The Lower Mississippi River Water Trail

Cairo To Caruthersville

The Kentucky Hills (Loess Bluffs)

Most of western Kentucky lies on a series of bluffs which sharply define the eastern boundary of the Mississippi River Valley past the confluence with the Ohio River. The Mississippi River runs right up against the Kentucky bluffs rather than meandering through the alluvial plain of the Mississippi Embayment in the Missouri Bootheel. Because the confluence of the two rivers doubles the volume of the Mississippi River towns south of Cairo no longer are located on the riverbank but are situated on or in between high bluffs, for example Wickliffe, Columbus, Hickman, Randolph, Memphis, Vicksburg, Natchez and St. Francisville.   As an aid to navigation and understanding of the bluffs the Rivergator has numbered the Kentucky Loess bluffs in descending order, similar to the Chickasaw Bluffs further downstream in Tennessee. These are numbered according to where the river runs against the bank and makes a raw cut into the bluff exposing the geology underneath. Each one of these bluffs makes interesting exploration for the fascinating geology and equally unique plants that often find purchase thereof. The Mississippi River forms 64 miles of the western side of the State of Kentucky, including the bulbous Bessie’s Bend. This is the smallest portion of any state along the 2300 mile length of the big river.


951 LBD Wicliffe Bluff (1st Kentucky Bluff)

938 LBD Iron Bank (2nd Kentucky Bluff)

934 LBD Chalk Bluff (3rd Kentucky Bluff)

921 LBD Hickman, Kentucky (4th Kentucky Bluff)


Greatest Dust Storm Ever

The Mississippi Loess Bluffs tower above the river the result of massive dust storms that blew across the Great Plains ten thousand years ago and picked up dried sediment off of 22 million acres of dried glacial dust between the Ohio River and the Gulf of Mexico.  It was a Great Dust Storm on steroids, millions of acres of pulverized and dried sediment leftover from the melting of the last ice age (when the continental ice cap retreated northward, yielding its great stores of water into a labyrinth of lacerated streams, all twisting and writhing in snake-like mating season fecundity, forming and reforming channels and carving the Middle and Lower Mississippi valleys at the same time, and the Ohio River valley also, the sum of which was twenty times the present volume of the Mississippi, in the same league as the contemporary flow of the Amazon). 


Thousands of years of blowing dust borne by the wild winds of the west hit the calming moisture-rich floodplain of the big valley and was brought to rest by the relatively peaceful atmosphere in giant dunes over its eastern edge, all loess dunes are found east of the Mississippi River.  And like all dunes they were piled in repeating patterns of big piles and small piles and no piles at all, tributary valleys in between.  And like all wave or ripple patterns they left behind a syncopated miasma of big bluffs and small bluffs rising out of the otherwise flat landscape of the Lower Mississippi Floodplain.


954 - 953 RBD Birds Point Dikes

A series of sandbars are found along the dikes right bank descending and above, along forest edge, for good camping, or shelter from south wind. The last sandbar at RBD 953 is the highest, biggest and best.


953-952 LBD Wickliffe Reach

This is a popular place for tows to tie on in preparation for long distance journeys up and down the river. If you go left bank keep a safe 100 yards away from any fleeted barges, especially in high water or strong tail winds. Anchored barges can be just as dangerous as moving barges in a tow in these kinds of conditions.


952.6 LBD Quaker Oats Light

On the Lower Mississippi, navigation lights are placed and maintained by the U. S. Coast Guard. Each light has a Mile Board on the frame that supports it, which enables paddlers to check their location by referring to the river mile locations shown on the navigation charts. In 1882, Mark Twain returned to the river after a long absence, and remarked jokingly that the government had turned the Mississippi into "a sort of two thousand mile torchlight procession." The government, he said, had taken all the romance out of piloting. The navigation lights had also taken a lot of the danger out of piloting, Twain admitted, and had made the pilot's life a great deal easier and safer than when he had been a cub pilot on the Lower Mississippi in 1858.


Lights are usually named for geographical locations but sometimes for persons or for incidents in the river's history. Quaker Oats Light was named for one of the most popular pilots on the river. The steamboat captain's real name was Calvin L. Blazier, but he wore his hair in the old Quaker style and his colleagues called him "Cap'n Quaker Oats," because he so closely resembled the famous trademark of the Quaker Oats Company.


The location of all navigation lights appears on current navigation charts. Since the positions of the lights change from time to time, paddlers should be sure they have up-to-date navigation charts when they plan their voyages down the Lower Mississippi.

The easiest way to do this is viewing and downloading the maps from the US Army Corps website: (adopted from Braggs: Historic Names & Places)


952 RBD New Madrid Floodway Inflow Crevasse

This is the “Blow Out Stretch” where the levee was blasted sky high to provide relief to the people of Cairo Illinois in the Great Flood of 2011. It worked, the water dropped 2.7 feet off the Cairo levee, and probably saved the city from disaster.


The floodway is designed to divert 550,000 cu ft/s from the Mississippi River during the major floods. At this flow the level of the Mississippi River will drop 7 feet at Cairo. Unlike the Morganza and Bonnet Carre Spillways in Louisiana, the Birds Point-New Madrid Floodway does not have floodgates. The floodway is operated by a controlled destruction of the levee, either with explosives or by overtopping. The frontline levee has an 11 miles fuseplug section of the upper levee and a 5 miles section at the lower levee that are lower than adjacent sections. The operation of the floodway is directed by the president of the Mississippi River Commission after consultation with the Chief of Engineers. There is a controversial 2015 USACE proposal to permanently close off The New Madrid Floodway, which would result in the certain destruction of Cairo Illinois in the next flood. (Adopted from Wikipedia).


952 RBD Bird’s Blue Hole

Bird’s Blue Hole is found over the riverbank and a mile across the fields to the levee. It is so big and deep they built the levee around it. This blue hole is a remnant of the 1927 and 1937 Floods.


952 LBD Wickliffe Boat Ramp

Located in between Economy Boat Store and the floating drydock of John F. Beasley Construction Co, the entrance to this ramp is oftentimes hidden behind waiting towboats and barges, but makes a good place to quickly pull off river and access land. Not recommended for camping, but you could easily resupply water or any basic needs here at one of the town’s convenience stores.