6 MUST-DOS AT ARKANSAS’ BUFFALO NATIONAL RIVER (besides a float trip!)
Growing up in Missouri, float trips were a very regular part of my upbringing. It always amazed me when I met out-of-state college friends that some people don’t even know what float trips are. If you are one of those people, never fear, because this post has very little to do with float trips.
Rafting, canoeing, or kayaking down the Buffalo National River in Arkansas is without a doubt the most action that river sees. (And for good reason. Float trips are the best!) But did you know that there is so much more this area has to offer? If floating isn’t your thing, if you want to go a cheaper route, or if you just want to change up your routine, read about six other adventures you can have at Buffalo River.
When Cole and I had a completely free weekend ahead of us last week, we knew we wanted to fill it with something outdoorsy, adventurous, fun, and challenging. It’s less than 70 days until we leave for our National Parks adventure, and we need to get some training in before we do.
Our last outdoors weekend trip was to a great Missouri State Park with some beautiful (and rainy) kayaking trails, but this time we were ready to get out of Missouri. With Arkansas only about four hours away, and loaded with backpacker dream spots, we knew that had to be the destination. Others had recommended Buffalo National River, and we’d been wanting to try it out, so the decision was an easy one. We just had to figure out how to go about making the most of the area.
FUN FACT: Buffalo National River was the first National River in the NPS!
After doing a bit of Googling, we settled on a section within the Buffalo River territory called Ponca Wilderness (near the Upper Buffalo River). A bit of scoping out the suggested trails and scenic points allowed us to create a DIY hiking route that took us to many of the highlighted points surrounding the Buffalo River: Hemmed-In Hollows, Twin Falls, Big Bluff, Granny Henderson’s cabin, and the river itself. Altogether, the trail would be about 20 miles, and we’d have two days to complete it.
We printed out a map, marked it with the highlighted attractions, and took off from Springfield, Missouri early Saturday morning. Splitting up the trip at a friend’s house in Springfield was clutch.
Thus, we were off on a two-day adventure of the area surrounding Buffalo River. Below we have summarized our favorite stops along the trail and along the drive that made the excursion an unforgettable one.
- Whitaker Point
As we began to Google hiking spots throughout the Buffalo River, we were immediately drawn to what seemed to be an icon of the area: Whitaker Point (or Hawksbill Crag). The photos of this point are breathtaking. As we read further, we discovered that the trail leading to this point is about 3 miles round-trip – not too bad for a side stop — and we also learned that the parking area fills up.
We knew we wanted to arrive early, so this was our first stop in our Buffalo River weekend. After getting lost several times along the way (be sure you know where you are turning — there is zero cell service nor a clear sign pointing the way) we arrived at the trailhead around 8:30 a.m. There were about six other cars before us, and after passing a few hikers coming back, we joined only two other groups that had already arrived at the crag destination. It was a nice balance: just enough other hikers to take the famous photo — but not so many to make it seem crowded. We even had a chance to shoot our Meet Us video!
Although the actual Hawksbill Crag was busy with photo posers, there were other lookout points to sit and take in the view in seeming solitude. Cole and I stuck around for a bit to take pictures, relax, and soak it all in. As our first stop in our tour of the Arkansas wilderness, it was a pretty awesome one.
On the trip back to the car, it was confirmed that we had hit the sweet spot in the day as we passed gigantic groups of people trekking up to the overlook. We were thankful that we had arrived after the early morning crowd, but before the late morning crowd.
Overall, Whitaker Point was an amazing way to kick off our trip. Here are a few things we’d recommend when visiting:
- Be aware that you won’t be able to use your phone to navigate to the trailhead. Always have paper (or non-data on a phone) maps & directions in the Arkansas Buffalo River recreation areas. Plus, the turns to get there are easy to miss. We ended up turning around 2 or 3 times.
- Don’t bring your new Corvette. The gravel road up to Whitaker Point is long, steep and full of potholes. But if you don’t have a larger vehicle, a regular car should make it fine if you’re careful.
- This trail isn’t difficult, but it’s also not a walk in the park. Be prepared with sturdy shoes and extra water.
- Lug along your nice camera — the postcard-worthy shots will be worth it.
- Be cognizant of your arrival time. We found that arriving at the trailhead around 9 a.m. was perfect for the Saturday we were there.
