The Buffalo National River is as historic as it is picturesque. The river became North America’s first national river in 1972, and just passed its 50th anniversary. This designation as a national river helped preserve it, and it is now one of the few undammed rivers in the lower 48 states. It flows freely for 135 miles in Northern Arkansas, starting in the Ozarks and ending in the White River, passing through several Arkansas counties including Searcy County and Newton County.
The river is surrounded by a 95,000 acre park, which features impressive bluffs, gravel bars, protected wilderness areas, dreamy forests, cascading creeks and fascinating historical sites. More than 800,000 visitors flock to the park every year to spot wildlife, go kayaking, hike, witness waterfalls and enjoy stunning views. Plan your trip now with our list of the top things to do at the Buffalo National River.
1. Kayaking and Canoeing
The Buffalo River is one of the most popular kayaking and canoeing destinations in the country. With its 135 miles, the river can even serve those planning a multi-day paddling trip. There are plenty of concessionaires, such as the Buffalo Outdoor Center, that offer kayak or canoe rentals and provide shuttle services. You can also bring your own boat and launch it from one of the many access points along the river.
Some popular areas for paddling are the Upper District, the Tyler Bend Area and the Buffalo Point Area. Paddling in the Upper District is typically a bit more challenging, as water can run quickly and powerfully. Although the Tyler Bend area can present some challenges to paddlers, the area offers primarily easy-to-moderate routes. The Buffalo Point Area can be navigated all year-round and is suitable for beginner paddlers.
The water level and the river’s strength vary depending on the season and the rainfall, so be sure to check the conditions here ahead of time. All paddlers are required to bring personal flotation devices, and children under 12 are required to wear their life jackets.
With waterfalls, large bluffs, beautiful coves and historic sites, there’s lots to see in the Buffalo National River area. The best way to see the park’s many sites is by exploring its network of hiking trails.
The park’s most popular hike is the Lost Valley Trail. This moderate trail climbs up the box canyon and lets out in front of an eight-foot waterfall. The hike also boasts views of Cob Cave, a 200-foot bluff, and Eden Falls, a 53-foot tall waterfall. Along the way, hikers will witness some great views of the Ozark Mountains.
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Another iconic trail is the Buffalo River Trail. This 37-mile trek follows the river from Boxley Valley to Pruitt. The trail offers stunning views of the river, as well as access to several waterfalls and swimming holes. Those looking to hike a 6-mile portion of this trail can start at Dillard’s Ferry and make their way to Spring Creek.
To see the iconic Hemmed-in Hollow Falls, a 210-foot waterfall, hikers can take the Hemmed-in Hollow Trail, which starts at the Compton Trailhead and travels down to the Buffalo National River.
Buffalo National River has more than a dozen different camping areas, ranging from modern to primitive. Most campgrounds are located close to hiking trails and have picnic tables, fire grates and drinkable water. Rustic campgrounds have vault toilets while more modern campgrounds have flush toilets and showers.
The Buffalo Point Drive-in campground has a dump station and sites have water and electric hookups. The Steel Creek camping areas have horse sites, and several campgrounds, including the Erbie sites and the Tyler Bend sites, accommodate larger groups. The Woolum campground is a bit more rustic, with no amenities and no designated sites. Learn more about each campground here on the national park service website.
Looking for a super rustic camping experience? Backcountry camping is permitted along the river. No permit is necessary, but campers are encouraged to read up on the park’s rules to minimize harmful behavior and protect the park’s wildlife.
Due to Arkansas’ summer heat, river levels fluctuate and some parts of the river are inaccessible for paddling. Luckily, swimming is always an option in the Buffalo National River, which boasts no shortage of popular swimming areas.
Ponca Low Water Bridge is a swimming hole surrounded by beautiful scenery and beautiful meadows. Visitors can go snorkeling or jump off a concrete bridge into the water. Steel Creek is another area home to several refreshing swimming spots located beneath towering limestone bluffs. Grinder’s Ferry features an area where adrenaline seekers can go cliff jumping, and Kyles Landing features a secluded swimming spot only accessible via a short hike.
Many different animals call the Buffalo National River area home. Keep an eye out for elk, black bears, bobcats, white-tailed deer, mink, armadillos, coyotes, river otters and beavers.
With more than 250 bird species, the park is also popular among bird watchers. These species include spotted sandpipers, wild turkeys, black vultures, bald eagles, barn owls, osprey and several types of hawks. Read more about the local wildlife here.
With 59 different fish species, the Buffalo National River is a popular fishing destination. Smallmouth bass and catfish dominate the upper Buffalo River, while largemouth bass and spotted bass can be found further downstream. Anglers can also find rainbow trout and brown trout.
There are also opportunities for fly-fishing, and anglers can opt for wade fishing or fishing from a canoe. Local outfitters can supply fishing gear, boat or kayak rentals and a shuttle service. All anglers will need an Arkansas fishing license, which can be purchased online.
7. Historical Sites
History lovers will find plenty of interesting attractions along the Buffalo National River. The park features several old homesteads and farmsteads that offer a glimpse into the area’s past. Visitors can take a self-guided tour of the Parker-Hickman Farmstead, an Ozark farm that goes back 100 years.
To see ruins and sites from a 1300-acre mining district, active in the late 1800s to early 1900s, check out the Rush Historic District. The buildings and mines leftover from the district provide valuable insight to the community’s mining processes and construction techniques. To explore this area, visitors can take the Rush Valley trail.
The Boxley Grist Mill is another fascinating historic site. Today, the area is marked by exhibit panels which describe the flour mill that once served Ozark families from the 1870s until the 1950s.
Buffalo National River has some of the darkest skies in the state, making it a perfect spot for stargazing. The park is a designated International Dark Sky Park, and it offers several ranger-led night sky programs throughout the year. Check the nps.gov calendar to see if there are any programs near your travel dates.
Although biking is prohibited in the park’s wilderness area, there are plenty of biking routes in the Ozark mountain area. The Upper Buffalo Mountain Bike Trail is a 35-mile loop made of 18 different stretches, ranging from beginner to advanced. The trail passes through old-growth hardwood forests with views of trickling creeks and large bluffs.
The Ozark Grinder Trail is another nearby bike route that snakes through the Ozark countryside. This gravel bike path covers more than 150 miles and can be broken up into half-day or multi-day trips. The route starts in Gilbert and ends in Fairfield Bay while crossing creeks and descending steep grades.
10. Horseback riding
People have gone horseback riding along the Buffalo National River for hundreds of years, and it’s still a great way to explore the area. There are nine different equestrian trails which cover more than 75 miles. These trails include Bench Trail, Cecil Cove and Old River Trail. There is also an equestrian campground, and backcountry horse camping is permitted.