Paddling Arkansas's Buffalo River in Winter
The Buffalo River is, by far, the busiest outdoor destination in northwest Arkansas between Memorial Day and Labor Day. On any given weekend, you’ll find crowds of paddlers in rented canoes and kayaks, floating from the low water bridge at Ponca to the campground at Kyle’s Landing and a waiting shuttle. The pristine setting—and cool temperatures in the gorge during the relentless heat of summer in the Ozarks—is tough to beat.
During the off-season, though, there’s not nearly as much traffic to contend with on this historic waterway. I lived in Little Rock for five years, and for some reason I had never attempted a multi-day trip on the river. When I realized a good friend from the area hadn’t either, we immediately planned a trip to do just that in March.
After looking at the options, we decided we’d paddle the 70-mile stretch of water from Ponca to Gilbert, about half of the river’s runnable length, utilizing a local outfitter to shuttle our vehicle to the other end.
We’d stretch this out over the course of six days, enjoying several of the many worthwhile side hikes along the way, photographing waterfalls, relaxing at sweet campsites at the river’s edge and generally soaking up the full Buffalo River experience without having to share it with several hundred of our best friends.
Best-laid plans, right? I made the 7-hour drive from Chattanooga to Little Rock with my 14-foot kayak on the roof and enough food and gear to last a week.
Day 1 (Friday)
Even at first glance, it’s obvious why the Buffalo was this country’s first National River. Established in 1972, the designation foiled attempts to construct one or more dams along the watercourse. Its water is a deep turquoise, it is beset on many sides by sheer bluffs, and it’s far enough from any real population centers to feel truly wild despite all those other paddlers you’re likely to see. Idyllic gravel bars, perfect for camping on, appear around nearly every bend in the river. It’s magical.
Our first day with the river would only be a couple of hours in the water, really, after driving up from Little Rock. A float trip. Just enough to get away from the put-in and select a picturesque, unoccupied camping spot. We arrived to find nary a cloud in the sky, although the outfitters who shuttled our vehicle told us that there was a “3-to-5 inch rain event, 6 inches in places” forecast for the entire region on Monday… after we’d already told them to leave the car in Gilbert on Wednesday. Hmmm.
Another boater also mentioned that they’d heard about a managed elk hunt that might take place, with the Park Service perhaps pulling boaters off of the upper portions river at Pruitt on Monday. Perhaps we’d need to paddle faster than initially planned.
We hiked the Lost Valley Trail to Eden Falls and Eden Falls Cave, snapping photos along the way before putting in at Ponca and heading downriver. Barely 5 miles later, with the setting sun bathing Big Bluff in surreal light, we splashed our way ashore and made camp. Driftwood from a winter’s worth of major flooding was scattered all around, perfect for a small campfire.
After a hearty meal, it was off to bed. Briefly, we could see and hear hikers along the Goat Trail some 300 feet above, their headlamps and voices reflecting off of the rock faces above them. The stars above were impossibly bright through the mesh roof of my tent. I slept well.
Day 2 (Saturday)
We started out stubbornly, we really did. Why change our itinerary because of that pesky weather forecast? It would probably change anyway, right? We took a long time gearing up the boats and paddling just two miles to the backside of the 550-foot-tall Big Bluff, where we’d hike up to the aforementioned Goat Trail which follows a sometimes-precarious ledge above the river.
I managed to get my kayak pinned momentarily against a fallen tree not 45 minutes into our day’s journey, peeling me out of the boat and causing us to waste some time chasing down my paddle and drybag. I emptied the water from my cockpit and replaced some deck rigging with webbing. No hurry. We took a long time getting ready to hike. We took a long time hiking. Generally, we just lollygagged our way down the river.
Normally, this would be good. A sunny Saturday with temps nearing 70 degrees in early March made for plenty of company on the water and the trail, and the hike along the Goat Trail was wonderful. We watched distant, tiny boats slide past our campsite from the previous night. We snapped hundreds of photos. What was the rush?
Everyone we spoke with, though, warned us of the upcoming forecast. It was getting worse, they said. Anyone who remained on the river past Monday would have to be insane, they said. You can’t paddle the river when it rains like this, it can rise one foot per hour. You’ll be stranded on the bank, waiting for river levels to drop, for days. Hmmm.
Kyle’s Landing has a phone at its seasonal campground, an emergency phone that allows you to call either the outfitter or the park service. It was already late afternoon, and we’d hardly paddled anywhere, barely 15 miles from our put-in the day before!
There’s a reason Ponca to Kyle’s is the most popular float in the region: so many interesting hikes on each side of the river, imposing cliffs, waterfalls spilling into the gorge. So many places to lose time.
We decided to call our outfitter and have them drop the vehicle off in Gilbert on Monday, not Wednesday.
This would change the tone of our trip immediately. Suddenly, we had two days to cover 55 river miles—instead of four—in order to reach our take-out before the major storm hit. This was going to require cutting out two planned hikes, as we were effectively doubling our pace. We’d focus on paddling steadily all day, each day. It was settled.
As soon as the sun disappeared that evening, the temperature dropped. Fast. Despite our 3mm-thick farmer john wetsuits and matching 3mm wetsuit jackets, it was surprisingly cold and tough to keep pushing. Bats fluttered ahead of us in the half-light, swooping down to the river’s surface for a drink and back up into the sky.
