Buffalo National River

On the river, time does not exist – only the sound of the rushing water, the cries of the wood thrush and crow and the sight of light dancing on the water.

~Ginny Masullo

Our second paddle adventure back in October was on a section of the Buffalo National River in Arkansas. The Buffalo River was our nation’s first national river, designated as such in 1972. It flows over 135 miles and is one of the few remaining undammed rivers in the lower 48 states. Unlike the spring-fed Current River in Missouri, the Buffalo is largely rainfall dependent. This means paddlers must be very aware of possible changes in river levels due to storms, even those far upriver. When we stopped at Wild Bill’s Outfitters to arrange our shuttle, the staff mentioned the possibility of severe storms during our stay, with a chance for hail, possible tornadoes, etc. He added that these predicted storms often “amount to diddly-squat” as they tend to break up when they hit the mountains. But, he echoed the park literature advice and said we should “camp high” on the gravel bars since the river can jump over one foot in an hour under the right conditions. Melissa asked, how high is high? He said at least 4 feet, and make sure you have an escape route to higher ground, just in case. Well, four feet above the river level is not a common change in elevation on many of the gravel bars we encountered and on some that did have that, they dropped down as you approached the higher ground, so you could end up being on an island if the river rises, which is something that is not advised.

We decided to go ahead since the forecast called for good weather the rest of our 4-day window. We launched at Dillard’s Ferry and planned to take out 39 miles later at a private resort on the White River across from where the Buffalo joined it. We were particularly excited about paddling the Lower Buffalo River Wilderness Area, a 25-mile stretch that relatively few people paddle because, once you are in it, there is no place to take out until you get to the White River.

We paddled about 39 miles between Dillard’s Ferry and the juncture of the Buffalo and White Rivers, including the remote Lower Buffalo Wilderness (click photos to enlarge)

Right away, the Buffalo impresses you as being on a grander scale than the Current River – the bluffs are longer and much higher, soaring to about 500 feet above the crystal clear river in some areas. The cliffs are sandstone, limestone, and dolomite and add a dramatic backdrop to the beauty of the river. Fall color was just starting to paint the bluffs with red and yellow and many of the deeper hole in the river were that same aquamarine we had seen on our previous paddle.

Long bluff along the Buffalo River
We frequently scanned the high bluffs for wildlife and usually saw vultures, a few hawks, and an occasional Bald Eagle soaring above

On our first evening, we watched a beaver across the river, busily preening while sitting on a submerged rock ledge underneath an overhang of a bluff. Thirty seven vultures soared over and gradually settled in to roost. The white head and tail of an adult Bald Eagle glowed gold in the setting sun as it circled on a thermal and transformed into a mere speck in the sky above.

It is a dramatic juxtaposition when a bluff emerges directly out of the river
One of our favorite campsites
A beautiful sunset over our gravel bar campsite

The next day we encountered some shallow riffles, requiring us to get out and pull the canoe for short distances. The wind was our constant companion and even had us paddling into white caps on some of the long straight stretches of the river (I don’t think I have ever paddled into white caps while going downstream on a river). Wildlife sightings included a couple of otter, two eagles, and some wood ducks.

Another beautiful scene along the river

At one stop we found evidence of lots of other wildlife. See if you can guess who the track makers were (answers at bottom of post).

Track maker #1
Track maker #2
Track maker #3
Track maker #4
eTrack maker #5

On the upper stretches of the Buffalo you may even encounter some elk, which were reintroduced to the region over 30 years ago. We did see deer a couple of times, but no elk.

An aptly named Bold Jumping Spider (Phidippus audax) greeted us on one gravel bar

On our second night, we searched for a campsite that was a few feet above the river level as this was the night for the predicted storms. We found a location about 4 feet in elevation, but it required dragging the canoe quite a distance (unloaded, of course). But we felt secure and had our backs to some higher ground, just in case. No storm materialized in our area that night, but at one point I looked out and could see near constant lightning far off to the west.

