@story TODD WHETSTINE
@images WILD WOODS PHOTOGRAPHY
God bless the Buffalo National River. The whitewater beauty, which was named America’s first Natural River in 1972, flows 135 miles and is one of a handful of undammed rivers in the lower forty-eight states. Its history can be traced all the way back to the Native Americans who called the banks of the Buffalo sacred, and claimed the land until 1828. Pioneers feared establishing home sites because high-rising floodwaters would destroy everything in its path.
I’ve always been curious about the Buffalo. I planned to go when I was fresh out of high school but the river was raging and the trip got canceled. This venture made up for it. I spent four and a half days hiking twenty-three miles, and floating another twenty-three. These trails and whitewaters brought out the kid in me again. The towering bluffs seemed to reach all the way to the heavens, and the valleys were coming to life with vibrant, flowering dogwoods. After two days hiking and two days backpacking, it was difficult for me to say what I liked best. I enjoyed watching young families float the Buffalo, seeing the love of nature passed from one generation to the next. I also enjoyed the peace and solitude I found under the canopy of the dense Ozark National Forest. Pick your poison: water or trail. You can’t go wrong. Floating, fishing, hiking, or horseback, the Buffalo National River Park, less than three hours from Fort Smith, is a superb spot to vacation.
The scenic bluffs and lush green forest of the Buffalo River came under attack several times from people in Washington, the first time in the early 1900s. Damming the river was almost a done-deal when the Ozark Society sprang into action. Led by Dr. Neil Compton, they were successful in keeping the Buffalo River free flowing. Then, in 1938 Congress authorized its own plan to dam the river, but the United States declared war on Japan, and the leaders had much bigger concerns so the plan was scrapped. The next attempt was in 1957. Thankfully, President Eisenhower vetoed it.
In April of 1962, a float trip to show the majesty of the Buffalo was hosted by Dr. Compton. His guest of honor was U.S. Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas. After the trip Douglas said, "The Buffalo River is a national treasure worth fighting to the death to preserve."
March 1, 1972, President Nixon declared the Buffalo River part of the National Park system and the nation’s first National River. It happened one hundred years to the day after Yellowstone Park became the first federally protected park.
So what’s so majestic about the Buffalo River National Park? Start with Hemmed In Hollow. There, a 204-foot waterfall rains down to a boulder-strewn tributary of the river. This is the highest waterfall between the Rockies and the Appalachians. It’s worth the hike and draws quite a crowd, especially on weekends. You can take the Centerpoint Trail or the Compton Trail. The Compton trail is 2.7 miles one way of very steep and rugged terrain. The Centerpoint trail is not quite as steep but it’s twice as long at 5.4 miles one way.
About 2.8 miles off Centerpoint Trail is a spur trail known as the Goat Trail. This is a must-see as a thin shelf about 400-foot high makes a narrow walkway that wraps around one the highest bluffs in the park. Be cautious here, the spur trail can be treacherous.
Not far away is the homestead of Granny Henderson. She once lived in the valley below Ponca, raising pigs, and cattle. You can still visit her rustic old cabin (highly recommended!) and even do a walk-through. I got to watch the sun peek over the mountains from Granny’s front porch.
After hiking out of Granny’s, you’ll be ready for a creek crossing at Sneeds Creek. After crossing the creek the path splits. Both will take you to Hemmed In Hollow, with one trail taking a longer route.
Almost all of the Buffalo is floatable, but the upper section is best left to pros. I floated twenty-three miles from Ponca to Pruitt. The first ten miles from Ponca to my camp at Kyles Landing was far and away the most beautiful float I have ever taken. This is where you’ll look up and see people high on the Goat Trail. You’ll also float by the Granny’s cabin before floating past Sneeds Creek. A path along the creek will lead you about three-quarters of a mile to Hemmed In Hollow. This is the easiest access to this breathtaking beauty. (Depending on the water level.)
I envy Granny, Dr. Compton, and the rest of the folks who called this river home. I also thank them for preserving the rich history and free-flowing waters. I can’t imagine Arkansas without it.
And with just a short drive to get there, the Buffalo is close enough to visit over and over again. It’s a great place to have a picnic, float, backpack, ride horses, hike, or fish. Go see it!
To learn more about the Buffalo, visit buffaloriver.org.