Do you like to get away from it all, and escape into wilderness away from the hustle of civilization? I recently traveled to such a place, and I will never be the same again. In the far reaches of Northwest Arkansas, in the heart of the Ozark Mountains, lies the Buffalo National River and surrounding wilderness areas. Two hours off Hwy 40, after many twisting and turning two lane country roads, one arrives to this sanctuary of wilderness and wild country. We were staying in the headwaters area of The Buffalo National River, which is roughly 12,000 acres of remote wilderness littered with waterfalls, mountain bike and hiking trails, caves, and the start of the otherworldly Buffalo National River, the creme de la creme of rivers. The headwaters area is part of the larger 1.1 million acre Ozark National Forest, which includes the Upper Buffalo Wilderness Area, the 135 mile Buffalo National River, and three other designated wilderness areas. The Buffalo is one of a hand full of undammed rivers in the country and is truly a wild and scenic river. Tall cliffs line its banks and the turquoise blue water of the river is spellbinding to the traveler. My wife, Shannon, and I had a week to explore the region and how I wish I had more. We just scratched the surface it seems, but made many lasting memories and experienced a level of peace and solitude that will last for many years to come.
We arrived on a Sunday evening just in time for the sunset and to check out our accommodations at Falling Trails, which is owned by How Kuff, a local mountain bike guide, author, and pioneer of biking in the Upper Buffalo. http://fallingtrails.com/ We rented a rustic cabin on How’s place that he just built on the 150 acre property. This cabin sits atop the highest point on the property with 360 degree views of the Ozarks and the surrounding wilderness. The cabin has no running water or electricity (solar panels and spring water sink will soon be added) and is about a 15 minute drive on a forest road off the small country highway. As soon as we arrive, we are greeted by the overwhelming silence, which will be the solace after each of our day’s adventures. Silence like this gets deep inside of your soul and cleans you out. It rustles your wildness inside and helps you to forget the troubles of life and get back to the simple concepts like gratitude and being awestruck at the world. We take a short hike on trails near the property and find some of the singletrack in the National Forest we will hit in the morning. We also say hello to the farm animals on the property, numerous goats and two horses. They roam freely on the property and add to the wonder of the place. After our short exploration, we light a fire in the cabin’s wood stove and relax on the porch watching the last of the sun’s rays dip behind the horizon. The sky is a mixture of deep orange and red hues and the picture adds to the sense of wonder and awe we are experiencing. We sleep soundly that night and set out to explore the singletrack in the morning. How gave us a small tidbit of information and said there is a 3 mile loop near the property off his driveway, so we set out on the first exploration into the unknown. We luck into the singletrack and the trails just keep opening up to more trails in an expanse of multiple forks and options. We take one of the freshly machine built sections of downhill and are treated to a beautiful section of trail with berms, flow and technical sections all in one. The trail eventually loops around to the section of trail we hiked the previous night and Shannon decides to cut it short and head back to the cabin. I decide to push on solo, since we crossed multiple sections of singletrack that were begging to be ridden. I hit a super technical descent down the mountain and was reminded of my home trails of Pisgah National Forest. The rocks, roots, tight switchbacks, and big drops were just like the local North Carolina trails. The trail loops back around to where we originally started and I decided to take a few variation side trails, which eventually led to the Buffalo River. One section was a really long, machine built section that was ripping fast and flowey. I was all smiles. On the climb out the rain started, light at first. I climbed back up to the ridge that headed to the cabin and then the rain came in earnest, along with lots of thunder and lightning. At one point on the ridge, the lightning and thunder crashing all around, I kind of got in panic mode and pedaled like a man possessed. The closest the crashing came was a four second count, and I probably should have stopped and gone into lightning drill. The cold made the decision for me and I high tailed it to the cabin through the storm taking my chances. The storm started to move off, and I made it back in one piece. Shannon already had a fire going and I ate a late lunch. I got 15 miles in and I was so psyched to ride later in the week with How. He was going to take me on a real tour of all the 40+ miles of trail on Friday. With all the multiple side trails and forks, I was so excited to have a guide for the next upcoming ride. Right now the Upper Buffalo River trails are not marked on any maps and are all unofficial trails. They have been like that for ten years. How recently met with the Forest Service and in June all these trails are going to be officially designated for mountain bikes and recreational use. The trail system has already received IMBA Epic status and it will be amazing when all the trails become official. How is creating a bike ranch that will have campsites, skills trails, local races and a cabin(the one we stayed in). The ranch will be a central hub for the trail system and How will help manage the trails and be a liaison with the forest service.
