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Musings on Nature blog

Winter Wonders Along the Buffalo

Winter is the best time to really see the bones of the Arkansas backcountry — but it is winter. While we are in a period of global warming, weather is a very local event and Mother Nature has reminded us that January is the heart of winter here in the Ozarks. Subzero temperatures and up to 6 inches of snow in the higher elevations have kept me closer to home than originally planned. But I still did make it out to see some of the beautiful Buffalo National River.

Icy road on the Buffalo River's north slope
THE BUFFALO IN WINTER — Wintertime icicles add a veil to many Buffalo River Valley seeps during periods of prolonged freezing weather. (Image courtesy Gerald Klingaman.)

Touring the river by car requires access via roads, and the quality and character of the roads vary considerably along the course of the river. If I counted correctly, there are about 30 access points along the length of the Buffalo. Some of these are in and out campgrounds or canoe landing sites, while others are river crossings along major roads such as Highways 21, AR Scenic 7, US 65 and AR 123 (the most scenic road in the state, in my opinion). Numerous hiking and horse trails follow the river route and provide lots of up close and personal contact with the river if one is willing to put some effort into exploration. As far as I can tell, bicycles are not allowed on the trails.

Most of the access roads to the river are backcountry dirt roads. Because the soils are chocked full of chert, getting mired down in a mud pit is not usually a concern on the slopes leading into the valley. But these approaches may be very steep and heavy rains can expose ledge rock that can damage low-slung vehicles. Four-wheel drive may not be required in most places but signage encouraging high clearance vehicles should be heeded.

In the recent snow storm, I found the paved roads all clear with some of the well-traveled county dirt roads graded but the Park Service didn’t seem to have the equipment or manpower to maintain their more remote roads. The north-facing slopes into the river valley were unplowed and steep, so I chose not to chance trying to fight my way back out even though I was in a four-wheel drive pickup.

Driving the county road from Compton to Erbie and then on to AR 7 was a pleasant downhill trip on a snow-covered road. With this road on the north side of the river and facing south, it provided some good views of the river and a chance to explore the old farm community of Erbie. Enormous icicles clung to seeps along the route and provide a memorable wintertime experience.

The low-water ford at Erbie is passable during periods of low water and in mid-winter, the concrete ford was only about 6 inches deep. These low water crossings must be treated with respect, for the Buffalo is well known for its ability to rise rapidly to flash flood status. A neighbor experienced one of these flash floods first-hand a few years back. The river rose more than 20 feet and he and some business associates he was trying to impress spent the night stranded in some trees.

Just north of the Pruitt landing on Highway 7, the old Dogpatch amusement park site is being reimagined as the Marble Falls Nature Park. John Morris, the founder and CEO of Bass Pro Shops, bought the 400-acre site in Newton County and plans on creating a “nature park,” similar to his Dogwood Canyon in southern Missouri, which presents a sanitized view of nature with manicured surroundings and artificial waterfalls. With a passion for the sensuous curves of limestone rocks of the Boone formation, his crew is blasting the clay away from these formations. No indication of when the nature park will open is yet available.

Jasper sits along the banks of the Little Buffalo and is the small (574 in 2020) picturesque county seat of Newton County. No visit to this section of the river is complete without a stop at the Ozark Café across from the Newton County Courthouse. Taking AR 74 east out of Jasper to AR 123, and then following it north to the Hasty Cutoff is an easy round trip route that affords two river crossings on good paved roads.