words: Jim Warnock
images: courtesy Eric D. Scowden and Jim Warnockr
As I approached the edge of the bluff, an expanding view took my breath away. Stepping closer, I saw the silver-jade ribbon of water below as it flowed toward towering bluffs in the distance. It was the late 1970s, and I was falling under the spell of Arkansas’ Buffalo River. That infatuation continues today, growing stronger with each visit.
The Buffalo River originates in the Boston Mountains near Fallsville in southwest Newton County and flows 150 winding miles east to where it connects with the White River at Buffalo City. I’ve spent a good deal of time in this area, hiking the trails along the river, and I’ve found that the roads to and from it offer so much to explore. Here are a few of my favorites.
Boxley Baptist Church
The Boxley Baptist Church is just a few minutes southwest of Ponca on AR 21. The church, built in 1877, is located on the west side of the road. It was originally used as both a place of worship and a school. The school eventually consolidated with the adjacent Jasper district, but the church remains just as it was when it was first built. It has no plumbing, for instance. It is cared for so that it will remain in Boxley Valley for future generations. The “new” church, built in 1951, sits next door and is now the worship center.
Intersection of AR 43 and 74 | Ponca
At the intersection of AR 43 and 74 in Ponca, you’ll see a structure built by Jim Villines. He constructed several buildings in the area between 1880 and 1940. He was known as “Beaver Jim” because of his prolific trapping. He almost single-handedly decimated the beaver population from his section of the river. However, he was a resourceful individual who pulled neighbors’ teeth for free and built a fourteen-foot dugout canoe to ferry people across the river during high water.
Buffalo Outdoor Center
1 Main St, AR 43 | Ponca | buffaloriver.com
The Buffalo Outdoor Center began when Mike Mills started outfitting canoes on the Buffalo River in 1976. He built a thriving business in the small town of Ponca, a few hundred yards from the water. The staff loves to talk trails, and they can direct you to some beautiful areas to explore. They also have good food, books, and maps, and they run river shuttles. To find them, go to downtown Ponca.
Elk Education Center
AR 43 | Ponca | agfc.com
Across the street from the Buffalo Outdoor Center, you’ll find the Ponca Elk Education Center, which has everything from nature displays to books. Elk were native to the Ozarks but disappeared after 1840. Between 1981 and 1985, the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission reintroduced elk to the area, and they are thriving. If you have the time and are lucky, you might see an elk herd in the Boxley Valley nearby.
Lost Valley Canoe
AR 43 | Ponca | lostvalleycanoe.com
Continuing past the Elk Center, you’ll come to Lost Valley Canoe. They’ve been providing canoe rentals since around 1987. They have groceries, a campground, showers, cabins, and bunkhouse accommodations for groups. Trails close to Ponca include Lost Valley, Hawksbill Crag, Glory Hole Falls, Hemmed in Hollow, Goat Bluff, and the Buffalo River Trail. Buffalo River Hiking Trails by Tim Ernst is a good resource for exploring these and other trails in the region.
Low Gap Café
AR 74 | Low Gap | facebook.com/pages/Low-Gap-Cafe/
Gourmet food, live music, and a family-friendly dining experience! The Low Gap Café, located on AR 74 between Ponca and Jasper, serves up some seriously good food in this low-key location. I had their catfish after a full day of hiking, and it was delicious! An outdoor dining deck overlooks the Steel Creek Valley to the north
west. Steel Creek is one of many beautiful tributaries flowing into the Buffalo River.
Low Gap CHURCH
While visiting Low Gap Café, be sure to walk next door and have a look at the historic Low Gap Church, built by the WPA (Works Progress Administration) in 1939. Members must show some commitment to attend worship services. Outhouses are located on each side of the building, one for the ladies and one for the men.
107 East Court Street (Highway 7)| Jasper | ozarkcafe.com
A stop in at the Ozark Café, located on the Newton County Square in Jasper, is a must. Good food, history, and live music in small town Arkansas! While it’s a lively nighttime location, there’s nothing like their Rise and Shine Combo or blueberry pancakes after several days on the river or trail. Anticipating
an Ozark Burger has quickened my hiking pace on several occasions.
Arkansas House Café
215 East Court Street (Highway 7) | Jasper | arkansashouse.net
Another great stop in Jasper is the Arkansas House Hotel & Café, one block off the Newton County Square, where you’ll find dishes like wild-caught razorback and free-range buffalo. The Elk Chili was a treat! Strike up a conversation with the café owner, and you’ll pick up some local history and gain a greater appreciation for the beauty of the Buffalo River. Gould Jones built the Arkansas House Hotel in 1933. Jones also built the waterwheel now on display in front of the café. The Roundtop Mountain Trail is a five minute drive south of downtown Jasper on Scenic Highway 7.
170 Ranger Road | St. Joe
As you explore the Buffalo River region, you’ll want to see the river up close. Tyler Bend and Buffalo Point both offer easy access to the Buffalo’s glassy clear water. You’ll also see examples of the river’s signature weathered bluffs and eroded caves. Sit and let the water wash your cares downstream or share a hike and picnic with family and friends. Both Buffalo Point and Tyler Bend feature visitor centers with maps of the area for deeper exploring. Buffalo Point is seventeen miles south of Yellville on AR 14. Turn east onto Highway 268. Trails in the area include Indian Rock House Trail, Buffalo River Trail, and Rush Interpretive Trail.
Homesite in Rush
Rush is a ghost town located south of Yellville on Marion County Road 6035, five miles northeast of Highway 14. Rush was a mining community that sprang up in the 1880s and thrived through the 1920s because of its rich deposits of zinc. Demand for zinc, used in the manufacture of copper and brass, peaked during World War I. Neil Compton, who led the effort to designate the Buffalo River as a national river, wrote this in his book, The Battle for the Buffalo River. “There had been another flurry of mining activity during and after the Second World War, but by 1969 Rush was bereft of inhabitants except for Gus Setzer and Fred Dirst, an old miner who conducted tours into the mines for wandering visitors…” You won’t get any tours today, but you can walk through history on a trail leading past old structures, equipment, and many abandoned mines. You might also rest your feet in the frigid “Boiling Springs” next to Rush Creek.
Searcy County Hwy 281 | St. Joe
Sod Collier and his family arrived here with only fifteen cents in 1928. He built a home and provided for his family by living off the land and working as a fishing guide on the river. Several kid-friendly loop trails are found at Tyler Bend.
The Collier Homestead is a 1.4-mile walk on the River View Trail from the Tyler Bend Visitor Center. You may also walk a few hundred yards to the homesite from where the Buffalo River Trail intersects with the entrance road to Tyler Bend. Tyler Bend is located 6 miles south of St. Joe on AR 65.
Whether you view the Buffalo River from the top of a bluff or the top of a canoe, her beauty will captivate you. Select a couple of locations and make a day of it, or explore more sites over the course of a week. You may find yourself falling under her spell, a spell that will add enjoyment and fascination to your life for years to come.