Buffalo National River

One of the only remaining rivers in the lower 48 states without any dams, the Buffalo cuts its way more than 150 miles through massive limestone bluffs in the Arkansas Ozarks and into the White River, which eventually flows into the Mississippi River delta.

Recently, I had the rare opportunity of taking a three day canoe trip along the lower part of this remote and untamed river, through the portion which was designated as a National Park over thirty years ago in 1972.

Buffalo National River Buffalo National River
Buffalo National River

An eager expedition consisting of two 16 foot canoes, ice chests, camping gear, three eager paddlers and one golden retriever named Rusty, we set off mid afternoon on a warm September day to begin our Buffalo River adventure. We saw only a couple of other groups along the entire way and, once below the takeout at Rush where we camped the first night, found very little visible evidence of civilization before finishing our trip at the confluence of the White River, 32 miles and three days downstream.

You will find 13 designated campgrounds on the national river or you may camp anywhere along the river, which is your only option on the lower section we covered. We chose to stay the first night the Rush campground and then found a great, secluded spot the second night.

The weather is highly variable in the Ozarks so you need to be ready to pitch a solid shelter when you set up camp. We had heavy rain and squalls several times throughout our September journey, although it remained very warm and pleasant for the most part.

At one point on day two, a storm came through and the rain came down so furiously that visibility was only about 100 yards and we had to bail the canoes regularly. An hour later, the rain subsided and the river was again bathed in ample sunshine. I have also hiked in the Ozarks in early November when temperatures reached the twenties at night, so you do want to be prepared for the cold.

Buffalo National River2 Buffalo National River
Buffalo National River

Spring is known to be the best time to visit the Buffalo National River. From the middle of April to the middle of May, the river comes alive with wildflowers, luscious green foliage, hundreds of ancient waterfalls and serene yet sometimes turbulent creek inlets. Next time I visit, I will definitely try to get there in spring, although with the leaves just beginning to turn, autumn was just fine.

This is not a difficult river to paddle by any means; many stretches find you paddling with almost no current across long, wide pools until you arrive at the next mild, rock strewn and slow-moving rapids. If the river is low, as it was during our trip, you will likely have to get out and pull the canoe through some of these sections. However, be aware that the river can rise very quickly when it rains and has been know to rise 10 or 15 feet within an hour sometimes.

So if class five rapids are not the reason to float the Buffalo, what is? Quite simply, the scenic beauty is incredible. With numerous caves, sinkholes, waterfalls, springs, and interesting rock formations, Buffalo National Park typifies the geology of the Arkansas Ozarks.

Buffalo National River3 Buffalo National River
Buffalo National River

Over millions of years, the river has carved its way into the limestone seabed, creating sweeping panoramas of these high bluffs that can tower as much as 400-plus feet above the river in splendid colors and shapes. The resulting formations are quite stunning, such as the giant formation called Elephant Head Rock.

In the Ozarks, animals of the Southwest, Northeast, and Southeast United States combine together with species from the Ice Age. You will find a diversity of wildlife, including armadillos, roadrunners, turtles, and scorpions. We saw several wild boars just along the river’s edge. Also, we saw several copperheads in the water, so use caution when wading or swimming.

The elevation ranges from 375 to 2,385 feet. Moisture, exposure, and soil types enhance the abundant variety of plant life, which includes more than 1500 plant species. The river supports 59 species of clear water fish, with smallmouth bass, alligator gar, and catfish.

Whitetail deer, raccoon, opossum, bobcat, mink, beaver, and gray and fox squirrels are all common mammals. Elk have been reintroduced in recent years by the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission. Black bear are now reported more often as well as a few reports of mountain lions.

One side trip we took was a short hike to explore the Cold Springs School, near Big Flat, a 1935 Craftsman-style structure built by the WPA to educate about thirty local children until 1944. The school is in amazing condition still and reminds one that people did live in this area prior to its designation as a national park.

Cold Springs School Buffalo National River
Buffalo National River

Between the variety of wildlife, hiking opportunities along the way, scenic vistas and relaxing waters, our canoe trip on the Buffalo National River was a great experience. I would recommend this little expedition to anyone who has the chance to visit here.

Photo opportunities abound. Though popularity has been increasing steadily, we found ourselves alone for three days, exploring the natural beauty and wildlife of the Ozarks, with no distractions. The peace and solitude, along with the visual beauty of the Buffalo River create a special intimacy between you and your surroundings, giving you a much greater appreciation of the natural world than you can find in many national parks.

Buffalo National River5 Buffalo National River
Buffalo National River

Located a couple of hours north of Little Rock, Arkansas, the Buffalo National River is near the towns of Ponca, Jasper and Harrison where you will find lodging, meals and canoe rentals and shuttle services. For more information, contact the park headquarters in Harrison at 870.741.5443, or visit Parknet on the web at: www.nps.gov/buff/index.htm


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