With one stop under our belt, Cole and I drove the 20ish minutes to our next destination: Kyle’s Landing along the Buffalo River. We planned to park our car here overnight while we completed a two-day, 20-mile loop of connecting trails in the area.
Thankfully, we had an awesome setup. Friends of ours were planning to meet us halfway (at the Compton Trailhead) to camp, then hike the second half with us. Then we could shuttle back from Kyle’s Landing to Compton, allowing us to complete the loop and eliminate the need to pack in all of our camping gear. I would absolutely recommend a similar strategy if you are attempting a two-dayer like ours. Backpacking would have been a different and exciting challenge, but camping would not have been as comfortable.
2. Twin Falls
From Kyle’s Landing parking lot, we entered the Buffalo River Trail (BRT) and it quickly gained quite a bit of elevation, leading up and away from the river. Our plan was to take the BRT to Twin Falls, but unfortunately our planning failed us and we missed the Boy Scout road that lead down to the Falls. We ended up backtracking a bit along the Old River Trail (ORT), eventually leading straight to the Twin Falls. But unexpected vacation setbacks are always part of a good adventure, right? After kicking ourselves for missing the easy road down to this trailhead, we trekked all 70 yards from the parking area back to the Twin Falls. If you are looking for small adventure or a destination for young kids, this would be a great choice, as it is a high-reward / low-effort type of situation.
A few more tips we have about visiting the Twin Falls:
- As with all waterfalls, think about rainfall when visiting Twin Falls. We were sure to hit as many waterfalls as possible on this trip because it had just rained a ton.
- If it’s a nice hot day, bring a swimsuit. You can take a dip in the pool below the falls.
- Even though the path to the waterfall destination is a breeze, sturdy shoes are a must if you plan to navigate any rocks around the slippery falls.
3. Primitive Campsites
After finally reaching Twin Falls, Cole and I completed our first (of many, see below) river crossing along the Old River Trail. We followed this until it connected to the Bench Trail north of Buffalo River. Bench Trail itself wasn’t tough, but the connecting climb to reach the trail was a doozy. This connector led straight up a rock gulley of sorts that made me so glad I was wearing tall supportive hiking boots and that we were not carrying our camping equipment.
Once on the Bench Trail, we were further disappointed to discover that the trail was extremely overgrown, buggy, and full of mud and puddles. This leg of our route was unpleasant, but it soon led us to our first day’s destination: our Compton Trailhead primitive campsite.
There are several unmarked primitive campsites in the Buffalo River wilderness area, and since we were meeting friends at the Compton Trailhead, we were very glad to find a spot right near there. The best part about these sites? They are free and don’t require a permit! The sites are primitive, but most had a campfire ring and flat areas for tents. It was a serene and relaxing night with friends around the campfire… a perfect way to unwind after a long day of hiking.
A few other notes about these primitive campsites include:
- It was a Saturday night, and we were the only other hikers/campers around. The sites are not reservable, but there should be plenty. By contrast, the campground with services, Kyle’s Landing, where we parked was completely full to the point where we could barely find as spot along the drive to park. And I guarantee it was not as peaceful at night!
- Be sure to pack away or properly hang all food. We saw a bear on our hike the following day, and we retroactively realized we should ihave packed up a bit more carefully at our campsite.
Since our friends would be joining us for Day 2, we stowed our camping gear in their car in the morning and headed out on the trail, carrying hydration packs filled with only a few necessities.
4. Hemmed-In Hollows
From either Compton Trailhead or up from the river, one of the most popular destinations’s around the Buffalo River area is a waterfall called Hemmed-In Hollow. After 2.5 miles of comfy downhill terrain, we arrived. Although I preferred the visual appeal of Twin Falls better, Hemmed-In Hollow had a few coolness factors: it is the tallest waterfall in between the Rockies and the Appalachians, and the flow of the falls shifted about 20 feet side to side due to wind.
We arrived with plenty of time to explore a bit as well as test out our new backpacking squeeze water filter and fill our hydration packs with water from the falls. Our filter works great, and we soon had fresh cold water in our packs.
