WEEKEND GETAWAY |
If you need a change of scenery and don’t have time to travel far, plan a weekend road trip instead. Springfield-area Ozarkers live in the best basecamp location for one-tank getaways less than half a day’s drive from home. Need a new idea? We’re here to help with another great Daily Citizen Road Trip Guide.
Getting to the Upper Buffalo National River region (click to expand story)
We can’t pinpoint one place for this weekend’s road trip because locations for lodging are so varied around the mountainous area. But there are four easy-to-map spots in northern Arkansas about two hours from Springfield. You’ll likely be near:
- Jasper — This is the closest small town with the most urban amenities you’ll find near the Buffalo National River. There are shops, restaurants and hotels. Most people pass through, or near, Jasper on their way to the Buffalo. We mapped Springfield to Jasper here.
- Ponca — This tiny township has two outfitters that rent lodging and river gear. Each has a small store and gas station. Many of your adventures may start here or go through here, and it’s a great point of reference, which we used in our guide. We mapped Springfield to Ponca here.
- Boxley Valley Historic District — Near Ponca, there are several cabin rentals in and around the valley. We mapped Springfield to Boxley here.
- Compton — This unincorporated community is another location near hikes, including the popular Centerpoint Trailhead that leads to several destinations. We mapped Springfield to Compton here.
Scenic Upper Buffalo River area offers so much more than floating
With soaring bluffs, a natural wild river, dozens of waterfalls and amazing views, it’s no wonder we love spending time in northwest Arkansas near the Upper Buffalo Wilderness in the Ozark National Forest. Best of all, it’s only two hours from Springfield — the gateway to the Ozarks outdoors. Or as some nature enthusiasts call our fine city, Basecamp Springfield.
The region around the Buffalo National River in Newton County offers so much to do, you could spend a week there. But a weekend will do nicely. Besides, it’s so close, you can keep going back! The only caveat is that weekend road trips here take a little more planning than some destinations because there aren’t resorts or state parks, or even many hotels in the area. Most people stay in cabins or campgrounds.
Don’t worry — this guide includes great tips to find lodging, plus everything else you need to know to plan an amazing adventure. Keep reading to find great things to do, followed by lodging tips and places to dine or shop. (Click into the drop-downs to read more about what interests you most.)
Did you know the Buffalo National River is our nation’s first national river? Learn more about how it was saved through the documentary, “First River: How Arkansas Saved a National Treasure.” Another good history resource is buffaloriver.org.
Things to do
Newton County in northwest Arkansas has so much to offer, you could write a book to cover it all (and several have done that). But we can get you started with wide-ranging suggestions. While hiking is a primary attraction, there’s plenty for non-hikers, too. Of course, paddlers of all levels flood the area in spring and fall to float the Upper Buffalo National River. While this guide is focused most on non-float weekend fun, we’ve included some river resources too. Click to expand each category below for helpful details.
Trek the trails
Oh, where do we start? Actually, where do we end? There are so many trails to choose from and never enough time. That’s why we usually start with hikes when planning a weekend near the Upper Buffalo National River. In this guide, I share some of my favorite easy-to-moderate trails and include additional resources if you’re looking for more, or seeking a challenge.
Deeper guide to trails (click to expand story)
Lost Valley Trail: If you’ve never been to the Upper Buffalo National River area, start with this easy-to-moderate 2.2-mile out-and-back trail. It’s a sampler plate of natural things to see in a box canyon — including two waterfalls. Reach the well-kept trailhead down Lost Valley Road off Arkansas 43 in Boxley Valley. A few sites along this trail include an 8-foot waterfall flowing from the Natural Bridge, the 53-foot Eden Falls (via a more rugged spur), and for those able to do a more challenging section up the bluff, a cool cave.
Alum Cove Trail: This 1.2-mile loop trail on NFM 28, north of Arkansas 16, is short but rugged with some hilly elevations. Its primary draw is one of the largest natural bridges in Arkansas, plus there are lots of geologic features and a seasonal waterfall. Learn more in this previous story.
Sweden Creek Falls: This gorgeous area (one of my favorites) has two trails — one to the top (about 1.5 miles out and back) and the other to the bottom of Sweden Creek Falls. Plus there are more waterfalls in the area to explore. The trailhead is about 20 minutes southwest of Ponca and Boxley Valley. For detailed directions and a complete guide to this waterfall area, check out this previous story.
