Illinois River, Tahlaquah, OK, Kayaking Trip

The Illinois River outside of Tahlequah, Oklahoma is a great river, clear water, rocky bottom, and some class I and II rapids to keep things interesting. There are numerous rental services and supposedly a couple shuttle services. Unfortunately, these businesses’ websites are not very informative and many of the numbers are out of service so finding information is difficult.

Put-Ins and Take-Outs

Due to the difficulty in finding a shuttle service we decided to shuttle ourselves. The river here is perfect for this as it makes a huge bend around Sparrowhawk Mountain and US 10 connects the two ends of the curve. So while it takes 12 miles for the river to wrap around the mountain, the road connects on the backside in just two short miles. Additionally, there are two public access points with boat ramps at either end, No Head Public Access upstream and Echota Public Use Area downstream. Patrick decided to strap his Trek mountain bike to the back of the kayak and used this to retrieve the truck. You can read more about how he did it here.

12 Mile River Trip

The map below shows the two points. The location to the south is the where the Echota Public Use Area boat ramp is located. Zoom in and you will notice it is not on the main river but on a small side branch on river right. At the time of our trip, the upstream fork was blocked by trees and the easiest route was to go down river to where the branch reconnected. Falcon Floats is located just downstream of the boat ramp on that branch of the river and has big signs up. So follow the Falcon floats sign and turn up the fork on river right. After a small amount of paddling the branch turns into a lagoon. There will be a second fork to the right, take this one past Falcon Float’s campgrounds. A little bit upstream you will see the concrete boat ramp on your right. The waters leading up to it are excellent fishing as the area makes a perfect fish nursery.

20 Mile River Trip

We did this trip over Labor Day weekend and wanted a little longer trip so we put in further up river at Edmondson Public Access Area. As you can see in the map below, this greatly increased our biking distance. Google proved inaccurate in time though as it only took Patrick 30 minutes to ride back to the truck.


Early morning on the river

If you are looking for peace and quiet on the river I would suggest going before Memorial Day or after Labor Day. Due to the large amount of river outfitters the river can get pretty crowded. Since we went on Labor Day weekend there were times when it felt we were in a sea of rafts and kayaks. Thankfully most of the outfitters want their boats in by 5 or 6 pm so at night we had the river mostly to ourselves. If you want to avoid the crowds completely, going in the off season when the outfitters close down, is the way to go.

River Conditions

This Illinois River on the weekend we were kayaking was running about 500cfs and 5 feet deep at the Talaquah gauge. At this level, there were some class I and II rapids. When the river is at greater depths the rapids would most likely smooth out as there weren’t rocks sticking out. At five feet there were only a couple places where we dragged bottom. Careful navigating could probably have avoided even these. If the depths are lower there would be much more walking the boats. At 500 cfs we were moving pretty quickly. Going through rapids without paddling we were probably traveling at about 10mph. There were some slow areas where we were almost at a standstill when not paddling. Still were only on the river around 10-12 hours total over the weekend and traversed the 20 miles with very little strong paddling.


The river’s rocky bottom is matched by a gravel shoreline with nicely graded beaches. There was no shortage of really nice campsites with nice wide beaches and shade trees. All the rocks made building a fire ring easy. The flip side to that is you definitely need a camping pad for this trip. If you have room you may even want to double up. The water in the river is clear, free of silt, and tastes great after being filtered with our Sawyers. We only brought one gallon of water and filtered the rest as we needed it.

Many of the shuttle services also have campgrounds so if you want electric and water you can stop for the night in one of them. On the other hand, if you prefer to rough it like us, you will have a good chance of finding a stretch of river all to yourself.

Try it Out!

Overall, this section of river was a great choice for a weekend trip. The river is clean, full of fish, and lined with great campsites. Give it a try your next weekend and you won’t be disappointed.