The source of the White River is in the Boston Mountains of northwest Arkansas, in the Ozark–St. Francis National Forest southeast of Fayetteville. The river flows northwards from its source in northwest Arkansas, loops up through southwest Missouri through Branson, Missouri. The flow into this comes from Table Rock Lake and down stream flows into Bull Shoals Lake where it travels back into Arkansas, and then heads generally southeast to its mouth at the Mississippi River.
On entering the Mississippi River Delta region near Batesville, Arkansas, the river becomes navigable to shallow-draft vessels, and its speed decreases considerably. The final 10 miles (16 km) of the river serves as the last segment of the McClellan-Kerr Arkansas River Navigation System; this part of the channel is deeper than the rest of the river.
Keel boats were an early mode of transportation for Arkansas’s early settlers. Above Newport, sharp bends, rapids, and low water levels along the river during the summer months—as well as the additional manpower required to move keel boats upriver against the current—generally allowed travel only downriver. The lower White was navigable in both directions from the Mississippi River to Newport. The river served as a highway carrying supplies and crops back and forth from the frontier settlements to river towns such as Memphis, Tennessee, and New Orleans, Louisiana. Steamboat travel on the upper White began in 1831, and towns along the upper White in Arkansas and Missouri continued to dredge and clear the river for steamboat traffic until at least the early twentieth century. After the Civil War, steamboats were gradually replaced by railroads.