Whitaker Point/Hawksbill Crag: Known by both names, this 3-mile out and back trail’s iconic crag is said to be the most photographed spot in Arkansas — and for good reason. A moderate trail to the edge of high bluffs, it’s a must-do trail at least once. The hardest part is getting there! About 30 minutes southwest of Ponca on Arkansas 21, the last section of your drive, County Road 5, is a rough gravel road that may be best for a four-wheel drive vehicle. And if you go on a Saturday, expect parking to be packed.
Smith Creek Trail: There are actually a few options in the Smith Creek Preserve just off Arkansas 21 less than 15 minutes south of Ponca. The trails aren’t hard, but there are some steep elevations. You can take the lower trail (our usual route) toward the spring, an upper trail and/or take a trail to see QuiVaLa Elise Falls. My favorite part is the boulder section of the creek with its many pretty cascades. If you want the steps, go all the way to the spring, but it’s a little underwhelming — better to spend your energy going to Elise Falls.
Round Top Mountain Trail: Another trail with lots of interesting geologic features, it’s also known for spring flowers, rock climbing areas, the site of a 1948 plane crash and an impressive vista view once you reach the top. Learn more about this 3.5-mile loop trail (with shorter options) in this previous story.
Glory Hole and Magnolia Falls waterfall trails: These two trails are about 2 miles out and back each, and close enough to each other you could do both in an afternoon. Magnolia Falls, the easier of the two, is about 20 minutes south of Ponca; the trailhead to Glory Hole — a unique waterfall flowing through a hole in the top of an open cave — is about 30 minutes south.
Paige Falls and Broadwater Hollow Falls: It’s less than a mile hike to see two cool waterfalls on one of my favorite short treks off Arkansas 43 in Compton. The 2-mile gravel road to the trailhead parking, NC 2660, is steep and a bit rough. The trail is across from a low-water crossing and you’ll see several small waterfalls as you make your way to Paige, which you can view from the top and bottom. Farther along the trail — but not much — is Broadwater Hollow Falls (pictured at the top of this guide). The trail continues beyond this point to Cecil Creek, but if you’re looking for a short adventure, turn around and head back from here.
Hideout Hollow Trail: Near Erbie, this 2-mile, out-and-back trail leads to a high bluff overlook and continues to the top of a 37-foot waterfall. The lovely wet-weather creek has several small waterfalls upstream. Some people work their way to the bottom of the tall waterfall (we didn’t).
Mini-road trips: Sometimes when we stay in the Buffalo River area, we drive up to an hour to hike other beautiful trails. Three of my favorites are the subject of these “Picture the Ozarks” trail guides. Click on each name for everything you need to know:
- Kings River Falls Trail (short and relatively easy)
- Falling Water Falls (no hike!) plus four nearby waterfall hikes
- Pedestal Rocks Scenic Area (two trails)
Discover more trails: One quick resource listing more trails in the area can be found on the BOC website. Another robust resource is Danny Hale’s Takahik website (he also wrote a book). And considered by many to be the waterfall hiking “bible,” photographer Tim Ernst’s book “Arkansas Waterfalls” is a must-have for finding the best trails. Plus, the Daily Citizen is building a great roundup of hiking and adventure guides. Find more adventures, near and far, in sections dedicated to weekend getaways and to hiking.
Look for elk
Newton County is known as the Elk Capital of Arkansas for good reason. A herd of roughly 600 elk makes its home along the Buffalo National River, and the elk are easy to find. Keep reading for more detail and a family-friendly bonus stop where you can learn even more.
Looking for elk? (click to expand story)
The best time to look for elk is near dawn and dusk. And the best places to look are all along Arkansas Highways 43 and 21 in Boxley Valley. During busy seasons, you’ll know there’s elk to see by all the cars pulled off the road (please do so safely!). We’ve had luck near the turn-off for the Ponca Low-Water Bridge and there’s a nice elk-viewing pull-off area farther south on Arkansas 43, just past Lost Valley Road. You might have luck near where Highways 43 and 21 intersect.
