The Arkansas River has been the life-blood of Central Arkansas and the surrounding region since its settlement. As Central Arkansas progresses further into the 21st century, it is crucial now more than ever to realize the Arkansas River's potential not only for recreation and social interaction, but also for economic growth. Our beautiful river is an enormous asset that can be utilized to attract both tourism and people from all walks of life to make our region their home.




At 1,460 miles long, the Arkansas River is the longest tributary in the Mississippi-Missouri River system. From its source near Leadville, Colorado, the river drops 10,000 feet in 125 miles, travels through Kansas, then through northeastern Oklahoma. There, it is joined by the Canadian, Cimarron, Neosho-Grand, and Verdigris rivers. It then crosses Arkansas, emptying into the Mississippi River 600 miles north of New Orleans, Louisiana. 

Riviere des Ark

The Arkansas River was known to early French explorers as “Riviere des Ark” or “Riviere d’Ozark” and to early Spanish explorers as “Rio Napestie.” It eventually derived its present-day name from the Quapaw, who lived and hunted along its banks. The name “Arkansas,” which had applied only to the lower reaches of the stream, was carried westward by American traders and trappers.

The famous Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto became the first European to explore the river on his journey to the American Southwest in 1541. More than 100 years later, French explorers Louis Jolliet and Jacques Marquette reached the mouth of the Arkansas River. In 1686, Henri de Tonti established Arkansas Post, the first and most significant European settlement in Arkansas. This important historic site is located near the mouth of the Arkansas River in southeastern Arkansas.


la petite roche - the little rock on the river

Benard de la Harpe, a Frenchman leading an exploration party up the Arkansas River on April 9, 1722, noted the first outcropping of the rock he had seen along the banks since leaving New Orleans. He reportedly called it 'la petite roche' or 'the little rock,' to distinguish it from a larger cliff across the river.

The area was largely wilderness, inhabited by the Quapaw or Arkansas Indians, and had been explored by Spanish gold hunters and by itinerant hunter-trappers. The country became a part of the Territory of Louisiana, which was governed by France, Spain and then France again, from which it was purchased by the United States in 1803.

Little Rock had become a well-known crossing when the Arkansas Territory was established in 1819. The permanent settlement of Little Rock began in the spring of 1820, and the first building has been described as a cabin, or shanty, and was built on the bank of the river near La Petite Roche. On October 18, 1820, Territorial Governor James Miller signed legislation designating Little Rock as the new capital for Arkansas. 


The McClellan-Kerr Arkansas River Navigation System (MKARNS)

The McClellan-Kerr Arkansas River Navigation System (MKARNS) was the largest civil works project ever undertaken by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers at the time of its opening. Today, it is responsible for $1 billion to $2 billion in trade transportation in Arkansas each year and up to $1 billion in trade transportation in Oklahoma. Additionally, the system has numerous flood protection projects, hydro power plants, and soil conservation and recreational areas. Many communities, such as Little Rock and North Little Rock, have taken advantage of the development to enhance further riverfront developments, such as the River Market, William J. Clinton Presidential Center and Park, Heifer International, Two Rivers Park, Verizon Arena, Dickey-Stephens Park, and now Central Arkansas' newest marina: the Rock City Yacht Club.

The McClellan-Kerr Arkansas River Navigation System has helped utilize the Arkansas River and has provided the region with:

  • Recreational Opportunities
  • Improved Navigation
  • Flood Control
  • Economic Development
  • Tourism


For centuries, Arkanans have interacted with the river. The Arkansas River has been an integral part of our local environment on which we have historically depended for food, commerce, transportation, and trade. Over time, our focus on what the river can be utilized for has increased, modern society is becoming more connected to our local environment, and people’s perception of the river has changed. Recreational activities have increased and are continuing to grow in popularity.

We all know a healthy environment can improve quality of space and quality of life. Increasing our ties to the Arkansas River puts people in closer contact with nature, especially in Central Arkansas. Urban parks can provide residents with much needed green space to offer them a place away from stresses and strains often associated with living in a bustling downtown setting. The Rock City Yacht Club and surrounding parks and trails will offer free, accessible, and safe recreation for children and adults, encouraging Central Arkansas residents and visitors to connect with the river.


Mental Well-being

Society has recognized the benefits of the environment on mental health for centuries. More recently there is evidence that contact with nature and living things makes people feel good and positively enhances their mental well-being while contributing to stress reduction. “Green exercise” refers to the synergistic benefit of participating in physical activities, whilst being directly exposed to nature. Reports have also demonstrated the value of outdoor activities in helping to combat depression and increasing happiness and wellbeing and confidence.

Photo by Eugene_Onischenko/iStock / Getty Images

River corridors provide opportunities for recreation as part of daily life allowing stress relief and enjoyment as well as activities such as fishing, cycling and watching wildlife. In built up areas river corridors enable safe, cost effective and healthy commuting which further contributes to physical health. River restoration schemes can facilitate recreation and learning for children and encourage them to care more about their environment or take up a new outdoor activity.

Social Cohesion
Rivers can play a vital role in the community by encouraging social interaction and bonding. River activities can bring residents together in positive actions to look after their local area and foster a community spirit, pride in the environment, and a sense of belonging.

River restoration improves the aesthetics of the environment by restoring natural landscape features and benefiting the associated flora and fauna, creating more attractive and aesthetically pleasing surroundings. People wish to experience nature and the wilderness yet feel safe in urban areas. Post restoration improvements in social behaviour such as reduced graffiti and littering further improve aesthetics and foster a sense of pride in the local environment.

Restoration schemes provide huge learning potential about our natural world helping to demonstrate how humankind depends on water and the need to reduce our collective impact on the environment. Key lessons include the water cycle, climate change adaptation, the threats of invasive species and the ecology of our native species and habitats. Studies have shown schoolchildren learning about wildlife and natural habitats from their site visits were motivated to do something differently in their everyday life to help the environment.

Rivers have always been part of our culture with human settlements located adjacent to rivers for transport, fishing, farming and recreation. Restoring our cultural links to rivers is a long term goal and an important part of all drivers raised above. Many religions connect spiritual and religious values to rivers and the earth, and landscapes have long provided inspiration for art, folklore and architecture.

Urban River Development

More than 50% of people in the world now live in cities and more than 75% live near a river. Rivers are increasingly valued as part of the urban environment, rather than simply a means for removing waste water and rubbish. Successful urban river restoration is as much about establishing trust with local people as it is about improving flows and habitats. By informing people about the social and economic benefits of urban river restoration, as well as the ecological advantages, it is more likely that practitioners can include local priorities within a successful project.