The Buffalo became the Buffalo National River by Act of Congress on March 1, 1972, and was the first river ever designated as a "national river", a designation that protects natural rivers from dams, empoundments and other obstructions that change the character of the river and disrupt the natural land and water life that flourishes there. The Upper section has all of the whitewater rapids to be found along the river, but also features some very beautiful topography among which are sink holes and caves, springs and waterfalls, 500+ foot tall bluffs overlooking the river and many interesting rock formations that captivate the attention of those into rock structures and the stories they tell.
The Upper Buffalo, running about 30 miles from Boxley at SH 21 to Pruitt Landing off Arkansas Scenic Highway 7, is a popular spot for whitewater canoeists and kayakers who are willing to brave the cooler climes for a shot at fun runs on a gorgeous river. This reach begins about 15.5 miles below the actual headwaters of the Buffalo, usually referred to as the Hailstone River, on a Class II to III run that is only navigable after a major local rainstorm hits the Boston Mountains. The first 6 miles from Boxley to the Ponca low water bridge are not for the faint of heart or inexperienced paddler - if the water is high enough to run, then it is challenging and dangerous with long, countinuous wave rapids bordered by beautiful fields on the left and forested mountains with waterfalls along the right. Below the Ponca low water bridge there are several more Class I to II rapids that are fun, but not too challenging for experienced whitewater paddlers. Just below "S" Turn Rapid, at Hemmed-in-Hollow (about 4.7 miles below the Ponca low water bridge), is a path to a spectacular sight that is a must-see for many people - the highest waterfall in middle America, where a box canyon ends and a 200 foot high waterfall plunges to the canyon floor below. The canyon is about 1 mile off the river, and makes a great side trip for those wanting to see more than just the river.
Because the Buffalo National River sits within US Forest Service land camping along the river can be done anywhere there is a suitable spot available. Numerous improved camping areas have been developed along this reach of the Buffalo River between Ponca and Pruitt for the benefit of those paddling the river (most are not all that hospitable to access via cars due to long, narrow, unpaved roads.) You will camp among many species of trees, wildflowers, towering multi-colored cliffs and bluffs and a beautiful river. Fishing for smallmouth, largemouth, spotted and rock bass, sunfish, perch, catfish and about 50 other species is excellent in the cool, clear waters of the Buffalo. Be sure you have a valid Arkansas fishing license if you plan on wetting a line! Even if the upper six miles of this reach are not navigable you can usually find enough water to start at Ponca and go downriver from there. This reach is especially popular with recreational canoeists and kayakers (and occasionally rafters) from late-March through September, so you usually will not be alone on the river.
The Buffalo National River stretches some 144 miles from the headwaters near Fallsville in the Boston Mountains range of the Ozark Mountains across northeastern Arkansas to its confluence with the White River. It is situated in Newton, Searcy, Marion and Baxter Counties. The Upper Buffalo, as described in this report, flows through Newton County from south of Boxley to Ponca, then east to Pruitt, along the only section where anything approaching whitewater on the Buffalo can be found. The real whitewater section above Boxley is described separately under its commonly known name, the Hailstone River.
Little Rock 145 miles; Texarkana 260 miles; Memphis 270 miles; Dallas 384 miles; Austin 580 miles; San Antonio 670 miles; Houston 578 miles; Oklahoma City 290 miles; Kansas City 281 miles; St. Louis 313 miles; Albuquerque 812 miles; Phoenix 1,275 miles; Denver 855 miles; Salt Lake City 1,380 miles; (all distances are approximate and depend upon starting point and destination point on the river.)
The Upper Buffalo generally has a water quality that is good to excellent (better in colder weather than in summer) and seasonal flows that depend heavily upon recent local rainfall. The minimum level for a good trip with minimal dragging is around 3 feet on the Ponca gauge, with an optimum flow of about 4.5 feet. The Upper Buffalo is dangerous above 5.5 feet, and no livery will rent boats or provide shuttles at that level. The milky green color is natural, and does not represent harmful or unpleasant contamination, but don't drink it without purification.
March through June is generally the optimum time to paddle the Upper Buffalo, though recent local rainfall can change that. Late autumn through early summer offers the best combination of flow and weather conditions, though wetsuits or drysuits may be preferred during the colder months, when paddling is usually at its best. As a rule, avoid the period from July through early October, as that is when the river is traditionally lowest and slowest, though that can change with local rainfall. The Upper Buffalo may start running low as early as mid-March if there has not been sufficient winter and early-spring rainfall in the drainage basin. Occasionally, trips for the Middle Buffalo can be started at various access points on the Upper Buffalo late in its normal season or during periods of significant local rainfall.
Most of the hazards on the Upper Buffalo are rapids in the Class II range, some excalating to Class III in high water conditions. It is usually possible to navigate around the hazards using an awareness of river characteristics, local knowledge, a sharp eye on what is in front of you and a little good, common sense. Just under 2 miles below the Ponca put-in is Wrecking Rock Rapid (Class II), where the left channel is generally the best choice, though other channels may present themselves depending upon current river conditions. After passing Sneed's Creek comes "S" Turn Rapid, a tricky Class II rapid with tight turns and overhanging trees that must be negotiated quickly. Gray Rock Rapid (Class I-II) can be a hazard if hit, but the current river channel moves just a little away from the rock and lessens the danger. Downstream from the Boy Scouts' Camp Orr is Crisis Curve, a quick left turn in a narrow channel. The last significant hazard you will encounter on the Upper Buffalo is the low water bridge at the Erbie NPS Access and campground, about 18 miles below the Ponca put-in. There are other small Class I rapids along the way, but most require just a keen eye and basic paddling techique to safely negotiate.
