Free-flowing for 135 miles, the Buffalo National River is a paddler's dream, offering cool, clear waters, grassy meadows grazed by elk, and cliff walls that frame the river in places.
While any year is a good one to push your canoe or kayak into this river in Arkansas' Ozarks, this year is particularly notable in that it marks the 40th anniversary of the country's first national river.
Locals say spring, with tulips, Jonquils, and Dogwoods in full bloom, is the best time to paddle the Buffalo River, particularly its upper stretch.
From Boxley on the far upper end of the Buffalo National River to Buffalo City where the river converges with the White River, the experiences are endless. Starting as just a trickle high in the Boston Mountains, the Buffalo flows east for nearly 150 miles, offering water for every level of experience. This turquoise water is inviting to say the least, with quiet, flowing water that at times reaching stages of exciting rapids.
The upper river is typically defined as running from the Upper Buffalo Wilderness to Mt. Hersey in Searcy County. This 52-mile stretch of river is normally floatable from March through June. Sometimes, depending on summer rain, on into July and August.
Here are some of the most popular floats on the upper section of the river.
• Boxley to Ponca; this 6-mile float is a paddlers delight with several class I and II stretches along the way. Plan to either take out at the Ponca low water bridge or portage your boat and continue down river. Watch on your left for the elk herd along the way just before you get to Ponca. This float can only occur after a heavy rain and is only for the very experienced paddler.
• Ponca to Steel Creek; 2.7 miles of floating bliss. Just a few rapids and several long pools. Pay attention to the huge bluffs along the left side as you approach Steel Creek. Roark Bluff is one of the most photographed on the entire river.
• Steel Creek to Kyles Landing; 8 miles of lazy water with a few rapids, passing “Big Bluff” on the left. Big Bluff is known for the Goat Trail some 500 feet above the river, and it is quite a sight! Not too far along the river is the trailhead for Hemmed-In Hollow, where you will find the tallest waterfall between the Appalachians and the Rockies. Soon you’ll pass the infamous “Gray Rock” or “Naked Lady Rock” (as locals call it) before arriving at Kyles Landing. The rock is a popular place for floaters to hang out along the river and jump off into the cool water. 300 yards of rapids will be found just before you get to the rock. Kyles Landing will be on your right.
• Kyles Landing to Erbie; 5.6 miles with a combination of slow flowing pools, mixed with faster water. Soon after launch, you will see the Boy Scout camp called Camp Orr. Erbie is a great spot to camp with a fully developed campground for singles or groups.
• Erbie to Ozark; 5.5 miles. Most floaters who put in at Erbie, will go on to Pruitt.
• Ozark to Pruitt; 2.1 miles of fairly easy water. Pass under the historic Pruitt Bridge over Scenic Highway 7 and the take-out will be on your left.
Boxley to Pruitt total mileage; 29.9 miles
Camping is permitted all along the river, with developed sites at Lost Valley, Steel Creek, Kyles Landing, Erbie and Ozark. Fees will be charged, but reservations are not required. Hiking and horseback riding trails are available all along the river via the Buffalo River Trail. Side trips are also available at Lost Valley, Hemmed-In Hollow and the Parker-Hickman Farmstead. Concessions and shuttles are available in Ponca, Marble Falls and Jasper. Always check on water levels before planning a float trip on the Buffalo National River. Flooding conditions will cause the river to be closed. Watch for signs. Check current river conditions by calling 888-692-1162 or visit this site.