Essential Paddling Guide: Paddling The Buffalo, America's First National River
Massive, water-stained bluffs soaring over 500 feet above your canoe or kayak; the highest waterfall between the Appalachians and the Rockies; potential campsites on gravel bars along over a hundred miles of clear, free-flowing river; all this and more make the Buffalo National River a worthy addition to your list of must-do float trips.
Spring is the season to float the Buffalo, especially the upper (western) portion of this scenic river that begins in the rugged Boston Mountains in northern Arkansas and flows eastward for 135 miles to join the White River. Water levels in this all-natural river are dependent primarily upon rainfall, so be aware that floating conditions vary widely from month to month—and can even change dramatically overnight after a heavy rain.
The best combination of moderating temperatures and adequate water levels often begins around mid-March and then shifts downstream as spring moves toward early summer. If you’re looking for a combination of some of the best rapids (Class I and II) and striking scenery along this river, the 10-mile stretch from Ponca to Kyles Landing is often a good choice for a spring trip for boaters with some experience—or those who don’t mind the risk of a possible dunking.
That section of the river is also one of the most popular early season floats on the Buffalo, so if your trip includes a weekend—or spring break for students— expect to share the area with plenty of other visitors. If you’re looking for a quieter experience, try a weekday float. With more than 20 potential put-in points along the river, there are plenty of other choices for trips ranging from a few hours to a week.
Some Buffalo River regulars say the scenery from Ponca to Kyles Landing is as good as you’ll find along the river, and my introduction to that section some years ago absolutely lived up to its billing.
A great example of that prime scenery shows up only two miles into the float when Roark Bluff begins to appear on river left. The view lasts for quite a while. This rocky bluff, the longest on the river, borders the water for three-quarters- of-a-mile while rising as much as 220 feet above your head.
The vertical scenery just keeps on growing as you continue downstream, and four miles into the trip, the aptly named Big Bluff tops out at over 500 feet of mostly vertical cliff face. Big Bluff is often described as the highest such feature along the Buffalo, so it’s a popular spot for a photo—but you probably can’t capture all of this view in a single image.
Another three miles beyond Big Bluff, a popular stop on river left offers a leg-stretch and some bonus scenery. A moderate hike of 0.7 miles up a side canyon leads to a waterfall in Hemmed-in-Hollow. With a drop of just over 200 feet, it’s the highest waterfall between the Appalachians and the Rockies. Like the Buffalo itself, the vigor of the falls depends upon rainfall; the flow is dramatic shortly after a heavy rain, but can diminish to a trickle or less after a prolonged dry spell. Under those conditions, you’re not likely to get here by boat anyway, as this section of the river would probably be too low to float.
If some fast-water challenges are on your agenda, you’ll usually get your wish on this trip. Some of the best rapids come shortly before you reach Kyles Landing. At ideal river levels, Gray Rock Shoal (also known more poetically as Hell’s Half Acre) is a favorite for white water fans. Gray Rock itself juts out from the bank on the left, and at most water levels, keeping to the right reduces your chance of taking an unplanned swim.
The takeout point at Kyles Landing is just over a quarter mile beyond Gray Rock, and using a shuttle from a local canoe outfitter to return to your starting point can save some wear and tear on your vehicle. The steep gravel road into that area can be a bit rough, and the park website recommends a high clearance vehicle for this drive.
Want to spend the night along the river? The park offers eight developed and seven primitive campgrounds, with facilities ranging from “bare-bones” to showers and RV hookups at Buffalo Point. Some campgrounds are seasonal, others are open year-round.
Backcountry camping is allowed on many gravel bars along the length of the river and offers you another option. Check the park website for details on camping and backcountry regulations.
Perhaps you—or someone in your group—aren't an experienced boater, so if you’re looking for a float trip with limited whitewater, there are some good options along other sections of the Buffalo. A popular choice, and one of my personal favorites for an easy paddle at good water levels, is the 7.5- mile run from Buffalo Point to Rush. This section also has some fine scenery, including Toney Bluff and Ludlow Bluff, which some sources say even tops Big Bluff as the highest along the river.
No matter which section you choose, keep in mind that relatively small changes in river levels impact both the level of effort and boating skill required, so always check the weather forecast and current conditions before heading for the river. An interactive map on the park website includes river gauge readings at key points, as well as the location of river access points and campgrounds.
When water levels and the weather are favorable, it’s really hard to have a bad float on the Buffalo, especially in the spring, when the dogwoods are in bloom. Pick a section that fits your interests, and enjoy one of the premier river trips in America!