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Buffalo National River

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Buffalo River canoeing is one of the Arkansas’s largest draws

North Arkansas's Buffalo National River was the country's first national river, is roughly 150 miles long, and includes nearly 95,000 acres of public land along its corridor. It has been the topic of a full-length book, the subject of a National Geographic feature article, and the cornerstone for the state's environmental movement. Describing the Buffalo in 1,000-1,200 words won't be easy, but here goes:

Like the Mulberry River and Big Piney Creek, the Buffalo National River originates in the rugged Boston Mountains division of the Ozarks near Fallsville in southwestern Newton County. Unlike the other two streams which eventually head south to meet the Arkansas River, the Buffalo goes east where, ultimately, it joins the White River. Along the way it descends nearly 2,000 feet through layers of sandstone, limestone, and chert. One immediately obvious result is bluffs and more bluffs--the highest in all the Ozarks. Hidden away, ready for discovery, are other geologic marvels--natural springs, caves, waterfalls, natural bridges, and box-like canyons.

But the Buffalo is much more than an ongoing display of natural curiosities. It is, in the words of the National Park Service, "an island of time and space." It is a valley where turn-of-the-century lifestyles and landscapes still exist. It is a place that refreshes the spirit.

SECTION DESCRIBED: Entire length--150 miles. (Portion designated as a national river: 132 miles.)

Characteristics

The Buffalo National River gets its start in national forest country, nearly within rock-throwing distance of the highest point in the Ozarks. Some floating takes place in the headwaters area (the "Hailstone" trip from Dixon Road to Arkansas 21 is almost legendary among serious paddlers), but, for most, this is a good place to put on the hiking boots. A real treat is the Upper Buffalo Wilderness, a 14,200-acre tract managed by the Ozark National Forest and the Buffalo National River. Visitors to the area can expect to see caves, bluffs, waterfalls, old cabin sites, natural springs and maybe even a local black bear.

The next section of the Buffalo River–Arkansas Highway 21 bridge south of Boxley to the Ponca low-water bridge at the Highway 74 crossing--is another that doesn't get a great deal of use, the water's usually too low. But when conditions are right, this six-mile stretch offers a fast-moving series of class II rapids, many of which are laced with willows.

Perhaps the most famous of all Buffalo River floats are those that take place between Ponca and the Arkansas Highway 7 crossing (known until recent years as the community of Pruitt). Something for everyone can be found in this 25-mile section: class I and II rapids (complete with hazards like "Gray Rock"); the highest waterfall in mid-America (at Hemmed-in-Hollow); the 11,300-acre Ponca Wilderness; towering cliffs including the 500-foot-tall Big Bluff; and an excellent assortment of swimming holes. In addition, there are several conveniently located access points/campgrounds--Steel Creek, Kyles Landing, Erbie, and Ozark--between Ponca and Highway 7.

The next stretch of Buffalo River– Arkansas 7 to Highway 123 (or Carver)--is about 10 miles in length. While it doesn't offer the spectacular scenery available just upstream, this is a fine float, especially for families. It features class I rapids, gravel bars, and numerous bluffs. Campsites and access are available at Carver or two-and-a-half miles upstream at Hasty.

Another major section of the river begins at Carver and concludes about 32 miles downstream at the U.S. 65 bridge (in-between access and camping areas are available at Mount Hershey, Woolum, and Tyler Bend). Many Buffalo veterans consider this to be among the stream's finest stretches. While other sections feature higher bluffs and more challenging rapids, this portion of the river is one of its quietest and most peaceful trips. The scenery is good, too, including such things as "The Narrows"--a tall but narrow rock outcrop separating the Buffalo and Richland Creek.

The 27 mile trip from U.S. 65 to Buffalo Point (still referred to by many as "the old state park") is a long, lazy float ideally suited for those interested in casual Buffalo River canoeing. The scenery's good, and the rapids are interesting but easy. Other access points within this part of the river include Gilbert, Maumee North, Maumee South, and the Highway 14 crossing.

