Where the Buffalo Runs
Although I’m usually garrulous among my paddling friends, my first view of Arkansas’ Buffalo River left me speechless. We had been driving all night from our Illinois home, aiming to do a three-day spring trip down this Ozark Mountain stream. At sunrise, we topped the final bluff and peered into the valley far below. There, snaking through a solid stand of hardwoods and scattered conifers, was a silver strand of moving water. This was the Buffalo, a canoeist’s dream.
Beginning as a trickle, the Buffalo River tumbles and glides down the north face of the Boston Mountains, the most rugged section of the Ozark region, before it crosses the Springfield Plateau and empties into the White River, a journey of 150 miles. Its location in northwest Arkansas makes it both accessible and remote. It is just a two-hour drive from Little Rock, Arkansas, but the solitude of the valley is demonstrated by the fact that only seven auto bridges span the river, and some of them are just one lane wide. In 1972, a 135-mile stretch of the Buffalo became this country’s first National River, a designation providing even more protection than that afforded under the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System.
The origin of the Buffalo’s name is not clear. One theory is that it was named after a species of fish. Some say it is the namesake of a Tennessee river. Others believe that the bison that once funneled into the river valley, attracted by the scattered tallgrass prairie, gave the river its appellation.
Getting There: The Buffalo National River is a long, narrow park that is crossed by three main highways. To reach the western end, where some of the best canoeing is located, take I-40 roughly 80 miles west of Little Rock, then turn north on Highway 21 at Clarksville for approximately 40 miles to Ponca.
Logistics: Floating the Buffalo is at its finest from April through June, when you’ll hit occasional whitewater and good fishing for smallmouth bass. If it’s solitude you’re after, avoid weekends from Memorial Day through Labor Day. Check the weather conditions before and during your trip. The main dangers of the Buffalo are downed trees and flash floods. Heavy or prolonged rains can cause the river to rise a foot per hour, and the river has been known to rise more than 25 feet in a single day. For more information, contact the National Park Service at (870) 741-5443, or http://www.nps.gov/buff.
While You’re There: Boating, fishing, hiking, and horseback riding are the main activities along the Buffalo. Log on to http://www. nps.gov/buff.
Lodging: Located at Buffalo Point, the Buffalo Point Concession has both rustic and modern cabins available for rental. These cabins are very popular and should be reserved well in advance. Reservations for the current year can be made seven days a week from January 2 through November 30. Call (870) 449-6206.
Camping: Backcountry camping is allowed year-round on all park lands, with some restrictions. The river flows around countless gravel bars, which make excellent campsites. There are no designated campsites, and permits are not required. Primitive wooded campsites are also available, spaced about every 12 miles along the riverbanks.
Outfitters/Resources: Canoe rentals and outfitting are available in many locations, including Ponca, Jasper, St. Joe, and Yellville. Float trips can be arranged for almost any duration–ranging from a half-day outing to a 10-day expedition. Contact the National Park Service at (870) 439-2502 for a list of concessionaires that rent canoes and provide shuttle services.
The upper portion of the river is the most challenging for paddlers. From the tiny village of Ponca downstream 50 miles to Woolum Ford, the Buffalo is an intimate, feisty stream that loops back and forth between prairie meadows and precipitous bluffs. Names on the map like Close Call Curve, Crisis Curve, and Wreckin’ Rock give you a hint that this section is for those with some experience.
Immediately after the put-in, sheer 200- to 300-foot cliffs swallow the river. Big Bluff, the tallest limestone cliff in the Ozarks at more than 500 feet, is about a half-day’s paddle from Ponca. A few miles farther on, a flat rock ledge signals the take-out for the trail to Hemmed-in Hollow. A half-mile scramble up a narrow dead-end canyon leads to a 200-foot waterfall, the highest of its kind between the Southern Appalachians and the Rockies.
After Pruitt, where a National Park Service Information Station is located, the river alternates with calm, clear pools and periodic riffles, then eventually widens as the bluffs begin to dwindle. Between Carver and Woolum, the Buffalo is a near-wilderness experience. The middle and lower sections offer a slower-paced trip with calm pools, periodic riffles, near-wilderness stretches, and beautiful scenery. Unexplored caves and Indian encampments dating as far back as 12,000 years lend an air of mystery to the dells.
Spring is the best time to see the profusion of wildflowers and flowering shrubs. Rhododendron, azalea, redbud, and laurel present a palette of color against a canvas of burgeoning green. But the growing season is long here, and there are an estimated 800 to 1,000 flowering plants, starting in January with witch hazel and ending in late fall, when Indian pipes appear in the woodlands. Mild winters allow almost year-round use of the river.
An abundance of wildlife inhabits this riparian habitat where Southeast meets Southwest. Armadillos, roadrunners, and tarantulas co-exist with wild turkeys, whitetail deer, raccoons, opossums, bobcats, mink, black bears, and beavers. Elk populations have slowly increased since their introduction to this area in 1981. Typical of the bird life are the spindly-legged great blue herons, crow-sized pileated woodpeckers, and sleek ospreys that accompany river travelers. In addition, four species of poisonous snakes make their home in the park: the copperhead, the water moccasin, the canebrake rattlesnake, and the pygmy rattlesnake. Rest easy–it is extremely unlikely that you will encounter any of them.
More than 10 million people live within 250 miles of the Buffalo, but as we meandered along its hills and hollows, meadows and forests, the signs of man’s heavy hand were scarce. We had canoed nearly 50 miles of this splendid river over three days, yet much more of the Buffalo remained for us to see. But one thing we knew for certain: this Ozark stream, for the most part, is as wild as it was 100 years ago and, as far as rivers go, remains one of the best any of us had ever paddled.
A contributing editor for Canoe & Kayak, Larry Rice is happiest when he’s somewhere on a river.