Long daytrip into the Delta National Forest from the Anguilla Bridge for seasoned paddlers only.
Experience the best and the worst of the Sunflower River, from trashy riverside camps to secluded and serene sections of the only remaining undredged piece of the entire length of the Big Sunflower!
The Big Sunflower boasts the richest and densest mussell shell beds in the world. Plentiful wildlife and impressive forests.
Trail description and photos by John Ruskey, Quapaw Canoe Company
Numbers below correspond with those on the map.
Water Trail Description:
Hwy 14, Anguilla Bridge to Hwy. 16, Sunflower River Boat Ramp:
1. Anguilla Bridge Boat Launch
RBD downstream side of Hwy 14 Bridge
Short concrete ramp functional at medium water levels. At low water you will have to carry or drag your vessel down a series of muddy layers to the water’s edge. Paddler friendly residents live in area. Should be safe parking for daytrip. Arrange shuttle if going overnight.
2. Mouth of Big Widow Bayou
LBD 1/4 mile
Drainage for the area. Curves along old channels of the Mississippi River before breaking through and confluencing with the Sunflower River.
Gentle curves, steep banks, and open stretches are found along the first 5 miles of the Big Sunflower River. The river flows through a canyon of mud and collapsing sediment, which at low water can be challenging, especially in a head wind.
3. Chapel Landing
Mile 2.6, RBD
Above Chapel Landing a pile of giant masonry blocks are found, perhaps an old docking facility, or maybe a bridge abutment. Visible at low water.
4. Hickman Landing
Mile 2.7, RBD
The mouth of Plaquemines Bayou is found at Hickman Landing and here the Big Sunflower River turns abruptly eastward into a series of gentle curves.
5. Big Eddy
Frequent birds and animals are found in Big Eddy, where the river curves back northward momentarily and opens up into a large stillwater bay with low lying floodplain LBD and a high steep bank RBD. Big Eddy is a reminder of the powerful water flow once common on the Big Sun, now only occurring after days of torrential rainfall.
6. Dowling Bayou
Mile 5.7, LBD
Worthy of exploration for an intimate glimpse of the delta jungle and closer views of animals and tracks. Paddlers will find passage at all water levels.
7. Holly Bluff Cutoff
The river splits into two channels. To the left is the Holly Bluff Cutoff, a long straight canal that was carved in the 1940’s by the US Army Corps for flood protection. The right fork winds lazily into the woods beyond. You are now entering the single most wild and beautiful stretch of the entire 225-mile long Big Sunflower River! During high water if there is any flow the water will flow equally both directions. But at low water all water flows right into the undredged section — much to the delight of paddlers!
Luxuriant oak forests crowd the banks and several thick stands of large sycamores are seen in the first mile of this undredged section.
8. McCann Bayou
Mile 7.5, LBD
You can make a landing here and walk into the woods for a glimpse of the nearby Green Ash Greentree Reservoir, which is one of the many wetlands created intentionally by the Delta National Forest to mimic the conditions historically found in the great bottomland hardwood forests of the Mississippi Delta. Seasonally operated pumps fill the forest bottoms with water and provide winter habitat for ducks and other waders. Short small levees border the designated forests and contain the water.
Good Picnic Spot: The gentle slope at McCann Bayou makes an ideal place to stop for a picnic and to stretch your legs. Practice Leave No Trace principals and remove all waste and leave no sign of your visit except your footprints in the mud.
9. American Chute
Mile 7.7, RBD
This distributary runs parallel to the Big Sun several miles from upstream and re-enters the river in a deep slot canyon of mud. The adventuresome paddler can explore its steep slippery banks and be rewarded with a phantasmagoria of cypress roots, fallen trees and dark woods beyond.
10. Mud Lake Bayou Entrance
Mile 7.9, RBD
Mud Lake Bayou exits perpendicularly from the west and at medium to high water levels can be entered and explored from your vessel. Overhanging trees on both banks, fields to the south.
11. Green Ash Bayou
N32.885388 , W90.781375
Mile 8.5, LBD
A small bayou enters the river LBD hrough two large cypress trees, one leaning at a slight angle has been seen with distinct markings either from lightning strike or perhaps black bear marks clawing the bark up its height.
12. Mud Lake Bayou Exit
Mile 9.1, RBD
This small distributary re-enters the Big Sun at this point, spreading out over a shoals created from previous flood events.
13. Mouth of the Little Sunflower River
Mile 11.2, RBD
During rising waters you might notice a strong inflow to the right fork. If you follow the flow through this opening you will end up on the Little Sunflower, which meanders along the western border of Delta National Forest and will eventually spit you out back into the Big Sunflower dozens of miles downstream!
If you have enough daylight left over and extra energy to burn, enter the Little Sunflower for a view of a muddy wetlands, with the convergence of Choctaw Bayou from the northwest. Several miles downstream the Little Sun Rolling Fork Creek connects you to the town of Rolling Fork. In high water you can paddle through, but be ready for some bushwhacking!
The Big Sun speeds up noticeably and spreads out over a series of shallow shoals strewn thickly with mussel shells. Some maneuvering necessary along fallen trees and possible blockages. During low water you might have to do some dragging here. Be vigilant for strainers during fast rising waters. Be prepared to portage if necessary.
14. Privet Island
Mile 12, RBD
A half mile downstream you will float past a private concrete ramp, and then after another bend of the river past a single isolated island overgrown with swamp privet and water elm. The back channel of this island is well worth exploring for all of the tracks left in the mud and interesting piles of driftwood.
15. Cypress Bend
Leaving Privet Island you immediately wander into Cypress Bend which turns the river 180 degrees out of its westerly direction to exit flowing east into the Delta National Forest. Highway 16 follows the river along this section. The Big Sunflower meanders gently in an easterly course becoming south-easterly.
