There’s no bad time to visit the Buffalo National river, even when there’s barely a trickle in the stream.
That was obvious during a Sunday drive to the river last year in March. There were trails to hike, elk to see and a beautiful river to view that flowed just ankle deep in places.
A trip to the Buffalo is always on the agenda when folks from out of town come to visit. Our guests had heard of the Buffalo, but had never laid eyes on its majesty.
We hopped in the car for a little sight-seeing expedition. The drive to the Buffalo river country is pleasant indeed. Oohs and aahs came from the passenger seats soon as the bluffs and rugged hill country came into view between Kingston and Boxley Valley.
I mentioned that if we were lucky, we’d see some elk. We scanned the meadows between Boxley and Ponca as we traveled east on Arkansas 43. Our midmorning arrival was too late for elk.
First stop was the Ponca low-water bridge river access. A few cars were in the lot. Most were evidently hiking the Buffalo river Trail along the stream. Our friends got a good tour and a leg stretch at the Ponca access. They commented on the clarity of the water and the turquoise hue of the clear pool on the upstream side of the low-water bridge.
Our next stop was at an outfitter in Ponca. Our visitors loaded up on free maps and information about the Buffalo.
I was eager to show off some of the river’s bluffs of 200 feet or taller that cradle the Buffalo, our country’s first national river. This is easy to do with a short drive from Ponca to Steel Creek on a highway that’s crooked like a snake.
Down, down we headed toward the campground and canoe launch at Steel Creek. Roark Bluff rises high above the river along all of the Steel Creek area. We had a picnic lunch on some boulders by the river at the launch site, then explored upstream a bit. The river was clear and low. The bluff line towered above us.
Next it was on to Lost Valley for one of the most beautiful hikes in the Ozarks. The hiking trail up Lost Valley offers more for your hiking buck than most trails you’ll see. It’s an easy 2.2-mile hike, 1.1 miles in and 1.1 back out.
Clark Creek flows through Lost Valley to make the walk even more gorgeous. It was the first time I’d hiked at Lost Valley when the stream was dry. Nary a trickle flowed through the valley. That is, until we arrived at Natural Bridge.
Here, about one-half mile into the hike, Clark Creek spills out of a tunnel in rock. It’s a lovely spot worth a thousand pictures. In fact, ken Smith’s book, “The Buffalo River Handbook,” features a photo of the spot that was taken in 1945.
There was a trickle of water in the creek the rest of the way to Eden Falls where Lost Valley ends at a box canyon. The three-tiered waterfall was a veil of long drips that looked like icicles, each about as thick as a pencil. Water splashed on rock at the bottom of Eden Falls.
Time to head home, but not before we had one more look for those elk. And there they were. Six elk grazed in front of a cane break in a meadow. The Arkansas Transportation Department has built some pull-off areas so people like us can stop for a good long look at the elk with our binoculars.
Our friends had only seen elk out West, and it had been awhile. We hoped to stop at the Ponca Elk Education Center on the main drag in Ponca, but ran out of time.
Seeing these elk made our day, and we hadn’t even launched a canoe. We took care of that later in spring when our friends returned for another visit.