Go With The Flow
There isn't much better than time spent out in nature. I don't know about you,
but I need to connect with Mother Nature and her cycles to keep me sane in the real world.
Kelsey and Kyle put together a lovely video sharing their recent canoe trip down
a portion of the Buffalo National River, followed by a great Adventure Guide in case you
find yourself in Northern Arkansas looking to get out on the water for a few nights.
@treeandlive | @kfaaawss
Every great trip has that one defining moment—the moment when you realize that you're experiencing something truly extraordinary. Sometimes you step off the plane and BOOM! The moment headbutts you right in the nose. Other times the moment is coy, only making itself known fully in retrospect. For my recent canoe trip on the Buffalo National River, the moment came about midway through the first day; and let me tell you, it was a doozy.
You see, neither I nor my paddling companion Kelsey had ever been to the Ozarks before. Sure, I saw some pretty pictures while doing my research, but as anyone who has ever pointed a camera at a mountain, tree, valley, river, lake, flower, cloud, sunrise, sunset, or animal larger than a golden retriever will tell you: pictures just don't do nature justice. So after arriving at the river and paddling a few miles through an absolutely stunning stretch of lush forest and breathtaking bluffs on perfectly turquoise water, I was primed for my trip-defining moment.
We had just spotted Jim's Bluff, our first notable landmark, and (per our shuttle driver's recommendation) were looking to make camp for the day. It was then that Kelsey made the clutchest of discoveries. There on the river bank, partially obscured by trees, was what appeared to be a pile of stones: a fire ring. We paddled over to the shore, clambered out, and just like that, there was my moment. For what lay before us was not just any backwoods campsite, but the perfect backwoods campsite—a beautiful clearing nestled between the river and the sheer face of the nearby towering bluff. It's actually a miracle that you're even reading this article right now because I very seriously almost decided to just live there forever. That's how perfect this spot was.
Looking back now, our whole trip was chock-full of really awesome moments. But finding that campsite on the first day, just a handful of hours in, that's what really set the tone for the entire excursion. So here is the full itinerary for the trip, in all of its detailed glory, so that you, too, can go have your own moment (or two, or three, or twenty) on the Buffalo National River.
The Buffalo National River was actually the first river in the US to receive the distinction of being "National." The National Park Service maintains a 135 mile long stretch through the Ozarks in northern Arkansas. Our three-day trip covered 21.1 of those miles from the Steel Creek established campground to Pruitt Landing.
The outfitter we chose to use was Buffalo River Canoes, and I would definitely use them again. At the time of this writing, a three day canoe rental will cost you just over $150, which isn't too bad if you split it with someone (and consider the fact that "lodging" on the river won't cost you a dime). If you are only bringing one vehicle, you can also pay to have it shuttled to the designated takeout location. In my opinion the convenience is well worth the extra charge.
The dates for our trip were May 24 through May 26, the Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday leading up to Memorial Day weekend. I would definitely try to plan for weekdays over weekends, especially during the peak spring season. Obviously it can vary from year to year, but late May should be a good bet for nice weather and consistent water levels.
Which brings me to my next point: this is an awesome trip that can be enjoyable for all types of people, as long as at least one person feels relatively comfortable steering and controlling the boat. You won't encounter any crazy class V whitewater on this route, but all it takes is one sideways rock-bump on even a small rapid to capsize a fully loaded canoe. That being said, if you have never canoed before, it's not that difficult to pick up on. Just be ready for some potential "white knuckle" moments, but that's part of the adventure, right!?
There's tons of variations to this itinerary that you could do as well, such as taking out at Hasty for a bit more distance, or doing the Steel Creek to Pruitt Landing trip in two days instead of three. Personally, though, I feel that our itinerary was the perfect amount of river done in the perfect amount of time. You can do more hiking and sightseeing this way and it just allows for a more laid-back pace.
Also, make sure you download, screenshot, or print any of the maps, contact info, or other online resources (such as this guide!) you might need before you leave town. Once you get to the river you can count on not having cell service for days at a time. Don't stress too much about navigation, though. Luckily it's pretty darn hard to get lost on a river. Just keep track of the established campgrounds you pass (Kyle's Landing, Erbie, and Ozark on this route) and you'll be fine!
And as a friendly reminder, this guide is meant to be a great resource for you while planning your trip. Hopefully it will give you some inspiration and help get you going in the right direction. However, it is always up to you to plan a safe, fun, and rewarding adventure. Things are always subject to change so make sure you double check the information I provide here and do any other pertinent research before you go. Feel free to contact me with any questions you might have!
Gear and Food
Just some quick notes on what we brought:
First of all, since this is canoe camping, you are afforded some luxuries that wouldn't normally make the cut on a traditional multi-day backpacking trip. Some of our examples included a full camp stove, large cookware, a cooler (two of them, actually), camp chairs, and the larger of our two tents.
However, there are also some special precautions that come along with being on the water, as well. Dry bags are an absolute must. Garbage and zip-top bags will get the job done, but waterproof stuff sacks are the recommendation. Also, make sure you have some way of securing your gear to the canoe, just in case. Some bungee cords will do nicely, or maybe a length of paracord if you already have that on-hand.
As for clothing (and sleep systems), try to avoid anything cotton. This is a good rule of thumb for backcountry travel in general, but even more important when you're going to be around this much H2O. Proper footwear is important, too. River shoes are going to be your best bet, but sandals will work as well. Just be careful with exposed toes if you ever have to bail out in whitewater. Rocks will win every time.
Food is another thing that happens to enjoy boats over backpacks. We stopped at the local grocery store in Jasper to stock up before heading out and got all manner of meat, produce, and dry goods. There were definitely some camp staples on the menu, such as instant mashed-potatoes, but also some special treats like real scrambled eggs.
