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Rip & Go: Buffalo River Trail, Ponca Wilderness, AR

Traverse craggy cliffs flanking America's first national river.
buffalorivertrail_ark_445x260Illustration by Vikki Chu

Do it Hike alongside the waterway that jump-started the country’s National Wild and Scenic River program in 1968. This 37-mile, three-day route in northwest Arkansas packs long days, but the steeps are less intense each day (and the Buffalo River provides near-constant water, saving you pack weight).

From the Boxley trailhead (1), follow the Buffalo River Trail (BRT) east along a weathered fence. Ascend through oak and hickory and enter a meadow (2) of knee-high wild grass (1.8 miles). See the forested Ozarks across the Boxley Valley to the west, and look for elk. Reenter the woods and glimpse the 150-mile, 20-foot-wide Buffalo River through breaks in the canopy. Cross Big Hollow Creek and hike down a steep hill to pass a bridge (3) over the Buffalo River. In 2.9 miles, set up camp (4) on a flat patch adjacent to burbling Steele Creek (14.4 miles).

Ascend 500 feet to the Big Bluff Overlook (5) before dawn to see the sunrise light the sandstone canyons above a bend in the Buffalo River. Return to camp, and hit the BRT again. Traverse around crags and drop to the confluence of two creeks and the Buffalo (6). After passing Kyle’s Landing Trail (22.7 miles), climb 200 feet on a .5-mile spur to Buzzard Bluff (7), where you can see the dark, snaking river sandwiched between emerald glades 500 feet below. Return to the main trail and, when you hit the quaint Cherry Grove Cemetery (8) (26.8 miles), detour down the gravel road and set up camp on the riverbank under the canopy break. Day three, cross the Parker-Hickman Farmstead, walking by an 1800s-era, two-story cabin. (The log cabin is the oldest on the Buffalo River.) At 28.2 miles, hit the day’s high point (1,056 feet) (9), and coast 4.6 miles downhill through pines to river views from a manmade bluff (10). Wind through dense river cane thickets, and emerge into the Pruitt Ranger Station lot (11), 200 feet from your shuttle car.

Get there From St. Louis, take I-44 S to Springfield, then head south on MO 65, crossing the AR state line toward Harrison. From Harrison, go 26 miles south on AR 43 to the Buffalo Outdoor Center in Ponca, AR, where you’ll pick up your shuttle ($73; make reservations at 800-221-5514; buffaloriver.com). Staff will take you to the Boxley trailhead and then drive your car to the Pruitt Ranger Station. Gear up Buffalo Outdoor Center, AR 43, Ponca, AR; (870) 861-5514; buffaloriver.com Season July and August for the best river conditions: You can wade into (or float on) the river without extreme rapids; spring for blooming wildflowers and peak wildlife activity (but the river will be too quick for swimming); fall for turning leaves. Permits None Trip ID 2223499

With 100 miles of navigable waters, the Buffalo National River is prime for paddling. For a weekend section, try hemmed-in-hollow, a 9.1-mile float-and-hike (Trip ID 5671). More info at backpacker.com/BNR

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