Our high and dry campsite
Fall color along the river
Another dramatic cliff face coming straight out of the water

Our last campsite of the trip was on a beautiful, wide gravel bar across from another bluff. We had seen two more eagles that day, and another flew by as we were setting up camp. While exploring for firewood sticks, I found one eagle feather. This section of river had more eagles and more kingfishers than further upstream, no doubt due to the increase in smaller fish we were seeing.

Feather from a Bald Eagle (we left it on the beach after taking this photo)
Another spectacular sunset was a great way to end our canoe camping adventure

After a gorgeous sunset we settled in for a nice campfire and some star gazing. It wasn’t long before we experienced something new to us both – exploding rocks in the campfire. There was a particularly large burst of flame and sparks when I added some sticks to the fire early in the evening which caught us both by surprise. We thought it was something in the sticks I had added until we started hearing little whizzing sounds, similar to the sounds a flying bullet makes in cartoons. Suddenly, Melissa got hit in the forehead by a small pebble and we realized the rocks were exploding in the fire. This, our last night, was the first time on our entire trip we had experienced anything like this. It turns out, exploding campfire rocks is a thing caused by moisture trapped in certain rock types. When the rock gets heated high enough, the water vaporizes and can cause the rock to splinter, shooting rock fragments up to several feet. We scooted back away from the fire, and I stirred it, spreading out the ashes to reduce the heat. This soon stopped the rock fireworks. Melissa surmised that the cliff face near us was sandstone rather than the dominant limestone and dolomite bluffs we had encountered on most of our trip and this created this unusual phenomenon.

An exciting final night campfire complete with exploding rocks
Here is a pebble that shot about 6 feet from the fire and embedded itself into a plastic bag with an audible thud
Our final misty morning on the Buffalo River
One of the well-known landmarks on the lower Buffalo – Elephant Head Rock
The end of our journey as the White River comes into view

On our final morning, we enjoyed another otter encounter and marveled at how one can disappear even when you are close enough to see its bubbles pass under your canoe. The river widened as we approached the confluence with the larger White River and it became harder to dodge the increasingly common huge boulders just below the surface. We had to pick our way through some boulder fields before hitting the fast flowing current of the White River. That river is controlled by a dam upstream and we were advised it can be difficult to paddle upstream when they release water. When we hit the confluence, it suddenly became almost impossible to paddle the short distance upstream we needed to in order to go around the island to our take out location just across the river. We ended up getting to the shore of the island and walking the canoe around the tip so we could then paddle with the current to the canoe landing. And, it turns out, this was normal flow (there was no release of water from the dam that day). I can’t imagine trying to paddle that stretch when water is being released.

Our adventure had ended and now we had a couple of days travel back home. What a trip – two beautiful crystal clear rivers, amazing scenery, beautiful weather, star-filled nights, and loads of wildlife. Now we are hooked on long distance canoe camping (we paddled about 100 miles on the two rivers). Up until this trip, most of our canoe camping has been on the Roanoke River and Merchants Millpond back home. We’ll be searching for other rivers for this type of experience, so if you have suggestions, let us know.

Answers to the track photos:

#1 River Otter

#2 Bobcat (roundish and no claw marks)

#3 Coyote (oblong with claw marks)

#4 Raccoon

#5 Aquatic snail trails

7 thoughts on “Buffalo National River

  1. Beautiful photographs and great storytelling! The animal footprints were fun too. I hope you have many more adventures to share!

  2. I wonder if the exploding rocks might be limestone of dolomite and they are pretty low permeability and frequently have holidays (holes) that could have water trapped inside that could turn to steam when heated. Sandstones are normally more permeable with the porosity connected so water could expand and leak out.

    Regards, Tom Griffin Not a geologist


    • Hi Tom…from my readings, porous rocks certainly can trap water and explode in fires. But so can layered rocks like sandstone. We surmised sandstone based on the splintered fragments we found embedded in the plastic bag near us, but it certainly could have been either. Lesson learned, campfires built on gravel bars can be more exciting than you want them to be.

  3. Oh, my, this is a river trip I’ve wanted to take since I saw a PBS special on it and realized you could camp/take out on sandbars and such along the way with cliffs above you as you travel–some with trees never logged since pioneers could never reach some of those trees! oh you lucky ones! Why not lead an expedition for us one of these days? (or more fun to do your own thing these days!

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