Day two, we decided to go rock climbing at Horseshoe Canyon Guest Ranch, which is a world-famous rock climbing destination. It is a sport climbing and traditional climbing paradise, with over 411 sport and trad routes and more than 400 boulder problems. The climbing is on sandstone and has a mixture of incuts, chickenheads, crimps, jugs and plates. Needless to say it is world-class. I hadn’t climbed in about a year, so I was a bit nervous. The moderate grades at Horseshoe Canyon and the safely bolted routes enabled me to jump right back into lead climbing with no hesitation. I was having a blast at my previous sport obsession of dancing over the stone. The day turned sunny and warm and as usual on the trip, no one was around. We only saw 3 groups of climbers the entire day, and only on very brief occasions. We had the entire canyon to ourselves. If this place was in Boulder, Colorado and not miles from anywhere, the crowds would be horrendous. The remoteness of the Upper Buffalo River Wilderness and the lack of big cities or even towns is the key to its isolation. The 1.1 million acres of surrounding forest is an isolating factor as well. Shannon and I were having a blast and we were having some good bonding time. After all, we met as climbers and climbed together for 15+ years. The day was just like old times and we were all smiles. Horseshoe Canyon Guest Ranch is worth a trip to Western Arkansas in its own right, but this day was just one in our adventure filled week. We took a shower at the ranch too, which was nice. They added a bath house since our last visit four years ago and have upgraded the camping accommodations as well to include a covered common area with a fridge, BBQ grill and a few more wooded campsites.
Day three would take us to the famous Buffalo National River and an eleven mile canoe trip on this mystical river. I had not been in a canoe for many years and this adventure was one of my favorites. The scenery is truly mind-blowing and around every bend there was something to look at and awe over. We put in near the tiny one gas station town of Ponca and floated to Kyle’s Landing. The scenery reminded me of desert settings in New Mexico with the cliffs and vistas keeping our eyes skyward the entire float. Again, we saw only three people. Two people were way ahead of us and we only saw them once and never caught up to them. One person we saw hiking down a side trail as we hiked up to view a waterfall along the way. The solitude was immeasurable and intense. You felt connected to a deeper feeling in nature and felt like an explorer discovering new regions. The only sounds were the wind and the gentle flow of the water against stones. Times like these open up your mind to wandering thoughts of deeper connections beyond yourself and how truly wonderful nature’s gifts really can be. Simple thoughts of oneness and calm envelop one’s being and smiles are not far behind. We stopped for a side hike to Hemmed in Hollow Falls. This magical place was one of the best places I have been to in my life. A gentle one mile hike leads to a box canyon with a 225 foot waterfall that shoots away from the cliff in a snake-like pattern. The wind was blowing the water in spiral-like patterns and creating a beautiful spectacle. We had lunch in the canyon and soaked up the sights and sounds. The water crashing on the ground put us into a mesmorizing trance and complete state of relaxation. I would love to come back and camp along this river and really experience what it has to offer. The day was one for the books and one I will never forget. This trip was getting better and better each day.
