boasts one of the country’s largest populations of giant floater mussels, so watch for their alien-like siphons poking from the water.
Bell Slough Wildlife Management Area.
Located along the Mississippi River near Helena, Bell Slough protects over 4,000 acres of bottomland hardwood forests, sloughs, backwaters and marshy wetlands. Paddling these lush waterways allows viewing of nearly 100 bird species including bald eagles, ospreys, great egrets, wood ducks and prothonotary warblers. Watch for turtles and frogs basking on logs as beavers swim by pushing sticks. White-tailed deer and raccoons emerge at water’s edge in the mornings and evenings. Diving ducks like lesser scaup and buffleheads gather here during winter migrations. Lucky paddlers may even spot a bobcat or black bear prowling the forests while curious raccoons watch you float past.
Paddling along the mighty Arkansas River and its backwaters reveals deer, beavers, river otters, bald eagles and other wildlife. Sections near Little Rock, Dardanelle, and Fort Smith offer excellent wildlife watching opportunities. Scan the sandy banks for raccoon and deer tracks, watch treetops for roosting herons and egrets, and keep eyes peeled for foxes, coyotes, turtles and armadillos. The Arkansas River is also home to ancient alligator gar fish reaching over 6 feet long that occasionally surface near paddlers. Neotropical songbirds like orioles, buntings and grosbeaks flock along the wooded banks during spring migrations.
Bear Creek Lake.
Located on the edge of the Ozark National Forest, this clear lake harbors wooded coves perfect for wildlife watching. Paddle near shore to spot beavers, river otters, whitetail deer, foxes and even black bears on occasion. The secluded setting allows close encounters with diverse species. Watch for Wood Ducks sweeping across the water and groups of Double-crested Cormorants perched on branches. Lucky paddlers may spot Ospreys and Bald Eagles soaring overhead before diving for fish. Armand Bayou has rocky outcrops harboring sun-bathing turtles like map turtles, painted turtles and snapping turtles.
Overflow National Wildlife Refuge.
Encompassing over 160,000 acres of bottomland hardwood forests, swamps and bayous in northeast Arkansas, Overflow protects vital habitat for migrating birds. As you paddle through massive cypress trees draped in Spanish moss, watch for Prothonotary Warblers flitting over the water. Barred owls peer out from the forests while Pileated Woodpeckers hammer on trees. Neotropical migrants like Indigo Buntings, Northern Parulas and Yellow-throated Warblers flock here during spring and fall. Waterfowl gather in huge winter numbers, including Mallards, Wood Ducks and Blue-winged Teal. Lucky paddlers may even spot secretive Ivory-billed Woodpeckers in this remote wetland wilderness if this rare bird still exists.
Felsenthal National Wildlife Refuge.
Located in southeast Arkansas, Felsenthal surrounds the largest green tree reservoir in the United States. Paddling through endless flooded forests allows viewing of migrating waterfowl, wading birds like egrets and herons, shorebirds, raptors, bobcats, otters, beavers and more. During winter, ducks arrive in huge numbers, including Gadwall, Northern Pintail, Ring-necked Ducks and Blue-winged Teal. Barred and Great Horned Owls nest in the forests, while migrating Ospreys and Bald Eagles fish the open waters. Spotted turtles and River Cooters lounge on partially submerged logs. An astounding 337 bird species have been documented here, making Felsenthal a wildlife lover’s dream.
Surrounded by the Ouachita National Forest, Lake Greeson features clear waters and wooded shorelines perfect for spotting wildlife. Paddle the quiet coves near shore to see whitetail deer, foxes, squirrels, river otters and beavers. Spotted turtles and water snakes often sun themselves on fallen logs. Watch for Ospreys, Eagles, Mississippi Kites and other raptors soaring overhead before diving to grab unwary fish. Neotropical migrants like Indigo Buntings, Orchard Orioles and Summer Tanagers flock to Lake Greeson’s forests during spring and fall. The rocky shorelines also provide habitat for crayfish, lending foraging opportunities for herons, kingfishers, and Song Sparrows.
DeGray Lake's clear waters and wooded shorelines offer paddling and wildlife watching opportunities. Spot Ospreys and Bald Eagles soaring above the pines before swooping to grab fish. Paddle close to shore to glimpse deer, foxes, mink, and armadillos visit the water's edge. Watch for River Otters playing along the banks as Great Blue Herons stalk the shallows. Sections of DeGray Creek that feed the lake harbor colorful Neotropical migrants like Scarlet Tanagers, Rose-breasted Grosbeaks and Yellow-throated Warblers. Limestone bluffs provide nesting habitat for Great Horned Owls and roosting sites for cormorants and herons. Early mornings and dusk provide peak wildlife viewing.
Renowned as a trout fishing destination, the White River also provides excellent paddling wildlife viewing opportunities. Paddle through Flint Creek Wildlife Management Area near Branson to spot River Otters, Mink, Black Bears, White-tailed Deer and elusive Osage Copperhead snakes. Farther downstream, the White River meanders through the Delta Region, lined by towering cypress trees draped in Spanish moss. Here Prothonotary Warblers flit over backwaters as alligators slide from muddy banks. Great Blue Herons and Kingfishers hunt the wooded oxbows while Barred Owls watch from above. Sections of the White River even preserve habitat for the endangered Leopard Darter fish.