Our outfitters told us that we didn't need bear bags or canisters for our food. That being said, you should always practice smart, leave no trace camping. So to prevent smaller animals from getting to our food or ruining our gear, we used a hard-shelled cooler for our garbage and scented items. At night we flipped our canoe over and stashed our things underneath. Again, this is not a bear-proof setup, but was fine for keeping out rodents and the like. As always, you can hang your food if you prefer.
Other than that just make sure you have all of your other essentials like headlamp, sun protection, bug spray, knife, first aid kit, fire starters, etc. There are plenty of other great resources already out there for camping pack lists, so I won't go too much more into these items here.
Once you have all of your gear and food ready to go, it'll be time to hit the river!
This part is totally optional, but for those who want to get an early Day One start on the river, you can camp right at the Steel Creek campground the night before. It'll cost you $12 (cash only), and make sure you have made the proper arrangements with your outfitter. Buffalo River Canoes does not require you to come to their office in Jasper as long as everyone in your party has completed all of the proper waivers and agreements online ahead of time.
Day One - Jim's Bluff
Opt for an early launch to put some nice distance between you and the day-trippers. Once you get going, though, feel free to take your time; today you will only be paddling for a couple of miles. Like I mentioned earlier, the first landmark you're looking for is Jim's Bluff. Just look for the giant slab of rock with "Jim's Bluff" painted on it—the letters are somewhat faint but the rock is pretty sizable so it's hard to miss.
The epic campsite that you're going to want to claim is just to the left of Jim's Bluff. So if you're at the painted rock you might have to paddle back upstream just about a hundred feet, to where the river makes the gentle turn that brings it parallel to the bluff.
Once you get camp set up, you're hiking goal for the day is the Big Bluff viewpoint. You can get there by connecting the Centerpoint and Goat Trails that wind through the woods on top of Jim's Bluff. Accessing the trails can be a bit tricky from the campsite but it can be done without having to paddle, so pack a lunch and get hiking! You'll want to follow the river along the bluff, passing the painted slab, until you find a fairly steep "staircase" of rocks that lets you scramble upwards away from the water. At the top of these natural stairs you will find yourself on the Centerpoint Trail. Continue to follow this trail upwards away from the river until you reach the Goat Trail junction. About a mile or so down this spur, the trail will lead you out onto a ledge overlooking the river. This is a view that simply cannot be missed. Once you've done enough basking in the glory of endless green, retrace your steps back to camp. All said and done this hike should take you only a couple of hours.
Back at camp you should still have enough daylight to gather some firewood and prep your dinner. Once it gets dark get that fire going and enjoy a nice camp meal.
Day Two - Waterfall Day
Wake up super excited the next morning because there is an awesome waterfall in your near future. As a matter of fact it will be the next thing you're looking for once you get back on the water. The river will bend to the left and right a few times and you'll encounter a handful of rapids, but not too far after leaving Jim's Bluff you should see a beach on your left with a sign that says "Falls."
Pull over and take the aptly named Hemmed-in Hollow Trail about a mile to the spectacular Hemmed-in Hollow Falls. According to nps.gov, Hemmed-in Hollow is the "highest waterfall between the Rockies and the Appalachians." At almost 210 feet tall, it is certainly a sight to behold.
Springtime visitors will usually see a decent amount of flowing water; however Hemmed-in Hollow never really reaches "torrential" levels, even in the wettest of seasons. This is good for you, though, since it allows you to walk right up and stand directly beneath the downpour. After your refreshing nature-shower, retrace your steps back to the boat.
Now if you're a true waterfall fanatic like me, there's one more stop that you're going to want to make today. Unfortunately I don't have any real landmarks to reference for this one, but not much farther downriver, directly after a fairly intense rapid (probably the largest one you've come across up to this point), you will spot a small rocky beach along the bank to the left. You will know you're in the right area if there is a little stream flowing out of the trees, down the beach, and into the river.
If you come ashore on this beach and follow the stream into the woods, you will be rewarded with a magnificent stretch of waterfall after waterfall after waterfall. After waterfall. Seriously, there's at least six of them in just a couple hundred feet worth of stream. It's awesome.
Then head on back to the beach. From there you can really paddle for as much or as little more as you'd like. Hemmed-in Hollow probably took you a couple of hours, and Photoshoot Falls was another 45 minutes give or take, so by now it should be some time in the mid-afternoon. I would recommend making camp somewhere past Kyle's Landing but before Erbie. If the river is busy and camp spots are filling up left and right, then maybe pull over to snag one sooner rather than later. If it's a less crowded day then maybe keep on going until you find a site that's just right. Kelsey and I got pretty lucky. We passed up a few decent areas because we thought we could find better—and eventually we did! Just use your best judgement and try to make landfall with enough daylight remaining to set up camp, cook, and gather wood.
Pro tip: if you didn't take the time to enjoy some stargazing on night one, do yourself a favor on night two.
Day Three - The Distance
So if you took my advice and camped somewhere between Kyle's Landing and Erbie, you should still have anywhere from 2/3 to about half of the route to traverse. That might sound like a lot, but it's okay! Your itinerary today is fully dedicated to paddling and just enjoying your time on the river.
For our trip, we had to have the canoe taken out at Pruitt by 7pm. We got a late start (around noon) and paddled pretty hard on and off, and got to the end by around 4. So relax, unwind. Float. Listen. Smell. Let the river work its magic.
Pruitt Landing will be a well-marked beach on your left, directly after you pass under the first and only bridge you will encounter on this route.
As you drift the last few hundred feet, take a second to share with whomever is in your group: what was the moment you knew, that this trip was going to be something truly extraordinary.
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