Day four was for hiking and caving. We hiked into Lost Canyon near Ponca to see a natural bridge, many waterfalls, an old Native American bluff shelter site, and to hike into Eden Cave that has a hidden waterfall deep in its dark chambers. It was raining hard on the way there, so when we pulled up to the parking lot there was only one car, and they left of course. Solitude once again. We hiked in the rain up the canyon and then the storm stopped. The sun started peeking out and the water was flowing loud and cutting the canyon like an orchestra of sound playing to a grand audience. We did not mind that we were the only listeners, two wanderlust travelers seeking truth and peace in the remote Arkansas wilderness. The natural bridge was a site to see. We walked through it and the water sliced the rock like glacier run off in Alaska, cutting a large channel through the rock. The sounds of water were creating a grand musical for our ears. Further up the canyon was the Native American bluff shelter site. It was beautiful there and I can just imagine people thousands of years before waiting out storms under the rock and storing their grains there. It was a site to see. There was a many-layered waterfall further up the canyon and another waterfall was coming out of the rock above the shelter site that free fell to the ground in gentle sheets. We stayed there awhile and then trekked further up the canyon to Eden Cave. A local said there was a hidden waterfall deep in the 200 foot cave that you can reach with a short squeeze through the rocks. We brought headlamps and my bright bike light for this excursion. Shannon led the way and fearlessly crawled through the thirty foot section on hands and knees to reach the waterfall. I was definitely out of my comfort zone and moved forward reluctantly. After crawling through the tight two and a half-foot high, 30 foot long squeeze section, the cave opened up to a large room with a waterfall crashing through the rocks at the back. The chamber was around forty feet high and the waterfall rushed out in loud and powerful gushes and sprayed water vapor all over the room. I felt like I was in the bowels of the earth and at the site of creation. The sound of water hitting the rock and pool on the chamber floor was a force you could feel to your core. The room vibrated and echoed, charging your body and mind with energy and power. Once, we turned out the lights and just listened to the power. I felt like I was a rechargeable battery and was being infused with energy and life from this natural recharging station before us. We crawled back through the cave and walked back to the car in a daze for the remainder of the day. What a treat!
On day 5 of the trip, I hired How Kuff to guide me into the Upper Buffalo River to ride on his favorite singletrack. As I said before, none of the trails are marked, so having a guide was the way to go. It turns out my exploration ride from day one was just a meager scratching at the surface. We went on a full on, back-country ride and he showed me a wide selection of classic trails from machine built flow sections, to long, technical and rocky descents. The route had a mixture of climbing and downhill and was very similar to riding in North Carolina. We rode 30 miles of some of the best back-country trails I have been on, and never once did we see another person, except once we saw a car going up a remote fire road. A real treat How showed me, was a local fire tower I got to climb up. He volunteers manning a research camera that is housed in the tower. It takes pictures that scientists in Boulder, Colorado analyze to examine the area’s air quality. He unlocked the gate and we scaled the 150 foot tower. The 360 degree views were outstanding. My climbing skills came into play as we forgoed unlocking the ladder to reach the stairs 20 feet up. We scaled the metal tower like cats and needless to say, climbing in mountain bike cleats is a little sketchy and slippery. How had his flats on and climbed with ease. I worked my way slowly up the slippery metal beams and made it to the stairs safely. I wish I took some pics of this excursion, but I did not have Shannon’s phone. Memories will have to suffice. The downhill descent from the firetower was a really nice way to end the day. It was at least a four mile descent on fast and flowey machine built trail that led us back to How’s property.
Hanging out each evening was really fun and relaxing, too. We would make a fire, eat dinner, talk about the day, and just relax on the porch watching the sunset, or would just listen to the quiet sounds of the woods. These were some of the best times of the trip. They were times when your mind would move towards thoughts of thankfulness and happiness at the incredible gifts being shown to us each day on this trip. Sitting quietly among a still world of trees and clean air, one reflects on the joy that can be experienced in life, and one is reminded of the sanctitiy of wilderness and wild places. I now truly understand Thoreau’s quote, “In wildness is the preservation of the world.” In wilderness we become whole again. In wilderness, we cleanse our minds and bodies and can take on life with a renewed sense of purpose and direction. With heavy hearts, the next day we packed the car and started the long two day trek back home to Asheville. As a pleasant reminder of the gifts we received this week, right as we turned onto the paved road, a young bobcat walked casually out of the woods. We were able to walk fairly close to it and watch it meander slowly back into the woods. It was a special moment that sealed in the joy and incredible experiences of the week, making them permanently etched into our memories. Turning onto the main Highway 40, we went to get some food. I was definitely in culture shock at all the people and noises. The week of solitude and silence was in stark contrast to the busy world of life. We headed for our final treat to Hot Springs, Arkansas, for a soak in the healing waters at Quapaw Baths and Spa. It was a refreshing end to the trip and a way to rejuvenate after all the weeks activities. We then started the drive home in a blissful, relaxed state. In the end, I am so thankful that there still are wild places we can go in life. Places we can go to escape and to reconnect, places we can go to remember gifts of nature and to create experiences that make us once again whole. Until next time, thank you Arkansas.