Cossatot River State Park in Wickes, Arkansas is the home of the beautiful Cossatot River. The river is rock bottomed and crystal clear. When the water levels are high in early spring, the river offers class IV to V level rapids that any kayaking pro would love. When the levels are lower, it is a great river to float down and enjoy the many pools created by the exposed boulders. The park is all heavily wooded with a diverse forest of both hardwoods and pines. While not quite in the Ouachita (pronounced wosh-i-taw) mountains, it is close enough to them that the terrain is quite hilly.
This is another location where your phone’s GPS will fail as cell service is spotty at best near the park. Be sure to have the directions saved somewhere. The address listed on the site is for the visitor’s center located off of 278. However, the developed campsites are off a gravel road further east on Highway 278. If you want to do primitive camping you will need to turn down the road for the visitors center. You will pass the visitors center and follow the road down to the river to the sites.
If you are camping in the developed campground, pass the visitor’s center turnoff and continue east on 278. There will be large wooden park signs directing you where to turn. Once you turn onto the gravel road it is a pretty long ride into the campgrounds. There are three developed camping areas, the Cossatot Falls area with 7 sites, the Sandbar area with 14 sites, and the Ed Banks with one site. The Sandbar area is further down the road past the Cossatot Falls campsites.
The three developed campgrounds off of the park’s gravel road all cost $14 per night. The sites are first come, first serve, so get there early. Bring cash and exact change and you can pay for your stay right at the campground. They have envelopes and a lockbox to deposit your fee. Be sure to pay, because the park rangers do visit and make sure you have registered and paid. The difference between the developed and undeveloped sites is the developed ones have restrooms. However, this is a questionable advantage because the restrooms have no running water and are pretty smelly. Personally we would rather use nature’s restroom.
Cossattot Falls Campgrounds
The Cossattot Falls campground is located right on the banks of the river. The sites are pretty well separated by trees giving each site a bit of privacy. We stayed in site 6 which is at the far end and the most secluded. The sites are elevated on a gravel platform and include a pole to hang food, a picnic table, and a fire ring. The platforms provide a level spot to pitch your tent but the gravel feels about as comfortable to sleep on as you’d imagine. We really need to buy some sleeping pads!
There are several paths down to the river from the campground making getting water convenient. You can also wade in this area or put a tube in to float down to the falls. At the beginning of the campground there is a short trail to the Cossottot Falls swimming area. Here large boulders form still pools near the banks while the river rushes down cascading rapids in middle. The boulders also make excellent places to sit and watch the river.
The SandBar Campground
The Sandbar campgrounds have 14 sites total with about half of them being walk-in sites. The drive-up sites have trees around them but are pretty open and not private. The walk-in sites are tucked back in the woods along a short trail and surrounded by trees. You may be able to glimpse your neighbors through the trees but they are much more secluded. The Sandbar area is also located on the banks of the river. There is a creek that feeds into the river here and a sandbar extends from the upstream side of it. On the other side of the sandbar there are rapids. It is a pretty place to sit and watch the water flow by.
The Undeveloped Camping Area
The undeveloped sites are near the low-water bridge that spans the river below the Highway 278 bridge. While these sites are also first come first serve, they have the advantage of being free. The park’s river corridor trail passes through the campground and continues up to the visitor center. This would be an excellent location to camp if you wanted to hike up the river corridor trail and float back down. When the river is at normal levels the water is shallow and great for wading in but bring water shoes.
River Corridor Trail
5.5 miles each way
Fitness level: very fit
We hiked the River Corridor Trail up to the visitor center and back down to our campsite at the Cossatot Falls. This trail is supposed to be 5.5 miles but feels much longer due to the many changes in elevation. Patrick and I usually keep a pretty brisk pace but it took us about 7 hours of active walking to do the round trip. The trail was very well marked and pretty clear despite the storm that past through the weekend before our visit. While the trail didn’t have much rough terrain, it did have long steep inclines that left us winded.
There are many small streams that the trail crosses over and the park has built nice wooded bridges over them. They make great places to take a water break. The forest itself is very diverse, changing from all hardwoods to sections of mainly pine and back again. The vegetation is very diverse and there are many pretty wildflowers. There were also tons of mushrooms in every color imaginable. Surprisingly, we didn’t see much wildlife besides squirrels and the occasional bird.
The trail winds towards the river and away from it, curving around the hills bordering the river. Tiring of all the switchbacks on the trail, near the end, we decided to forge our own trial. We crossed the river, which was only a few feet deep at the deepest parts. The cool water of the river felt great and we took a break sitting in the shallows. After our break we hiked the very steep hill of the other side and came out on Highway 278. From there we walked east to the visitor center’s road and down to the visitor’s center. We found out later that our “short cut” had actually made our hike longer. The last portion of the trail is pretty straight. It also comes on the visitor center from behind eliminating the long driveway. Oh well, it was an interesting detour.
The park and especially the trail seemed to have been invaded by a tick army. While hiking, every time we stopped, I peeled off my socks and removed ticks. Every time they looked like someone had sprinkle baby ticks over them. I also spent much of the hike flicking them off me as I walked. I have absolutely literally, no exaggeration, hundreds of tick bites. I’m allergic to the bites so I get blisters over each bite. Patrick, while not allergic, is not in much better shape. This ticks and mosquitos have been so minimal this summer that we’ve been lax with the deet sprays. We used some this hike but it was only a 15% concentration. I also wore shorts which was a mistake. From now on we will be treating our clothing with permethrin, which kills ticks with brief contact, and using strong deet sprays.
The rocky bottom of the river makes the water beautifully crystal clear. You can see down to the bottom like you are looking through glass. Unfortunately, it also means that it is very uncomfortable to walk on. We really regretted not having water shoes. The river is the most appealing part of the park. It’s absolutely gorgeous. Not being able to enjoy it in comfort was a real bummer. So make sure you bring water shoes, it will make your trip so much better.
We brought our bikes on this trip. While the trail is not suitable for bikes due to some narrow rocky places, they were great for riding around the park. Sunday morning, when it was still too chilly to swim, we rode the bikes down to the sandbar campground. We took the gravel park road and it was a nice ride. The road was hilly but not too intense. It was great to be able to quickly check out another area of the park without having to take the car.
Breakfasts: Fruit and nut oatmeal
Lunch: Chili with Quick Bread
Dinner: Cuban Picadillo
Snacks: Trail Mix & Popcorn
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