Article and photos courtesy of Kent Pegram for Rock/Creek.
Meandering undisturbed for 150 miles through northern Arkansas, the shimmering water of the Buffalo National River supports quite a remarkable river canyon experience. Reasons why activists desperately wanted to protect this river from damming in the 1960’s as well as why it was chosen to become the first river in the US to achieve National River status become clear to anyone lucky enough to float beneath its soaring 200’ limestone and dolomite cliff lines and past its old-growth forests, rolling mountains, and bucolic farmlands. Falling asleep on gravel bars to a chorus of frogs, crickets, and whip-poor-wills under a rolling fog makes for good rest under a dark sky, as there is little light-pollution in this remote part of the country. If you’re looking for a classic American river float packed with ecological diversity, the Buffalo is worth checking out.
To experience this slice of six-day solitude from Carver Gap to Maumme South, you’ll travel to the base of the Ozark Plateau in Arkansas’s Boston Range. You will be paddling 48 miles of the sparkling river, with few obstacles. This can be a relaxing journey if you have basic river and backcountry skills and can cover enough river miles each day. The park’s headquarters reside in Harrison, north of the Buffalo, and might be a great place to stop in for some history and tips from the rangers before you get out on the water. Otherwise, local outfitters are helpful and take great pride in their gem of a place. While it’s definitely possible to paddle more miles in a day, this route provides time for fishing and taking it easy. So, without further ado, here’s how to spend six memorable days on the beautiful Buffalo River.
Day One sends you off from Carver’s Gap Bridge on river mile 63 and ends at river mile 67, making for a short first day of paddling. There’s some incredible fishing along this short section, so if you’re an angler, be sure to take your time and cast some lines. Eventually, you’ll reach a wide gravel bank after 4 miles of paddling, where you can pull your boats to shore and set up camp. We recommend taking in some perishable food items for the first day or two, so that you can eat like river royalty… at least at the beginning of the trip. Fire steaks or sizzling ground beef with onions are both great options. And cooking a meal with friends riverside doesn’t feel like work as the river begins to slow your pace.
Day Two should start off in the same culinary vein as the night before: with the notorious “breakfast bomb”, consisting of an egg cracked into a hole cut from toast, scrambled with a healthy chunk of bacon and pepper, topped with the toast cut-out, skillet-fried, and then slathered in apple butter and served with fresh-pressed coffee brewed in the trustee Aeropress. It’s the perfect wake-up call and send-off meal for a full day of adventure.
After a short 5-mile paddle, you’ll reach Claire’s Bluff at river mile 72. This will serve as a great camp spot with an even better backdrop, with castles of rock rising across the river bend. There’s some great smallmouth bass fishing near this site. So, if you’re lucky, enjoy a fresh fish dinner under towering old oaks as the canyon lights up with evening rays and the crickets come alive, incessantly chirping about the cooler temps.
Day Three will be the longest day of paddling, as it racks up close to 19-miles all told. Along the way though, you’ll pass a number of noteworthy sites, including many high rock formations and even the Skull Bluff bat house at river mile 77. After a long day of paddling and sightseeing, set up camp around river mile 91, below Arnold Bluff.
Day Four is a 6-mile stretch that can include a stop at Tyler Bend Campground at river mile 94 and a shower if that’s up your alley. If you don’t camp here for the amenities, however, we would recommend paddling on in to Lane Bend at river mile 97 for a nice gravel bar camp below some rolling hills, one of which will be dotted with a solitary tree.
Day Five is 8 miles to another gravel bar camp in Low Gap below a bluff line. This might be a great day to try to get up early and dip the paddles in right at sunrise. Doing so will allow you to have enough time to navigate around the few minor obstacles that can be found along this section like trees and some vegetation in a few spots. After a few days on the water, Gilbert’s Ferry at river mile 99 might be a good point to dock and stretch your legs for a bit with a short hike up and around Long Bottom Bluff for some nice river views, walking 3 miles west up the Buffalo River Trail and back.
Day Six signals the end of your float after pulling out at river mile 111 at South Maumee after six final miles of paddling. For a longer last-day paddle, or to add another night, you can also explore another 9.4 miles to pull out at Dillard’s Ferry instead.
If you have a 6th night to spare, hop on over to Horseshoe Canyon Ranch for some car camping, night-climbing, and disc-golf in the morning.
As far as river adventures are concerned, paddling the Buffalo River is easily one of the best multi-day trips you can have in the South. The scenery is as good as it gets, with deep blue-green, occasionally white waters flowing through a backdrop of sandy shores, old-growth forests, and of course a sweeping array of colorful cliff bands and towering bluffs. And the experience of paddling during the day and then reeling in redeye bass in the evening to fry over the fire in a heavy cast iron skillet as the river rushes by and the crickets sing their evening songs and the moon rises over it all, is just one of the many possible moments along this trip that will live long in the memory.
Things to Know Before You Go
Spring can mean higher water levels and faster-moving water, which can dramatically change the experience. Bring along a few big dry bags for the gear and food you’ll need for 6 days out, as there are no restocking locations along this proposed route. Bring a PFD. A good hat and a camp chair are both nice amenities to have, and trustworthy sun and rain apparel are both a must. A solar charger would be an excellent addition on this canoe voyage for tech-users, although it’s rumored that your fishing pole works better when you disconnect from the electronics and find yourself totally undistracted out on the water.
A shuttle service is strongly recommended. Unless you have more than one vehicle in your entourage, you’ll want to plan ahead and set one up before heading out on the water. For a fair price, Buffalo River Outfitters will deliver you and your boat to the desired put in and bring your vehicle to your planned take out on the date you schedule, storing your vehicle at the outfitter in between.
More outdoor activities in the area: There is some good hiking in the Upper Buffalo Wilderness area on the west end of the 95,730 acres of protected land. Experienced paddlers craving more difficult water might care to spend some time in the rougher parts of a 15-mile section that’s called the Hailstone River, upriver on the Buffalo from Boxley. Anglers that seek to land trophy-sized bass might spend some time at the base of the whitewater sections at the confluence of the deeper water above Woolum.
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