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 135 miles long, and includes nearly 95,000 acres of
public land along its corridor. This popular paddling and camping destination 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. This pleasant Arkansas location is one that refreshes the spirit.
SECTION DESCRIBED: Entire length: 135 miles.
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, in general, this is a good place for most to put on their 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.
Those who travel here 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, as the water levels are 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. Camping sites 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
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 with kids of any age. 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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
Looking for a rental canoe or kayak? You’ll find approximately two dozen rental companies along the Buffalo. Several rent rafts and johnboats, and can provide complete fishing packages as well as other related outfitting services, like guided tours and float trips.
Lodging choices will depend upon individual preferences
but can range from genuine log cabins to bed and breakfast facilities, riverside camping sites 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
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.