By Selene Muldowney
Arkansas is a place where your troubles melt away as you breathe in the warm air, your skin absorbing the sun’s gentle heat. The nearby Mississippi River the multitude of freshwater lakes filled to the brim with jumbo-sized fish; the stillness in the cool air as the sun rises in the horizon – going back to nature in this state is hard to escape. The river has marked the land, etching itself in the culture of eastern Arkansas. Regionally known as “the Delta” and stretching from Cairo, Illinois south the Gulf of Mexico, covers more than 15,000 square miles in Arkansas. The river’s legacy can be discovered in the region’s remnant wetlands and many oxbow lakes including Arkansas’s largest natural lake, while its impact on human history is evidenced in historic river ports such as Osceola and Helena.
Often referred to as The Natural State, Arkansas is famous for its natural scenic beauty, clear lakes and streams, and abundant wildlife. With 9,000 miles of pristine streams and rivers and more than 600,000 acres of lakes, Arkansas is renowned for fishing, hunting, and water sports of all sorts, including sailing and scuba diving. Marinas, boat docks and guide services are plentiful across the state and are essential to those adventurous vacations on the water. This geographically diverse region offers Arkansas residents and visitors a plethora of outdoor activities to pursue including everything from exploring the beautiful Ozark and breath-taking scenery at the Ouachita Mountains in the northwest to lush timberlines in the south, and especially important for water sports fans, the eastern lowlands that connect to the Mississippi River and Arkansas Delta.
Although the mighty Mississippi may stand out as the star attraction, a variety of smaller rivers including the White River, Little Red River, Black River, St. Francis River, and others offer everything from sunbathing to heart-pounding thrills – all of which can be captured and recorded on the avid Instagram users account. Your vacation can begin at daybreak with river rafting, canoeing, or kayaking down the Buffalo River, Caddo Creek or Kings River. These bodies of water along with dozens of others offer pristine, untapped beauty in the fresh outdoor air. Midday strolls along the numerous beaches and shorelines throughout the state, such as Shady Lake and Lake Sylvia, provide ample outdoor fun. Children can don their flippers and lifejackets and embark on their own mini adventures. As evening begins and the sun bids the day goodbye, you can step into a steamy, soothing dip at the Hot Springs National Park in the City of Hot Springs, while reminiscing about the day’s adventures, and uploading dozens of photos to Facebook to share with friends and family.
Other outdoor activities include on and off-road biking, playing a game of golf on designer courses, mining for keeper quartz crystals and diamonds, and birdwatching. The more adventurous can embark on a wild caving tour in underground limestone caverns or search for the many wet and wonderful waterfalls located around the state. Each season offers something new to explore with everything from child friendly romps through the woods to remote, hard core adventures deep in the mountains and along the wild rivers. Besides exploring the path’s less traveled, many folks can opt to explore the quaint little towns and larger cities along the intersecting highways. From old town shops and theatres to modern restaurants and hotels, Arkansas offers land lovers many options to explore.
While so many opportunities exist for land lovers, it is obvious water enthusiasts have much to appreciate with such a huge array of bodies of water to choose from. It is often said Arkansas remains one of the Midwest’s premier fishing destinations. Anglers can try their hand at catching the next big one and then bring it back to camp to celebrate with a meal – never miss a selfie moment catching that big one! There are a number of fish to choose from including: largemouth and smallmouth bass, bluegill, catfish, crappie, trout, and several other species. Bass fishing is especially popular, and over time, Arkansan waters have spawned some of the largest bass ever seen: a great incentive for fisher folk to break a world record or two.
Of course, besides the fishing, scuba divers more than appreciate exploring the waters with the fish remaining intact and as part of the natural scenery. One of our writers once wrote, “If you give a true diver an eight-ounce cup of tea, they will find a way to dive in it.” While scuba diving has not placed Arkansas on the map for the go to scuba destination, the diving community speaks fondly about their watering holes, and in true Midwestern fashion, happy to share their favorite spots with you. The state offers natural lakes, manmade bodies of water and reservoirs, and a few cups of tea to dive into! There are so many to choose from so we will share just a few of the local favorites. Bring your cameras and gear and let’s jump into some of the best spots to dive into!
