Grab your hiking boots and head for the mountains to take in the myriad natural wonders of the Buffalo National River wilderness
Winding down the mountain and through the rugged landscape of dense forest scattered with enormous rock formations, the road flattens out at the tiny, outdoor town of Ponca, Arkansas. With a population of fewer than 120 people, a post office, and a couple of wilderness outfitting stores, Ponca is the middle of nature-nowhere for the Midwest. With stunningly beautiful rustic surroundings and a full array of outdoor adventure opportunities, this northern Arkansas area is perhaps one of America’s best-kept secrets.
Ponca rests on the Buffalo River, the first river in America to be designated a National River. Commencing deep in the highest elevations of the Boston Mountains, the river’s over 150 miles of winding water carve a path eastward through the wilds and wonders of northern Arkansas. Its uppermost section boasts such steep terrain, sharp ridges, crags, and crevices that roughly the first 16 miles are further designated as wild, and the upstream gem is officially known as the Buffalo National Wild and Scenic River.
Show up at the Ponca Low-Water Bridge on any spring weekend morning, and you’re likely to see groups of people wearing orange life vests, paddles in hand, shoving off from shore in canoes bearing outfitters’ logos. Across the bridge lies a short trail to a historic cabin built in 1882, as well as a trailhead leading to a scenic, full-day, 12-mile hike upstream to Boxley—a small community in times past but now a river put-in and trailhead itself. Beneath this hiking stretch, the valley extending up to the ridgetops is a favorite location for Arkansas’s only herd of wild elk. Catching sight of them grazing before a backdrop of sloping terrain near the river’s emerald green waters resembles a scene from somewhere out West.
The Buffalo National River was established in 1972; its founding was the result of a long, contentious battle that began in 1960 when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers proposed the construction of two hydroelectric dams that would have destroyed the river and buried its beauties. Under the leadership of Dr. Neil Compton, area residents and outdoor enthusiasts united to fight the proposal, forming a coalition known as the Ozark Society. Their decade of unwavering commitment …….