How does a Buffalo disguise itself to mask its alter-ego? Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde. The Buffalo National River and the Hailstone River. One and the same, except that the Hailstone is the 15.5 mile reach of the uppermost Buffalo between Fallsville and Boxley. It is the Buffalo head, not the entire Buffalo. It is seldom discussed as a paddling river, and most boaters would do well to avoid it, but when its fickle flow reaches navigable levels the Hailstone is an awesome Class II to III+ whitewater canyon run in the Boston Mountains of the Ozark Mountain Range of northwest Arkansas. If you can run the Hailstone then you can also run from Boxley to Ponca another 6 miles downriver, and as fast as this upper end moves you could easily do the entire 21.5 miles in a short day. The Boxley bridge would make a good spot to stop for lunch or a snack and the biggest drops will be behind you.
It starts at the confluence of Big Buffalo Creek and Reeves Fork Creek about one tenth of a mile above CR 414, which runs north from NFR 1463 north of Fallsville at the junction of SH 16 and SH 21. The run begins as an interesting Class II run for a couple of miles, then begins to reveal its true colors as it drops on an average gradient of 34 fpm with a 55 fpm maximum drop rate. Slot runs through tight, boulder-constricted channels test boater paddling and decision-making skills. The run features a pristine river with cascading waterfalls along the banks sustaining a wide variety of native vegetation that adds a rich beauty to this already awesome canyon gorge wilderness area. Wildlife and birds far outnumber people on this stream. It usually only flows when the weather is cold, but in the fall, when the seasons are changing, the Hailstone River is a place of even more spectacular beauty.
The first 13+ miles flows through a deep gorge wilderness canyon, ending in nearly two miles through the Boxley Valley. There are numerous Class II to III+ drops that require precise moves and effective boat control to run successfully. Launch on a sand bar where CR 414 crosses the river (parking space is extremely limited, so having somebody drive your vehicle out would be preferrable, and would save a long drive back after the trip.) After launching you are committed to the entire run, so be sure before casting off into the abyss. The Hailstone is similar to, but not quite as technically challenging as, the fabled Cossatot a few miles to the southwest. The run begins with fast water and easy Class I to II rapids. Double Drop (Class III), the first of the big drops, is about 2 miles below the put-in and is characterized by a huge boulder blocking the river with a small slot on river left leading into the first drop with a 90° left turn between the two drops. The next 3.1 miles features several Class II to III drops on a gradient of about 44 fpm down to Terrapin Branch confluence on river right. There are a couple of ledge drops, each with sharp turns required to avoid undercut banks. The canyon walls rise 700 feet above the riverbed, and are lined with oak, elm and pecan trees, some of which may occasionally wander off and fall into the river. There are no signs of civilization anywhere to be found along this run. Except on the rare occasion when you find other paddlers there, it is unlikely that you will ever see anybody else. From the river there is no chance of seeing anybody else. Canoes need to have flotation, and a spray cover would be an added benefit. This is a run demanding at least strong intermediate level whitewater boating skills, and advanced or expert levels would be better. Swiftwater rescue and First Aid training would be valuable assets on Hailstone River runs. Be sure to bring your camera, but keep it in a waterproof, bump-resistant carrier such as a Pelican case that is very securely attached to your boat. When you are not dodging boulders, sheer canyon walls, undercut rocks, ledge and slot drops, dead-fallen trees or willow strainers you may want to capture some photos of a river valley of immense grandeur and natural beauty.
Newton County in northwest Arkansas, a few miles south of Boxley, and very near the headwaters of the Mulberry River, Big Piney Creek and Little Piney Creek. Fayetteville and Fort Smith are each less than 90 minutes away (depending upon road conditions.)
Little Rock 120 miles; Fort Smith 88 miles; Fayetteville 63 miles; Texarkana 264 miles; Dallas 445 miles; Austin 640 miles; San Antonio 720 miles; Houston 554 miles; Oklahoma City 268 miles; Kansas City 409 miles; Denver 893 miles; Salt Lake City 1,427 miles; Phoenix 1,268 miles; Albuquerque 810 miles (all distances are approximate and depend upon starting point, destination point on the river and route taken.)