Jack Dick, owner of SportsCo in Springdale, has been in business for over 50 years. SportsCo offers the local outdoor enthusiasts everything from kayaks to paddling to scuba gear. His favorite location by far is Beaver lake.
Beaver Lake is one of the more popular man-made lakes found nestled within the Ozark Mountains. This 28,370-acre lake is located in northwest Arkansas near the city of Rogers. Land lovers can enjoy the scenery as well thanks to paved access roads; 2,008 acres of campgrounds ensure a diver will have a place to rest after a day of exhilarating underwater adventures. Scenic limestone bluffs surround the lake’s massive 487 miles of shoreline. What lies beneath the surface is what attracts people to the lake; divers are able to swim among small and largemouth bass, striped bass, crappie, bream, white bass, channel and spoonbill catfish. In November, the lake’s clear waters swarm with striped bass; tributaries located on the southern edge of the park make for bountiful fishing expeditions.
“We have no problems attracting divers to Beaver Lake. The scenery is beautiful and the vis is clear. Lots of folks travel to Beaver Lake to spearfish game fish – we are the only state besides Alaska to allow game fish spearfishing. What really makes this location great for divers is the underwater scenery – lots of trees and the fish will eat out of your hands at times. We take most of our students there – not for the spearfishing since we like the scenery – and after the dive will offer BBQ.”
So, what kind of fish would you expect to see? According to Dick, “Some fish you may be familiar with include walleye, catfish, channel cat, and crawfish among the many other species.”
It appears Dick is not alone with his preference for Beaver Lake.
Jim Butler, owner of C and J Sports, located on Beaver Lake, has been in business for about 16 years and loves the location. He started scuba diving as a hobby and soon realized it was not very convenient to travel an hour each way just to get air so he had a bright idea and purchased himself an air compressor which eventually led to buying gear, and setting up a small shop, and then business took off and grew.
“I was born and raised here [Beaver lake] and really like the area. The lake itself is a great place to dive. It has the best vis by far and offers divers so many things to explore underwater. We have everything from motorcycles to airplanes and boats sunk here. These items have been stripped clean and make for good fish habitats. We attract folks from all over including Oklahoma and as far as Iowa and Nebraska.”
Butler offers divers who want to stay local pizza, wings, and BBQ. Folks who want to add to their day’s adventure can travel to nearby Eureka Springs, located about seven miles away.
One local dive shop owner, Trey Tyler, spoke about his local go to, Lake Ouachita. He owns Rick’s Dive and Travel Center located in North Little Rock. Try has been a diver for over thirty years and instructor for the past ten years. Rick’s Dive ‘N Travel Center Inc. was originally founded in 1978 by Rick Newton who has since passed away. The present location is now a state of the art dive facility and reopened in 1985.
Lake Ouachita’s reputation is renowned when it comes to diving. Sporting over 40,100 acres, Ouachita is by far the largest lake within Arkansas. The lake’s clear waters call out to divers from all over the United States. Created by the building of the Blakely Mountain Dam, Ouachita is surrounded by the Ouachita National Forest. This lake offers up over 970 miles of shoreline. Scuba divers can explore the more than 100 uninhabited islands within the lake.
“We have a fully decked out 40-foot pontoon boat sitting on Lake Ouachita. We love the location because it offers great fresh water diving with clear vis. There are 54 islands and over 93 dive spots to explore. This is one of those lakes a diver just has to dive. The area is surrounded by natural scenery which makes folks feel like they have stepped away from the noise of the cities. We teach almost all of our open water dives from the boat. Training weekends tend to be jam packed with diving so during the summer months we do night dives and get the BBQ fired up!”
Tyler offers a well-established local diving program, and is excited to promote and reestablish their youth programs encouraging children to explore scuba.
Mike Taylor, owner of Ocean Extreme Dive and Travel Center a 5-star PADI facility located in North Little Rock, also favors Lake Ouachita. They have two locations, one in North Little Rock and a second store on the lake at the Mountain Harbor Resort.
