The Illinois River flows from a spring in the Ozark Mountains. It winds its way from far northwestern Arkansas through the hills of northeastern Oklahoma, eventually joining the Arkansas River just north of I-40. Though the Illinois River in Oklahoma is not very deep, this amazing scenic attraction provides tons of recreational opportunities for locals and visitors alike. It is also a river of deep historical significance. Let’s learn more about the Illinois River in Oklahoma.
How Deep Is the Illinois River?
The Illinois River covers a distance of approximately 145 miles from its origin near Fayetteville, Arkansas to its convergence with the Arkansas River in Oklahoma. It averages a depth of only about 2 to 5 feet. That’s plenty to keep float operators in business up and down the river from Tahlequah, Oklahoma nearly all the way to Siloam Springs, Arkansas. Float operators watch gauges on the Illinois River to determine when visitors can safely canoe or raft. When the gauge at Tahlequah reaches 9.5 feet, all recreational floating must cease. When the water reaches 11 feet, the river leaves its banks and minor flooding begins.
Record Flood Levels
The Illinois River in Oklahoma has flooded many times. Most of the time, flooding only reaches minor to moderate stages. When the river reaches 17 feet, flooding is considered severe. Homes, cabins, and other property may incur significant damage. Rural roads become compromised and people may have to travel long distances to avoid the floodwaters. Humans and livestock face imminent danger if they cannot make it to higher ground.
In December 2015, just after Christmas, the Illinois River reached record flood levels. People in the area had not seen such levels since 1950 when the gauge in Tahlequah reached 27.94 feet. As residents struggled to flee the unprecedented flood, the waters continued to rise. The water peaked at 30.69 feet on December 28, 2015, almost 3 feet above the previously recorded level. Homes, farms, and businesses were destroyed along much of the river.
Illinois River Tourism
The strength of the tourism industry brought the Illinois River and its many businesses in Oklahoma back. According to the Oklahoma Illinois River Management Plan, an estimated 350,000 visitors enjoy recreational opportunities on and around the Illinois River each year, and about 180,000 people float the river annually. Besides float trips, visitors can enjoy swimming, hiking, camping, and more. Public access areas even allow daytime visitors to enjoy the river for free.
A few other floatable rivers in Oklahoma include the Glover River, the Mountain Fork River, and the Kiamichi River in the southeastern part of the state. Also, the Spring River in the far northeastern corner, and a short section of the Washita River near the Texas border.
The Illinois River in Oklahoma is home to all kinds of wildlife. Residents around the river have seen large mammals such as North American black bears and predators including bobcats, coyotes, and foxes. Other wildlife include deer, elk, beavers, otters, snakes of both venomous and non-venomous varieties, herons, egrets, pelicans, owls, hawks, and even bald eagles.
Illinois River Whitewater Park
In 2023, the WOKA Whitewater Park opened on the upper Illinois River near Watts, Oklahoma. This attraction allows visitors to test their skills kayaking through rapids. This project, supported in part by the Walton Family Foundation, brings unique fun and adventure to northeastern Oklahoma.
Cultural Significance of the Illinois River
Much of the Illinois River flows through the Cherokee Nation. The Illinois Campground, in a valley near the banks of the Illinois River in what is now Tahlequah, Oklahoma, marked the end of the Trail of Tears. This forced expulsion of the Cherokee people from their traditional homelands to the land that was then known as Indian Territory represented a terrible time in history. The survivors of the Trail of Tears arrived at this place on the Illinois River and held the Cherokee National Convention in July 1839. The river would become an integral piece of their new nation and home.
The photo featured at the top of this post is © EJ_Rodriquez/iStock via Getty Images
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