Water quality is excellent, flowing clear, clean and unpolluted along its 15.5 miles from near Fallsville to the Buffalo National River at Boxley. The flow is generally navigable from late winter through early spring, and may be adequate for paddling at other times, depending upon recent local rainfall amounts. The Hailstone River is totally dependent upon heavy local rainfall, and is a very seasonal stream. Typically, if teh Buffalo National River can be paddled between Boxley and Ponca, then the Hailstone will hve sufficient water, as well.
Generally, late fall through early spring, from about November through March or early April, is the best time to run the Hailstone River, though it frequently rains heavily in May allowing some extra time for this great river. It is totally dependent upon heavy local rainfall for its flow, so any time after a good rain can have adequate water for paddling. Winter air and water temperatures will be cold, so dress for the conditions to avoid hypothermia, because you are going to get wet. This run is like Boxley to Ponca on steroids!
The remote nature of the Hailstone River alone makes this a hazardous place to paddle, but the risks can be minimized by having good boating skills, a properly outfitted boat, good decision-making skills, an ego that is in check and being in a group of like-minded paddlers who all share the desire to end the run alive and in one piece. None of the drops or rapids are particularly big, but several are very technical and the general remoteness makes this a Class II to III run with Class IV to V consequences, especially if professional medical help becomes necessary.
The run begins with a couple miles of Class II rapids that are exciting, but not too challenging. Many surfing waves can be found as the canyon walls rise above the river, and undercut ledges are potential problems if you get swept under them. After about 2 miles comes Double Drop (N 35&@176 49'59.98" / W 93° 26'17.08" - Class III) where a huge boulder in midstream constricts the river, leaving a slot drop on river left requiring a 90 degree turn, then over the second drop into the recovery pool below. The next 2 miles, down to Terrapin Branch (N 35° 50' 52.70" / W 093° 24' 46.37" - on river right), is a series of Class II to III boulder garden rapids that are fairly straightforward and not too technical.
Whitaker Hollow, on river left about 3.5 miles below Terrapin Branch, is characterized by a river valley with 700-foot tall bluffs on either side of the river constricting flow and creating a swifter current. Here, a diagonal ledge angles to the right, and just below the ledge the river bends sharply to the right, but the main current carries to the left and into a large undercut bluff. At lower water levels the hazard is minimal, but beware the hole below the drop at higher flows, when avoiding the undercut it is much more difficult and potentially dangerous. About a half mile below Whitaker Hollow is Keyhole Rapid (Class III to III+), where the river flows left around constricting boulders, through a slot and into the left bank.
Below Keyhole Rapid, the river is a Class II boulder garden run of a few miles down to Deliverance Falls (Class III to III+) that is characterized by a blind drop through the huge boulders on river left. Class III boulder garden rapids follow in steady succession until the river again has a boulder blockage on the left. After this last major hurdle the river begins to widen into a Class II stream down to Boxley, but willow strainers start to come into play and offer many places for entrapments.
It should not have to be said, but scouting these rapids and drops is almost mandatory, even if you are experienced on this river, because things change with time and floods. Canoes should be filled with flotation and/or a spray cover to prevent swamping. A plan for executing each drop and a self-rescue in case of an emergency situation are essential elements of safe runs on the Hailstone. The short distances and tight, narrow channel with sharp bends often leaves little time to effect control maneuvers to avoid slamming into a boulder or canyon wall in pushy water flow conditions. This run may be as dangerous at low water as in high flow conditions. The Hailstone River is no place to be when it is in flood stage!
Put in at Dixon Ford (N 35° 49' 22.16" / W 093° 27' 44.46") off CR 414 north from NFR 1463 north of Fallsville, which is at the intersection of SH 16 and SH 21, on river right at 0.0 miles; Take out at the SH 21 Bridge (N 35° 57' 33.96" / W 093° 24' 27.19") at Boxley on river right at about 15.5 miles. There are no other access points for the Hailstone River.
