For More Details
The National Park Service operates three information centers along the Buffalo. There is a center at Tyler Bend, near Marshall; at the Highway 7 crossing at Pruitt; and at Buffalo Point. For more information, call the Buffalo National River offices at (870) 741-5443.
The Arkansas Adventure Guide, including information on floating, is available through the Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism. Call 1-800-NATURAL (800-628-8725), or order at
To find out about the area’s other attractions, call Northwest Arkansas Tourism at 1-888-398-3444.

Travel Assistance
Visit your nearest AAA service office for maps, TripTiks and TourBook guides.
Order travel materials online or use our online travel research tools.

Where the Buffalo roams
The magnificent, meandering Buffalo River in Arkansas overflows with wilderness adventures for floaters, anglers and hikers

A spectacular sight along the river is Roark Bluff. /Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism photo
By Margaret Dornaus
Published: May/Jun 2001

To tell the story of northwest Arkansas’s Buffalo National River without featuring Neil Compton as a central character would be like relating “Cinderella” without mentioning Prince Charming. No one could argue against such fairytale casting.

While others have taken the graceful meandering beauty of this 150-mile Ozark river for granted, the soft-spoken doctor from Bentonville, Ark., always held out the glass slipper as evidence of the Buffalo’s fragile splendor.

From 1962 until its designation in 1972 as the country’s first national scenic river, Compton worked tirelessly against efforts to dam the Ozarks’ most pristine waterway. Today, more than 1 million visitors annually use the 95,000 acres of public land that encompass the Buffalo National River. Those who come to float on, fish in, or hike around the Buffalo would do well to remember Compton’s part in producing such a happy ending.

Like two of the state’s other premiere float rivers–Big Piney Creek and the Mulberry–the Buffalo begins its Ozark trek in the rugged Boston Mountains before descending nearly 2,000 feet winding easterly through layered bluffs of limestone, sandstone and chert. With headwaters near Fallsville in southwestern Newton County, this national river embraces three national park management areas, each with distinct characteristics. Public access points (via U.S. Highway 65, as well as several state highways) traverse the river’s three districts: the Upper Buffalo Wilderness area to Mount Hersey; the Middle River to Maumee; and Maumee to the Lower Buffalo Wilderness.

The Upper Buffalo
Float trips offer the best way to experience the river. /A.C. Haralson, Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism photo

The Upper Buffalo Wilderness area includes one of the most challenging stretches of the Buffalo to canoe–especially during rainy, high-water periods. These waterways, however, often are too shallow to canoe in other seasons. A six-mile float trip from the state Highway 21 bridge south of Boxley to Ponca’s low-water bridge at the state Highway 74 crossing offers currents of swift, Class II rapids when the water’s running high. Caves, waterfalls and old, ruined cabins add to the interest and charm of the upper river’s bluff-studded landscape, where both hikers and floaters have reported black bear and elk sightings on more than one occasion.

Another favorite float–perhaps the river’s most famous–is between Ponca and the state Highway 7 crossing. Here, numerous entrances to the Buffalo (at Steel Creek, Kyles Landing, Erbie and Ozark) provide access to Class I and II rapids, swimming holes and mid-America’s highest waterfall. Ideal family float trips include the upper river 10-mile stretch between Pruitt and Carver, and the 7.5-mile float between Buffalo Point and Rush on the Lower Buffalo.

Between Mount Hersey and Maumee, the Middle River provides a gentler float punctuated by “The Narrows”–a tall outcropping of rock that separates the Buffalo from Richland Creek. And the final stretch of the river contains wilderness areas managed by the Buffalo National River.

Tackling the trip
Horseback riders exploring the Steel Creek area of the Buffalo National River. /A.C. Haralson, Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism photo

Outlining the river’s path are approximately two dozen outfitters that rent canoes or package float tours. Fishing–guided or otherwise–from a rented johnboat or canoe provides another focus for river recreation. Noted for its preponderance of smallmouth bass–they thrive in the river’s clean, fast-moving water–the Buffalo is also home to channel catfish, green and longear sunfish, and spotted bass.

Throughout the Buffalo’s three-county cross-section, accommodations include bed-and-breakfasts, motels and rustic cabins. Park sites include facilities–both primitive and otherwise–for camping out along the river.

Shortly before his death in February, 1999, the 86-year-old Compton hiked Tyler Bend trails along the Buffalo River he knew, loved, and saved. Two weeks later, fellow Arkansan, President Bill Clinton, paid the physician-turned-conservationist tribute by saying, “He inspired at least two generations of Americans to preserve our natural history. What a legacy he left us.”

What a legacy indeed.

Margaret Dornaus is a contributor from Springdale, Ark.

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