Watershed Sanctuary and Learning Center

The Illinois River Watershed Partnership (IRWP) received a Walton Family Foundation challenge grant for the purpose of establishing a Watershed Sanctuary at Cave Springs. The Sanctuary is an extraordinary natural site for public outreach and education to build awareness of the importance of the Illinois River watershed, water quality concerns, and ways in which the natural environment and water quality may be protected and improved.

The 30-acre site in Cave Springs, Arkansas is situated in the urban headwaters of the Illinois River Watershed with natural amenities which will embrace sustainable, green development highlighting the features of the underground spring leading to a lake, limestone cave formation and abundant trees and wildlife.  

The IRWP and our partners (listed below) joined together to acquire this special property on September 26, 2012, and begin development and implementation of education and conservation projects at the Sanctuary. In January 2014, twelve Northwest Arkansas legislators partnered with the IRWP to purchase an adjoining 1-acre to revitalize a vacated former church building into a Watershed Learning Center to serve as watershed education and outreach for stakeholders in agriculture, business, conservation, construction, government, and technical/education fields.  


Watershed Learning Center at 221 S. Main Street, Cave Springs, Ark.

 Directions & Parking at the Watershed Sanctuary and Learning Center

Watershed Sanctuary Trail Map

Take a virtual tour of the Watershed Sanctuary along the Woodland Way nature trail!  Tour map prepared by Helen Tyson Middle School EAST students.

The Watershed Sanctuary is home to several rare and endangered species, including the largest population of Ozark Cavefish, an important population of gray bats, and the grotto salamander; as documented by the Arkansas Natural Heritage Commission. The IRWP believes it is an ideal location in the Illinois River Watershed to be preserved as a living model of environmental stewardship for practices that can be implemented throughout the watershed, while being enjoyed by all residents, students and visitors.

Cave Experience at the Watershed Learning Center


Windgate Art & Nature Gallery

On Display thru March 2016: Nature Photography by Terry Stanfill


Follow our progress and see ongoing renovations! 

Frequently Asked Questions




The following is a brief discussion of future projects: 

  • Cave Spring - The cave itself will remain off limits for public access but there is an opportunity to moderately expand the cave entrance area and create a natural setting for the spillway while maintaining its current water level in the dam. This would capture dramatic views of the cave mouth and hillside. The area that was occupied by a fish hatchery would be cleared of the infrastructure that supported that operation and landscaped with native plant species. The Cave Spring itself will become a primary site feature.

  • Water access and features - The water emanating from the cave could be channeled to support wetlands and a stream in the eastern portion of the site, supporting a revitalized Lake Keith, and downstream from the dam to flow into Spring Creek and the Illinois River. Outlooks and trails to the cave and stream will meander through urban forests and provide observation of the wildlife and water features. Active uses will include fishing, small water craft, radio controlled boats and low impact development projects.  

  • Wetlands - Wetlands may be created around the stream, particularly if they are located to capture runoff from the surrounding higher ground and thus help to maintain high water quality. These wetlands would also be excellent wildlife habitat and help create a sustainable natural ecosystem.

  • Lake Remediation – The Lake may be drained and remediated as a part of Phase I or part of future development process depending upon the extent and cost of remediation which could potentially be completed at the time of future Highway improvements.

  • Fishing - Stocking of the Lake with fish and promoting activities such as fishing tournaments is essential. The lake would be restocked with appropriate fish species, creating opportunities for shoreline fishing. Building an appropriately scaled fishing pier and bridge would also be considered by IRWP and AGFC.

  • Trails -There is an opportunity to develop a mile or more of trails on site. Trails would have interpretive stations strategically located to make them an essential interpretive component of the site in addition to their use for nature observation, exercise and site circulation. The trails would include demonstration areas, interpretive signage, benches, and observation areas for recreation and nature observation.

  • Built and natural open spaces - Public spaces for gathering, resting, demonstrations, nature talks and other activities to include an outdoor pavilion and/or amphitheater, upper plaza associated with a future education facility, a lower plaza to support lakeside activities, an event lawn with open space adjacent to the Lake and interspersed open areas for formal and informal gatherings.

  • Interpretive stations - Provide watershed interpretation along the trails and within the site’s open spaces. The interpretation at the stations might focus on specific elements of the overall watershed interpretation that are located within the site at places that are related to the interpretive message of the particular interpretive station. The interpretive stations would be along trails or in the public and natural open spaces.

  • Observation Platform and Viewshed - There is an opportunity to build a raised observation platformor tower along the ridgeline in the northeastern quadrant of the site. This location would provide an overview of the entire site and offer views to Cave Springs itself. This observation deck would support nature observation such as bat-watching and bird-watching at certain times of the year and day-to-evening- to-morning transitions.

  • Parking - Dispersed parking, rather than centralized parking, is a strategy to segment various users groups and to accommodate peak parking demand that would occur during large events and peak periods. Parking will also mitigate stormwater runoff with appropriate parking design and materials used.

  • Watershed management best practices - The Watershed Sanctuary will provide demonstration and features as best practices related to watershed management. These might include permeable parking and trails, rain gardens, high performance building systems, “green” roofs, stream-side buffering and other sustainable development opportunities as indicated by LEED and other green building construction guidelines.


To join these partners, click here to download a pledge form and email to deliahaak@irwp.org or mail to IRWP PO Box 8506, Fayetteville, AR 72703.  

Thank you for your support!   


AR Game Fish Commission Phase I Development

Walton Family Foundation

The Windgate Foundation Phase I Education

WATERSHED STEWARDS  $50,000 - $100,000

Cargill Springdale

Flint Creek Power Plant (AECC-AEP SWEPCO)

Tom and Gloria Hopper 

Tyson Foods

LAKE GUARDIANS   $25,000 - $50,000

Southwestern Energy 

CAVE CHAMPIONS   $15,000 - $25,000

Simmons Foods

TRAILBLAZING ALLY $10,000 - $15,000

Del Monte Foods

Jimmy and Terry Mardis

Bill and Delia Haak 

SPRING PATRONS $5,000 - $10,000

Arkansas Farm Bureau

Arvest NWA Banks

Dan Douglas

HCH Consulting

Uvalde Lindsey for State Senate

Northwest Arkansas Economic Development District - Representative Tim Summers 

Mel Redman



John Elrod

Jay and Joyce Hale


Phil and Leslie Porter

David, Lisa, and Lauren Ray and Hugh Benson

Rob Samples and Mid-America Cabinets

Patrick Tenney

Scott and Kathy VanLaningham

Water Tech