Hike the trail to Indian Rockhouse, visit Collier Homestead near Tyler Bend, guide a canoe down the river’s many miles, stick your toe or a fishing line in the water, take a photo of Roark Bluff, view the reflection of Skull Rock in the water on a fall day, or camp at Steel Creek, and you’ll know the Buffalo River is worthy of being the country’s first national river.
But it took years of debate and the hard work of many landowners, individuals, groups, politicians and federal agencies to pass the legislation designating the Buffalo as a national river. Today, the National Park Service oversees 95,730 acres and three designated wilderness areas within that acreage. Rushing whitewater is interspersed among sections of calmer water as the river wends its way 135 miles through the lush green valley that is home to elk, deer, black bear and other woodland creatures. Tall limestone bluffs in earthy hues of gray, tan and brown are defining features of the Buffalo. It is one of the few remaining undammed rivers in the lower 48 states.
Activities in the Park
Along its corridor, you’ll find canoe and kayak outfitters, campsites, hiking trails, cabin rentals, towering limestone bluffs, quiet pools and whitewater rapids, an elk herd, and historic areas such as the Boxley Valley Historic District, the Parker Hickman Homestead, and the Villines Cabin. The Buffalo National River preserves many pioneer homesteads ranging from the 1840s to the 1930s.
There are more than 75 miles of designated equestrian trails, and 100 miles of maintained trails within the river park. Hiking is a very popular activity at all times, but especially in the cooler months from fall through spring. Some trails offer views from the top of the limestone bluffs. Other treks snake through the woods past remnants of old homesteads and down old logging roads.
Overnighting along the Buffalo can be unrolling a sleeping bag on a primitive backpacking adventure, pitching a tent at a NPS campground, or staying in rustic housekeeping cabins constructed in the late 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps at Buffalo Point. Cabins and resorts just outside the park are popular with visitors as well.
Permitted park concessioners for the upper, middle and lower sections of the Buffalo River rent canoes, kayaks, and rafts, and provide shuttle services. Typically, the float season begins in the upper Buffalo in the spring. More water makes this section attractive for visitors seeking a higher level of challenge with whitewater kayaking. The season moves downstream with the months. Because the Buffalo is largely rainfall dependent, floating opportunities for each section can change not only from season to season, but week to week.
To rock climbers, Sam’s Throne is probably the most well-known chunk of rock in the Ozarks. Another hot place to climb in Buffalo River Country is on private land owned by Horseshoe Canyon Ranch, where you can pay a nominal fee to climb. Plenty of rock in the area 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.
Another activity that’s easy for the whole family to enjoy 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 watch them.
There’s really something for everyone in Buffalo River Country. Fishermen will find a fish population of over 60 species, including small mouth bass, largemouth bass, Ozark bass, and goggle-eye. Horseback riding is another popular activity. Horseback riding concessions can be found and many are associated with lodging. While concessionaires aren’t allowed to ride on the river, they have plenty of their own scenic trails in the river country.
Tyler Bend Visitor Center, offering exhibits, books, films, and more, is a great place to obtain park information. The NPS also provides ranger-guided tours and activities. Keep up-to-date on programs, or get trail maps, and other information for planning your visit at Nps.gov/buff/. This website also contains a map that shows current floating conditions along the length of the river, as well as additional information on access points, campsites and trails.
(SIDEBAR) National Park Service and Buffalo National River Centennial Events
This year marks the Centennial of the National Park Service, and there will be celebrations and special events across the U.S. and throughout the year to honor the moment when U.S. President Woodrow Wilson signed the act that created the agency on August 25, 1916.
In conjunction with the centennial celebration, here is a list of events taking place at the Buffalo National River:
Centennial Iron Ranger Challenge – Jan. 1 – Dec. 31, 2016
The challenge is a year-long program to encourage visitors to “Find Your Park” and improve their health and fitness by completing 100 miles of physical activity over the course of the year. Participants may choose to hike, bike, paddle, walk, run, or roll 100 miles in any of the national parks in Arkansas. Visitors who complete 100 miles of activity will receive a certificate and a commemorative patch to recognize their accomplishment, but the real reward will be experiencing the parks and the many benefits of physical recreation. Sign up and register for the Iron Ranger Challenge here and start logging those miles today!
National Park Week and Earth Day – April 16-24
The park will host a Paddleboard Workshop with Gabriel Gray at the Ozark Campground on Saturday, April 16. Additionally, National Park on the Air, a ham radio operation, will be set up, offering an opportunity for National Parks to get some air time and for the public to learn about amateur radio.
On Friday, April 22, you can take part in a river cleanup on a section of the river in the upper Buffalo in celebration of Earth Day. The cleanup is dependent on river conditions.
On Saturday, April 23, enjoy a free concert from National Park Radio at Steel Creek from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m.
Earth Week wraps up on Sunday, April 24, with a relaxing morning yoga session at Steel Creek.
Civilian Conservation Corps Open House/National Tourism Week – May 7
This event takes a look back to when the place known as Buffalo Point was Buffalo River State Park. When the Buffalo River was designated America’s first national river in 1972, the state park was donated to the National Park System. The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) had a hand in development of the state park.
Richard Davies, former director of Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism, and Kelley Linck, Arkansas State Representative, will be on hand to speak about the CCC influence at what was once Buffalo River State Park. A NPS ranger-led program on the history of the CCC, and a chair caning demonstration will acknowledge the lasting legacy that the CCC had in developing Buffalo Point. Historic cabin #1 will also be open for people to tour.
The Arkansas Game and Fish Commission will have a mobile fish tank on display and radio station KHOZ will broadcast live. This event will be hosted in conjunction with the Harrison Welcome Center up near the Buffalo Point Cabins and Restaurant.
Adopt A Trail Day – June 4
In honor of National Trails Day, Buffalo National River will launch an Adopt a Trail Event at Tyler Bend. People that sign up will be expected to hike their trail quarterly, pick up trash, and report the condition of the trail to the park. Presenters will also speak about Leave No Trace, the park’s centennial events, and other trail and park related topics.
National Public Lands Day – Sept. 24
Take part in a national day of service in celebration of National Public Lands Day by participating in a clean-up of the middle or lower river.
Ozark Folklife Festival – Oct. 1
This Searcy County event will bring traditional Ozark artists and craftspeople together at Tyler Bend for a day of musical performances and demonstrations to celebrate Ozark culture.
Buffalo River Biathlon – Come Hill or High Water – Oct. 16
This inaugural event will consist of a 6.1 mile trail run on the Buffalo River Trail from Dillards Ferry to Spring Creek followed by a 4.6 mile canoe/kayak race from Spring Creek back to Dillards Ferry.