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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.
Buffalo National River
Harrison, AR 72602-1173
Buffalo National River is managed as three districts, each with its own visitor center and canoe concessions.
The Upper River (Upper Buffalo Wilderness to Mt. Hersey) is the largest district, containing two wilderness areas and the majority of the hiking trails. It offers some of the most rugged terrain, the most river access points, and the most challenging sections of the river to float. This area is the most heavily used for floating in spring and for hiking in fall. It also houses many historic sites and the park’s oldest structure, the Parker-Hickman Farmstead, built around 1840. Serving the area, Pruitt Ranger Station is open on a limited basis in the spring and seven days a week between Memorial Day and Labor Day.
The Middle River (Mt. Hersey to Maumee) offers more quiet, more gentle floats through a pastoral setting. The Buffalo River Trail can also be intersected at Tyler Bend. You can escape the crowds here. Tyler Bend Visitor Center is open year-round and offers exhibits and an auditorium where many programs are held.
The Lower River (Maumee to Lower Buffalo Wilderness) contains both the park’s largest wilderness area and its most developed and popular summer campground: Buffalo Point. Two popular attractions are the Indian Rockhouse Trail and the Rush Historic District (once a mining community, now a ghost town). There are two information stations at Buffalo Point. The upper station is open year-round, and the campground station is open Memorial Day through Labor Day.
In northwest Arkansas, the park lies 100 miles from Little Rock, 200 miles from Memphis and Tulsa, and 250 miles from St. Louis and Kansas City.
Use US 65 or AR 7, 14, or 21. To reach the Buffalo River Trail’s South Boxley trailhead from Little Rock, take I-40 west to AR 21 north through Ozark National Forest. When you reach Boxley, but before AR 21 crosses the Buffalo River, turn left into a parking area at the Boxley Valley Historic District sign. From the north, the parking lot is 1.1 miles south of the river crossing.
Spring ~ April through June ~ is the most popular season with experienced Buffalo paddlers. Early spring rains make floating the spectacular upper river possible and also bring out the wildflowers for which the river is famous. Just check weather conditions before you set out ~ the river can rise a foot an hour with heavy rain.
Spring also means good fishing for smallmouth bass. But if you’re looking for solitude, avoid weekends Memorial Day through Labor Day. With good planning, late-fall and winter trips can be just as rewarding.
The best time for hiking is late fall through early spring. It may be difficult or impossible for hikers to cross the river and creeks when the water is high in the spring. You also won’t have to deal with ticks and chiggers late fall through early spring.
Peak river use begins in April and ends in August. The use, however, is not evenly distributed over the entire course of the river. Thirty percent of the river receives seventy percent of the canoe traffic. Three of the most used river segments are:
-Ponca to Kyles Landing
-Maumee to Buffalo Point
-Buffalo Point to Rush
The most intensive use occurs from Ponca to Pruitt in April and May, especially during weekends. If you’re interested in a spring float but would like more solitude, go during the week or paddle on a lower section of the river, such as Carver to Woolum.
Indigo buntings and white-eyed vireos hold jam sessions every morning, and whippoorwills take over at night with owls singing backup. In the winter you’ll see a variety of waterfowl, such as teals and shovelers, along with bald eagles and ospreys.
Armadillos, roadrunners, tarantulas, white-tailed deer, opossums, bobcats, mink, beavers, and black bears also inhabit the area. The elk population has slowly increased since their introduction to the area in 1981, and sightings are common on the upper river. Twelve species of bats are found in the park, three of which are endangered.
The Buffalo and its tributaries are home to 59 species of clearwater fish ~ one of the nation’s richest areas in total number of fish species. You can catch smallmouth, largemouth, and spotted bass, catfish, goggle-eye (rock bass), and a variety of panfish. Bank fishing and float fishing in flat-bottomed johnboats are the recommended methods. An Arkansas fishing license is required. Guided johnboat fishing trips are available on the middle and lower river. On these trips, the concessionaires can provide all gear and food.
With an Arkansas hunting license, you can also hunt in non-developed sections of the park in seasons from early September until April and from mid-May to mid-June (squirrel only). Rangers can provide current information on seasons and regulations.
Contact park office for information.
