Little Known Fact: A number of the hollows flanking the Buffalo National River served as guerilla hideouts during the Civil War.
The directions in the guidebook for the Whitaker Point Trail are a bit like those you’ll get from a cranky New Englander: vague at best. For instance, “There might be a line of trees with pink ribbons attached. At this point head to your right.”
After stumbling around for more than an hour looking for trees with pink ribbons, I realized that hiking the Buffalo Wilderness Area is not supposed to be a regimented, by-the-book experience. Granted, some of the trails along the Buffalo River and in Ozark National Forest are now clearly marked from use, but there are still plenty of areas where a map and compass are essential.
The 3-mile Whitaker Point Trail is one of the more popular short hikes, and for good reason. It first drops down through a beautiful stand of hardwoods, follows a usually dry creekbed, then ascends to a bluff and Hawksbill Crag. This magnificent rocky ledge offers panoramic views of the Ozark Mountains that look suspiciously like a picture-perfect postcard.
This is a diverse region with steep, majestic bluffs, lush river valleys, and abundant wildlife, including black bears and, unlikely as it seems, elk. Steel Creek, Pruitt, and Buffalo Point are centers for dayhiking, although the first two locations will lead adventurous hikers to longer trails that wind deep into the Ponca and Lower Buffalo wilderness areas. Many of the hiking trails offer spectacular scenery or natural phenomena, while others lead to historical areas, such as homesteads and shelters once occupied by Native Americans.
No roads parallel the river and the few easily accessed overlooks, so the best way to see the park is by trail or by water. Almost 125 miles of trails in the park are designed for day hikes and overnight backpacking.
To acquaint yourself with this region, start with the Lost Valley Trail located just off of AR 43 between Boxley and Ponca. This 2.3-mile hike through stands of sweet gums and giant beeches offers 200-foot bluffs, Cobb Cave and Eden Falls, a series of waterfalls tumbling more than 170 feet over several rock ledges.
If you’re looking for a longer hike, try the 36.5-mile Buffalo River Trail, which runs parallel to the waterway from the South Boxley trailhead northeast to the Pruitt Ranger Station. The trail can also be done in shorter segments. More challenging trails lie in the Ponca and Lower Buffalo wilderness areas.
You can always combine hiking with a canoe trip. Water levels and floating conditions on the Buffalo River vary according to the section you choose, as well as seasonality and rainfall. Check with rangers first.
The majority of trails are open to horses. While trails blazed with white markers are open only to hikers, trails blazed in yellow accommodate both hikers and horseback riders. Old roads, closed to motor vehicles, also provide riding opportunities. There are no commercial horse outfitters operating at Buffalo National River.
If you want to breathe in a little history, go elsewhere, because this area is chock full of history. Many prehistoric and historic cultural sites in the park date back as far as 10,000 years. These include bluff shelters once occupied by Indians and cabins built by early settlers.