If it’s midday (with few elk sightings) or you want to learn more about the Buffalo River’s herd, stop by the Elk Learning Center, a.k.a. Ponca Nature Center, 4642 AR Highway 43 in Ponca. For instance, did you know that elk, once native to Arkansas, disappeared after 1840 and were re-introduced successfully to the state between 1981 and 1985? The center’s exhibits include full-body mounts of an elk and a black bear, plus hides, skulls, artifacts and interactive learning displays. They also provide information on the area’s latest sightings and have some online resources.
Soak up the scenery
If you don’t float or do long hikes, is it still worth spending a weekend in the Upper Buffalo National River area? Oh, yes! Besides elk-watching, we share several ways to easily enjoy this gorgeous region.
Scenic drives and other spots (click to expand story)
Take a scenic drive through Boxley Valley Historic District. Not only might you see elk (depending on the time of day), you’ll encounter several photo-worthy old barns along the way. (There are places to pull off for a photo, but don’t enter private property.) The valley drive along pastures backdropped by beautiful hills is worth it just for the scenery alone.
If you like scenic drives, travel south on Arkansas 7. Be sure to stop for scenic overlooks to view what’s known as “Arkansas’s Grand Canyon.” (There’s a good diner at one spot — read more on that below.)
Visit the Ponca Nature Center, certainly to learn about elk (read more about that above), but even beyond that, it’s a nice scenic spot to sit or explore. The log building and wide open decks welcome visitors with rustic log rockers overlooking Ponca Creek, where you can explore along a trail. There are also tables for having a picnic.
Whether or not you plan to camp, float or hike, pop down to Steel Creek off Arkansas 74 and drive around or walk around. We like to stop by the boat launch area to look at the river and gaze at the bluffs (and yes, take photos!). We always walk down a sandy path to where Steel Creek flows into the Buffalo for even better views. A great spot to picnic or simply soak up the sun at the water’s edge is a big wide rocky beach behind the campgrounds. The best trail to the water is near the far (upriver) end of the campground.
We also love to stop at the Ponca Low-Water Bridge — often a picnic spot when we come for a day hike. The sound of the rushing water is soothing and there are shady spots to sit near the water. Cross the bridge and take photos (I always do!).
Pruitt on the Buffalo River is another scenic stop. Pull off to the east of Arkansas 7 just after crossing the bridge. This is the location for the ranger station and the Buffalo River Trail’s Pruitt trailhead. There’s a wide grassy area with picnic tables and a bathroom, and a little path goes to the river and the Pruitt Bluff where you can explore along the riverbank. It’s also a place to get wet if the weather is warm (more on that below).
Make a splash
If you visit the area when it’s especially warm on a day you don’t float, you can still cool off in the water. We share a few spots to try.
Cool off with a dip in the water (click to expand story)
Whether camping or day-visiting, Steel Creek is a beautiful bluff-framed area to wade. Near the far end of the campground, a narrow trail leads to a rocky beach and a nice pooled section of the river. Another good wading spot, backed by Briar Bluff, is at the Ozark Campground near Jasper. Kyles Landing on the Buffalo has a good pool, though it’s a bit of a rough drive to access. And you get a two-for-one at Pruitt, where you can find a place to dip along the ranger station/Buffalo River Trail side (west of the road and bridge), and at Pruitt Landing, southeast of the bridge, where paddlers put in. (Find more detail at the BOC website.)
You can also get wet at the end of a hike to some waterfalls (unless it’s too dry). One such spot in this area is Sweden Creek Falls on the lower trail. There’s also a pool at Paige Falls (a little easier to reach). If you’re up for a longer drive from your cabin or campsite, the pools at Falling Water Falls and Kings River Falls become swimming holes in the spring and summer.
The Upper Buffalo Wilderness has a long, rich history and some local families have been there for generations. You can explore remnants of that history where old buildings still stand. We share a few spots to explore.