“We have a great team of instructors and staff at both locations. We prefer Lake Ouachita for a number of reasons although we have also done dives at Greers Ferry Lake. We do most of our training at Lake Ouachita and have probably trained well over 400 new open water students a year. Most of our business is from Louisiana and Texas with students coming to get trained. We have a dock and boats but due to state laws we prefer to offer free rides on the boats based on space availability – our students always get first seat. We do not offer charter services but can offer free rides.”
Taylor did warn us to avoid Lake Norrell – in fact he adamantly insisted the lake had poor vis and would never be listed on a place to dive recreationally.
“The only diving you will find at Lake Norrell are the law officers looking for guns, knives, or cars tossed in to ‘get lost’ in the muck.”
[One of the reasons we ask local divers for their input is to get honest feedback on locations that we may have information contrary to what is commonly known and we do not want to misguide you or set you off on a bad experience. We were given a very different perspective on Lake Norrell a few years ago from a local tourism organization and while we are certain they had no ill intentions we would not want to share misinformation.] – Editor
Mike McCrory and his son Mike Jr, co-owners of The Dive Shop in Little Rock, offered their advice on local diving and what it means to them. They have been in business for 30 years, in fact, 2017 marks their 30-year anniversary. They are a full-service SSI dive center with a reputation of supporting the local dive community.
“We have started training third generation divers in some families. We truly love to support our community and pride ourselves in our training – we often say, ‘we train the dive shop way’.”
McCroy has his favorite locales including Lake Ouachita and Greers Ferry Lake. Greers Ferry Lake is a favorite of local divers and its picturesque majesty lays at the foot of the Ozarks in north central Arkansas. Greer’s Ferry is a 40,000-acre lake surrounded by an unusual topography: an abundance of rock outcroppings, which start at the surface and then dive into the water making for some great lake wall dives. Greer’s Ferry was formed by Greer’s Ferry Dam in July 1964 and contains a pristine shoreline and deep crystal-clear waters. Divers have reported vis higher than 30. The marine life includes walleye and striped bass, some of which can grow as large as 15 to 18 lbs.
“Greers Ferry Lake is about an hour and fifteen minutes from our shop. We have a 40-foot decked out pontoon boat with a fin ladder parked there. It is a good place conduct new and advanced training with everything from slopping shorelines to boat wrecks and drop walls. The lake is wide open with few islands. We choose this location in part because of the training opportunities and also to pay back to the Heber Springs Community. It is a cute little historical town with old shops and a theatre. There are modern facilities and restaurants also offering great amenities. We really want to support them.”
Another favorite McCrory and his son often visit is Lake Ouachita for the great diving and to honor a local hero. In 2013 a group of Arkansas diver erected a memorial at Blakely Mountain Dam honoring Chief Special Warfare Operator Adam Lee Brown, who was a U. S. Navy SEAL and Hot Springs, Arkansas native.
“Lake Ouachita is a larger lake dotted with islands and located within proximity to the City of Hot Springs which is a larger city offering lots of amenities. We often train at the Blakely Mountain Dam in part due to ease of access to new divers but also to honor a local hero. Brown was the subject the book “Fearless: The Undaunted Courage and Ultimate Sacrifice of Navy SEAL Team SIX Operator Adam Brown”. The memorial is accessible by both land and boat based divers.”
There are a number of other great locations to visit and we encourage you to take a look at local dive shops and centers before embarking on your adventure. We found positive reviews on Lake DeGray located in Central Arkansas, Table Rock Lake near Eureka Springs, Bull Shoals found in North Central Arkansas on the Missouri-Arkansas state line, Norfork Lake fed by the Norfork River, and Lake Greeson in Southwest Arkansas. As you can tell, Arkansas takes its lake diving and fishing very seriously and with good reason: the state offers some of the best lake diving in the entire United States. Going to the area any time soon? Take a plunge in the warm lakes, trawl the biggest catch and go on a fun boating trip. You won’t be disappointed.
Don’t wait to take your next adventure vacation. Refresh your spirit by crossing one of Arkansas’s great lakes. Disconnect from the city and all your devices – although Instagram would be a great way to capture all your epic moments! Get your thrill of whitewater rafting, climbing a mountain, hiking along one of the many trails across the state, or dive into adventure at one of the many lakes and quarries. Discover the Natural State!