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Buffalo National River
Provides Action and Solitude

By Jill M. Rohrbach, travel writer
Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism

Allowed to remain as Mother Nature intended, the Buffalo National River in northern Arkansas provides a beautiful space for canoeing, hiking, rock climbing, caving, wildlife watching and much, much more. Primarily to keep it from being dammed, the Buffalo River was designated by Congress as America's first national river 30 years ago.

Along the Buffalo, the National Park Service oversees 95,730 acres that contain three designated wilderness areas. Tall limestone bluffs in earthy hues of gray, tan and brown are defining features of the Buffalo.

Rushing whitewater is interspersed among sections of calmer water as the river makes its way 135 miles through the lush green valley that is home to elk, deer, black bear and other woodland creatures. It is a prime example of one of the last free-flowing streams of the Ozark region.

Over the years, millions of people have taken advantage of this landscape, still wild and free.

Longtime Fayetteville resident Charlie Alison practically grew up on the Buffalo National River, and his adventures are the epitome of what the river country has to offer.

"Actually the first thing I probably did was go caving before I really knew what the Buffalo was," explained Alison, recalling a weekend with friends when he was in junior high school. One friend, a Boy Scout, led them through a cave he'd visited with his troop. Alison continued to seek adventures in the Buffalo area, and eventually his investigation of the area grew into a job. Alison worked 10 summers for Kanakuk and Kanakomo Kamps, based in Missouri. The camps would bring kids to the Buffalo, where he and other camp workers would lead hikes, canoe trips, rock climbing and camping.

Over the years, Alison, an outdoorsman at heart, has experienced just about every activity there is involving the Buffalo. Alison first canoed the Buffalo in 1973. A few years ago he floated the entire river during Spring Break. While abundant rain makes spring the most popular floating season, especially in the river's upper, more shallow portions, sections of the river can be floated year round. The lower Buffalo provides a more leisurely summertime float when water levels are down. And, with the right gear, winter can actually be a nice time to float. "There's more to see. The wildlife is completely different. You see eagles along the river," Alison said.

Floaters of the Buffalo often double as fishermen. The pristine stream boasts a fish population that consists of more than 60 species, including smallmouth and largemouth bass, Ozark bass and goggle-eye.

While an avid spelunker and canoeist, hiking the Buffalo is actually what Alison enjoys most, which does not surprise U.S. Park Service Ranger Doug Wilson: "Hiking is always popular and people hike year round." Late fall and winter, however, are the preferred months because leafless trees allow for better views and insects are less of a concern. The hiking trails of the Buffalo are as varied as the landscape they traverse. Some skirt the top of the limestone bluffs, while others snake along the river. Some even lead hikers down old logging roads and past remnants of homesteads.

"My favorite place is Indian Creek," Alison said of the narrow, steep canyon in the upper region of the Buffalo. "I go there at least once a year."

"First off, it's one of the prettiest places in Arkansas," said Alison, adding that after rains there are numerous waterfalls, each one with a different complexion. "There is one out of a cave 40 feet up on a bluff that looks like something out of 'Indiana Jones,'" explained Alison. Another rushes from a 120-foot arch. Others form sheets of water that flow down sandstone bluffs. One beauty, Copperhead Falls, consists of a series of small falls that cascade down a side canyon. Not surprisingly, the Copperhead is also known as Stairstep Falls.

Alf Carter, a trail guide based in the Boxley Valley area, describes Indian Creek as a primitive hike because the trail diminishes midway through the canyon, after which hikers wishing to explore further upstream must follow the creek bed. "It's one of the most scenic hikes in the state, pound for pound, just to go 'ooh and ahh' and stuff like that," Carter said.

Carter's favorite hike, though, is the 36.5-mile Buffalo River Trail, particularly the section which runs from Boxley to Pruitt. "That trail is undoubtedly the prettiest trail in mid-America," he said.

In his business, Ozark Wilderness Works, Carter not only takes people on guided hikes, but on rock-climbing adventures as well. "There is a lifetime of climbing around the Buffalo," he explained. "You don't ever have to worry about running out of rock."

