We recently enjoyed a belated canoe trip on the Buffalo National River after two years of missed opportunities several decades ago when we were both busy with graduate school at the University of Arkansas. Not only did we not canoe the Buffalo during those years, we failed to even visit the river whose headwaters were nearby.
We eventually visited half a dozen times, but only to spend a night at Buffalo Point in order to update our national park lodging guide. Buffalo Point is the only NPS-authorized lodging concessionaire within the national river’s boundaries. The cabins at Buffalo Point sit high above the river, thereby providing an excellent viewpoint, but no easy river access.
In any case, these were hurried trips in which we were always on the move to the next National Park Service lodging facility, generally Big Springs Lodge in Ozark National Scenic Riverways.
The Buffalo originates in the Boston Mountains of northwest Arkansas and flows 150 miles in a jagged eastward path across the northern part of the state until emptying into the White River. The Park Service administers 135 miles of the river’s 150-mile length. The surrounding landscape of oak and hickory forest interrupted with impressive limestone cliffs makes for a scenic canoe trip. All of this we had missed those many years ago.
The river was established as our country’s first national river in 1972 thanks in large part to the efforts of the state’s environmental groups along with its governor, two senators, and a northwest Arkansas congressman who saved it from being dammed.
The much longer White River into which the Buffalo flows had already been tamed with hydroelectric dams and the Corps of Engineers had plans for two dams on the Buffalo. Thus, plentiful opportunities were available on the White for fishing, boating, and camping at the time consideration was being given to damming the Buffalo.
The Buffalo is divided into three segments of relatively equal length; upper, middle, and lower. The nearly 50 miles comprising the upper Buffalo include two wilderness areas and takes form in the Boston Mountains. It is generally considered the most scenic stretch, with mountain vistas and high limestone bluffs along much of the way. This segment also enjoys the strongest currents and offers the most challenging paddling, but only during the spring and early summer before flows diminish as the rainfall runoff becomes depleted.
The upper Buffalo is essentially closed by shallows to floaters by mid- to late-June. The middle Buffalo is smoother and flatter with easier floating over a longer season, in part because of pooling, but also because this section is the beneficiary of numerous springs. This is the section where we paddled canoes in late October when the morning air was crisp and leaves had begun turning a deep orange.
A light rain the previous day provided some needed water to the river, and our canoe got hung up only one time.
On a Tuesday morning we had the river to ourselves. The lower Buffalo includes the most remote sections of the river, including a 24-mile stretch through the Lower Buffalo Wilderness. No canoe takeouts are in the wilderness area so floaters must complete the entire 24 miles, requiring a two-day trip.
We talked to several residents of the area who told us this was the only section of the river they had not canoed. The lower Buffalo includes Rush, at one time an active zinc mining community that is now a ghost town. It also includes Buffalo Point, which offers the only restaurant and rental cabins within the park.
Fifteen NPS concessionaires offer canoe rentals and shuttle service with prices generally ranging between $50 and $60 per day. A list of concessionaires is available on the park website. In addition to cabin rentals offered by the NPS concessionaire at Buffalo Point, numerous rentals are available near the river but outside park boundaries. The park’s main visitor center at Tyler Bend is in the middle section of the river. Park headquarters is outside the park in the town of Harrison.