Best Things to See and Do in Buffalo National River

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Buffalo National River is one of the most impressive national parks in the US if you love outdoor adventures in wild, rural, and untamed natural spaces. Managed by the National Park Service and located in north central Arkansas, the park protects 135 miles of the Buffalo National River, wandering through the Ozark Mountains. There’s no denying that Arkansas is an outdoor paradise, and the Buffalo is one of the state’s crown jewels. Continue reading to see why Buffalo National River is a local favorite and treasure of The Natural State.

Best Things to Do in Buffalo National River + Where to Stay and When to Visit

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Big Bluff Overlook

Buffalo National River in Arkansas is the perfect destination if you’re looking for a fun and outdoorsy way to spend a weekend or vacation. There are so many activities to choose from and three districts to explore. Whether hiking, camping, or kayaking, there’s outdoor recreation galore for everyone. Here are some of the top things to do!

Check out these Arkansas Adventures

Best Hiking Trails in Buffalo National River

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Lost Valley Trail

There are miles and miles of trails to explore while wandering through the Ozark National Forest.

Some of the best and most popular trails to hike are:

  • Hemmed-in-Hollow Trail The trail to Hemmed-in-Hollow takes hikers to one of the tallest waterfalls in mid-America, with falls cascading over 200 feet from the bluffs. It is truly a sight to see. The trail can be accessed via floating in on the river or from the Compton Trailhead near Compton in the Upper District. The terrain is for experienced hikers only, as the trail is rated as strenuous due to its steep bluffs and elevation gain.
  • Centerpoint to Big Bluff  – Called ‘The Goat Trail’ by locals, the hike along the Centerpoint Trail to Big Bluff leads hikers to a huge bluff overlooking the Buffalo River Valley. Known for its million-dollar views, you’ll want to add this famous hike in the Upper District to your list.
  • Hideout Hollow – Located near Compton in the Upper District, the trail to Hideout Hollow ends with a large waterfall cascading over a bluff shelter. It is an easy hike, and the falls at the end are gorgeous.
  • Lost Valley Trail – Known for being one of the most popular hikes in the Upper District, hikers can see multiple caves and waterfalls along the Lost Valley Trail. The bluff shelter is enormous and truly a sight to see.
  • Indian Rock House – Accessible from Buffalo Point Campground in the Lower District, this popular hike was once a prehistoric bluff-dwelling and is cool to experience.

*Check out this article what to wear hiking for planning a hiking trip to the Buffalo.

Hiking with Dogs

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Buffalo Point

Dogs are not allowed on most trails within the park, but there are a few where they are permitted.

Hiking trails allowing dogs:

  • Buffalo River Trail (BRT) between Ponca and Steel Creek
  • Villines Homestead Trail at Ponca
  • The trails at Tyler Bend Campground
  • Specific trails at Buffalo Point Campground.

Backpacking

The Buffalo River Trail (BRT) is a popular backpacking trail.

No permits are required to backpack or camp in primitive sites in the backcountry at Buffalo National River.

Remember that the area is rural and rugged when planning a backpacking trip. Some of the trails aren’t marked well, and cell phone reception is poor. Be sure to plan your route and have a good map or GPS.

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Hemmed-in-Hollow waterfall

Horseback Riding

There are over 75 miles of trails for horseback riding, with many of the popular trails located in the Upper District. Steel Creek Campground allows horse trailers but keep in mind that the road into the campground is winding and steep.

Be sure to have a map when exploring the backcountry – cell phone reception is limited unless you are high up on a mountaintop and close to a town.

Star Gazing and Night Photography

The park is in a rural area, so the night sky is truly a sight to see! The best places to view the night sky are from the campgrounds in the Upper District.

Floating the River

The river is a popular destination for kayaking, canoeing, fishing, swimming, and nature watching. With its multiple launch points and outfitters, Buffalo National River offers something for everyone who loves the great outdoors. Planning a float trip is easy with one of the local guiding outfits, or you can bring your kayak or canoe.

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Floating the lower section

Fishing

If you enjoy fly fishing, you’ll appreciate fishing on the Buffalo. It has some of the best fishing in the state. So, bring your fishing gear and enjoy the famous turquoise waters.

Wildlife Watching

Fall is one of the best times to see the elk herds in the Upper District near Boxley and Ponca, AR. Visitors may even see them near the Erbie Campground in the fields.

While hiking, keep your eyes peeled for deer and wild boars, and while floating, you’ll see birds and fishes in the clear mountain water.

We have seen the boars while hiking in the Upper District along the Centerpoint Trail!

Where to Stay in Buffalo National River

There are quite a few areas to stay in while exploring the park. Below are some of our favorites, along with some popular ones.

