Kayaking the Buffalo River in Arkansas: tips for planning a trip on stunning Buffalo
Updated: Sep 10
I've been wanting to kayak the Buffalo River for several years. We drove through a few years back hoping to get out on the river, but it wasn't float-able at the time. 🙁 In 2020 I made up my mind to make it happen. With some planning, and a lot of luck, we finally got to spend the day on the stunning Buffalo.
the most scenic section
There are miles upon miles of the Buffalo that are float'able, about 150 miles, but the section considered to be the most scenic is the 10.7 miles of the upper Buffalo River, from Ponca to Kyles Landing. This section is lined with towering bluffs on either side of the river. Unfortunately, this particular section of the river can be fickle. If the water is too high, the rapids may not allow for safe boating, too low and you can't get a boat down river. You can check water levels on the Buffalo River here or flow rates from the National Park Service here. They can change from day to day though, so that's were a bit of luck comes in handy. If you can't get out on the most scenic portion, it seems like Pruitt's Landing to Carver is usually float'able.
it helps if you can be flexible.
I planned to be in the general area for 4 full days. We spent the first two days in the Eurkea Springs area (highly recommended!) Check out my Arkansas, the Natural State, A mini getaway blog.
On day 3 we were supposed to hike Lost Valley, and on day 4, float the river. Water levels had not been sufficient for floating, but I noticed that a big rain was coming in. They were calling for 2-3 inches. I called Buffalo River Outfitters, and asked if we held off on our reservation for a day, if that would be enough rain to raise the water to a float'able level. They confirmed that indeed it might, and were very helpful about getting our reservation changed. Our reservation was for a weekday, they may be full up on a weekend in summer so keep that in mind.
and the rain came down....
That night, the heavens opened up and poured, the water came up and we got the green light to get out on the river! The water came up so much in fact, that the river went from barely/not float'able, to the expert skill level. Now we own our own kayaks, but we are certainly no experts on whitewater. We were told that we would probably be fine, but if we damaged the kayaks, we would be charged for them. We decided to go for it!
choosing an outfitter
If you need to rent a kayak, canoe, tube, raft, or to schedule shuttle service, the National Park Service has a full list of Buffalo River outfitters, listed by river section.
Buffalo River Outfitters
Make sure you let them know in advance if you will need shuttle service (bring a spare key if you want them to lock the vehicle while you are on the river.)
cancellation policy and show up time
Since things are so touch and go, I paid a little extra for their extended cancellation policy, which allows you to cancel up until 9 am on the day of your reservation. Be there an hour before your designated launch time.
Consider picking up sandwiches at the deli inside Buffalo River Outfitters
They make a pretty mean sandwich. We took some on the river with us.
We drove our vehicle to Steel Creek, which is downstream from Ponca. Ponca was closed at the time due to COVID. When we arrived they had kayaks, paddles, and life vests waiting for us. They will then valet your vehicle to Kyle's Landing, where you get out at.
Here's our trip shown in red, This is a very small portion of the Buffalo. Steel Creek to Kyle's Landing is 8 miles, so we missed 2.7 miles by putting in at Steel Creek instead of Ponca. Make note of Hemmed-in-Hollow waterfall on the map too. You won't want to miss it!
off we go!
Notice the murky water. This was due to the heavy rains, but up until the rain it was iffy to be able to kayak at all, so I guess I had to be ok with murky water. I admit I was looking forward to the usually clear river water.
Sans a hard rain the night before, this is what you can normally expect the water to look like.
There are plenty of spots to get out and explore.
Here's a short video of our trip. If you'd like to see more video of our time on the Buffalo River it can be found on my Youtube Buffalo River Playlist
Make sure you save plenty of time for
The get out spot came up fast, and if there hadn't been other boats there I probably would have missed it all together. It will be on your left, I believe after you come around a bend. There is a sign but not a very big one. If you miss it by a little bit it's no big deal, just get your boat ashore as soon as you can, and walk a little ways back to the trail. From the river the waterfall is about 1/2 mile down an absolutely dreamy trail!
This fantastic experience gets it's own blog post:
Hemmed-in-Hollow Blog coming soon!
the trail to Hemmed-in-Hollow and the waterfall
we ALMOST made it in one piece
My husband fell victim to rapids #19 of approximately 20. He was there one minute, and gone the next. He dumped his kayak and his paddles floated off. Fortunately for us, some river experts came along to assist. Never go in the water after the paddles with strong currents. The paddles and other belongings will likely be swept, in fairly short order, onto the bank as ours did.
Kyle's Landing came up faster than I expected. Paddle fast to make sure you don't miss it. It will be on your right as you come around a bend.
Bring some carabiner clips and attach your bag to your kayak. When my husband dumped his kayak, I lost all of the medication I brought along because I didn't want to leave it in the hot car.