The feel is similar to my beloved Virginia—tree-covered mountains playing host to a multitude of exciting outdoor activities. But I can tell it’s not the same: shades of differences in the flora; ridge patterns unlike the folds of the Blue Ridge Mountains—oh, and elk.
My trip to the Ozarks of Arkansas gave me a taste of the forests and the river, the cuisine and the people, along the Buffalo River. I learned the history of this grand old waterway: America’s first national river, one of the few remaining undammed rivers in the lower 48 states. The highest bluffs along the river reach up to 440 feet. The river’s steady flow, its bends and rapids, its tree-lined shores and clear waters dotted with fish—its magnificence is a natural setting for outdoor fun.
Canoes carried me and my companions down a gentle stretch of the Buffalo, over autumn rapids that gave us the smallest of challenges, past trees reaching out over the waters and trees scaling the slopes, past rocky crags, and fallen boulders. The surface was at times pocked by rocks; other times it was smooth, reflecting the sky with the faintest of ripples like windows of an old house; and sometimes the water sprinkled with glitter from the afternoon sun. We even glided up close to pair of deer, who only fled when we finally got too close.
Somehow, wildlife watching helps to capture the essence of a place. Here along the Upper Buffalo River in Boxley Valley, people come to see a reliable morning show: as if on cue, elk come to graze in the fields that line the river, fetching their breakfast and providing entertainment. In the cool autumn pre-dawn, we waited at first—our eyes adjusted to the dimness, wondering if we saw movement or not. As we found the right field and the sun’s morning light reached the valley, we saw the elk: a bull and his harem.
Though the show does not compare to an action-packed adventure movie, it has an element that Hollywood doesn’t—reality. The cars that lined the road told that there were others who valued this drive-in movie. We heard the bugle of the male elk, marking his dominance with a surprisingly high-pitched call.
The scene was generally peaceful, but we did see another bull try to usurp the throne—only to be driven away quickly by the dominant male.
While elk were fresh on my mind, I visited the Elk Education Center in Ponca, to view up close the full-body mounts of elk—a bull, cow and calf—and a bear, to learn more about these and other animals, as well as the geology of the region. Hides and skulls are available to touch—a real firsthand experience.
The waters that flow in the Buffalo River are the centerpiece, but there’s plenty of action on land, too. Another exciting excursion was to the Buffalo Outdoor Center’s zip line canopy tour, Arkansas’s first of its kind. Their tree-friendly platforms are built around Ozark mountain hardwoods, and the tour was sprinkled with the guides’ playful banter.
Ten of us climbed the steps to the top of the first tower, a six-story structure swaying ever so slightly as we reached the top. The 1,000-foot zip line was the recommended exit from the tower, but several among us suggested they’d prefer returning down the stairway. Of those who hesitated, one had signed up thinking she was merely walking among the trees on a secure elevated walkway and another was there to conquer her fears. The guides masterfully assured them of their safety, while still leaving open the option of retreat.
Besides our guides, I was the only veteran of zip line tree canopy tours. I eagerly pursue adventures like this—a touch of adrenaline accompanied by the assurance I’ll return home in one piece. I volunteered to take the first ride, a long, fast zip across an open field leading to the woods’ edge, and waited to see who among the group would follow. One by one, each person took the step off of that first tower. Anxiety gradually gave way to laughter, and we could turn our attention to the verdant stillness of the Ozark forest.
By the end of the tour, thanks to the encouraging manner of the guides, careful attention to safety, and heavy doses of adrenaline, everyone was relaxed and confident, a veteran of the zip line.
Sadly, the rain that had been threatening during the canopy tour came down in full force afterwards, and our plans for The Screamer and the Via Ferrata at Horseshoe Canyon Ranch were scuttled. Optimistic, we went to the ranch nonetheless, but the rain kept up and the activities were canceled, for the safety of all involved. So though I didn’t get to experience these action-packed thrills, I saw the ranch—a worthwhile destination in itself—and a video of adventurers in action.
Rock climbing at Horseshoe Canyon Ranch has 300 routes for all levels of climbers. It’s touted as one of the best climbing areas east of the Rockies. The Via Ferrata is a “free” rock climbing experience, yet you’re tethered to safety the whole time. The Screamer is a huge swing across the mouth of a box canyon. And their Iron Horse is one of the top zip lines in North America: nearly a half-mile zip with a drop of 277 feet and possible speeds of over 50 m.p.h.
Given the adventure at Horseshoe Canyon Ranch, the lodging and other activities, and the scents that I caught emanating from the kitchen, it’s on my bucket list of future travel plans.
Not to be totally stymied by the rain, and taking advantage of the gear for sale at Buffalo Outdoors Center, I zipped up my new Columbia rain jacket and joined two companions for a walk on the Lost Valley Trail. We weren’t the only hardy hikers ignoring the rain, treading the soft, wet trails with the hiss of the rain on the leaves overhead. The forest that lined our path was still beautiful, marred only by gray background instead of sky blue.
The highlights of the trail for me, though, were the towering cliffs, huge rock overhangs and small cave system. Having heard from another hiker that the dark, tight passageways led to a large cathedral-like room with a waterfall, we decided to push our way through. We twisted and squeezed, with only the iPhone flashlight app to illuminate the way. It was worth the crawl: we finally found the dome, which rose high above us, and heard the steady stream of water falling into a pool at our feet. The natural room was impressive, but perhaps more invigorating was the knowledge that we’d pushed through the unknown to find it.
Adventures are common in the Arkansas Ozarks, in the forested mountains along the scenic, historic Buffalo National River.
Yet the downtime is restful, too, set against such a beautiful backdrop. We stayed at the Buffalo Outdoor Center lodge, a combination of luxury and lodge décor, surrounded by the warmth of wood and overlooking the mountains and valleys of the Ozarks. Perhaps most breathtaking was the morning view, as our perch on the mountaintop set us above a sea of clouds with mountaintop islands.
It’s funny how being outdoors really whips up the appetite. Though my expectations were muted this far from a big city, several restaurants came through. (Note that the area is largely dry, so consider packing in your beverage of choice.) Besides meals enjoyed from the kitchen of the lodge, we found sustenance at several enjoyable spots. Low Gap Café, the “Friendliest Spot in Town,” offers gourmet-style food in an unassuming setting. Ferguson’s Country Store and Restaurant at the Buffalo River Trading Company fills you with homestyle comfort foods for breakfast and lunch, including a big farmhand breakfast, homemade biscuits and gravy, and cinnamon rolls. The Buffalo Outdoor Center deli creates sandwiches using the best deli meats and cheese and local ingredients, including freshly baked breads—worth eating there just for the breads.
Combine adrenaline rushes from mild to wild with the variety of convenient visitor services here in the Arkansas Ozarks, and the memories are as vivid as the area’s deep blue skies and rich, green canopy.
IF YOU GO:
Buffalo Outdoor Center: Outfitter services for canoeing, floats, fishing, zip lining, and hiking plus products, plus lodging, as well as outdoor products, ice cream, coffee and delightful deli food at Buffalo Outdoor Center. They’ll guide you to local swimming holes, trails, camping, and more. http://www.buffaloriver.com/boc-store/
Buffalo River Outfitters: Lodging, guides, canoes, rafts, kayaks, horseback riding, and more. http://www.buffaloriveroutfitters.com
Horseshoe Canyon Ranch: http://horseshoecanyonduderanch.com
Ferguson’s Country Store and Restaurant: http://buffalorivertradingco.com
Big Springs Trading Co. Restaurant and Smoked Meats: http://www.bigspringsrestaurant.com