Vacation Destination: Buffalo River National Scenic River

Vacation Destination: Buffalo River National Scenic River

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04-04-18 Outdoors - Swanson

A view of the Buffalo River from the top of a bluff downstream from Ponca.

The Buffalo River runs through the middle of the Ozark Mountains in north western Arkansas and was designated as the nation’s first national scenic river in 1972.

The 135-mile-long river starts in the Boston Mountains in the Ozark National Forest southeast of Fayetteville, and runs sort of northeasterly until it flows into the White River at Buffalo City. The area has much to offer outdoor enthusiasts including world class canoeing, amazing scenery, hiking, camping, wildlife viewing, and fishing.

One of the newest draws to the area is the elk herd. The elk roam from the Boxley Valley to Ponca and downstream to the Gene Rush Wildlife Management Area. Elk were reintroduced into the area in 1981 and now have a population of around 500.

The elk spend most of their time in the valley bottom near the river and are easily observed from the elk viewing parking areas which are adjacent to the roads. Spring and fall are two of the best times to view the massive herd. The Elk Education Center is just outside of Ponca on Highway 43 and is a great stop when looking for elk.

The main reason people travel to the Buffalo River is canoeing. Canoeists can experience a wide variety of canoeing on this relatively short river. The river is divided into three general sections: the Upper District, Tyler Bend Area, and Buffalo Point Area.

The river trio

The Upper District is distinguished by variable water levels due to run off from rains in the surrounding hills. This section of the river contains some great white water canoeing when the river is high and is impassible when the water is low.

There are nine segments in the Upper District with floats that range in time from two to four hours. The most popular segment on the river has a put in at Steel Creek with a take out at Kyle’s Landing. This four-to-five hour paddle runs through the heart of the Ponca Wilderness Area. The paddling is interesting but not terribly challenging

A great weekend trip begins at Ponca and floats downstream to Pruitt Landing. The river winds through narrow canyons and is surround by high bluffs, rock faces and even some big waterfalls that tumble into the river. The Tyler Bend area begins at the put in at Mount Hersey.

Most of the floats in this section are flat water floats with lots of places to stop and swim or picnic. Tubers also enjoy this section of the river, hence it becomes very popular and crowded on weekends.

One of the most interesting stretches of river is between Woolum and Baker Ford where the Buffalo River only runs underground for four miles when the water is low.

A great float is from Carver to Grinders Ferry at the Highway 65 bridge. The bluffs and scenery are beautiful and the rapids are fun. The Buffalo Point segment runs from North Maumee to the confluence with the White River. This portion of the river can be paddled year-round and has the longest single float.

The stretch is 25 miles from Rush to Buffalo City and the trip flows through the Lower Buffalo River Wilderness Area, which is one of the most secluded areas in all of Arkansas. For people looking for adventure and seclusion, this is the recommended float. Due to fluctuating water levels, the springtime is the ideal season for canoeing.

Cast a line

The Buffalo River is plentiful with a variety of fish species. The most popular species for anglers is the small mouth bass. There are also large mouth and the Kentucky or Spotted Bass. Small mouth bass tend to be in the cooler, faster waters while large mouth bass hang out in the slower, warmer pools. Spotted bass can be found anywhere in between these two areas.

There are also rock bass, sunfish, pumpkin seed, bluegill and google eye, all of which are known collectively as ‘bream’ in Arkansas. Catfish, red horse and buffalo also reside in the Buffalo River. Many anglers gig fish (i.e. spear fish) for redhorse, buffalo and other rough fish. Anglers can also use setlines, trotlines or yo-yos for catfish.

Trail blazing

There is also a myriad of hiking and equestrian tails in the 95,000 acre park. These trails vary in distance from a half mile to 35 miles. Many of the trails hug up and down the numerous bluffs and mountains that dominate the park. Elevation changes can vary from 1,500 feet to 200 feet. The hikes can be hard work, but the vistas from the top are spectacular. Hikers can expect to encounter canyons, caves, waterfalls and abandoned farmsteads and towns. The upper district is home to the largest amount of hiking trail options.

The park itself has about a dozen campgrounds. The majority of the campgrounds are small and very primitive, with pit toilets, pack in/ pack out rules and no electricity. The Erbe Campground, near Jasper, is the only campground that allow RVs. Both the Erbie and Steele Creek Campgrounds have specialized horse camps incorporated into their facilities. The usual fee for the developed campsites is $12. Most of the campgrounds have around a dozen campsites or less.

While Wisconsin is still suffering snow and freezing temperatures, it is already in the 70s along the Buffalo River. The region is a wonderful place for adventure seeking people to take a spring vacation.

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