Driving directions to the put-in: From the Boxley Bridge take-out on SH 21, drive south to the intersection of SH 21 and SH 16, then follow SH 21/SH 16 generally ESE to the intersection of NFR 1463. Turn right (north) onto NFR 1463 and then drive about 3 miles north and east to Newton CR 414. Turn right (north) onto CR 414 and go about 0.2 miles to the Hailstone River at Dixon Ford. WARNING: the road from SH 21/SH16 is unpaved, and if the Hailstone is flowing, then the road will be muddy, slick and potentially dangerous for vehicles. A 4-wheel drive, high clearance vehicle would be advisable, though not absolutely necessary. Use your own discretion as to whether or not your vehicle will be able to navigate NFR 1463 and CR 414 - the cost of a tow truck would be very expensive and the wait for its arrival would probably be several hours. Also, know where you are going - there are no road signs to tell you where you are. Use GPS coordinates, if at all possible, unless you know the way.
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 NPS Access and Campground (off Highway 74, about 2.8 miles below the Ponca put-in); Kyle's Landing NPS Access and Campground (from Highway 74 at Mount Sherman - look for the signs); Erbie NPS Access and Campground (from Highway 43 at Compton take the dirt road to Erbie, then follow the signs on the dirt road to the access and campground at 16 miles below Ponca; and Ozark NPS Access and Campground (from the dirt road off Highway 7, near Pruitt at about 23 miles below Ponca. 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 in Ponca at the top of this reach of the Buffalo National River.
There are at least two 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. Be aware that shuttle drives operating within the NPS-controlled Buffalo National Park boundaries MUST be licensed concessionaires of the park to legally provide shuttles for a fee.
The Hailstone River is much like Richland Creek, though not quite as treacherous as the more difficult reaches of that stream. It features an excellent Class II to III+ whitewater run through a gorgeous canyon with 700-foot walls lined with hardwood trees and a channel that twists and turns amid boulder garden rapids, rock ledges, shelves, rocky shoals and some of the most beautiful scenery to be found on any river anywhere. It is a remote wilderness run that takes you into Boxley where most people believe the Buffalo National River begins. Actually, the Hailstone IS the beginning of the Buffalo, but it carries a different moniker to distinguish it from the more sedate Buffalo, where almost anybody can paddle. If there is a single drawback to the Hailstone, it is the fact that its flow is mostly during colder months when it is not that much fun getting wet in Arkansas, though it can have great flow in April and May if it is raining in the Boston Mountains (which it frequently does.) This upper reach of the Buffalo is plenty of excitement for most paddlers, but nobody should venture here unless they have adequate skills, the right boat outfitted for heavy whitewater and the cajones to make this run. The Hailstone is definitely NOT a run for beginner or novice paddlers - a minimum of strong intermediate whitewater paddling skills is strongly advised, and having swiftwater resuce and wilderness First Aid training would be very helpful because getting professional medical help here would be very difficult and slow in arriving. The dangers on the Hailstone cannot be over emphasized.
Cascading waterfalls from the sides plunge additional water into the river and nourish a rich and diverse plantlife all along this spectacular river gorge. Beautiful boulder garden rapids and waterfall drops make this river as exciting as it is scenic. It is lost deep in the Upper Buffalo Wilderness Area where very few people ever go. The river drops more than 500 feet in about 15.5 miles, so it is steep and fast. Fall colors here are simply spectacular. Bring your camera, but secure it in a waterproof, bump-resistant carrier such as a Pelican case that is SECURELY lashed to your boat! A GoPro camera would be advisable if you want to take photos on the river because you won't have time to pull out a handheld camera, take photos and then put the camera away while negotiating rapids and drops that come at a fast and furious pace. And, if you go when the water is low, then take a great pair of hiking boots, a First Aid kit, long pants and something to eat and drink as you walk the river channel. If you go in spring, then watch off for the ticks because they WILL be looking for YOU!