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Camping at Buffalo Point

Camping

There are fantastic places to camp along the river in the Upper District if you are tent camping. Check out Steel Creek, Kyles Landing, Erbie, or the Ozark Campground. All of these campgrounds have easy access to the river.

If you have an RV, though located outside of the park, north of Ponca, the Buffalo Outdoor Center has an RV park.

In the Lower District, Buffalo Point Campground is tent and RV-friendly. Buffalo Point also has water and electric hookups with multiple bathhouses, flush toilets, and hot showers.

Cabins

Visitors can rent rustic cabins at Buffalo Point in the Lower District.

Outside the park, near Ponca in the Upper District, cabins are available to rent from Buffalo Outdoor Center.

Trip Planning

The park is massive, stretching over 135 miles, and consists of three districts.

  • Upper District: Located near Ponca and Jasper, Arkansas
  • Middle District: Located near St. Joe and Marshall, Arkansas
  • Lower District: Located near Yellville and Harriet, Arkansas

When planning a trip to Buffalo National River, consider what you’d like to do and which area you would like to be near to plan your adventures.

Our Experience Exploring the Area

We have been exploring this park for years, and it has taken us many different weekend road trips from Tulsa to write about all the best trails to hike, places to camp, and other things to do here.

We wrote this article to help you see many of the highlights. Since the park is so spread out and in rural areas, with untouched landscapes, we recommend picking a district to explore and finding trails to hike and a camp location to base out of.

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Ozark Campground

Best Time to Visit + Trip Planning Examples

We have explored the park in all four seasons, with each season offering something magical.

Winter

Winters in Buffalo National River are quiet. With the foliage off the hardwoods, you can see through the trees while hiking, which offers unique views of the mountains you might not typically see. During the winter, the forest is quiet, and traffic on the trails is sparse. During December, we hiked the Centerpoint to Goat Trail, Hideout Hollow, Balanced Rock, Lost Valley, and Whitaker Point (outside the park boundaries but close) and were the only ones on the trails.

The Buffalo Outdoor Center is an excellent place to camp near the park boundaries if you have an RV. It is a private campground but has a nice bathhouse with hot water and flushing toilets while dry camping in the winter.

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Steel Creek in the winter

Spring

Spring is the best time to float the Upper Buffalo from Ponca when water levels are high. You can bring your kayak or canoe, rent gear from a local outfitting company, or take a guided float tour down the river.

Spring is also the best time to hike the waterfall trails, Hemmed-in-Hollow being one of the most epic. March through May is an excellent time to enjoy cooler temperatures while hiking and camping.

Summer

Summers are hot and humid, but with many trails in the shade, visitors can still enjoy hiking here in the summer. During the summer, we enjoy camping at Buffalo Point in the Lower District, where we can get in the water and float the river, but we also use the A/C in our Aliner Camper.

We also have camped at the Buffalo Outdoor Center RV Park near Ponca in the Upper District. It is right on the edge of the park boundary and has full hookups.

All the campgrounds inside the park are right on the water, and all have fun swimming holes.

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Buffalo Point area

Fall

Fall is notoriously one of the best times to explore the park – specifically in October. The Ozarks put on a grand display of fall colors, the temperatures are cooler, and you might even see the resident elk roaming the fields in the Upper District near Ponca. The trails are busier this time of year, and you’ll want to make reservations to camp ahead of time because fall is one of the most popular times to visit.

Final Thoughts

If you’re outdoorsy and love visiting national parks, you need to see the Buffalo National River in Arkansas. It’s one of the South’s most beautiful and scenic places, and it offers plenty of opportunities for adventure. This national park is worth visiting whether camping, hiking, fishing, paddling, or enjoying the scenery.

So, pack your gear bags and get ready to make some special memories at this breathtaking park in the Ozarks. We hope you have the best time.

Ashlee & Pablo


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top photo: couple overlooking Buffalo National River Valley from Big Bluff trail; bottom photo: people floating the river

Ashlee Fechino

Ashlee Fechino is an outdoor recreation and travel writer and founder of The Happiness Function. Her goal is to help inspire people to build a life they love by sharing how simple and fun it is to travel locally, connect with nature, and explore off-the-beaten-path. You don't have to spend a lot of money or use a ton of vacation time to explore close to home. Ashlee holds a BS degree in Biology and MS in Environmental Policy & Sustainability and is passionate about the outdoors. She is married to an expat Argentine, Pablo! They camp in their Aliner often and love road trips and hiking.

2 Comments

  1. Burt Randall on November 28, 2022 at 8:17 pm

    This state really moves me. It’s a good read, Ashlee and Pablo.

    Have a good time next time you go.

    • Ashlee Fechino on December 27, 2022 at 5:51 pm

      Thanks, Uncle Burt. We love Arkansas! 🙂

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