Buffalo River Reopens For Day Use
It has been six weeks since the National Park Service closed the Buffalo National River due to the corona virus. On Friday May 15 the park was reopened for day use only. But it is a start! Late Friday and Saturday gave us quite a rainstorm. My gauge had 3+ inches in it. I was unable to get out on Sunday but Monday was sunny and warm, so I decided it would be a good time to just take a drive around a few of the access points to see how things were going. I expected large crowds at all the launch points along the river and also crowds at all the popular hiking trails, especially in the upper river district. My plan was to stop at the Lost Valley Store in Ponca , then the low water bridge to check the water levels.
Driving Highway 43 from Harrison to Ponca takes you past the Center Point Trailhead. This is a very popular hike, as as I went past I could see that there was not a single parking spot left. A wilderness experience in a semi-private setting is not my thing, so I continued down to the Lost Valley General Store in Ponca. These folks have been serving the area for as long as I have been in Arkansas (37 years). They have just about anything you might need, from a loaf of bread to a canoe. They are official concessionaires of the Buffalo River. I picked up some snacks and a soda then headed over to the Ponca low water bridge. The Lost Valley folks told me the river crested the previous day about 3pm. It was well over the bridge at that time.
There were park rangers at the low water bridge keeping vehicles off, making sure visitors were being safe, and answering any questions they might have. There was zero inches of air space at the low water bridge, and the current was strong. The floaters should have a great ride. Most were riding the waves past Steel Creek and taking out at Kyles Landing. A great float with some exciting rapids. I watched one couple launch their kayaks and head down river. I got in the jeep and also headed down river to Steel Creek.
Leaving Ponca I drove up Highway 74 to the Steel Creek Access. There were cars entering and leaving, so I knew it would be a busy day at the access. The bluffs at Steel Creek are quite magnificent and everyone should take the time to walk the river along these bluffs. Beautiful! At the far left end of the camping area is a splendid swimming spot. I parked my jeep alongside the rest of the vehicles, there must have been 50, and walked down to the river. There were private canoeists and also the outfitters were putting most of their craft in the water. I am sure they were happy to be back in business again. As I stood along the banks I saw the couple who I watched launch at Ponca float past! Given their speed I estimated they would be at Kyles Landing in another hour or so.
The next several groups to launch were in rafts. In my day (back in the mid 80's to mid 90's) most of the floating was done in canoes. Nowadays its mostly kayaks and rafts. Anyways, there was one group of first time floaters that were getting some advice from a very knowledgeable Lost Valley outfitter's guide.They were 13 strong and had 3 rafts in their fleet. The first two were 5 man strong in two large rafts with a smaller raft carrying the final 3. It was enjoyable to watch them take off. The smaller raft and crew seemed to have some experience and the smiles on their faces let us know they were having a blast.
As our country struggles with the COVID-19 virus and getting our economy back on track, I hope everyone will remember to treat this virus with caution. It is not over yet. One good thing about living in the Ozarks is that there are plenty of places you can go to enjoy the outdoors without putting yourself in danger. We have the river, 2 wilderness areas and several national forests within driving distance of my house. I recommend A Drive Down Any Dirt Road and How to Social Distance - Ozark Style to give you some ideas on how to get away from the crowds. I hope you have the chance to visit our area this spring and float the Buffalo River.