Valdosta Daily Times

November 17, 2013

The Buffalo: Canoeing America’s First National River

David and Kay Scott
The Valdosta Daily Times

- — We recently enjoyed a belated canoe trip on the Buffalo National River after two years of missed opportunities several decades ago when we resided in Fayetteville, Ark. The recent experience caused us to wonder why we had failed to take advantage of this activity when the river’s headwaters had been so close at hand.

Over the years we have visited the Buffalo half a dozen times, but only to update our national park lodging guide while spending a night at the park’s only National Park Service lodging concessionaire located at Buffalo Point. The cabins at Buffalo Point sit high above the river, thereby providing an excellent viewpoint, but no easy river access. In any case, our visits never included a free day or two that would have permitted us to leisurely canoe down one of America’s beautiful free-flowing recreational rivers.

 

America’s First National River

The Buffalo originates in the Boston Mountains of Northwest Arkansas and flows 150 miles in a jagged eastward path across the northern part of the state before emptying into the White River. The surrounding landscape of oak and hickory forest frequently bordered with impressive limestone bluffs makes for a scenic canoe or kayak trip. All of this we had missed during our earlier years in Fayetteville.

The Buffalo became our country’s first national river in 1972 when it was placed under the administration of the National Park Service. The successful effort to preserve the river in its natural state was spearheaded by the state’s environmental groups along with its governor, two U.S. senators, and a northwest Arkansas congressman who saved it from being dammed. The much longer White River into which the Buffalo flows had already been tamed with multiple hydroelectric dams when the Corps of Engineers announced plans for two dams on the Buffalo. Thus, plentiful opportunities were available on the White for fishing, boating, and camping at the time consideration was being given to constructing dams on the Buffalo.

 

Sections of the Buffalo

The river is administratively divided into three segments of relatively equal length; upper, middle, and lower. The nearly 50 miles comprising the upper Buffalo include two wilderness areas and is generally considered the most scenic stretch with mountain vistas and high limestone bluffs along much of the way. This segment also enjoys the strongest currents and offers the most challenging floating, but only during the spring and early summer before flows diminish as the rainfall runoff becomes depleted. The upper Buffalo is essentially closed to floaters by mid- to late-June.

The middle Buffalo is smoother and flatter with easier floating over a longer season, in part because of the pooling of water that occurs along this stretch, but also because this section is the beneficiary of numerous springs. This is the section where we paddled canoes in late October when the morning air was crisp and leaves had begun turning a deep orange. A light rain the previous day provided some needed water to the river and our canoe got hung up only one time. On that cool Tuesday morning, we had the river to ourselves.

The lower Buffalo includes the most remote sections of the river including a 24-mile stretch through the Lower Buffalo Wilderness. No canoe takeouts are located in the wilderness area requiring floaters to complete the entire 24 miles. This requires a two-day trip. We talked to several area residents who told us this was the only section of the river they had not canoed. The lower Buffalo includes Rush, at one time an active zinc mining community that is now a ghost town. It also includes Buffalo Point that offers the only restaurant and rental cabins within the park.

 

Renting Canoes and Kayaks

Fifteen concessionaires are authorized by the National Park Service to offer canoe and kayak rentals along with shuttle service. Prices typically range between $40 and $60 per day. A list of concessionaires is available on the park website at www.nps.gov/buff In addition to cabin rentals offered by the NPS concessionaire at Buffalo Point, numerous rentals are available near the river but outside park boundaries. A number of concessionaires that rent canoes and kayaks also offer lodging rentals. It is wise to call and reserve a canoe and lodging, especially during holidays and spring and summer weekends.

 

If You Go

The park’s main visitor center at Tyler Bend offers exhibits and NPS rangers are available to answer questions and offer advice on river trips. Tyler Bend is in the middle section of the river. Park headquarters is outside the park in the town of Harrison.  

On the upper section of the river, Buffalo Outdoor Center in the town of Ponca offers cabins along with canoe and kayak rentals. The cabins begin at $180 per night. For information and reservations, call (870) 861-5514 or  visit www.buffaloriver.com

On the middle Buffalo, Buffalo Camping & Canoeing near the tiny town of Gilbert offers cabins of various sizes that begin at $110 per night. Canoes ($45), kayaks ($40), and rafts ($20) are available for rent. Call (870) 439-2888 or  visit www.buffalocabins-canoes.com Buffalo River Outfitters in St. Joe hascabins that sleep from two to 10 adults beginning at $135 per night. Canoes ($50), kayaks ($40), rafts, and tubes are also available for rent.

On the lower Buffalo, Buffalo Point Concessions offers the only cabin rentals within the park boundaries. The concession, approximately 20 miles south of Yellville, also includes a restaurant. Call (870) 449-6206 or visit www.buffalopoint.net for information. Canoe, kayak, raft, tube, and fishing boat rentals are available just outside the park boundary at Wild Bill’s Outfitter that claims to be the “Largest Outfitter on the Buffalo National River.” Cabin rentals are also available. Call (800) 554-8657 or visit www.wildbillsoutfitter.com for information.

Numerous small and quaint eating establishments are scattered in small towns and along roads leading to various access points on the river. Three of those we tried are special and certainly worth a visit. Nima’s Pizza in Gassville, 13 miles northeast of Yellville, creates some of the most unique and pizzas to be found anywhere. Melissa Welbourne, owner of the Gilbert Café in the tiny town of the same name, offers delicious home-made cinnamon rolls. After satisfying your morning sweet tooth, walk a short distance down the street and spend some time perusing the town’s old general store that appears little changed since it opened in the early 1900s. For outstanding blackberry cobbler, try Jennifer Richardson’s Big Springs Trading Company and Smoked Meats in St. Joe.



David and Kay Scott reside in Valdosta and are authors of “Complete Guide to the National Park Lodges” (Globe Pequot).