Sam's Throne is probably the best-known chunk of rock in the Ozarks. However, Carter said the new hot place to climb near the Buffalo River is on private land owned by Horseshoe Canyon Ranch. "They charge a fee of $5 for all day," explained Carter. "It's really taken a lot of heat off of Sam's Throne. It's got about as much rock as Sam's Throne. If anything the rock at Horseshoe Canyon is a little bit taller."

Carter added there is plenty of rock around the Buffalo that is suitable for "bouldering." Bouldering refers to the activity of climbing smaller rocks without the use of a rope because climbers are only six to 10 feet off of the ground. "To go bouldering all you need is a pair of rock climbing shoes," he explained.

"One of the real adventures left around here is to paddle the Buffalo and climb from the river," said Carter. "You don’t have to worry about waiting on people, and you're in such a pretty setting. You just throw climbing gear in the canoe, and you can even spend the night along the way." He said the Buffalo between Ponca to Pruitt is a great place for river climbs.

While some enjoy climbing rock faces, others prefer crawling through its crevices. Robert Ginsburg, owner of Uncle Sam's Safari Outfitters in Fayetteville, is an avid caver. He's been spelunking for more than 12 years and has crawled through the insides of the earth in exotic destinations such as Thailand.

"Because this region is limestone rich, it's is a very rich area for caving," explained Ginsburg. It is part of the Ozark Plateau, a heavily eroded plateau pushed up eons ago and then carved out by streams over thousands of years. Ozark caves come in every variety, from small pits and crevices to gargantuan rooms.

"There is a very diverse caving community that frequents these caves," added Ginsburg. He urges individuals interested in caving to contact a grotto club rather than go on their own. Ginsburg said organizations are listed at

Of course, viewing subterranean wonders doesn't always involve getting muddy. Of the nearly 2,000 documented caves in north Arkansas, eight are privately-owned, commercial tour caves open to the public. The most notable, Blanchard Springs Caverns, is operated by the U. S. Forest Service and is a relatively short drive from the lower region of the Buffalo.

Another activity gaining popularity in the Buffalo National River Park is wildlife watching, particularly of elk. One hundred and twelve Rocky Mountain elk were introduced to the area in between 1981 and 1985, and the herd has grown to around 450. While not confined to the park, the herd is predominately found around the upper Buffalo. The large beasts prefer open areas for grazing with nearby wooded areas for resting. Drivers often stop their cars along roads in and around Boxley Valley to view elk in the fields. Morning and evening are the best times to spot them.

Likely to catch a glimpse of the area's wildlife, are horseback riders, who also enjoy the Buffalo River region.

"You can ride the same trail and it never looks the same. It changes from season to season. The water changes," explained Peggy Thompson of Gaither, a community near the middle Buffalo. "It's just a real privilege to have this beautiful area to ride in."

She first rode a horse on the Buffalo in 1963, before it was a national river. Now she is a member of two horse clubs. "We ride anywhere from one to two or three times a week," she said of her ladies group, which has ridden together since the early 1980s. The other group, Backcountry Horsemen, is a national group that works with the U.S. Parks Service to maintain trails. In addiction to NPS-maintained trails, there are primitive equestrian trails maintained by volunteers.

"You can just about travel the length of the river on horseback," Thompson said. "While some of the trails are very challenging, some are easy to ride."

Catering to those who bring their own horses, the area has some equestrian-friendly campgrounds and trailhead parking large enough to accommodate trailers.

Horseback riding concessions can be found near the Buffalo, many of which also offer lodging. While concessionaires aren't allowed to ride in the river, they offer privately owned trails in the area surrounding the river.

Full of scenic beauty, the Buffalo is also a repository for cultural and natural history. "It continues to be a place where people come and enjoy the resources it offers," said Wilson. "It's just good that we have places like this that are preserved so we can remember the human history as well as the natural history. And at the same time we get to enjoy it today."

Alison added, "To me it means there's a place I'll always be able to go to get lost in the woods and spend some time not worrying about the busy day-to-day world that happens in the city."

Links & Resources
 • Recommended Float levels
 • USGS Water Levels
 • Geologic Mapping Studies USGS

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