Canoeists paddling the Buffalo find themselves on what may be one of the most scenic rivers in the eastern United States. From its headwaters in the Boston Mountains to its confluence with the White River, 135 miles of the Buffalo's 153 miles are managed by the National Park Service as a National River. Most of the upper 18 miles are managed by the Ozark National Forest as a Wild and Scenic River. Flowing through the Arkansas Ozarks, the river has carved a path out of an ancient seabed, leaving bluffs of sandstone, limestone, and dolomite towering as high as 440 feet above the water. Quiet, languid pools stand between runs of swifter water, often disguising the river’s drop of over 2,000 feet during its long journey. You’ll see glens that trap noon shadows and hollows hiding curtains of ferns fed by secret waterfalls. While the Buffalo is one of the cleanest rivers in America, you should always purify its water before drinking.
Wildlife watchers frequently spot elk, white-tailed deer, mink, river otters, beavers, raccoons, opossums, bobcats, black bears, turkey vultures, black vultures, bald eagles and osprey. Eastern elk, exterminated in the 1840s, were replaced with Rocky Mountain elk in 1981, and the herd has been growing slowly ever since.
Buffalo National River Wilderness is divided into three sections (all managed by the National Park Service). The Upper Buffalo Unit adjoins Upper Buffalo Wilderness (managed by Ozark National Forest). Here you’ll find the river at its wildest and most primitive. From Ponca to below Kyles Landing, a distance of 11 miles, the Ponca Unit protects the most used section of the river. Watch for storms: the river has been known to rise 25 feet in 24 hours. The Lower Buffalo Unit is the largest, stretching from Buffalo Point Ranger Station to the town of Buffalo City on the White River, a distance of 32 miles. Here the water runs smooth and has few human visitors. The Lower Buffalo Unit adjoins Leatherwood Wilderness (managed by Ozark National Forest). Several trails provide access from the river into the Wilderness areas. The Buffalo River Trail winds along scenic overlooks and through isolated forestland. Hiking on the upper trail is strenuous. Camping is allowed anywhere in the Wilderness.
Leave No Trace
How to follow the seven standard Leave No Trace principles differs in different parts of the country (desert vs. Rocky Mountains). Click on any of the principles listed below to learn more about how they apply in the Buffalo National River Wilderness.
The Upper Buffalo Unit can be reached south of Boxley Valley off State Route 21. There are no formal trails, but the Buffalo River Trail trailhead in the south end of Boxley Valley provides a good spot to start bushwhacking.
The Ponca Unit can be reached from State Route 43 north of Ponca at the Centerpoint and Compton trailheads. It may also be reached from State Route 74 at Steel Creek and Kyles Landing campgrounds. It is also reachable at the Ponca River Access at the junction of Routes 74 and 43 just outside of Ponca.
The Lower Buffalo Unit can be reached via Marion County road 6064 off State Route 101 south of Flippin. It may also be reached from Arkansas Route 14 by following Searcy County's Cozahome Road till it turns into Marion County road 650. Marion County Road 650 ends near the Ludlow Gap area, and Marion County Road 652 ends at Log Wagon Gap trailhead.
Digital and paper maps are critical tools for wilderness visitors. Online maps can help you plan and prepare for your visit ahead of time. You can also carry digital maps with you on your GPS unit or other handheld GPS device. Having a paper map with you in the backcountry, as well as solid orienteering skills, however, ensures that you can still route-find in the event that your electronic device fails.
Motorized equipment and equipment used for mechanical transport is generally prohibited in all wilderness areas.
This includes the use of motor vehicles, motorboats, motorized equipment, bicycles, hang gliders, wagons, carts, portage wheels, and the landing of aircraft including helicopters.
Opportunities exist for canoeing, hiking, and horseback riding in the three wilderness units. There are no maintained trails in the Upper Buffalo unit. The Ponca unit has an extensive network of maintained trails and primitive routes. The Lower Buffalo unit has an extensive network of primitive routes, and one maintained loop trail. Some of the caves within Wilderness are closed for part or all of the year to protect endangered bats or sensitive cave features. The Ponca and Lower Buffalo units have extensive abandoned underground mine workings. Because of their instability, all of the abandoned mines within the park are closed to visitation.
Climate and Special Equipment Needs
The climate in north Arkansas is quite variable. In winter temperatures typically reach lows in the teens, with below zero weather being uncommon. Summer temperatures are typically in the 90's with temperatures over 100F being fairly common. Humidity can always be expected to be high in the spring and summer. Ticks, chiggers, and mosquitos are also fairly common in the warmer months, but ticks can be found during any month.
Safety and Current Conditions
All caves and mines in the wilderness areas are closed to entry. This is to prevent the spread of White Nose Syndrome to the bats that inhabit these features, and to protect visitors from the hazards associated with abandoned mines.
The January 2009 ice storm caused a great deal of damage to the forest in the park. Extra care should be taken in travelling and especially when setting up camp as many large hanging limbs still exist in the canopy and may come down at any time.
The park is open to hunting, be aware of current hunting seasons (http://www.agfc.com/)
Weather is highly variable. Current and forecast weather can be accessed from numerous internet weather sites. Zip code 72636 is centrally located.
River levels can be accessed from the park website (http://www.nps.gov/buff)
For current information, contact the park headquarters at 870-365-2700.
Want to Volunteer for Wilderness?
Citizens who volunteer their time to steward our wilderness areas are an essential part of wilderness management. Contact the following groups to inquire about volunteer opportunities.