These falls are popular, but the trails up from the river aren’t extremely well-marked. We passed several groups that asked us where Hemmed-In Hollows were and if they were close, and they were often shocked that they weren’t there yet. Our advice would be to carry a paper map (we put ours into a gallon plastic bag to keep it dry) and always do a bit of research before attempting a trail.
Besides orienting yourself to the area, you also might:
- Wear sturdy, grippy shoes and use extreme caution if you are walking on the rocks around the falls. There were times I was just sliding as if on ice — and I was in hiking boots. And our friend slipped and had a scary fall hard on his back underneath the falls.
- Bring water. Many parties seemed unprepared and under-hydrated.
- Be prepared to get a little wet – the stream of the falls shifts and splashes much of the surrounding viewing area.
After Hemmed-In Hollow, our next stop was Granny Henderson’s cabin. Although I wouldn’t necessarily label it as a “must-do,” it was neat to see the somewhat-intact remains of an old cabin in the middle of the woods.
5. Big Bluff
This next destination was somewhat interrupted… by a bear sighting. I have never seen a bear without the barrier (bear-ier?) of a car or cabin before, and it was insane. Our friend was first to spot it and we were thinking “yeah, right…” until we saw the no doubt big black bear ourselves. The bear was quite a ways ahead of us, crossing the very trail we were about to meander down, although it was going in an opposite direction we were headed. We decided to wait about fifteen minutes to continue along the trail. This sounds a lot calmer than I was. Cole was cool and collected, more fascinated than anything, and I was slightly terrified. We figured there was power in numbers, and we were almost to the bluffs that promised jaw-dropping views, so we bravely marched on, this time with knives a bit closer by and “bear rocks” in our hands, ha.
Just a little ways down the trail, the bluffs appear and the views are everything advertised and more. Although most of the trail is wider and flatter than it looks, parts are a bit stomach-churning, so be prepared to power through. The views are more than worth it, just ask our Instagram feed ;).
The best part of the view from Big Bluff is that it features a bend in the river, and the kayak-watching is plentiful. There are plenty of safe, wide spots to sit, relax, and grab a bite to eat if the drop-offs haven’t caused you to lost your appetite. Here’s what else you need to know:
- It’s a BIG dropoff. Wear proper footwear and be cautious. The website advises against bringing kids and we can see why.
- Be prepared with a camera, because you are going to want some pictures.
Since Big Bluff trail is a one-way path, we retraced our steps (yielding bear weapons just in case) and, after winding down and around and down some more, we connected to the Old River Trail (ORT) and were able to finally dip our toes into the Buffalo River to cool down a bit.
6. Old River Trail Water Crossings
The Old River Trail is a horse trail that zig-zags through the Buffalo River. The entire trail crosses the river fifteen times, and we got to experience five of those.
We knew we had about two miles and five river crossings before making it back to Kyle’s Landing. Not sure of how this would go, we threw our valuables into dry bags and just went for it. Although these were some of the most adrenaline-pumping moments of our two-day trek, they were also among the most fun and hysterical.
The four of us decided the best way to cross a rocky river was together, so we joined hands and slowly made our way across the slippery rocks. The portions of the river we had to cross never were much deeper than our thighs, but the rocks and swift current made it laughably impossible to keep our balances. My advice? Keep a sense of humor about it because I’m sure the kayakers got a laugh at us. Also:
- Watch out for canoes and kayaks. There were tons on the water the day we were hiking, so we had to be cautious and not cross when floaters were coming by.
- Sturdy shoes are a must (seeing a trend in this trip?) and our Chacos worked brilliantly. Grippy on the bottoms, waterproof, ample for hiking the distances in between crossings.
- Make sure you look for the yellow trail markers. Some parts of the trail are far more ambiguous than others. It’ll help to know approximately where you are at all times.
- Plan plenty of time to cross the river. A sprint would be a faceplant. The slipping is all part of the fun 🙂
After safely arriving at Kyle’s Landing, it was a quick 20-minute drive back to our friends’ car in Compton. Tired, hungry, and wet, but accomplished, we drove the 30 minutes into Harrison, AR for some much-deserved Chinese buffet all-you-can-eat reward food.
Overall, the weekend was an amazing one, filled with tough hikes, easy hikes, waterfalls, lots of bugs, lots of bug bites, photo ops, muddy boots, cell reception outages, and adrenaline rushes.
Just how a summer weekend should be.