Jill M. Rohrbach, travel writer
Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism
Hike the trail to Indian Rockhouse, visit Collier Homestead near Tyler Bend, guide a canoe down the river’s many miles, stick your toe or a fishing line in the water, take a photo of Roark Bluff, view the reflection of Skull Rock in the water on a fall day, or camp at Steel Creek, and you’ll know the Buffalo River is worthy of being the country’s first national river.
But it took years of debate and the hard work of many landowners, individuals, groups, politicians and federal agencies to pass the legislation designating the Buffalo as a national river. Today, the National Park Service oversees 95,730 acres and three designated wilderness areas within that acreage. Rushing whitewater is interspersed among sections of calmer water as the river wends its way 135 miles through the lush green valley that is home to elk, deer, black bear and other woodland creatures. Tall limestone bluffs in earthy hues of gray, tan and brown are defining features of the Buffalo. It is one of the few remaining undammed rivers in the lower 48 states.
Activities in the Park
Along its corridor, you’ll find canoe and kayak outfitters, campsites, hiking trails, cabin rentals, towering limestone bluffs, quiet pools and whitewater rapids, an elk herd, and historic areas such as the Boxley Valley Historic District, the Parker Hickman Homestead, and the Villines Cabin. The Buffalo National River preserves many pioneer homesteads ranging from the 1840s to the 1930s.
There are more than 75 miles of designated equestrian trails, and 100 miles of maintained trails within the river park. Hiking is a very popular activity at all times, but especially in the cooler months from fall through spring. Some trails offer views from the top of the limestone bluffs. Other treks snake through the woods past remnants of old homesteads and down old logging roads.
Overnighting along the Buffalo can be unrolling a sleeping bag on a primitive backpacking adventure, pitching a tent at a NPS campground, or staying in rustic housekeeping cabins constructed in the late 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps at Buffalo Point. Cabins and resorts just outside the park are popular with visitors as well.
Permitted park concessioners for the upper, middle and lower sections of the Buffalo River rent canoes, kayaks, and rafts, and provide shuttle services. Typically, the float season begins in the upper Buffalo in the spring. More water makes this section attractive for visitors seeking a higher level of challenge with whitewater kayaking. The season moves downstream with the months. Because the Buffalo is largely rainfall dependent, floating opportunities for each section can change not only from season to season, but week to week.
To rock climbers, Sam’s Throne is probably the most well-known chunk of rock in the Ozarks. Another hot place to climb in Buffalo River Country is on private land owned by Horseshoe Canyon Ranch, where you can pay a nominal fee to climb. Plenty of rock in the area is suitable for “bouldering.” Bouldering refers to the activity of climbing smaller rocks without the use of a rope because climbers are only six to 10 feet off of the ground.
Another activity that’s easy for the whole family to enjoy is wildlife watching, particularly of elk. One hundred and twelve Rocky Mountain elk were introduced to the area in between 1981 and 1985 and the herd has grown to around 450. While not confined to the park, the herd is predominately found around the upper Buffalo. The large beasts prefer open areas for grazing with nearby wooded areas for resting. Drivers often stop their cars along roads in and around Boxley Valley to view elk in the fields. Morning and evening are the best times to watch them.
There’s really something for everyone in Buffalo River Country. Fishermen will find a fish population of over 60 species, including small mouth bass, largemouth bass, Ozark bass, and goggle-eye. Horseback riding is another popular activity. Horseback riding concessions can be found and many are associated with lodging. While concessionaires aren’t allowed to ride on the river, they have plenty of their own scenic trails in the river country.
Tyler Bend Visitor Center, offering exhibits, books, films, and more, is a great place to obtain park information. The NPS also provides ranger-guided tours and activities. Keep up-to-date on programs, or get trail maps, and other information for planning your visit at Nps.gov/buff/. This website also contains a map that shows current floating conditions along the length of the river, as well as additional information on access points, campsites and trails.
History of the Park
Much like today’s uses, the river has had a long history of recreational appeal with locations such as Shady Grove Camp at Pruitt established before World War II. Construction of the Buffalo River State Park began in 1938 and in 1945 National Geographic ran an article on the river with a photo of the Ark. 65 bridge area. In 1945, a writer who thought the area should be preserved wrote about it and in an effort to make it seem even more extraordinary called it the “Lost Valley.”
But the river’s continued recreational use was uncertain for a time. While its wonders were being extolled by some, the Corps of Engineers was looking at it for a different reason. In 1937, the Corps determined that only five lock and dams were needed in order for it to be navigable year round. In 1938, the Corps surveyed the river and made a plan for the Arkansas-White-Red River Basins. President Eisenhower vetoed the plans several times. However, the plans and proponents for the dam continued pushing forward.
Harold Alexander, a biologist looking at dam construction across the state became concerned that some streams needed to remain free flowing. He became one of the earliest voices for preserving the Buffalo as Mother Nature had intended. In his preservation efforts, Alexander wrote, “I would observe that a stream is a living thing. It moves, dances and shimmers in the sun. It furnishes opportunities for enjoyment and its beauty moves men’s souls.”
Another big voice came on board, Dr. Neil Compton of Bentonville. After asking Alexander to speak at a Rotary Club meeting and hearing of the Corp plan, Compton realized opponents of the dam could not wait to take action.
In favor of the dam were Jim Tudor, a businessman and newspaper man from Marshall who allied with Judge James W. Trimble of Berryville, a Congressman for the 3rd Congressional District who remained steadfast in his support of damming the Buffalo.
