The Buffalo River 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. It is one of the rivers designated as a "Wild and Scenic River".
The Middle Buffalo, running about 47.6 miles from Pruitt Landing to Gilbert Public access, is a popular spot for almost any recreational boater who wants to appreciate one of the most beautiful and serene rivers to be found anywhere. The few rapids that do exist fall into the lower Class I-II category, the least severe of any rapids, and pose no particular challenges to most paddlers. The photo opportunities are many, so be sure to come properly prepared with waterproof camera (or other cameras in waterproof containers) and plenty of film. There are numerous small towns in close proximity to the river so fresh supplies can be acquired if needed while on a river trip. In addition to numerous primitive campsites along the river, access points are conveniently located at four points below the Pruitt put-in for this section of about 49.5 miles down to Gilbert.
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 the Buffalo River 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!
The Buffalo National River stretches some 150 miles from the headwaters near Boxley 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 Middle Buffalo flows through Newton and Searcy Counties in a generally east-west direction for about 49.5 miles from Pruitt to Gilbert. In close proximity are the Kings River, Richland Creek, Little Red River, White River, Cadron Creek and numerous other great paddling streams.
Little Rock 145 miles; Texarkana 280 miles; Memphis 275 miles; Dallas 456 miles; Austin 602 miles; San Antonio 680 miles; Houston 577 miles; Oklahoma City 312 miles; Kansas City 284 miles; St. Louis 300 miles; Albuquerque 836 miles; Phoenix 1,300 miles; Denver 857 miles; Salt Lake City 1,333 miles; (all distances are approximate and depend upon starting point and destination point on the river.)
Excellent to good (water quality is lowest during the hot summer months). Usually too low to paddle or float from July through September, depending upon local rainfall. Minimum gauge reading of 0.5 feet at the Highway 65 bridge. Optimum flow 2 feet to 6 feet. Maximum safe level at 10 feet (all rocks are covered at 8 feet).
Early spring to early July (May through early July is generally the best time) and late fall (November and December) offer the best water conditions. Winter paddling is great for those with proper gear and clothing. Avoid August through October unless you want to do a lot of walking.
There are numerous Class I-II whitewater rapids and willow strainers on the Middle Buffalo, but none are considered dangerous most of the time, the exception being at high flow rates. Watch out for Woolum Falls about 28 miles below Pruitt at the mouth of Richland Creek, just downriver from the Woolum NPS Access point, as well as the rapids just above Calf Creek at the 42 mile marker on this section (referenced from Pruitt at the Highway 7 crossing). While not a hazard in the literal sense, the two mile section just below Jamison Creek can run completely dry during hot periods or extended droughts.
Pruitt Landing (N 36° 03' 28.22" / W 093° 08' 11.16") NPS Access on river left at 0.0 miles; Hasty NPS Public Access (N 36° 00' 18.12" / W 093° 04' 53.76") on river right at about 7.3 miles; Carver NPS Access and Campground (N 35° 58' 57.36" / W 093° 02' 27.03") on river left at about 11.25 miles; Mount Hersey NPS Access and Campground (N 36° 00' 32.09" / W 092° 57' 11.09") on river left at about 18.0 miles; Woolum NPS Access and Campground (N 35° 58' 12.60" / W 092° 53' 11.96") on river left at about 26.8 miles; Baker Ford NPS Access (N 35° 58' 50.49" / W 092° 48' 48.53") on river left at about 37.9 miles; Tyler Bend Recreational Area (N 35° 59' 23.93" / W 092° 45' 44.52") on river right at about 42.2 miles; Grinders Ferry NPS Access (N 35° 59' 11.28" / W 092° 44' 35.68") below US Highway 65 on river right at about 43.65 miles; and Gilbert NPS Access (N 35° 59' 11.85" / W 092° 42' 53.16") on river left at about 47.6 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. The improved campgrounds along this reach include Carver NPS Access and Campground (N 35° 58' 57.36" / W 093° 02' 27.03") on river left at about 11.25 miles; Woolum NPS Access and Campground (N 35° 58' 12.60" / W 092° 53' 11.96") on river left at about 26.8 miles; and Tyler Bend Recreational Area (N 35° 59' 23.93" / W 092° 45' 44.52") on river right at about 42.2 miles. Unimproved (primitive with vault toilets) camping is available at Mount Hersey NPS Access and Campground (N 36° 00' 32.09" / W 092° 57' 11.09") on river left at about 18.0 miles; Grinders Ferry NPS Access (N 35° 59' 11.28" / W 092° 44' 35.68") below US Highway 65 on river right at about 43.65 miles; Shine Eye Bluff (N 35° 59' 18.86" / W 092° 44' 04.25") on river left at about 44.5 miles; and Gilbert NPS Access (N 35° 59' 11.85" / W 092° 42' 53.16") on river left at about 47.6 miles. 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.
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 two 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.
I have had the pleasure to paddle the Buffalo River on several occasions and it is one of my favorite rivers to paddle, even if it is mostly flat. Mother Nature worked overtime in the Ozarks, and the serene beauty is overwhelming - a perfect accompaniment to a great river. Unlike most places we paddle the Buffalo offers abundant riverside campsites and an environment removed from civilization and its development, thanks to the "national river" designation. The Middle Buffalo is ideal for any age or experience level paddler, with waters that are generally not too cold, not too deep and not too fast.
Since the river flows through National Park Service (NPS) land I recommend taking as many days as possible to enjoy the river as well as the surrounding area. Wildlife is abundant, as are wild flowers and indigenous vegetation. Be sure to take a camera and plenty of film. There are truly four seasons in the Ozarks, so go at different times of the year to really appreciate just how gorgeous the Buffalo National River is.
On a personal note, I have enjoyed a good rapport with Ben and Cindy Fruehauf, owners of Gilbert General Store and Buffalo Camping and Canoeing. Their services are highly recommended, though other liveries in the area may also provide exemplary service and competitive prices. There is also a very good cafe in Gilbert where you can order from a selection of American food (burgers, chicken fried steak, etc.) if you arrive during their days and hours of operation.