More than 1,500 plant species grow here. Aside from spectacular wildflowers that bloom spring through fall, there are grasses, ivies, sycamore, willow, river birch, silver maple, and catalpa trees.
Backcountry camping is allowed year-round on all parklands with some restrictions (at least a half mile from any developed area; not near historic sites, hayfields, pastures, or private land). Hint: Gravel bars along the river make good campsites.
If you’re canoeing, there are primitive sites spaced about every 12 miles along the riverbanks. In the lower wilderness area there is primitive camping at Big Creek and Hathaway Gap trailheads.
If you’re looking for a little more, there are 14 designated campgrounds accessible by car and open on a first come, first served basis. For a fee April through October, Tyler Bend and Buffalo Point offer restrooms, showers, and trailer dump stations. Buffalo Point also has water and electrical hookups, but it fills quickly Memorial Day through mid-August. Arrive before noon to find a site.
Campgrounds from Lost Valley to Rush are good sites for beginning or ending float trips. All have toilets. Over spring weekends, Kyles Landing and Steel Creek Campgrounds can be extremely crowded. With the exception of Erbie, campgrounds in the upper river are filled to capacity over Memorial Day weekend.
Tyler Bend is $10 per night for both drive-in and walk-in sites, and Buffalo Point is $15 per night for drive-in sites and $10 per night for walk-in sites. Tyler Bend and Buffalo Point also offer group campsites and day-use pavilions by reservation. Except for Memorial Day and July 4th weekends, Tyler Bend has light usage.
Fire grates are available at all sites except Hasty, Maumee South, and Highway 14. Horseback riders in the upper river can camp at Steel Creek and Erbie, both located adjacent to horse trails. Middle river riders may camp at Woolum and lower river riders may camp at Big Creek or Hathaway Gap trailheads. Camping is limited to 14 consecutive days. Cabin rentals are available from Buffalo Point Concessionaire, Buffalo National River, HCR 66, Box 388, Yellville, AR; 501/449-6206.
Drinking water is available at Lost Valley, Steel Creek, Kyles Landing, Erbie, Ozark, Pruitt Ranger Station, Carver, Gilbert, Rush Landing, Tyler Bend Visitor Center, and Buffalo Point Ranger Station.
There are public telephones located at Steel Creek, Ozark, Pruitt Ranger Station, Tyler Bend Visitor Center, Gilbert, and Buffalo Point Ranger Station. There is also a restaurant located within the park at Buffalo Point.
Contact park office for information.
Permits are required only for large groups and commercial filming.
- Bikes are not permitted on any trails. Off-road use of any vehicle is prohibited.
- Glass containers are not permitted on or near the river.
- When watering horses or crossing streams, use rocky areas to prevent banks from caving in and leaving a permanent scar.
- Anyone going into the woods during hunting season should use caution and wear bright clothing. Hunter orange is recommended. This is especially important during deer season in November and turkey season in spring.
- The steep roads to Steel Creek and Kyles and winding roads to Mt. Hersey are not recommended for large trailers, buses, or motorhomes.
- Watch out for poisonous snakes, ticks, and chiggers.
- Trails are marked only at trailheads, at confusing intersections, and where the trails become easily overgrown in the summer. For the most part, they are unmarked, so carry a trail map. Some trails require river crossings which may be impassable during high water.
- Although dead and down wood may be gathered, bringing your own firewood is recommended because there may be little available in high-use areas.
- Stay out of caves unless you have the proper skills and equipment. A helmet and three sources of light are the minimum equipment for each person. Let someone know where you are going and when you plan to return.
Leave No Trace:
All LNT guidelines apply.
An excellent mile-by-mile river map and guide, the Buffalo National River Guide by F.C. Clark, can be ordered from the Park Service or purchased at local stores. Through the Park Service, the Eastern National Park & Monument Association offers books, maps, and even video and audio tapes via mail order. USGS topo maps are available at park headquarters in Harrison, the visitor center, and ranger stations.
Other Trip Options:
Nearby are Branson, Missouri, offering country music shows; Blanchard Springs Caverns in Mountain View, Arkansas; and Eureka Springs, Arkansas, offering a quaint town with historical buildings.