Arkansas Sen. J. William Fulbright arranged funding for the first National Park Service survey of the river. The NPS in 1961 designated the Buffalo River as “worthy of preservation” and this was the first involvement of the NPS into the Buffalo River issue. On July 14 this same year, Time Magazine printed an article on camping using a photo of the Ozark Wilderness Waterways Camp on the Buffalo River. Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas saw it and wanted to visit this place. He floated from Ponca to Erbie in the spring of 1962 with Harold and Margaret Hodges, who were members of The Ozark Society. Douglas then wrote an opinion piece in favor of preservation.
The Ozark Society to save the Buffalo River was formed in May of 1962 with Neil Compton serving as president. The group formed after a Jan. 30, 1962 Corps meeting in Marshall where the opponents of any dam on the Buffalo River were able to finally meet and join forces and those for the dam found they were pushed to the back.
The fight continued over the next several years. The NPS recommendation in April 1963 deemed the river “nationally significant.” The Corps in ’64-’65 received funding for a study of damming the river. It was a rare occurrence to have two governmental agencies with funding for two opposing uses for the same land.
Scaling back plans, the Corps held another public hearing in November 1964 and proposed a single dam and a park to be located around the Tyler Bend area. Dam opponents didn’t like this idea even though it included a park. NPS attended to say no.
Newspapers across the region began covering the controversy. Arkansas’s political cartoonist George Fisher created several cartoons and Thomas Hart Benton painted a piece for preservation of the Buffalo River.
Preservationists gained momentum but still had a lot going against them. While dam proponents pushed for their cause, in December of 1965 Gov. Orval Faubus, who had decided not to run for re-election, wrote a letter to the Corps saying he thought the national park was a good idea.
In April, the Corps withdrew its recommendation for damming the river. However, some of the plans were still in motion. In fact, plans for the Gilbert Reservoir on the Buffalo did not officially get de-authorized until 1974, two years after the Buffalo was designated a national river.
In 1966, Trimble got a majority of Arkansas congressmen to sign in favor of the dam. But, things began to change when Trimble was defeated by John Paul Hammerschmidt. In January of 1967 Senators Fulbright and McClellan introduced the first Buffalo National River legislation, but it didn’t go anywhere. However, the NPS continued to prepare for a park and began discussing preservation, development and private-use zones. There was talk of life estates for current landowners.
In 1969 the bill was re-introduced during the 91st Congress. George Hartzog, director of NPS, wanted to see the Buffalo River become a park and he advocated for it. In 1971, the legislation was introduced again. It passed the Senate but sat in the House. Hartzog took the subcommittee members on a Buffalo River float trip. In October public hearings were held and the subcommittee approved the legislation. On March 1, 1972, it was finally approved by President Richard Nixon.
Staff arrived in May 1972. The NPS assumed management, began some land acquisition, and took donation of the Buffalo River State Park from Arkansas. The first park superintendent Donald Spalding arrived in July of that year. Elberta Russell, secretary, started in September. Chief Ranger Harry Grafe took his position in November.
There are 410 parks in the national park system, which is celebrating its centennial this year. Thankfully, Arkansas and the nation get to celebrate the national treasure of the Buffalo River. Over the years, millions of people have taken advantage of this landscape that is still free, wild, natural.
(SIDEBAR) National Park Service and Buffalo National River Centennial Events
This year marks the Centennial of the National Park Service, and there will be celebrations and special events across the U.S. and throughout the year to honor the moment when U.S. President Woodrow Wilson signed the act that created the agency on August 25, 1916.
In conjunction with the centennial celebration, here is a list of events taking place at the Buffalo National River:
Centennial Iron Ranger Challenge – Jan. 1 – Dec. 31, 2016
The challenge is a year-long program to encourage visitors to “Find Your Park” and improve their health and fitness by completing 100 miles of physical activity over the course of the year. Participants may choose to hike, bike, paddle, walk, run, or roll 100 miles in any of the national parks in Arkansas. Visitors who complete 100 miles of activity will receive a certificate and a commemorative patch to recognize their accomplishment, but the real reward will be experiencing the parks and the many benefits of physical recreation. Sign up and register for the Iron Ranger Challenge here and start logging those miles today!
Adopt A Trail Day – June 4
In honor of National Trails Day, Buffalo National River will launch an Adopt a Trail Event at Tyler Bend. People that sign up will be expected to hike their trail quarterly, pick up trash, and report the condition of the trail to the park. Presenters will also speak about Leave No Trace, the park’s Centennial events, and other trail and park related topics.
National Public Lands Day – Sept. 24
Take part in a national day of service in celebration of National Public Lands Day by participating in a clean-up of the middle or lower river clean-up.
Ozark Folklife Festival – Oct. 1
This Searcy County event will bring traditional Ozark artists and craftspeople together at Tyler Bend for a day of musical performances and demonstrations to celebrate Ozark culture.
Buffalo River Biathlon – Come Hill or High Water – Oct. 16
This inaugural event will consist of a 6.1 mile trail run on the Buffalo River Trail from Dillards Ferry to Spring Creek followed by a 4.6 mile canoe/kayak race from Spring Creek back to Dillards Ferry.
Registration details will be available late April or early May.
For details on these and other park events, visit www.NPS.gov/buff/getinvolved/buffalo-national-river-centennial-events.htm, email at [email protected] or phone 870-365-2776.