Boxley Bridge (N 35° 57' 37.99" / W 093° 24' 14.85") Public Access on SH 21 on river right at 0.0 miles; Ponca Low Water Bridge (N 36° 01' 16.30" / W 093° 21' 17.38") Public Access on Arkansas Highway 74, just east of Highway 43 on either side at about 6.0 miles; Steel Creek (N 36° 02' 21.45" / W 093° 20' 10.45") NPS Public Access and campground on river right at about 8.6 miles; Kyle's Landing (N 36° 03' 25.33" / W 093° 16' 46.97") NPS Access and campground on river right at about 16.6 miles; Erbie (N 36° 04' 15.46" / W 093° 12' 43.23") NPS Public Access on river right at about 22.5 miles; Ozark (N 36° 03' 55.05" / W 093° 09' 34.83") NPS Public Access and campground on river right at about 28.0 miles; and Pruitt Landing (N 36° 03' 28.22" / W 093° 08' 11.16") NPS Public Access on Highway 7 at 30.0 miles.
The National Park Service (NPS) has numerous campground facilities, in varying stages of improvement, all along the Buffalo National River. Some of these are free of charge while others are fee-based, and all are available on a first come, space available basis. These campgrounds incude Steel Creek (N 36° 02' 21.45" / W 093° 20' 10.45") NPS Access and Campground (off Highway 74, about 2.8 miles below the Ponca put-in); Kyle's Landing (N 36° 03' 25.33" / W 093° 16' 46.97") NPS Access and Campground (from Highway 74 at Mount Sherman - look for the signs); Erbie (N 36° 04' 15.46" / W 093° 12' 43.23") NPS Access and Campground (on SH 7 at SH 74 in Jasper follow SH 7 north about 3.1 miles to Erbie Campground Road / CR 79 on the left leading to Erbie Landing - it is a long drive of about 5.5 miles on a winding road from SH 7); and Ozark (N 36° 03' 55.05" / W 093° 09' 34.83") NPS Access and Campground (from the dirt road off Highway 7, near Pruitt.) There are numerous other undesignated areas where camping along the river can be done.
Take precautions against rising water when camping along the Buffalo, or any other river. Some of the roads leading to the above listed campgrounds may not be accessible to large vehicles and/or long trailers. The roads are unimproved, winding and narrow with low hanging tree branches and limbs. Do NOT drive vehicles onto gravel bars near the river unless you have deep pockets or are prepared to self-extract your vehicle. There are at least two commercial campgrounds located near the top of this reach of the Buffalo National River. Reservations are strongly recommended for all holidays and most weekends between Memorial Day and Labor Day - do NOT go there expecting to get a campsite without an advance reservation unless you plan to launch the same day as your arrival and then camp in primitive sites along the river.
Buffalo River Float Service (870-449-2042 / 877-350-6592), located at 11637 Suite 1 Hwy. 14 South, Yellville, AR 72687, offers canoe, kayak, raft and tube rentals, as well as private boat and vehicle shuttle services on the Buffalo National River. There are at least five other commercial outfitters offering rentals and shuttles on this reach of the Buffalo National River. During peak months advanced reservations are strongly recommended for boat rentals. Arkansas liveries charge a fair but high price for personal boat and passenger shuttles, or you may be able to find local drivers who can and will negotiate a fee for such services. Memorial Day rentals from local outfitters are usually filled early, so make your reservations ahead of time if planning to rent canoes, kayaks or rafts on the river.
The Upper Buffalo is a great place to paddle whitewater in northeastern Arkansas, but most of it will be done in colder temperatures. Starting in the Ozark Mountains, the water runs cold and clear, and even if daytime temperatures are comfortable the water will be colder than most rivers around the southwest and southcentral United States. Nighttime temperatures can vary by 30-40 degrees below daytime highs, so take proper clothing and sleeping gear carried inside dry bags.
The scenery coming out of the Ozarks is breath-taking. With a gradient of about 11 feet per mile the river drops at a respectable rate creating a good current when there is adequate water to paddle. The milky green color of the water, due to naturally occurring infusions of minerals, is characteristic of several Arkansas rivers including the Buffalo. Water temperatures can be quite cold (low 40's) in the dead of winter, and a comfortable 80+ degrees in mid-summer. While not the biggest rapids in Arkansas, the Upper Buffalo offers spectacular vistas and good, fun rapids that challenge novice to intermediate paddlers and entertain more advanced paddlers looking for a break from the skull-crushing Cossatot.
The Upper Buffalo National River is rich in ecosystem diversity. The banks are lined with dense forests of gorgeous trees that are home to many species of birds, animals and plants. Though seldom seem, there are black bears and mountain lions in this area, so be careful about how you store food and anything else with a fragrance that may smell like food to an animal. You may also see a herd of elk grazing in the pasture on the right as you enter the launch area at the Ponca low water bridge. Skunks may be the biggest "threat" you will encounter. If you are into off-river exploration, then a short hike up to Hemmed-in-Hollow will reveal the highest waterfall in this part of the nation - a 200-foot high cascade with a plateau from which you can gaze down upon the river below. The trail can be tough on those without adequate conditioning for somewhat steep climbing, but the view is worth the effort! Be sure to bring your camera.