Explore local history (click to expand story)
The Villines family was among the Buffalo River area’s first pioneers, and sixth-generation members of the family still live in the area. Two historic spots in Boxley Valley with historic ties to the Villines are easy to visit. The boyhood home of James “Beaver Jim” Villines is right off the road along Arkansas 43 near the Ponca Low Water Bridge. You can’t miss it, and a sign nearby announces you’re entering the Boxley Valley Historic District. After Beaver Jim — so named for his trapping ability — married, he built his own homestead nearby across the Buffalo River. To visit the Beaver Jim Villines Homestead, which includes several historic buildings, cross the Ponca Low-Water Bridge and look for a trail on your left. This is part of the Buffalo River Trail, with a marked uphill spur that leads to the spread.
Another iconic building in the valley is the old Boxley Church, off Arkansas 21 south of the junction with Arkansas 43. The Boxley Grist Mill — once owned by the Villines but now protected by the National Park Service — is also in the valley, but only occasionally open to the public with a park ranger.
And depending on your hike, you may encounter an old cabin or two. The most famous, perhaps, is Granny Henderson’s cabin, which isn’t easy to reach although there are several ways to get there, including up from the river. Many go via the Sneads Creek or Centerpoint trails. Learn more about Granny Henderson in this story from Ozarks Alive and from the U.S. National Park Service.
Try something extreme-ish
In addition to all the ways you can explore natural areas on foot, there are a few opportunities for exploring in a different way, like horseback riding, ziplining and rock climbing. We include resources below.
Something for the more adventuresome (click to expand story)
For a one-stop adventure, Horseshoe Canyon Ranch off Arkansas 74 is the place to go. A dude ranch with cabin rentals and campgrounds (more on that below), you can also do some activities with a day pass: zipline, the ropes course and rock climbing. In fact, Horseshoe Canyon is renowned among rock climbers. You can also pay for guided climbs. If you want to ride horses, you’ll need to book an overnight package. Check the website for information and seasonal options.
The Buffalo Outdoor Center also offers a Zipline Canopy Tour through the treetops. Located near some of the BOC cabins, it’s open from March through mid-November.
Paddle the Buffalo
If you haven’t floated the Buffalo yet, we share some basic information and resources to help you plan.
Floating the Buffalo (click to expand story)
The Buffalo, with its soaring bluffs, is one of the most beautiful rivers you’ll ever float. The most important thing to know is that it’s not spring-fed (like the Current River) so its water level depends on the weather. It’s not safe to float if it’s too low or too high. That’s why it’s important to check water level gauges.
The most popular Upper Buffalo National River float — and primary outfitter access — goes from Steel Creek to Kyles Landing. For a longer float, you can start at the Ponca Low-Water Bridge, or continue to lower access points. If the river is too low for Steel to Kyles, you might try one of our favorite alternatives, from Pruitt to Hasty (also serviced by outfitters). Other general access points in the upper region are at Erbie, Ozark and Carver campgrounds. More technical paddlers seeking white water enjoy Boxley Valley to Ponca.
If you need to rent a canoe, kayak or raft, there are three primary outfitters for the upper stretch of the river. Two outfitters are located in Ponca: Buffalo Outdoor Center and Lost Valley Canoe & Lodging. Another, Riverview Motel and Canoe, is based in Jasper.
Where to stay
Securing a place to stay for a weekend in northwest Arkansas and the Upper Buffalo National River region takes a little extra research. You won’t find big resorts or state parks here. And it’s a mountainous region, so it helps to have a few ideas about which hikes and activities you hope to do. That way you can narrow your search to stay within reasonable driving distances (especially helpful if self-shuttling for a float).
You can book a remote individual cabin through VRBO or Airbnb, or stay in a Jasper hotel. There are also a few small cabin rental businesses and outfitters that offer lodging. And of course, there’s camping! Do you prefer a vista view or a secluded cabin in the woods? You’ll find plenty of options, but note that many cabins book early during the best waterfall hunting, floating and peak fall color seasons.
Cabin tips: Look at photos to see whether you’ll have a nice view or be tucked away in a secluded woods. Some cabins have firepits, fireplaces and/or hot tubs — and some don’t. Check ahead if one of those is important to you. Lastly, check if the road to your rental is paved or gravel, and whether it’s steep (some are!) if you don’t have four-wheel drive.
Outfitters that rent cabins
Two main outfitters in the town of Ponca serve the Upper Buffalo National River, and both offer cabin rentals.
