Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Backpacking Arkansas' Buffalo River Trail

 The Buffalo National River is the first designated National River in the country (1972), thanks to the efforts of the Ozark Society which was founded in the 1960s by Dr. Neil Compton. For years the Buffalo River has been known as a premier canoeing venue, but now has added a trail system boasting scenery as magnificent as the river itself. It contains 94,293 acres and abuts the Ozark National Forest. Although it is administered by the National Park Service (which normally requires permits and assigned campsites), at-large backcountry camping is allowed nearly everywhere. However, the free campgrounds maintained by the NPS are conveniently located every 6 or 7 miles and provide nice campsites, washrooms or port-a-potties, water, picnic tables, fire grills, and often phones.

The river begins in the Boston Mountains and flows 150 miles basically west to east (135 miles of it protected) through the Ozarks to the White River at Buffalo City. This makes it one of longest un-dammed, free-flowing rivers in the lower 48 states. Along its course, it showcases towering limestone bluffs, thunderous waterfalls, and a rugged remoteness which endears it to all who experience it. Numerous trails exist, with the main artery being the 36.5 mile Buffalo River Trail which connects to the Ozark Highlands Trail. Eventually, it will be part of a Trans-Ozark Trail running over 1000 miles through Arkansas and Missouri.

The bluffs along the Buffalo National River are exquisite, but the hiker rarely gets to experience them from the river level as seen in this photo. Rather, you see them from on high across the river or hike across the top of them. To really experience them, you should canoe down the river. We did an out-and-back backpack, retracing our steps. Of course the scenery is somewhat different coming back since you are traveling in the opposite direction, but I think my next hike here will be upriver, and then I will make arrangements to canoe back downriver to my vehicle. I actually returned in 2010 and  canoed about 110 miles of the river and have a brief video of that adventure below.

We were hiking during the spring of 1999 and rain hit us for the first 20 hours of our backpack, so we had to set up in the rain and cook in the rain. The next day was clear and we were able to dry out our gear and then continue heading west. Here is Len gallantly holding up a tree.

The starkness of the early spring season with its unfoliated trees is occasionally broken by a splash of color from the lush evergreens. The advantage of hiking during leaf-off seasons is the vistas of the river and bluffs you get on a regular basis, views which would be obscured by summer's foliage. We even called down and waved to people in canoes as we hiked along the bluff line. Another advantage is the absence of pesky insects. We found the trail to be well-marked and well-maintained,  and we also found Tim Ernst's guidebook extremely useful in pointing out scenic sights as well as for the historical and geologic perspectives it provided.

The Buffalo River is renowned for its turquoise color, caused by the suspension of minute rock particles. Weathered microscopic clay particles from shale outcrops are washed into the river by rain and remain suspended for weeks, interfering with the passage of light. Light rays bounce among these suspended particles and separate into the colors of the rainbow. Of these colors, only blue and green are reflected, giving the river its vibrant turquoise color, as seen in the photos above and below.

This view is downriver looking at Erbie Campground canoe takeout. All three campgrounds we were in (Ozark, Erbie, and Kyles Landing) are excellent overnight locations, with water, fire grates, washrooms, and great scenery. The price is also right (zero.) All three appeared to be safe places to leave your vehicle, though you might want to check with the park rangers.

The bluffs provide occasional overlooks and "underlooks" as below. This magnificent wilderness area constantly surprises and astounds the visitor, whether on land or water. A horse trail is also available for equestrians, following the route of the old hiking trail and crossing the river 20 or so times.

The towering and majestic bluffs, some reaching as high as 440 feet, consist of sandstone, limestone, and dolomite. Along with the bluffs, you find caves, cliffs, sinkholes, waterfalls, springs, and interesting rock formations. The trail in numerous places brings the hiker right to the river edge, albeit hundreds of feet above the water. The terrain change ranges from 375 feet above sea level to 2385 feet, allowing plant and animal species from the southwest, northeast, and southeast to co-exist here.

And since people lived here for centuries, old homesites, cemeteries, and other artifacts exist, as well as evidence of prehistoric cultures dating back 10,000 years.  Many pioneer homesteads from the 1840s to the 1930s are preserved in the park. Below is Cherry Grove Cemetery containing graves of Civil War soldiers from both the North and the South.

In 2010, I was able to canoe 110 miles of the river and it was spectacular.  Here is a brief video of the adventure.

There are six designated wilderness areas in the Buffalo River drainage, three administered by the U.S. Forest Service and three by the National Park Service, totaling about 77,000 acres. Caving and climbing are also allowed here.

There are 54 species of mammals, 154 species of birds, 59 species of clearwater fish, and 62 species of wildflowers in this area. Animals include elk (reintroduced in the early 1980s), a few black bears, 4 poisonous snakes (copperhead, water moccasin, canebrake or timber rattlesnake, and pygmy rattler), several types of bass and catfish, indigo buntings, white-eyed vireos, whippoorwills, owls, bald eagles, osprey, armadillos, roadrunners, tarantulas, deer, opossums, bobcats, mink, beaver, alligator snapping turtles, and 12 species of bats. Ticks and chiggers abound in the spring, summer, and fall.


Buffalo River -- NPS site

National Park Service
Federal Building
402 N. Walnut, Suite 136
Harrison, AR 72601
870-439-2502 (Tyler Bend Visitor Center)
For info on Upper Buffalo River:
U. S. Forest Service
Buffalo Ranger District
Highway 7 North
P.O. Box 427
Jasper, AR 72641-0427
(501) 446-5122
Buffalo River Hiking Trails by Tim Ernst; Ernest Wilderness Publications, 411 Patricia Lane, Fayetteville, AR 72703; (501) 442-2799; 136 pages, 1994.


1 comment:

Kirby Burk said...

Too interesting post and the video is amazing all about buffalo river...Its full of thrills and adventure...I liked it too much.......