October 28, 2010

Big Bluffs and Ponca Area, Buffalo National River, Arkansas

Yesterday, we ventured over to the Ponca Area to explore that section of the Buffalo National River. This area contains some of the largest cliffs along the 150 mile length of the river.

First though, we went to visit the Ponca Elk Education Center. In the 1860's, the Eastern Elk was extirpated from Arkansas and was extinct from the entire eastern North America not long after that. The reason was that people essentially clear cut the forests in the entire eastern half of the continent, eliminating their habitat. Then, hungry settlers killed them off the rest for food. Of course, elk weren't the only species eliminated. Mountain lions and bison completely disappeared, while beaver and turkeys almost didn't make it.

So, in the 1980's, the state of Arkansas decided to bring them back by reintroducing elk from Colorado. Though these are Rocky Mountain Elk, they have done well and now 450+ live in this part of Arkansas. When we were hiking out of Hemmed In Hollow in the late afternoon, we heard a bull elk bugling.

The Elk Education Center is run by the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission and is very well done. It had excellent displays and information about all kinds of wildlife and a great kids discovery area. Hilina could have played there all day.

But, we had other things to do, such as visit the Big Bluffs area located next to Steel Creek Campground. We took the "Old Trail" which followed the river and criss-crossed it several times. This was the original route for the settlers out here until the Buffalo River Trail was built on the bluffs above. The river is really low right now, allowing us to rock-hop across it. But, if it were flowing more normally, we would not have been able to do it without wading. Many people actually use horses to do it.

Hilina walking across the shallow area of the river
We spent a fair amount of time forming channels amongst the rocks and making "beaver dams". Although, really we didn't do much that won't disappear quickly with the next high water flow this winter.
Low water on the Buffalo River
It was a tad cloudy and cool, but quite comfortable with highs in the mid-60's. These were just thin clouds and the sun peaked out from time to time.
Looking up at the 200 foot tall limestone/sandstone cliffs
We met a local on the trail who said its about as low as he's ever seen the river. It has been at "black" for over 2 months, which means it is unfloatable. It's been a long dry late summer and fall so far. Good for us I guess. Although, he said these dry conditions have muted the fall colors this year.

Definitely a beautiful area. It would be cool to get in kayaks and float down the river. He said it takes 9 days or so to go the 120 floatable miles. He told us it is a mad-house in June full of out-of-staters and the whole river can be full of boats and difficult to get in and out of. He said the best times are actually late winter and early spring. It may be chilly, but it is quiet and the water is good.

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