We found a small gravel bar not far past Erbie, pulled our boats out of the water and set up our tents in the rapidly-fading twilight. No campfire this night; we’d need to be up at first light and back on the river to make our 30-mile goal for day 3. The night sky was even more brilliant than the previous night’s camp, and even with a new moon we were able to prepare dinner by starlight alone.
Day 3 (Sunday)
Awakened at dawn by the call of a female elk—what, you expected a rooster?—we lingered carelessly for some sunrise photos and made breakfast. We wondered aloud if the elk we’d heard would survive the rumored upcoming hunt. Our kayaks were covered in frost, and steam rose off of our boats and the river as the sun crept up above the horizon. We slipped back into the water and paddled onward.
With river levels continuing to flag, we had very little current to help us along… and spent much of the day battling a strong headwind that kicked up spray, pitched our boats sideways, and made progress surprisingly difficult.
The river widened, the bluffs receded, and we quietly marched ourselves forward, one paddle stroke at a time. Ozark: check. Pruitt, Hasty, Carver: check, check, check. There wasn’t much to see on this section of river, so we focused on the grind and kept the paddles moving.
Blustery spring weather meant we had the river completely to ourselves, though; we knocked out mile after mile without seeing another soul. Not 36 hours after sharing the river with dozens of recreational paddlers, the same river suddenly felt like we’d traveled right off the map.
By the time we reached Mount Hersey, daylight was already short, and when Skull Bluff loomed into view it was nearly too dark to see. We set up tents by headlamp. It had taken the entire day, but we’d managed to scratch out 31 miles.
Day 4 (Monday)
Breaking camp for the final time, we pushed away from the riverbank and felt relieved. After all, with yesterday’s push behind us, there was no longer any doubt about whether or not we’d make it to the take-out tonight... just doubt about whether we’d beat the first rain showers there.
The weather was much improved, sunny and pleasant and far less windy. The boats were lighter than they had been on Friday when we began. The watercourse was again fringed with cliffs, the water itself still that mesmerizing greenish-blue.
We watched a bald eagle circle slowly overhead for several minutes. We paddled through small caves at the river’s edge, climbed up a pair of odd-looking boulders, and splashed near mossy waterfalls. We took casual breaks to snack on the gravel in the sun. Our adventure was coming to a close.
Soon, we trudged up the riverbank to load our boats and all of our wet, sandy gear onto the car. It started to rain not long after we drove away; by the time we stopped for dinner on the way back home, radar confirmed that the entire upper Buffalo River drainage was being slammed by major storms. We’d done well.
Our trip didn’t end up following the plans we’d set, though it’s hard to be disappointed. I’d wanted to hike Indian Creek again, to see the entrance of Arkansas (Tunnel) Cave, to photograph Twin Falls near Camp Orr. I’d hoped for colder temperatures, waking up to find ice in the trees or a dusting of snow on the ground, paddling through the morning fog which clings to a savagely cold river. But adventures never go fully according to plan; if they did, they wouldn’t be adventures!
We highly recommend touring the Buffalo National River at any time of year, though it’s a truly special place when the temperatures are low and the campgrounds are empty. Interested in trying it yourself? Here are a few pointers.
Tips for Canoeing or Kayaking the Buffalo River in Winter and Spring
- Dress appropriately. Bring clothing for a wide variety of weather scenarios. Spring tends to be, you know, spring-like. On our first day, we wore t-shirts and saw people floating down the river without shirts on. By evening of the second, we were in full neoprene from head to toe and padding hard to ward off shivering. Day three, we spent most of the day in base layers and shell jackets, balancing moderate temperatures and sun with a steady, driving wind. None of these are uncommon for March in Northwest Arkansas; in fact, plan on a major rain event or an unexpected ice storm, then be ecstatic if neither happens!
- Have an emergency plan in case of immersion. We had a complete set of dry clothes in a watertight container, and large firestarters to use in case we absolutely needed a fire but couldn’t find any dry wood or tinder. I took a swim on the morning of what happened to be the warmest day, but poorer timing could easily have turned wet clothing into a very dangerous situation.
- Be flexible with your itinerary. There’s no telling what might come up. There might be a 5” rain event on the forecast; there might be an unannounced elk hunt that closes a section of the river. Watch the weather, pay attention to river gauge levels before your trip… and don’t expect to have much cell coverage to keep track of these things once you’re in the water, as service is notoriously poor throughout the majority of the Buffalo River drainage. Prepare, plan, but don’t over-plan; the river will always win. Roll with the punches and enjoy yourself.
- Tell someone your plan. This one should go without saying, but it’s also a primary cause of many rescues and situations that end up being far worse than they should be. If you’re stranded by rising water, if you lose a paddle, if you break your ankle… will anyone know if you’re late? Who will know to come looking? Seriously, have a callout. Make sure someone notices when you’re missing.
- Leave no trace. The same river rules apply in the “off-season” that apply during peak times: no glass bottles are allowed anywhere on the river, and you’re required to carry a mesh bag which is lashed to your boat to carry garbage. These two rules have gone a long way toward keeping the river clean for others to enjoy, and rangers are definitely out enforcing both if you need further motivation to pay it forward.
Originally written by RootsRated.