Hiking the Buffalo River Trail
Last week I traveled to Arkansas with two friends, Josh and Benjy, for a few days of hiking in the Ozarks. Previous hikes in the region have been on the Ozark Highlands Trail and the Eagle Rock Loop, both of which were great trails. This year, we decided on hiking the 36-mile Buffalo River Trail.
Located in northern Arkansas, the Buffalo River Trail follows the Buffalo National River. It remains a work in progress, with our hike following the Western Section between Boxley and Pruitt. Although the trail meanders along the Buffalo River, it stays mostly in the highlands, with access to the river available in only a few spots. Views of the river and the bluffs overlooking it however, are spectacular and common.
The trail itself is blazed, albeit somewhat sparsely, in white. Sections of the trail vary in their layout, from wide and open on what appear to be old logging roads to narrow single track. Often described as moderate to strenuous difficulty, this also varies by section. The first half of the trail includes more strenuous climbs, with the latter half much easier by comparison. Historic homes, farmsteads and cemeteries are passed on the trail, along with a few campgrounds providing access for day hikes or shorter overnight trips.
In the days leading up to our traveling south, the weather forecast looked promising with highs in the 70s, and lows in the 40s at night. One member of our group, Josh, was flying in from Denver for the hike, and made arrangements to fly in to Kansas City on Wednesday morning. Departing Des Moines early Wednesday, Benjy and I headed south to Kansas City and then quickly made our way towards the Buffalo Outdoor Center. Car shuttle service is offered at the Outdoor Center, but with the Center closing at 5pm, we were uncertain if we would arrive in time to make arrangements.
Thanks to some expedient driving on behalf of Benjy, we arrived at the Buffalo Outdoor Center around 4:30 and proceeded to make arrangements for a car shuttle. The Outdoor Center itself is very nice and the staff were friendly, polite and quite helpful. We arranged to leave our vehicle at the Outdoor Center and be driven to the Boxley trailhead outside Ponca. Staff would then drive our car to Pruitt on Monday for us to pick up at the conclusion of our thru-hike. After a quick equipment check, we loaded up for the short drive along the river to the trailhead. Elk were everywhere, with crowds of people parked along the roadway viewing them. Upon arrival at the trailhead, we collected our packs and hit the trail.
Our first day of hiking was short, with a quick hike about a mile into the woods to set up camp and a nights sleep before pushing on. A clear area was selected, tents were pitched, and a small fire kept us company. Temps dropped to the low 40s overnight and the coyotes in the area definitely made their presence known. I often feel that the first night of camping tends to be the worst night of sleep, and this was no different. I definitely slept, and it wasn't terrible, but it also wasn't the best night of sleep I have experienced. As we discovered the next day, the night hadn't gone so well for our friend Benjy.
I awoke Thursday morning to cool temperatures and clear skies. After working my way out of my tent, I discovered Benjy standing along the edge of the clearing, staring into the woods. After a period of time, he acknowledged my presence and reported that he had been up for some time after a fitful night of sleep. After a cold a restless night, he had finally decided to exit his tent and stare blankly and silently into the woods for 45 minutes awaiting our awakening. After all had risen and packed their gear, we hit the trail for our first full day of hiking. The weather was perfect, the scenery gorgeous. The day included a number of climbs and beautiful views. During a short break, we decided to do a little searching for salamanders and we rewarded for our efforts. No less than a dozen were found within ten minutes of searching. I was particularly fond of the little newt I found under a log. The rest of the day was without incident, although Benjy started dropping hints that he may not wish to continue due to a myriad of reasons. Camp was established on a bluff overlooking the forest and we all headed to bed early in preparation for the next day of hiking.
Friday morning we let Benjy sleep in, hoping that a good night of rest would keep him on the trail with us. After he awoke, however, we discovered that he planned to abandon us. The only issue with his plan to pull out early was the logistics surrounding his car. We set out knowing that passing through the Steel Creek campground would provide an opportunity for Benjy to make use of a pay phone and arrange his departure. The first part of the day's hike took us near some sinkholes, which were pretty neat. I am sure the area is full of such features, but these were the only ones along the trail. After exploring the sinkholes for a bit, we set off down the mountain. Crossing the creek we stopped for water and enjoyed the gorgeous weather we had again been presented. Pushing on, we later arrived at the campground. Situated in a beautiful valley, Josh and I took in the view while Benjy attempted to find a pay phone. We then decided to break for lunch and formulate plan. As Benjy was unable to find a phone, he was forced to continue on to the next campground, Kyle's Landing, and attempt to call from there.
After lunch, we once again hit the trail. After a short distance we came across another portion of the campground, aimed at those with horses. Additionally, this part of the campground housed a ranger station, and a phone. Benjy made haste for the phone, with Josh and myself following behind. At this point, Benjy was able to contact the Buffalo Outdoor Center and arrange for his car to be dropped at Kyle's Landing. I believe Josh and I were both somewhat disappointed to see Benjy drop out, as he had been doing great up to that point. In any case, there was no convincing him to stay, so we pushed on towards Kyle's Landing and Benjy's finale. The remainder of the hike included the largest ascent of the trip, and then a descent into Kyle's Landing. Josh and I hiked most of the way to the campground with Benjy, then stopped to scope out a camp site after wishing Benjy luck.
And then there were two. Josh and I were able to locate an awesome camp site just outside Kyle's Landing and had tents and fire set up in no time. After some dinner, we both retired to our tents for some reading and sleep.
Saturday marked our first day without Benjy. We broke camp a bit earlier than on previous days and moved quickly down the trail. Sites along the way included a few cemeteries, an old farm and amazing views of the Buffalo River. We also found a large bamboo grove near the trail, which seemed unusual. Plenty of bamboo had been seen along the trail, but it was generally small in diameter. This bamboo was giant, and plentiful. Quite the sight, actually. As the miles went on, Josh and I began to discuss plans for the remainder of the trail. Putting in the miles that we were on pace to do would place us very close to completing the trail early. Pausing on a bluff, Josh was able to get reception on his phone and shot a quick text to Benjy, asking if he would want to meet us in Pruitt the following morning. A few miles down the trail, while playing in said bamboo grove, Josh received a reply from Benjy confirming he would meet us at the trailhead. With that, our plan was decided and we put in a few more miles, pushing us to within four miles of the end. Our camping site was again great this night, and we enjoyed a nice fire and relaxed with hot food. The temperature seemed to be dropping fast this evening, leading to concern that it may be quite chilly overnight. Heading to bed, I noted that the temperature was already in the 40s. As anticipated, this night was the coldest of the lot.
Sunday morning, I awoke to discover it 39 degrees in my tent. While this isn't terrible while in my sleeping bag, it's a bit discouraging when it comes to leaving my bag and preparing for the day. After a bit of delaying, I finally arose and exited my tent. Checking my watch while tearing down camp, it was 36 degrees. Leaving camp and hitting the trail, we hiked our way to Pruitt and completion the trail. The miles went quickly and we were shortly greeted by Benjy on the trail, looking well-rested and clean. He chatted as we hiked the half mile to the trailhead. And with that, our hike was over. Josh and I changed into somewhat cleaner attire and the three of us left Pruitt behind.