Monday, March 23, 2009

Spring Break trip to the Buffalo National River in Ponca, AR

Our Family just got back from a wonderful trip to Ponca, AR.  This is right in the heart of the the Buffalo National River, America's first National River.  As a National River, it flows free with no dams for the entire 153 mile length.  The water is clean, clear and very cool.  This is our second trip up there, we just got home and we are already itching to get back.  This is a family picture along the Buffalo, in front of the Blue Hole, just down stream from the Ponca Low Water crossing.

This is an excellent place to take the family as there are many things to do along the River.   In the town of Ponca, there is no cell phone access and TV is limited to what can be viewed on a DVD.  I think you might be able to get cell service 15 miles away in Jasper, but it is sketchy at best.  There are roughly 22 people in the town of Ponca, so things slow down dramatically upon entering the town.  Our family enjoys this area because it brings us close together as a family, allowing us to interact with one another without the interruptions of our every day lives of work, sports, school, etc.  The scenery here is beautiful, being surrounded by tall Pine trees a variety of hardwoods, many small mountains, and of course the Buffalo River.  The air is clean and crisp, the stars are bright at night and you get a sense of what it was like living 50-60 years ago.  Our family regains an appreciation of some of the creature comforts we have when we are at home, but also learns a lot about what it took to live in simpler times.

On both of our visits to Ponca, we have stayed in cabins at the Buffalo Outdoor Center.  Mike Mills is the founder, owner, and operator.  They have about 15 or so cabins which can house anywhere from 2-8 people generally.  They have a lodge, which can house about 24 people.  Because the Buffalo is a National River, there is no development on the river, so all the cabins are set away from the river, some are within walking distance to the River.  There are a few other cabin proprietors in the Ponca area, but we are partial to the BOC.  I like the location and the Mills family is very friendly, hospitable and informative, with over 30 years in the area.

Over the 5 days we were there, we spent 3 of those hiking around the area and getting in the river as much as possible.  Our pictures from the trip can be viewed at  

If you would like to go to the Buffalo, there are few books which provide great detail on the various hiking trails along the Buffalo River as well as history of the area.
  • The Buffalo River Handbook, by Kenneth L. Smith - This has a great history of the River, and goes into great details of some of the first settlers of the area, many of the families original farmsteads are still standing and can be visited along the River
  • Buffalo River Hiking Trails, by Tim Ernst - This specifically focuses on the hiking trails and gives some great details about getting to the trailhead, and what to see along the way
  • Trails Illustrated Buffalo National River West Trail Map - this is a great topo map, with the hiking trails overlayed, we found this invaluable this time
In addition to hiking, there are many caves in the area which can be explored.  We ventured into the Eden Falls Cave.  This is easily accessed via the Lost Valley trail.  If you are not claustrophobic, you can crawl to the very back and view a 35 foot waterfall in the back of the cave.  The 4 kids and I actually made it this time.  See the picture to the left.  We went into the mouth of the cave 2 years ago, not knowing you could go all the way back.  I would highly recommend making the effort to get to the back, it is a rare treat.

There are also many waterfalls in the area.  On the same trail which leads to the cave pictured above, there are a couple of nice waterfalls.  

This picture is at the Natural Bridge.  You can climb up beside this waterfall and go through the Natural Bridge to the other side. If it is really wet, it can be very slippery, so be careful.  It was extremely dry this time and was very easy to climb up into the bridge.

This is a picture of me and the two older kids at Eden Falls.  This pours out of the Eden Falls cave, which is the cave pictured above.  From this location, you take a trail beside the waterfall to the mouth of the cave.  This spot is a bit off the main trail, and most people pass it heading up to the cave.  We like to stop on the way up and have a nice snack or lunch beside the falls.

If you are a paddler, either Kayak or Canoe, the river can be a 
great float, but requires a bit more rain than they had while we were there.  You can check the aforementioned Buffalo Outdoor Center site for the current river levels.  They generally measure it by how much airspace is between the river and the Ponca Low Water bridge.  Here are the two images on the Buffalo River site.  The Buffalo Outdoor Center rents canoes, kayaks and rafts.

As I said, this was our second trip and both times have been in the Spring.  We are planning a Fall trip sometime in hopes to get a different perspective and see some Fall foliage.  

I would highly recommend a trip to this area.  If you do come, allow yourself at least 3-4 days, as there is a lot to see.  Even after 4 days, you will be wishing you had more time to explore.  Looking at the map for the West Half, I found probably 15-20 different places I want to visit, but would need probably 3 weeks to do it.  That gives me lots of reasons to come back.  As my family gets older, I look forward to paddling the River at sometime as well.  If you have any questions about this area, please drop me an email.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Hikers: Common Mistakes to Avoid

I saw this was published out on Deb's SAR (Search and Rescue) Blog.  I thought it was great content related to my topics.  It is an article on common mistakes that Hikers make that often are harmless, but could mean the difference between survival and not. Please take a look.  There's some great information in there.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Finding the time

This is always an issue, isn't it?  There's never enough time in the day.  I have started doing a few things that allow me to get out and at least get an hour or two in on the trails.  

I work from home, so I've tried to set aside an hour for lunch.  I live fairly close to some decent trails.  I can often get in about 2-3 miles in an hour, or if I take the little guy(s) with me, I try and limit it to about 1 mile.  It's a good way to break the day up and a great way to start getting into hiking shape.

Another thing I've done, is to walk or ride my bike to the grocery store with my backpack.  I load up on a few items, throw 'em in the backpack and head back home.  Sometimes, I will even take the long way to get a few extra miles in.

I travel quite extensively, and have found that I often will have at least a couple of hours here or there to get out, even if it means getting up at 5:00 AM or so.  There's a wonderful site,, which allows me to find trails near where I'm heading.  I will also try and seek out the local REI or other outfitter and get some local trail beta.  Some examples of places and trails I've been lately include:
  • Las Vegas, NV - I did the Lava Butte scramble (picture below is from the top using my BlackBerry) and attempted to find the Bowl of Fire
  • El Segundo, CA - I hit the Los Liones trail
  • Santa Fe, NM - I did a the Hyde Memorial Loop in the Sangre de Cristos

I often look for trails that can be done in 1-2 hours, which allows me to get in around 3-5 miles, depending on elevation change.  With the short distances, I'm usually very comfortable going only with a trail description and maybe doing some of my own routefinding, and not needing to bring my compass and a map.  

My recommendation is do what you feel comfortable with, but remember, it's not terribly difficult to get lost in the wilderness and there are many stories of people getting lost only a short distance from where they started.  Remember to always look around and find landmarks that can help you get back.

If you are going to be hiking early in the morning, sometimes I get to the trailhead before 6:00 am to give me enough time, you need to be prepared with lighting.  My first choice, is to hike by moonlight, but this requires cooperation with the moon.  Second choice would be to have a good head lamp (see my gear list on the front page) or a flash light.  

Finally, I try and plan at least 1 good trip a year with the family and possibly 1 good trip a year that really challenges me, maybe with some good friends.  This year, if all goes well, I'll have two good trips with the family (Ponca, AR and Rocky Mountain National Park, CO), 1 good trip with my son and maybe my wife (short backpackpacking trip) and 1 good guys trip (possibly Yosemite / Sequoia / King's Canyon National Parks).  

As always, I'll keep you updated on what happens.