Arkansas’ second largest oxbow lake, Lake Conway provides paddling opportunities to see alligators, waterfowl, wading birds, shorebirds, and jumping fish. Cypress and tupelo trees line the lush banks where Great Blue Herons and Great Egrets hunt for frogs and fish. Watch for tan, prehistoric-looking Alligators soaking up sunshine alongshore. Lucky paddlers may spot massive Alligator Gars surfacing briefly with their dual rows of teeth. Migrating birds flock here during summer and fall, including Least Terns, White Ibis, Black Terns and Buff-breasted Sandpipers. Lake Conway is an Audubon Important Bird Area, with over 200 documented bird species.
Cache River National Wildlife Refuge.
Protecting one of the last major wetland wilderness areas in the Southeast, Cache River National Wildlife Refuge harbors vital habitat for migratory birds and wildlife between the White and Arkansas Rivers. As you paddle through swampy bottomland forests draped in cypress trees and Spanish moss, watch for Wood Ducks, Prothonotary Warblers, Barred Owls, Red-shouldered Hawks, Wood Storks and Swallow-tailed Kites. Along backwater sloughs, look for basking Alligators, Snapping Turtles and River Cooters. Lucky paddlers may even glimpse elusive Ivory-billed Woodpeckers in these remote wetlands if this rare bird still exists. Cache River provides critical habitat for black bears and over 200 bird species.
Dagmar Wildlife Management Area.
Encompassing nearly 3,000 acres of wetlands, forests and fields along the Mississippi River, Dagmar WMA offers excellent wildlife viewing opportunities just north of Brinkley. Its location along a major Mississippi flyway brings impressive numbers of migrating waterfowl, wading birds, shorebirds and songbirds. Paddle through lush backwaters and oxbow lakes to spot Blue-winged Teal, Wood Ducks, Northern Pintails, White Ibis, Egrets, Herons and more. Watch for colorful Neotropical migrants including Indigo Buntings, Orchard Orioles and Scarlet Tanagers within the wooded areas. River Otters, deer, Bobcats and black bears also inhabit Dagmar’s diverse ecosystems connected to the Mississippi River.
This scenic oxbow of the Cache River flows through the heart of Arkansas’s Grand Prairie region north of Brinkley. The hairpin curves of the bayou take paddlers through peaceful forests where every bend reveals new wildlife sightings. Watch for River Otters playing along the banks as Great Blue Herons stalk shallows hunting for frogs and fish. Lucky paddlers may spot elusive Bobcats or Black Bears fishing the bayou’s edges. Barred and Great Horned Owls watch from high perches within the cypress trees as Wood Ducks emerge from wooded backwaters. Prothonotary Warblers nest in the hollow limbs overhanging the water.
Lake Chicot State Park.
Located on Arkansas’ largest natural lake, Lake Chicot State Park provides amazing wildlife viewing opportunities. Paddling across the expansive lake lets you take in majestic views of ancient cypress trees cloaked in Spanish moss. Watch for wood storks wading the shallows as great egrets hunt nearby. Prothonotary warblers and parulas flit overhead while barred and great horned owls watch from the shadows. Armored alligator gar fish may surface briefly to gulp air before diving into the lake’s depths. The park’s visitor center features exhibits on the many endangered or threatened species found within Lake Chicot.
This 29,000-acre reservoir was created in 1966 along the Little River by impounding a forest filled with towering cypress trees. Today, the submerged cypress skeletons rising from the lake provide vital habitat for fish, nesting birds, and roosting wildlife. As you paddle across Millwood’s open waters, watch for Ospreys, Bald Eagles, Great Blue Herons and Double-crested Cormorants perched atop the wooded structures. Near shore, Great Egrets and Snowy Egrets stalk through the flooded forest searching for frogs and crayfish. Prothonotary Warblers nest in remaining tree cavities as otters playfully swim through the cypress knees. Millwood Lake is considered one of the premier birding locations in Arkansas.
Crooked Creek Wildlife Management Area.
Located north of Harrison along scenic Crooked Creek, this area encompasses nearly 18,000 acres of Ozark forests, fields and marshlands. The diversity of ecosystems here supports excellent wildlife viewing opportunities. Paddle along the creek to spot River Otters, Mink, Muskrats and Beavers. Scan the forests for Wild Turkeys, Barred Owls, and colorful woodpeckers like Red-headed and Pileated Woodpeckers. Extensive wetlands provide habitat for Wood Ducks, Mallards, Great Blue Herons, Great Egrets, and Green Herons. Neotropical migrants like Indigo Buntings, Yellow Warblers and Scarlet Tanagers flock through the woodlands during spring and fall migrations. Even Black Bears still roam some remote sections.
Arkansas provides bountiful paddling opportunities to view diverse birds, mammals, reptiles and amphibians across the state’s unspoiled waters. Each river, lake, swamp and backwater slough harbors unique wildlife discoveries waiting to be found by adventurous paddlers. So grab your SUP and start exploring the Natural State’s abundance of wildlife viewing locations. With a spirit of discovery, you’re sure to create memorable experiences and see amazing creatures while paddling Arkansas’ scenic waterways.
Tips, Tricks, and Fun Articles await.
Here are a few quick links to help you keep going, don't forget to check our blog out for more tips and expert advice. For wildlife tips check out our blog and this article on Beginners Guide To Bird Watching. And don't forget to read our article on Stand Up Paddle Boarding and Wildlife Encounters. For a complete guide of where to paddle board in every state, this one is for you! The best places to paddle board in the United States a state by state tour of where to paddle board with Glide Paddle Boards.
Or perhaps something international is what you are looking for, then these two articles will help out. Check out the ultimate guide on finding places to paddle board near you for tips and tricks on finding new and exciting places near you! And for international spots Epic Spots Globally To Paddle Board is for you! And check out the Glide O2 Angler and why it makes an incredible platform for birding and wildlife viewing.