By Craig Ogilvie, travel writer
Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism
With a history as wild and colorful as the scenic
wonders found along its 135-mile course, the Buffalo
National River flows freely through the heart of the
Ozarks. Visitors often extol it as one of the
nation's greatest natural treasures.
Buffalo River has been observed and appreciated for
centuries, it was only four decades ago that
concerned people banded together in hopes of
preserving the river valley for future generations.
Their efforts touched off one of the hottest
political battles ever staged in the Ozarks.
Buffalo National River
As early as the 1890s, government studies were
conducted on the feasibility of building dams along
the Buffalo. By the 1930s, Congress authorized a
plan for flood control that included a dam on the
Many landowners in the valley region supported the
flood control projects, in hopes it would protect
their property and bring needed prosperity to the
area. However, World War II intervened and the
so-called Lone Rock Dam was dropped, but not
During the 1950s, power and flood control dams were
under construction across the nation and new plans
were drafted for two reservoirs on the Buffalo.
President Eisenhower vetoed two bills that included
the projects because he believed they needed more
planning and public comment.
Meanwhile, articles depicting the natural beauty and
grandeur of the Buffalo River Valley began to appear
in state and national publications. U.S. Supreme
Court Justice William O. Douglas brought additional
attention to the river during a canoe trip in April,
1962. "The Buffalo River is a national treasure
worth fighting to the death to preserve," he
A few months earlier, the Ozark Society and the
Arkansas Nature Conservancy had been established to
lead the preservation efforts. And, U.S. Sen. J.
William Fulbright of Arkansas endorsed a plan to
make the river part of the National Park system. In
1965, Arkansas Gov. Orval Faubus announced that he
was opposed to any dams and also favored the park
plan. The tide was turning.
Following additional studies and many hearings,
Congress approved Public Law 92-237 and on March 1,
1972, President Nixon approved the creation of the
Buffalo National River, the first federal river park
in the nation. It was placed under the auspices of
the National Park Service.
Since its debut as a park, the Buffalo has been one
of the most popular outdoor destinations in the
mid-South (796,279 visitors in 1999). The river
offers both swift-running and placid stretches,
inviting sand/gravel bars, towering limestone
bluffs, hardwood forests, protected wilderness areas
and excellent nature watching opportunities. Elk,
once native to the Ozarks, were re-introduced along
the river several years ago and have become a
popular nature attraction along the upper sections.
The best way to experience the 95,000-acre river
park is by canoe. Some 15 outfitters are permitted
by the park service, or persons may bring their own
canoes. The upper sections of the stream are
considered the most challenging, especially during
rainy seasons. The lower half is less demanding and
is recommended for novice canoeists. The park
remains open throughout the year. Peak visitation on
the upper section usually occurs during the spring
months. The middle and lower sections remain popular
throughout the year, peaking in June and July. An
automated telephone system at park headquarters
provides daily river reports around the clock. These
are available by calling (870) 741-5443.
Hiking and backpacking are also popular ways of
exploring the rugged beauty along the free-flowing
steam. Over 100 miles of trails have been blazed and
are maintained for public use. Favorite trails
include Lost Valley (2.1-mile loop) with waterfalls,
towering bluffs, a natural bridge and a cave. Others
include the Buffalo River Trail (37 miles), Mill
Creek (1.3-mile loop), Overlook at Tyler Bend (1.2
miles) and Indian Rockhouse (3.5 miles) at Buffalo
Point. The river park is also the eastern terminus
for the Ozark Highlands Trail, a 168-mile route that
starts at Lake Fort Smith State Park.
Designated trails for horseback riding are located
in all districts of the national river. Two camping
areas have been set aside for visitors with horses
and color-coded signs denote areas where horses are
allowed. There are no commercial horse outfitters in
the park, so visitors may bring their own mounts.
Also, some resorts and guest ranches offer horseback
riding on private lands in the area.
Persons are urged to check park regulations and
secure guide maps before venturing into the park's
wilderness areas. Bookstores are located at the
park's headquarters and at visitor centers.
The park offers 14 designated campgrounds with
varying degrees of development. Buffalo Point and
Tyler Bend offer the most facilities for campers,
and fees are charged. In addition, Buffalo Point has
rustic and modern cabins available from April
through November. Reservations should be made by
calling (870) 449-6206. Commercial cabin rentals and
lodges are also located in the region.
Ranger stations/visitor centers are located at Tyler
Bend, Buffalo Point and Pruitt. The handsome Tyler
Bend Visitor Center, just off U.S. 65, north of
Marshall, provides opportunities to sample the
natural and historic legacy of this unique park.
Opened in 1991, the center offers a small museum,
exhibit hall, bookstore, theater and knowledgeable
staff. The center is open daily from Memorial Day to
Labor Day. Off-season operations vary at this and
other park stations. There is no admission to enter
and enjoy the park. Interpretive programs, directed
by park rangers, provide a greater understanding and
appreciation of the Buffalo River valley. Programs,
posted at the center and stations, may include
guided hikes, tours, children's programs and
For more information about the park, contact:
Buffalo National River, 402 N. Walnut, Suite 136,
Harrison, AR 72601; telephone (870) 741-5443; or
visit the park's website at www.nps.gov/buff/.