Don't Forget Buffalo National River When You're Looking for Fall Foliage
One of the relatively undiscovered gems in our national park system is the Buffalo National River, located in the Ozarks of north-central Arkansas. The park is perhaps best known for canoeing, but that activity is usually most enjoyable in the spring and early summer, unless you enjoy the possibility of carrying your canoe more than paddling it.
The Buffalo offers plenty of other activities, and autumn is an especially great time for camping, hiking, scenic driving, and just relaxing. The hardwood forests in and around the park can provide some fine fall color, and blackgum, sassafras, sweetgum, Virginia creeper and sumac are among the star performers.
Like any part of the country, the intensity and timing of autumn foliage varies from year to year, but a good rule of thumb is to expect the best color to occur in late October and early November. The State of Arkansas offers an on-line fall foliage report, which is updated each Thursday during the season.
The Buffalo National River is a long, linear park, following the course of the river for about 135 miles from west to east. Several state highways bisect the park, and others roughly parallel the river and provide access into the park itself. Much of the land surrounding the park is still a pleasant rural mix of forests and farms, and most of your scenic driving will actually be outside the park boundary.
For park information, the visitor center at Tyler Bend, just off the U.S. 65 crossing, is open from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. (870- 439-2502). A smaller visitor center at Buffalo Point, near the Arkansas Highway 14 crossing, has limited hours, so call first before planning a stop (870-449-4311).
The following routes provide access to several sections of the park and a good sampling of local scenery. The park map will help you get an overview of these routes, and I've listed these from west to east as they cross the park. Locals refer to the river in three sections from west to east as the Upper, Middle and Lower Buffalo.
* Arkansas Highways 21, 43 and 74 pass through the western end of the park for several miles in the vicinity of Boxley and Ponca and provide access to the Lost Valley area, a good spot for short hikes.
* Highway 7 crosses the park north of the town of Jasper, and this route is part of the Arkansas Scenic 7 Byway and the National Scenic Byway program. This road provides access to a section of the Upper Buffalo.
* U.S. Highway 65 is a major north-south route between Little Rock and Springfield, Missouri. It crosses the Middle Buffalo near the center of the park, and provides access to the campground, visitor center and river access at Tyler Bend.
Arkansas Highway 14 is a scenic, winding route that provides access to the Lower Buffalo and to the campground, visitor center and cabins at Buffalo Point.
There are 12 designated campgrounds in the park, although steep, narrow roads and limited space make most of them better suited for tent campers. If you have an RV, your two best choices are at Tyler Bend, just off U.S. Highway 65, and Buffalo Point, near the eastern section of the park off Arkansas Highway 14. I'd rate the Buffalo Point campground as one of the most attractive in the entire national park system.
The only overnight lodging in the park itself is also at Buffalo Point, where Buffalo Point Concessions offers both modern and rustic historic cabins that date back to the CCC days. You'll find other places to stay
in Harrison and the smaller town of Jasper, and Yellville includes the Red Raven Inn, a comfortable, turn-of-the century mansion converted to a bed and breakfast.
Just keep in mind that fall is a popular season for visits to the area, and while one of the charms of the region is its rural character, that also means it's not advisable to arrive without a reservation for a place to spend the night.
When you're ready for a meal, the hamlet of St. Joe, near U. S. 65 crossing of the river, has at least two possibilities with a local flavor. For breakfast or lunch try Ferguson's Country Store (870-439-2234), or for a sandwich to go or some smoked meat to take home, Coursey's Smoked Meats (870-439-2503) has exactly what their name describes. This isn't the big city, so call first to confirm hours—and don't count on finding a restaurant around every bend in the road.
The cool days of autumn are prime time for hiking in the park, and a dedicated group of volunteers have helped the park develop a growing network that currently includes over 100 miles of trails. The majority of the trails are in the Upper Buffalo, and a popular route is the Lost Valley (2.1-mile round trip), which leads to towering cliffs, a large bluff shelter, a natural bridge,
The trail begins at Lost Valley Campground and the first mile to Eden Falls is level and a fairly easy walk. The trail then climbs steeply before reaching the mouth of a 200-foot-long cave that ends in a large room with a waterfall. Be sure everyone who enters the cave has a flashlight. You should always have multiple sources of light available for this or any cave trip. Two hundred feet may not sound like much, but it instantly becomes both dark and very confusing if a single flashlight fails!
This is the Ozarks, and flat ground is at a premium, so pace yourself and watch your footing on rocky and steep sections of all trails. An easier walk is available on the 1.1-mile River Overlook Trail at Tyler Bend, which leads to the historic Collier Homestead and to river overlooks. The first one-half mile is accessible to wheelchairs.
Another good choice for a less strenuous walk is the 0.7-mile aptly named Overlook Trail at Buffalo Point. It begins at the Indian Rockhouse trailhead and leads to a beautiful view overlooking the river.
More details about hiking and other activities in the park are available in Currents, the Buffalo National River Visitors Guide. Download a copy from the park website's home page for additional information to help plan your trip.
Editor's note: Jim Burnett was assigned to Buffalo National River as the Lower Buffalo District Ranger from 1986-1990, and was based at Buffalo Point. You can read more of his stories on Buffalo National River, and stories from his other postings in the National Park System, in Hey Ranger! and Hey Ranger 2.