Looking for an adventure getaway close to home this Labor Day Weekend? In this post, we’ll highlight ten adventure destinations in the Illinois River Watershed that every outdoor enthusiast should know about. Our watershed covers approximately 1.1-million acres and includes about 1,300 miles of waterways to explore. Whatever your thrill—hiking, biking, paddling, climbing, or just meandering—the place you’re looking for can be found right here in the Illinois River Watershed. What are you waiting for? Get out there and enjoy!
Our 10 Adventure Destinations board on Pinterest maps the location of each of these destinations. Check them out, and re-pin your favorites!
Siloam Springs Kayak Park
Siloam Springs Kayak Park – Siloam Springs, AR
Completed in spring of 2014, this park has rapidly become a hotspot for whitewater paddlers throughout the region. The City of Siloam Springs was awarded a grant from the Walton Family Foundation to purchase riverfront property adjacent to Fisher Ford Road and construct this city park on the Illinois River. The flow of the river has been engineered to create a series of whitewater rapids and “standing waves” for kayakers. Life jackets, helmets, and close-toed shoes are highly recommended. Other park amenities include a swimming area, climbing boulder, accessible walking trails, picnic tables, changing station, and two rain gardens.
Mt. Kessler Reserve
Mt. Kessler Reserve – Fayetteville, AR
Kessler Mountain is located in southwestern Fayetteville, accessible from Martin Luther King Blvd. or Cato Springs Rd. Boasting several miles of natural surface hiking and mountain biking trails, 300-year-old chinquapin oaks, and some of the most scenic rock formations and overlooks in the NW Arkansas metropolitan area, this spot should certainly be on the adventurer’s radar. Mt. Kessler actually divides two watersheds, as runoff from the western slope enters Farmington Branch, a tributary of the Illinois River Watershed, while runoff from the eastern slope enters Cato Springs Branch, a tributary of the Beaver Lake/White River Watershed. The City of Fayetteville recently purchased 328 wooded acres atop Mt. Kessler to put into conservation, and there are plans to begin construction of a regional park on the mountain later this year.
Lincoln Lake – Lincoln, AR
Lincoln Lake is a well-kept secret nestled within the wooded hills just a few miles north of Lincoln, AR, in southwestern Washington County. This spot is considered a gem among the rock climbing community for its countless crags and boulders dispersed around the lake. The 90-acre lake is formed by a dam at the confluence of Moore’s Creek and Beatty Branch, which merge at the spillway and flow on to meet Muddy Fork, which then enters the Illinois River near Wedington. The lake itself is great for canoeing, kayaking, fishing, and eagle watching. 7.25 combined miles of natural surface trails circumnavigate the lake and wind through boulder fields, shady hardwood forest, and expansive lake view overlooks.
Lake Wedington – Wedington, AR
Lake Wedington is a 102-acre lake located within a small fragment of the Ozark National Forest, halfway between Siloam Springs and Fayetteville on Highway 16. As a National Forest Campground, it has multiple drive-in campsites and group campsites as well as cabins, picnic areas, a playground, and a swimming beach. Love to Float Outfitters recently opened up for business at the marina, offering canoe and kayak rentals for float trips on the Upper Illinois River. A lakeside trail winds around the shores of Lake Wedington. Near the dam, a gorgeous waterfall spills down to form an unnamed tributary that soon joins the Illinois River. A 14-mile roundtrip mountain biking and hiking trail leads explorers to the Illinois River, allowing primitive camping for overnight backpackers seeking a more secluded site.
Natural Falls State Park
Natural Falls State Park – West Siloam Springs, OK
Just across the border on Highway 412 in West Siloam Springs, Oklahoma, lies a state park named for its 77-foot cerulean waterfall. Fun fact: This beautiful park was the setting of the 1974 film, “Where the Red Fern Grows.” Railed landing platforms allow visitors to view the falls safely from above and below. The park also has 4.5 miles of nature trails, RV and tent campgrounds, and numerous playgrounds and other recreational opportunities for families. The waterfall forms when Dripping Springs Branch tumbles over a bluff into a narrow, v-shaped cavity. From there, the creek flows southwest for less than 3 miles and joins the Illinois River.
Lake Fayetteville- Springdale/Fayetteville, AR
Lake Fayetteville is relatively well known throughout NW Arkansas for its trail system and other recreational opportunities. A heavily used paved trail circles the lake, and innumerable unpaved trails spur off for mountain biking, hiking, and trail running. Fishing, bird watching, and disc golf are also popular activities at Lake Fayetteville. The 194-acre lake is formed by a dam on Clear Creek, which is one of the major urban tributaries of the Illinois River.
Lake Flint Creek
Lake Flint Creek – Gentry, AR
Photo: Eagle Watch Nature Trail at SWEPCo Lake
Lake Flint Creek, also known as “SWEPCO Lake,” is a 500-acre reservoir on Flint Creek that serves to cool SWEPCO’s Flint Creek Power Plant. The resulting warmth of the water creates ideal habitat for many fish species, so this is a popular spot for anglers all year round. The .5-mile Eagle Watch Nature Trail gives visitors a splendid opportunity to view hundreds of nesting bald eagles in the wintertime.
Elephant Rock Nature Park
Elephant Rock Nature Park – Tahlequah, OK
The Elephant Rock Nature Park is a privately-owned recreational area and campground near Tahlequah that offers guided float trips, lodging, primitive camping, hiking and biking trails, swimming, fishing, and more. One of the more unique opportunities available at this destination is to stay overnight in a yurt, which is a round, self-supporting, tent-like structure with all the amenities of a cabin. This park is named after Elephant Rock, one of the most notable natural landmarks along the Illinois River. Elephant Rock is an enormous boulder that juts into the river, and from a distance, it is said to closely resemble the head of an elephant.
Houston’s Point / Goat’s Bluff
Houston’s Point/Goat’s Bluff – Tahlequah, OK
Painting: Jeanne Williams
This spot is off the beaten path, but its sweeping views of the Illinois River are worth the trek! Lots of back roads and some bushwhacking will lead you to Houston’s Point, an artist’s dream panorama. Photographers, painters, and poets alike will find inspiration in the landscape here.
Lake Tenkiller – near Gore, OK
Lake Tenkiller is the “terminus,” so to speak, of the Illinois River itself. Just south of the dam that forms Lake Tenkiller, the Illinois River joins the Arkansas River and begins its eastward journey to the Mississippi River and then the Gulf of Mexico. This 13,000-acre lake is admired for its clear, emerald waters. In fact, the lake has an underwater SCUBA park with artificial shipwrecks, airplane fuselages, and ruins for divers to explore. Two of Oklahoma’s state parks are located on Lake Tenkiller: Cherokee Landing State Park and Tenkiller State Park. Both offer campgrounds, hiking trails, marinas, and plenty of other amenities for visitors.
Have you been to any of these destinations? Please share your photos and stories with us in the comments below! Or add your location-specific comments to our 10 Adventure Destinations board on Pinterest. We’d love to hear from you!
Stay tuned for detailed posts about each destination right here at www.UpstreamMatters.com.