Buffalo National River Trails in Northern Arkansas
Get ready for some gorgeous views of northern Arkansas and the Buffalo National River trails! I’ll admit that when we planned a trip to southern Missouri and the northern Arkansas area, I had no idea what to expect. I honestly hadn’t seen many articles written about hiking in the Ozark Mountains from my regular travel reads, so I didn’t know what to anticipate. But upon arrival, the views blew me away and now I want to visit again!
COVID disclaimer: When traveling and visiting businesses, please check state and business guidelines and hours before arriving. As always, be safe for yourself and others!
The Ozark Mountains
The Ozark Mountains, also known as the “Ozarks” for short, are heavily forested highlands between the Appalachians and the Rockies. An area in northern Arkansas is also home to the Ozark National Forest, where the highest point exceeds 2,000 feet. Throughout the Ozarks are underground springs and streams that empty into one of four rivers. We spent our day hiking along the Buffalo National River.
Our day trip to northern Arkansas
Our trip started in Branson, Missouri. Getting to the Arkansas Ozarks from Branson is easy until you get off of the interstate, which was the majority of our driving. When going to the Ozarks, you are in some pretty remote areas of Arkansas. If you get car sick easily, I suggest taking some Dramamine before you go! And go with a plan, because cell phone service will be non-existent or spotty. We didn’t make a plan for which trail we’d be hiking, however, I did have a list of them mapped out. Our main goals were to find great mountain views, see elk, and hike at least one trail.
We drove Highway 43 from Harrison, AR to Ponca, AR, and made our final stop for hiking in Ponca. It was the closest town to civilization in the area (for our route) and you can also spot elk here too!
Buffalo River Outfitters
There is so much to do in this region! Camping, hiking, mountain biking, kayaking, and canoeing are all popular activities in the Ozarks. You’ll find Buffalo Outfitters Center (aka “BOC”) signs everywhere in the mountains. BOC is authorized to provide canoe and transportation services to the National Buffalo River. They also provide service for the majority of cabins rentals, camping, shuffle services for the trails, and float trips in the area.
After arriving in Ponca, we were relieved to find civilization (and a bathroom) at the Buffalo Outdoor Center. We stopped here for a quick rest, a connection to their free wifi, and to take a bathroom break. By the way, this is the only WiFi and indoor bathroom available for miles (keep this tip in mind!). While you are there, you can book a rental, ask questions about the trails, and pick up snacks or equipment (I bought a new mug!).
Be wary of the free-roaming chickens and roosters here. We headed back to our vehicle in the parking lot only to find a cluster of chickens and roosters (I don’t know the difference!) had taken residence under our vehicle – and refused to leave. Check out the photos below of our hilarious encounter.
Historic Ponca General Store
There is an old fashion general store in Ponca as well, we stopped by here to grab a few natural sodas. They have lots of supplies, some groceries, stickers, and merchandise, however, note that they do NOT have a bathroom available to the public (not even to paying customers). It’s a cool little shop, but because just 1/2 a mile down the road is the Buffalo Outdoor Center store with wifi and bathrooms, we opted to go there as well.
Lost Valley Trail on the Buffalo National River
We decided on the Lost Valley Trail for our hiking adventure, it the most popular trail in the National Ozark Forest! It’s located just down the road from the Buffalo Outdoor Center and across the street from an elk viewing area.
Eden Falls and Cobb Cave can be found on this trail! However, in the Fall, you can’t see the waterfall and during a pandemic, the cave might be closed (check before arriving to see if the cave will be open). The best viewing times are in the Spring, check the water levels here to see if the waterfall will be visible when you visit. The waterfall was not flowing when we visited at the end of October.
A canyon forms Lost Valley and you’ll find springs, underground waterways, and natural rock formations along the trail. Even in the Fall, wildflowers and plants could be seen (and smelled). Watch out for bats, especially when visiting the cave! We spotted bats even during the day, outside of the cave, resting under the edges of rocks.
This trail is great for all ages. It does require steep climbing of natural rock stairs to get to Cobb Cave and Eden Falls, so keep this in mind if you have physical limitations. The first portion of the trail is wheelchair accessible and there are benches placed every 1/2 mile for rests. Plan 2+ hours to complete this hike if you are stopping to see the cave and waterfall. Cobb Cave can be found at the end of the 2.2-mile trail and Eden Falls nearby.
Note: Please wear orange while on trails during hunting seasons.
The BOC Ponca Downhill MTB Trail
The BOC Pona Downhill MTB (mountain bike) Trail offers a fantastic view of the Ozark Mountains. You can easily access this trail off of Fire Tower Road, there is a sign that identifies the trail and points to a gravel parking lot. When we visited, it appeared that they were building some sort of cabin or BOC building at the entrance.
This mountain bike trail is not for beginners. It’s an advanced trail and we only stopped by for a beautiful view from the trailhead. You can pay to take a shuttle (available 7-days a week) to the top of the trail from the Buffalo Outdoor Center. It’s a free trail and is open to the public, so riding is at your own risk.
If you are patient and visit at just the right time, you can spot elk! Spotting elk is possible year-round, however, Fall is the best time to spot elk since that is their mating season. They are best spotted along the Buffalo National River between Ponca and Boxley, after sunrise and in the late afternoon. Although we waited patiently for over an hour at sunset, along with many others parked for a view – we didn’t get a chance to see any. If you stop, please do not block the highway, or approach/feed the elk.
You can stop by the Elk Education Center (across the street from the Buffalo Outdoor Center) for a free exhibit on why there are so many elk in this area.
Tips for hiking along the Buffalo National River
- Wear sturdy hiking boots that lace up to your ankles.
- Pack sunscreen, bug spray, water, and snacks.
- Plan ahead and tell someone where you will be hiking. Cell phone service is extremely limited in the parks.
- Stay on the trails! This is very important and worth repeating.
- Do not leave trash along the trails, carry your own trash out.
- Leave wildlife alone, do not approach or disturb.
Check out our YouTube video on the National Buffalo River Trails! Don’t forget to subscribe!