The Buffalo's final stretch--from Buffalo Point to Buffalo City (on the White River)--is 30 miles in length, with only a single takeout point (Rush) in between. The 7.5-mile float from Buffalo Point to Rush is short, safe, and scenic--perfect for families. The remaining 23-mile trip passes through some of Arkansas's wildest country, including better than 39,000 acres of wilderness (the Lower Buffalo Wilderness and the adjacent Leatherwood Wilderness). This is the one for those wanting to get away from it all.

Seasons

The Buffalo is a river for all seasons. Buffalo River canoeing is a year-round possibility except in the upper reaches where it's limited to the winter and spring months. Camping, too, is a year-long pursuit, though visitors should remember the state's lowest winter temperatures traditionally occur along this stream. The Buffalo's corridor is also a great locale for hiking and backpacking, but expeditions should be scheduled outside the tick/chigger season.

Access Points

To get to the Buffalo River, Arkansas highways 21, 74, 7, 123, 333, 14, and 268 as well as U.S. Highway 65 all provide easy access. In addition, a good many county roads provide access to points between the highway crossings.

Scenery

Spectacular is the best word to describe scenery along the river. For 150 miles, the Buffalo offers an unmatched mixture of clear water, lofty cliffs, overhanging hardwoods, and inviting gravel bars. There's excellent scenery off the river, too. One place that shouldn't be missed is Lost Valley, a unique bluff-lined canyon between Boxley and Ponca. The Richland Creek Valley is also a sight-seer's paradise, especially in its upper reaches where an 11,800-acre wilderness area awaits the adventurous.

Fishing

To many anglers, the hordes of visitors attracted to the Buffalo destroy the peaceful, aesthetic values that are the reason for going fishing in the first place. But this spirited colt of a stream has a remarkable capacity for swallowing up people in a maze of bluffs and canyons. And the Buffalo is a gem among Arkansas's float fishing streams.

Considered a model smallmouth bass stream, the Buffalo has fast, clear, oxygen rich water with the kind of gravel bottom and boulder beds smallmouth bass love. Floating in a johnboat or canoe is the accepted method of fishing, but during spring, try beaching your craft at the head of a deep, swift chute and drifting a lure near a boulder in the fast water. Many fishermen make the mistake of working the holes where the bass aren't and floating through the swift water where they are. The knowing locals often work surface lures at night for the big ones, and they catch them regularly.

The Buffalo's cool, clean waters also provide perfect habitat for channel catfish, green and longear sunfish and spotted bass. Veterans frequently rely on natural baits--crayfish, minnows and worms--in their efforts to entice a keeper.

Services Available

About two dozen concessionaires rent canoes along the Buffalo and offer other related services. In addition, several rent johnboats and can provide complete fishing packages.

Lodging choices will depend upon individual preferences but can range from genuine log cabins to bed and breakfast facilities to modern motel rooms. And, of course, designated campgrounds are located at frequent intervals on the river. Most all supplies can be obtained at Harrison, Marshall, Jasper, Yellville or other nearby communities.

Other Information

PLEASE NOTE: When viewing elk and other wildlife be respectful of private property and do not trespass.

The National Park Service maintains Information Stations at the Highway 7 crossing (Pruitt), near the U.S. 65 crossing (Tyler Bend), and at Buffalo Point. Maps and river guides are available for purchase at these sites, from the Park Headquarters in Harrison, or from local outfitters. Additional information may be obtained by writing: Superintendent, Buffalo National River, 402 N. Walnut, Suite 136, Harrison, Arkansas, 72601. www.nps.gov/buff.

Kenneth L. Smith's Buffalo River Country provides a fascinating introduction to the river and its surrounding landscape. The book may be ordered through the Ozark Society, P.O. Box 2914, Little Rock, Arkansas 72203.