16. Secret Bayou
Mile 13.4, LBD
A pair of narrow bayous enter LBD. They are well worth exploring, especially the one further downstream known as Secret Bayou because it surreptitiously enters through a thicket of swamp privet .
17. Delta National Forest Campsite #74
Mile 13.5, RBD
Right bank descending at mile 13.5 there is a National Forest campsite (DNF #74) on the banks above (possible primitive take-out).
When the river channel starts curving increasingly southward you can start anticipating the Sunflower River Boat Ramp which appears at RBD at Mile 15.6.
18. Sunflower River Boat Ramp
Mile 15.6, RBD
This is a steep boat ramp with “ribbed” concrete for traction, and is usable at all water levels although sometimes it is covered with gooey slippery mud. Gravel parking area above not advised for overnight parking, but day parking should be okay.
Warnings: Delta National Forest is very busy and possibly hazardous for the paddler during Hunting Season. Consult river gages before embarking. This section of the Sunflower never gets too low to paddle, only slow.
Big Sunflower River @ Holly Bluff, MS
For this section of the Big Sunflower, you can get an approximate idea of the water level using the USACE River Gage at Holly Bluff:
Below 67: Too Shallow. Frequent dragging and many portages.
70-85: Ideal. Possible portages
85-95: Fast Water Possible. Some Caution Required
Above 95: Dangerous. Advanced paddlers only. Beware snags and strainers.
Reading River levels at Holly Bluff: Low water (Too Shallow) Don’t go below 67 feet on the Holly Bluff Gage (when a lot of dragging through shallows & mud flats will be necessary). Ideal level: 70-85 on the Holly Bluff Gage. Above 90 on the Holly Bluff Gage the current will be swift and extra caution is needed to maneuver through snags, sawyers and possible strainers as river rushes through the thick terrain. Above 95 all of the bankside forest will be underwater, and above 100 (flood stage) there won’t be any dry land to be found, boat ramps & parking lots will be completely submerged.
Historic Levels: Looking at historical data for the Holly Bluff from over the past ten years, the river typically bottoms out around 70 feet on the Holly Bluff Gage with spikes due to rainfall & runoff, sometimes spiking up to 25 feet or higher in several days. A paddler caught in one of these spikes will experience fast water and possible dangerous turbulent conditions. The record low is 64. Bank full and flood stage is at 95 with a record high of 102.3 feet during the great flood of 1937.
Steele Bayou Control Structure: When the Mississippi River is high it forces its watery influence up the Yazoo River and floods all unprotected low-lying areas of the south delta including the bottomlands of the Sunflower River. The Steel Bayou Control Structure was built to shut off the south delta from the effects of the flooding Mississippi. It is located near the mouth of the Sunflower River at the Yazoo just downstream of the Steele Bayou Confluence. When the gates are closed the water might be backing up all of the way into the top end of Delta National Forest, and this section of river below the Anguilla Bridge.
For a complete picture of water conditions, paddlers might want to consult the USACE gage at the upstream side of the Steele Bayou control structure:
And compare it to the downstream side of the Steele Bayou control structure:
When the levels are the same that means the gates are open and there is no piling of water behind the gates. If the downstream (riverside) reading is higher than the upstream (landside) reading, that means the gates are closed and water will be pooling behind. Compare the elevation with the reading at Holly Bluff. If they are the same you can predict that the water is pooled all the way up to Holly Bluff, and possibly beyond. What this means for the paddler in times of pooling is that you might experience no water flow, flooded banks, and possibly flooded forest. This might extend the length of your trip because you will have no assistance from river speed to help you along. On the other hand there will be no danger from fast water conditions and you can lazily explore flooded places normally not accessible.
In the first five miles of the trip during the gentle curves and long open stretches, observant paddlers may see animals (beaver and deer) and plentiful waterfowl.
Once you are below Big Eddy, look for layers of mussellshell beds embedded in the mud (visible in low water). The Big Sunflower River is home to the densest musselshell populations in the world. Some of these are endangered such as the sheepnose and spectaclecase mussels.
After the Holly Bluff Cutoff, as you enter the undredged portion of the river, you might have the opportunity to see black bears in the trees and alligators in the river. You probably won’t actually see bears, but the careful observer will notice scratch marks where the bears are climbing their favorite trees and leaving distinct red scratches on the otherwise grey bark of the cypress. Black bear tracks can be possibly seen alongside deer, raccoon and wild hog in the riverbank mud. Blue herons, and lesser egrets are common, and songbirds such as the Prothonotary Warbler and Indigo Bunting in their northward migration (March-April).
While paddling the first five miles of the trail, you will see steamboat landings and Indian mounds, which are reminders of the not too distant past. Paddle past Holland Landing, Chapel Landing, Hickman Landing, Big Eddy Landing, Whitehouse Landing, Ratliff Landing, and Tisdell Landing and imagine the passengers and freight being transported by steamboats on their way to and from the heart of the Delta. The Sunflower connected the growing cotton kingdom of the fecund Mississippi Delta to Vicksburg and thence downstream to New Orleans, and from there to American and English textile factories.
Historically, the Big Sunflower River was a clear flowing river, as reported by legendary hunting guide Holt Collier (1902). Theodore Roosevelt, who employed Mr. Collier’s services during one of his famous bear hunts, made morning swims in the river in November of 1902.
Delta National Forest
68 Frontage Road Rolling Fork MS 39159 Phone: (662) 873-6256
Office Hours: 8:00 am to 4:00 pm (M-F)
For more information contact:
Mississippi’s Lower Delta Partnership
401 Walnut Street, Rolling Fork, MS 39159
Phone: (662) 873-6261