Read the article with photos: Southern Living Magazine
Adventures in Arkansas: Plan a Trip to the Ozarks This Fall
America’s first national river beckons with blazing color and mountain adventures.
By Katie Strasberg Rousso
September 15, 2021
Bordered by multicolored bluffs and tucked deep in the deciduous forests of Northwest Arkansas, a ribbon of rapids and pools reflects the Americana charm and natural splendor you can find only in the Ozark Mountains. On either side of the cool, free-flowing river, hollows flanking the water conceal outtakes from another time—from prehistoric sites dating back thousands of years to untamed wilderness and waterfalls left wholly untouched. On the Buffalo National River, the park's waters stretch as wide from west to east as they reach back into history, preserving a landscape riddled with culture yet unharmed by the passage of time.
In 1972, the Buffalo became the first national river in America, a designation that allowed its unique waters to remain naturally dependent on rainfall without any dams. This swath of preserved currents reaches more than 135 miles across the top of the Natural State, beginning in the Boston Mountains and traveling farther into the Ozarks. It's long enough to have upper, middle, and lower sections and intimately connects communities in four counties. Sloshing waters framed by massive bluffs thread through campgrounds and gravel bars, offering self-proclaimed "river rats" a haven for both kayaking and rafting trips. But the river's reliance on rainfall lends it a distinct seasonality, because it doesn't have any dams to control it. In the spring and summer, it's a magnet for paddle-armed explorers eager to get wet. When fall rolls around, lower water levels in the western section of the park (the Upper Buffalo Wilderness area) lead to land-based excursions that are more laid-back.
"The Buffalo National River is the crown jewel of the state when it comes to scenery," says Austin Albers, president of the Buffalo Outdoor Center. "That is especially true in the fall, when colorful leaves dot the bluff lines." Born and raised in the area, Albers has witnessed the floating season's crowds give way to a more relaxed mix of couples and retirees when the weather cools off here.
While you'll find bustling river waters in the Lower Buffalo Wilderness area during the autumn months, the upper section turns into a trickle, allowing foliage seekers to relish the region's kaleidoscopic display from the banks and bluffs. Pleasant weather lures hikers farther into the park's 94,293 acres, where wooded paths reveal shelters of prehistoric hunters and gatherers as well as sites where Mississippian communities once farmed the floodplain.
Savor the woodlands and waterfalls this season by making your home base in the upper region of the river at Ponca, a tiny, off-the-grid mountain town near the edge of the park. In this area, the Lost Valley Trail is a must. The 2.4-mile walk winds past natural bridges to the 53-foot plunge of Eden Falls and the mouth of Cob Cave, which was once a shelter for Native Americans. Hikers seeking a challenge can get a bird's-eye view on the Goat Trail. The 5.9-mile, moderately challenging path climbs onto the ledge of Big Bluff, which is the tallest sheer bluff face between the Appalachian Mountains and the Rockies. History lovers should check out the Parker-Hickman Farmstead along the Buffalo River Trail. Built in the 1840s, the home offers a fascinating snapshot of the lifestyle of those who settled in the Ozarks then.
More of the past awaits in the Boxley Valley Historic District, where the remains of an enduring agrarian community collide with some of the park's most beloved wildlife. Elk were reintroduced here in the 1980s, and these animals now number in the hundreds. In fall, they flock to wide-open fields to graze in this area of the park, allowing for frequent sightings against a backdrop of crimson-speckled trees.
If you'd prefer a horseback ride, book a guided trip at Rimrock Cove Ranch. Saddle up, and they will lead you through thick, fire-toned forests and bubbling streams. Bikers can catch a thrill nearby, where almost 40 miles of switchbacks on the Upper Buffalo Mountain Bike Trail trace their way through the highest points in the Ozarks.
At nightfall, don't forget to look up, says Cassie Branstetter, branch chief of interpretation on the Buffalo National River. "The area is a designated International Dark Sky Park, and it is known for having particularly clear views of the Milky Way during fall and winter, when there is less moisture in the air," says Branstetter.
Hit These Ozark Trails
Don't miss one of the most photographed scenes in the state at Hawksbill Crag. This rocky cliff overlooking the valley is accessible through the 3-mile Whitaker Point Trail.
Deceptively named, Twin Falls Trail is less than a half-mile walk to a gorgeous triple waterfall.
Explore the Pedestal Rocks Scenic Area via the Kings Bluff or Pedestal Rocks Trails. Both offer nearly 2-mile walks through bluffs and promise wooded hillside views.
Scramble to the top of Sam's Throne Trail for stellar rock formations and panoramic vistas.