remain as Mother Nature intended, the
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
Arkansas Dept of Parks & Tourism photo
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
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
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
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
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
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 dont 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
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
"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
"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 www.caves.org.
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
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
"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
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."