By Zoie Clift
Photos available here.
The St. Francis Sunken Lands Water Trail is a new water trail for people to paddle that meanders through 10 miles of the Sunken Lands, offering an interesting peek into both nature and history.
“The forested river bottoms of the Sunken Lands offer paddlers an opportunity to see up close the effects of an earthquake that rocked this area over 200 years ago,” said Kirsten Bartlow, watchable wildlife coordinator for the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission (AGFC). “The New Madrid earthquakes began in December 1811 and caused vast tracts of land around the St. Francis River to sink.”
The St. Francis River is a tributary of the Mississippi River and is about 430 miles long overall. It begins in southeast Missouri and meanders its way some 300 miles through Arkansas before joining the Mississippi River.
A section of this river in Arkansas between Lake City and Marked Tree has become known as the Sunken Lands. This is where the river dropped around 8 feet during the famous earthquake, causing the river to form a large overflow swampy area. Around 30,000 acres of this area is now under the reins of the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission and known as the St. Francis Sunken Lands Wildlife Management Area (WMA).
This WMA is stretched for over 60 straight-line miles from Marked Tree to the Missouri line. “There are multiple uses for the area with several access points for those who have boats and a few walk-in areas for those that don’t,” said Jessica Homan, St. Francis Sunken Lands Wildlife Management Area biologist for the AGFC. “The majority of the area is bottomland hardwood forests that house a lot of migratory birds this time of year. We will have most species of waterfowl in the winter and in the summer months we get a lot of Prothonotary Warblers that you can see when you are kayaking the water trail. Bald eagles and Ospreys also use the river in the winter months as well. Bass and crappie fishing are a big sport in the spring and we have a decent number of folks that commercial catfish or trotline for catfish. We also have campsites available for folks to use. These are accessible by vehicle so campers are welcome but we don’t have hookups for electricity or water. It’s primitive camping only. Jonesboro is the closest large city, about 30 minutes from our middle and southern end of the area. Lake City and Paragould are the largest towns toward the northern portion.”
The WMA is also part of Audubon Arkansas’s Important Bird Areas Program due to it being primarily bottomland hardwoods. There are several trails throughout the area that people can hike down to sightsee.
“We also have an endangered species of plant here on the area called Pondberry,” said Homan. “It’s the only population of it east of Crowley’s Ridge.” Homan said they chose the area of the river they did for the water trail mainly because it provided the best access for paddlers. “You have multiple options for entry along this route and the ability to make a long or short float based on where these accesses are,” she said. “And it’s the best portion of the river to see a variety of wildlife and enjoy the uniqueness of a cypress swamp.”
The versatile terrain of the area also stands out.
“What’s really cool for paddlers is you can enjoy meandering through bald cypress-lined side channels and then venture out into open, lake-like water caused from the long ago quakes,” said Bartlow. “It’s a pretty unique opportunity to be able to explore both habitat types on one paddling adventure.”
Padders can access the trail at three different boat launch points and there are signs about the trail there. These launch sites are also popular with waterfowl hunters during the hunting season. If paddling during that timeframe, paddlers should wait until after shooting hours, which is mid-day, to start their adventure. Hunters also hunt on the WMA so wear hunter orange when it is the timeframe to do so.
Bartlow said the trail does have a few markers, but paddlers will need to use a geo-referenced map to follow the route.
Go to agfc.com/sfsl to download the free Avenza map app and the geo-referenced map of the trail’s route. “St. Francis Sunken Lands WMA is a vast area and having a geo-referenced map gives paddlers the ability to create their own paddling trip,” she said. The virtual map also will help paddlers stay on course and prevent any issues with private property that is part of the area.
“If it’s your first venture to the Sunken Lands, I recommend putting in at the Oak Donnick Access and paddling upstream through the beautiful cypress trees in the side channels,” said Bartlow. “Then loop back down to the boat launch through the open water if it’s not too windy. Normal water level allows for an out-and-back paddle, but do check the level on the water trail’s webpage and avoid the area during flood conditions.”
The Oak Donnick Access is located in Trumann. “After visiting the water trail, you could visit the world-famous Jerry’s Steaks, tour the Trumann Museum, shop in the regionally popular Checkerboard Fine Gifts, and finish out the day at the local favorites Al’s Bar-B-Que or Couch’s Log Cabin BBQ,” said Neal Vickers who recently retired from the Trumann Area Chamber of Commerce.
A unique feat of engineering can also be seen at the nearby Marked Tree Siphons, which were built in 1939 and are now on the National Register of Historic Places. These three siphons, whose job is to maintain the river as a navigable stream and also protect the area from floods, are around 230 feet long. The siphons lift the flow of the St. Francis River over a levee into the river channel on the other side and were the only ones of their type in the world when they were built. There is also a wooden bridge that goes over them that people can drive or walk over.
The St. Francis Sunken Lands Water Trail is part of the AGFC Arkansas Water Trails program. For more details, visit agfc.com/en/explore-outdoors/wildlife-viewing/water-trails.
About Arkansas Tourism
Arkansas Tourism, a division of the Arkansas Department of Parks, Heritage and Tourism, strives to expand the economic impact of travel and tourism in the state and enhance the quality of life for all Arkansans. The division manages 14 Arkansas Welcome Centers and employs more than 60 staff members across The Natural State. For more information, visit www.arkansas.com.