March 1st is a landmark date for our national parks—and not only because it's the birthday for Yellowstone. Another park became the first of its kind exactly one century after Yellowstone was established. This one includes cliffs, caves and canoeing in its list of attractions.
Buffalo National River joined the National Park System on March 1, 1972—one hundred years to the day after Yellowstone became our first national park—and the Buffalo was the first designated "national river" in the country. This prime piece of Ozarks real estate may not be as famous as Yellowstone, but it has plenty to offer visitors, whether they want to float the river, camp, hike, fish, or just relax and enjoy the scenery.
The Buffalo River begins as a trickle in the Boston Mountains and flows 150 miles to the White River. You'll find a wild, free-flowing river that passes towering bluffs, pioneer homesteads and wilderness areas, dominated by a vast hardwood forest, verdant much of the visitor season. Narrow and fast near its headwaters, the Buffalo gets wider and lazier the farther downstream it flows. There are few roads which parallel the river and few accessible overlooks; the best way to see the park is by trail or by water.
Today's visitors owe the opportunity to enjoy the Buffalo to a group of dedicated conservationists from the region, who banded together to protect the river from plans for yet another dam and reservoir in the area. Their efforts paid off, and today the park includes just over 94,000 acres, including 36,000 acres of designated wilderness.
This is a long, linear park, running roughly west to east across northern Arkansas; it's less than a three hour drive from Little Rock. Local terminology is logical once you get the hang of it: the western, or upstream portions of the river, are referred to as the Upper Buffalo; the eastern (downstream) sections as the Lower Buffalo. You're on your own to figure out where to find the Middle Buffalo. You can download a map of the park to help get the lay of the land.
A prime destination on the Lower Buffalo is Buffalo Point, which includes a very attractive developed campground, picnic area, hiking trails and river access. A concessioner operates cabins, some of them dating to the CCC days, and a small restaurant.
Buffalo Point was previously managed by the State of Arkansas as Buffalo River State Park. The state helped jump-start creation of the national park in 1973 by donating the 2021 acre site to the NPS. Visitors to Buffalo Point sometimes ask why a NPS campground includes RV hookups and showers. The answer is the state park already provided those services when the NPS took over operation of the campground, and it would have seemed a bit odd for the feds to "downgrade" the facilities.
In addition to Buffalo Point, the park offers designated campgrounds at eight other locations. Most of them, other than Tyler Bend, are decidedly more rustic, and primitive "backcountry" camping is allowed along most of the river.
This is a natural river, and water levels vary according to season and precipitation. The situation can change quickly after a heavy rain, so it's always wise to confirm river levels with the park before making a lengthy trip. When there's adequate water, various sections of the Buffalo are a fine spot for beginner to intermediate-level canoe trips, but this river can turn ugly—and very dangerous—in a hurry following a heavy rain. The park offers the following advice:
River use along the Buffalo is not evenly distributed over the entire course of the river. Thirty percent of the river receives seventy percent of the canoe traffic. Three of the most used river segments are Ponca to Kyles Landing, Maumee to Buffalo Point, and Highway 14 Bridge to Rush.
Peak river use begins in April and ends in August. The most intensive use occurs on the upper river from Ponca to Pruitt in April and May. On the middle and lower sections, river use peaks from June to July. To avoid crowds in the spring, consider floating during the weekdays or floating on a lower section of river, such as Carver to Woolum.
To avoid summer crowds consider a trip early in the morning or during the middle of the week. A quiet, early morning trip will offer cooler temperatures, far more opportunities to see wildlife along the river banks, and better fishing. In the spring and late fall the middle and lower section of the river are seldom used.
You're welcome to bring your own canoe or other watercraft, but there are ample opportunities to rent that equipment from concessioners near the park.
Although canoeing is the prime attraction, the area offers some surprises. History buffs can stop at Rush, the remains of a mining town named for a zinc boom between late 1800s and World War I. The Collier Homestead and several sites in Boxley Valley offer a glimpse of pioneer homesteads.
The park includes over 300 known caves, although none are developed for easy visitor access. Fitton Cave, also called Beauty Cave, has 17 miles of mapped passageways, and is the longest in Arkansas. About one third of the park's caves support bats, including three species that are endangered. Bat colonies are protected by closing the caves to entry for parts of each year, so check with the park for more information on caving—and safe caving techniques.
Visitors to the Upper and Middle Buffalo may be surprised to spot some elk.
Eastern elk, a subspecies adapted to environmental conditions in the eastern hardwood forests, were native to the Buffalo River. This subspecies had vanished from the Ozarks by the 1840s, and is now extinct everywhere.
Between 1981 and 1985, a total of 112 Rocky Mountain elk were released at five sites in Newton County by the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission. Over 400 elk presently live in or adjacent to Buffalo National River.
You can easily spend several days exploring the park and surrounding area. If you'd like to see an excellent example of how to develop a cave for safe and easy public access, the nearby Blanchard Springs Caverns is managed by the U. S. Forest Service.
For a fine sample of Ozark culture, the Ozark Folk Center, in the town of Mountain View, is part of the Arkansas State Park system, and is not far from Blanchard Springs. Both of those areas are an easy day trip from the Buffalo.
The park's website includes basic trip planning information. Your best resource on that site: click on the link for the "Currents Visitors Guide." For more details, track down a copy of the Buffalo River Handbook, by long-time area writer and conservationist Kenneth Smith.
If the weather is nice and water levels are good on Memorial Day weekend, you may some crowds at the Buffalo that seem to rival Yellowstone in the summer—especially if you're looking for a campsite or a parking place near a launch site.
For much of the year, however, this park qualifies as one of the still undiscovered gems in the country. It was a worthy addition to the system on Yellowstone's birthday.