Outfitters available (click to expand story)
The larger outfit is Buffalo Outdoor Center, known as the BOC. In addition to river rentals and a large store with a gas station on Arkansas 43, the BOC rents 25 multiple-size cabins for groups from two to 12 (plus two lodges for rent that would accommodate larger groups). Some cabins are in and around Ponca, tucked into the woods; others are up in the mountains with broad vista views. Some include hot tubs or special amenities. The BOC also has a newish RV park.
Lost Valley Canoe & Lodging, less than half a mile north of the BOC, is a small family-owned outfitter with a historic general store and gas station. Lost Valley rents three private cabins (all pet-friendly and with hot tubs), a bunkhouse camping cabin that sleeps up to 16, the Tree Top Yurt (literally built around a cedar tree) and two new yurts near Ponca Creek, the Ponca Yurt and Cedar Crest Yurt.
You can find lots of cabins through online rental sites and cabin owners’ websites. We share links and a list here.
Cabin rentals also available (click to expand story)
Many individual cabins are listed on VRBO and Airbnb. Good location search terms include: Ponca, Arkansas; Jasper, Arkansas; Buffalo River, Arkansas; and Deer, Arkansas. (These are all VRBO example links — do the same on Airbnb. Some cabins are listed on both.)
You can also find cabins around the Upper Buffalo River region through small business owners who have several cabins for rent (some are also listed on VRBO and Airbnb). You’ll find many more at one of these sites that provide a robust resource list: buffalorivertourism.com and Arkansas.com. We’ve included a few local options with multiple rentals.
Walnut Grove Cabins — three cabins in and near Boxley Valley
Cliff House Inn — a small five-room lodge with a vista view, restaurant and three cabins on Arkansas 7 (famous for its valley view known as “Arkansas’s Grand Canyon”)
Arkansas Grand Canyon View Cabins — a group of seven cabin options with a view, also on Arkansas 7
Beaver Creek Cabins — two cabins, one near a creek, the other with a view off Fire Tower Road
Steel Creek Cabins — two cabins near Steel Creek off Arkansas 74 (owned by the Villines family)
JB Trading Company — a gas and shop stop in Compton off Arkansas 43 with a rental lodge (Ma’s Mountain Villa near the store), plus more rustic options including platform tents and huts (no plumbing), and campgrounds
Ozark Bluff Dwellers — a set of four cabins with views near Jasper off County Road 137
Horseshoe Canyon Ranch — a dude ranch off Arkansas 74 with activities like horseback riding and ziplining, it offers cabins and camping with various rates and policies, depending on the season. Guests booking with activities fill it up in-season, but there are some opportunities to simply stay, especially when it gets cooler.
Little Switzerland Cabin Vacation Rentals — a cluster of five small cabins and motel rooms with budget rates just north of Jasper on Arkansas 7
Many cabin addresses are considered “Jasper” although they are remote. But if you prefer a more urban home base with shopping and dining nearby, there are a few places to stay in and around the town. Here are three.
Jasper lodging options (click to expand story)
The Arkansas House – hotel rooms, suites and cabins on the Little Buffalo River
Riverview Motel & Canoe – a family-owned motel in Jasper that also offers river rentals
The Gordon – a 12-room motel
If you like to tent camp, you’ve got it made. There are plenty of options in the Upper Buffalo National River area. People with RVs have fewer options, although two of the NPS campgrounds allow boondocking and there are a few private RV campgrounds. Here is a list of places to try.
Campground options (click to expand story)
The National Park Service campgrounds in the Upper Buffalo Wilderness region are on the banks of the Buffalo River. They are:
Steel Creek Campground
This beautiful campground is tucked under some of the Buffalo River’s most beautiful bluffs, about three miles east of Ponca down Steel Creek Road off Arkansas 74. It features tent-only walk-in camping, with 26 campsites along the river and 14 sites at the horse campground nearby. Open year-round, it’s first-come, first-served for most sites; reservations can be made for a limited number of sites, March 15-Nov. 14. The road down to Steel Creek is paved and fees are $20 per night. Learn more at this website.
Kyles Landing Campground
Downriver east of Steel Creek off Arkansas 74, Kyles is another popular campground on the Buffalo River. This one is accessed by a rough gravel road, so four-wheel drive vehicles with high clearance are recommended. The tent-only campground with 33 walk-in sites ($20 per night) is open year-round; first-come, first-served. Learn more at the U.S. National Park Service website.
