Beginning in 2026, canoe and kayak concessioners along the Buffalo National River will no longer be allowed to shuttle the private vehicles of park visitors to locations up or down river, according to a prospectus released Monday by the National Park Service.
Instead, customers should be transported in buses or vans owned, leased or rented by the concessioners, according to the prospectus.
The change is an effort to relieve vehicle congestion at river access points, where parking is limited.
But it will be “almost impossible” to get buses down the narrow, curving gravel road leading to Kyle’s Landing Campground to pick up floaters, said Austin Albers, president/owner of Buffalo Outdoor Center in Ponca.
Since the 1960s, outfitters on the upper Buffalo River have shuttled customer vehicles to Kyle’s Landing, a popular take-out spot for people who begin their float at Ponca or Steel Creek Campground.
“This section [from Ponca to Kyle’s Landing] is 10.7-miles long and takes around 4 to 6 hours to complete, depending upon the individual, the river level and the amount of time you linger along the way,” according to the Buffalo Outdoor Center’s website. “It features the scenic icons of the upper Buffalo River — majestic Big Bluff and Hemmed-In Hollow, both the tallest of their kind (bluff face and waterfall, respectively) between the Rockies and the Appalachians.” The reason outfitters on the upper Buffalo haven’t been using buses — which are used on the middle and lower sections of the river — is that the 2.6-mile stretch of Newton County Road 56 that leads from Arkansas 74 to Kyle’s Landing is difficult to traverse, Albers said.
“They have signs up on Kyle’s road that say ‘recommended for four-wheel drive, high-clearance vehicles only,’” he said. “How many four-wheel drive buses do you know of? Or vans?” According to a “business opportunity” document that’s part of the prospectus packet, “Parking visitors’ vehicles at the Concessioner’s place of business, transporting (shuttling) people in Concession-owned vans and buses to the put-in location, and picking up people at the take-out location greatly relieves congestion issues while mitigating park resource damage.” And a draft operating plan in the packet states: “Concessioners must shuttle their clients and their rental vessels only in concession-owned or leased/rented vehicles after December 31, 2025. They may not shuttle private vehicles for either their clients or other park visitors after December 31, 2025.” It will be particularly difficult when a bus meets another vehicle on the road to Kyle’s Landing, said Albers.
“That’s why everybody in the upper district has always operated the way we have, in essence valeting people’s vehicles from Point A to Point B, because you can get smaller vehicles in and out versus the buses,” he said. “It’s almost impossible.” The concessioners in the upper Buffalo region who have operated buses primarily did so from the Pruitt to Hasty section, where it’s easier to get buses in and out, Albers said.
He said the shuttling of private vehicles is also a more “curated experience.” “When you get off the river, especially in early spring, and you’re cold and you’re wet, the last thing you want to do is wait for a bus to get there and then the bus getting out of there,” said Albers. “It’s going to take a lot longer.” Floaters arriving at Kyle’s Landing usually have a dry change of clothes in the car, Albers said. And from there, they can drive home without heading back up river in a bus or van to get to their vehicle.
“In this upper district, where it’s an early springtime [float], you’ve got colder temperatures,” said Albers. “People get wet, they’re cold, they’re ready to put dry clothes on and get in their warm vehicle and leave. People become accustomed to that, to having their stuff there when they get there. Now, it’s going to add a whole ‘nuther hour on the end of their trip just to get back to their vehicles.” Albers said he doesn’t know yet if the outfitters have any options to get the National Park Service to change this rule before it’s implemented in 2026.
Albers said the park needs more federal funding to help with infrastructure such as roads, parking lots and access to restrooms.
“This is their way of doing it, to constrain the concessioners more,” he said.
Aaron Jones, the river manager at Lost Valley Canoe & Lodging in Ponca, said the change could cost his family’s business about $250,000 if they have to buy four new vans.
He found a used Ford Transit van that can seat 15 passengers for $20,000. But it has 100,000 miles on it.
“This is definitely going to change our operating plan,” he said.
Running a shuttle round trip to Kyle’s Landing takes at least 45 minutes, but customers may have to wait until several boaters arrive at the pick-up location before being hauled the 12 miles back to Ponca, Jones said. They’ll also have a vehicle there to pick up rented canoes and kayaks.
Some boaters take multi-day trips from the upper to the lower Buffalo. In that case, the shuttle can take four hours round trip, he said.
Also, noted Jones, bus drivers would have to have a commercial driver’s license.
Both Jones and Albers said they don’t have sufficient parking at their businesses for all the customers who have been leaving vehicles at Kyle’s Landing to be picked up after a float.
Outfitters say the new rule could cause more parking problems if couples or groups who bring their own water vessels decide to drive two vehicles so they can shuttle themselves. That would take up two parking spaces in the park.
The park service intends to award 12 concession contracts to provide canoe/kayak and shuttle services for a term of 10 years beginning Jan. 1, 2025, according to the prospectus.
There are currently 12 concession contracts to provide canoe and shuttle services at the Buffalo National River.
The existing contracts, started on Jan. 1, 2013, expired on Dec. 31, 2022, and will be extended through Dec. 31, 2024.
The Buffalo National River had 1.3 million visitors in 2022, according to the park service.
Albers is a member of the Natural State Advisory Council, which was established by Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders in January to promote tourism and outdoor recreation in Arkansas.