Designated as America’s first Wild and Scenic River in 1972, the Buffalo and its environs are a west-to-east trending slice of the Ozarks that appear almost pristine, at least from the seat of a canoe or the top of a bluff. Look at it on a map, though, and you’ll quickly realize that much of the long, thin Buffalo National River is surrounded by towns, highways, farms, logging camps and other trappings of rural America. Ponca, Ark., where trips originate when the water is high enough to paddle the Buffalo’s upper reaches, is a mere two to three hours’ drive from any of three airports that American Airlines services (Fort Smith Regional Airport, Northwest Arkansas Regional Airport and Little Rock Airport). The land that makes up the park has been settled, logged, hunted, plowed, planted and inhabited for centuries, so much so that by the early 1900s, settlers had played out the thin, rocky soil and moved on. Untrammeled wilderness this is not.
If You Go:
The Buffalo National River (www.nps.gov/buff) is floatable and hikeable year-round. Check the park’s website for a list of approved canoe rentals, guides and trail maps. Call ahead to check paddling conditions. The park has 1930s-era cabins built by the Civilian Conservation Corps available for rent. Check www.buffalopoint.net for information.
The fact that it exists at all as a national park is a testament to the efforts of people who saw the potential for something more than commerce in this land. In the 1960s, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was on a building spree and had plans for two dams on the Buffalo, one at the lower portion near its mouth and another upstream near Gilbert, Ark. The dams would have submerged bluffs and caves, drowned trees, stopped waterfalls and changed the Buffalo from an occasionally irascible stream into a placid pool.
But by the 1960s, thousands of people had discovered the unique beauty and sense of solitude the river offered. Visitors came from all over Arkansas and surrounding states to paddle the river and hike the bluffs. Kenneth Smith was among them. Now 79 and living in Fayetteville, Ark., Smith recalls the first time he hiked to Lost Valley as a young man. “Newspaper articles said it was like going through a tunnel and finding Shangri-la,” he recalls. “We hiked several miles through woods and up side valleys. All of a sudden, I looked up, and there was a cliff up there through the trees. It was hundreds of feet above us. It was like seeing Yosemite Valley for the first time. It is a lot smaller, of course, but I’d never been anywhere out of Arkansas.”
Smith spent a good part of 1965 exploring the area, ultimately writing a book on his travels titled The Buffalo River Country that was published in 1967 and a guidebook to the area called the Buffalo River Handbook in 2004. His first book, which Smith calls a “promotional piece” for the establishment of a national park, effectively publicized what would be lost if the dams were built. “It was a chance to bring all that stuff to the outside world,” he says. “I was, on a small scale, an explorer.”