This smaller campground, located seven miles down a gravel road off Arkansas 7, has 14 drive-in campsites, so in addition to tent camping, you could boondock with an RV (there are no hookups or running water). The single sites are first-come, first-served, but a few group sites can be reserved by calling the Tyler Bend Visitor Center (870-439-2502). Camping is free at this Buffalo River access point. There is also an Erbie Horse Camp. Learn more from the U.S. National Park Service.
This 31-site campground is three miles down a graded gravel road off Arkansas 7 just north of Jasper. It’s open year-round — first-come, first-served — for $20 per night. RVs and campers are allowed, but there are no hookups. (Even if you don’t camp, this is a good place to visit for beach and river time during the summer.) The U.S. National Park Service has more information.
This small campground with eight sites near the Buffalo River along Arkansas 123 is open year-round, first-come, first-served, for $16 per night, or free from Nov. 15-March 14. Learn more on this website.
For full descriptions of National Park Service campgrounds in the Upper Buffalo Wilderness, visit this camping web page.
There are also a few private campgrounds in the area, including three where you can park your RV or camper. They are:
In addition to cabin rentals and adventure activities (as described under “things to do”), this dude ranch also offers tent camping on a first-come, first-served basis for $5 per person per night.
This gas and shop stop in Compton has pet-friendly primitive tent camping ($25 per night) and pull-through RV sites ($40 per night) with electric hookups and a water/dump station in the campground. There are also platform camping huts and tents for rent.
The BOC has a relatively new pet-friendly RV park on the upper Fire Tower Road. Large campsites are pull-through, with full hookups and a dump station on site. Tent camping and campfires are prohibited. Rates are $59 nightly; $47 nightly for a week; $29 nightly for a month.
This new pet-friendly RV park is less than a mile down County Road 9, a gravel road west of Arkansas 21. Camper sites, $50 per night, have full hookups. They also rent two cabins.
Food, supplies & mementos
Because you’re staying in the Upper Buffalo Wilderness area, you’ll need to pack in food and supplies for your rental or campsite. But there are a few options if you forget something or don’t want to cook one night. For one thing, you’ll go through Harrison on your way south and, depending on your rental, likely through Jasper — the gateway town to Newton County and Buffalo River outdoor adventures. Both have grocery stores and restaurants. If you like to shop for mementos (we always buy stickers), original art and craftworks, and even some outdoor gear, plan to spend some time wandering downtown Jasper at the edge of the Little Buffalo River.
Beyond Jasper, there are few shopping and dining options. We share the ones you should know about below.
Limited options for shopping and dining (click to expand story)
Don’t miss the popular Ozark Cafe, 107 E. Court St., on Jasper’s town square, serving up nostalgia and comfort food. In fact, the 1909 landmark cafe was inducted into the Arkansas Food Hall of Fame for 2023. You won’t go hungry here! They serve grill foods, chicken, steak, seafood (and more), plus specialty menu items like Loaded Corn, a deep-fried hamburger and the Excalibur, a burger between two grilled cheese sandwiches. Try the spicy chicken or pulled pork sandwich, or one of their daily specials.
Between Kyles Landing and Steel Creek on Arkansas 74, the must-stop Low Gap Cafe, housed in an old general store, is a favorite of locals and visitors alike. The menu varies with country cooking and fine dining options, including burgers, seafood, pasta, soups, salads, sandwiches and homemade baked goods, plus Sunday brunch and regular prime rib specials.
Six miles south of Jasper on Arkansas 7, the iconic Cliff House Inn, another historic cafe, is famous for its view of “Arkansas’s Grand Canyon” and its Company’s Comin’ Pie. Besides pie, the menu includes breakfast classics and good country cooking. They also rent cabins (more on that in the section above).
For snack foods, a few supplies, T-shirts, souvenirs and gas, there are few shopping options beyond Jasper. In Ponca, try the Buffalo Outdoor Center and the historic general store at Lost Valley Canoe. In Compton, the JB Trading Company is a great place to stop. All three have lodging, too (learn more in that section).