Spring Break trip to the Buffalo National River

Ahhhhh, Spring Break. While most people head to the beach or go skiing, our family tradition is to get away to a quiet cabin in the woods. For 3 of the last 5 years, we have chosen to head to Ponca, Arkansas. It's probably safe to say that most people have never heard of this town, nor it's biggest attraction, the Buffalo National River. I discovered the town of Ponca when I read a 2005 article in Backpacker Magazine which talked about how beautiful the area was and how great the proprietor of the Buffalo Outdoor Center (BOC) was. His name is Mike Mills, and Backpacker was spot on in describing Mike.

Our first visit to Ponca and the BOC was in 2007. As we did that year, this year we rented Cabin #4 at the BOC, which is right in the "downtown" area of Ponca. I'm not sure of the exact population of Ponca, but you could probably fit them all on a school bus. It's a great town with great people, especially Mike, Dakota and all of the BOC staff. Their cabins are a terrific value and provide easy access to the beautiful Buffalo River.

This year, we spent 4 nights there. One of the great things about Ponca, is time moves at a slower pace. There's no rush to do anything, and it's better to do whatever you want to do at a more leisurely pace. This allows you to enjoy this wonderful piece of Americana and completely soak in the peace and tranquility.

On our first full day there, I got a little bit ambitious and attempted to get to one of the places along the Buffalo that I have wanted to get to, but have been unable to reach, a place called Hemmed-in-Hollow. Hemmed-in-Hollow has eluded me ever since I learned of the Buffalo. It's one of the iconic places to visit in the area. Within the Hollow is a 200+ foot waterfall. However, to get there requires you to "pick your poison"

  • A 5+ mile roundtrip hike with a dramatic 1300 foot elevation loss and subsequent gain on the way back. With 2 small kids, the hike down doesn't sound too bad, but coming back up could be a challenge.
  • Canoe down the river and hike in about a mile, then continue paddling down river and shuttle back. Again, with the 2 small kids plus 2 older kids and my wife, we'd be pushing it to get us all in 2 canoes, and none of us are experienced paddlers, so it's a dicey proposition.
  • Make a 9 mile roundtrip with significant elevation gains and losses plus a river crossing using the Buffalo River trail from Kyle's Landing to Horseshoe Bend and back into Hemmed-in-Hollow.
  • A 4+ mile roundtrip, level hike in the river bottom along the Old River Trail from Kyle's Landing. The catch... 5 river crossings.

Now, having been to the Buffalo 2 times before, and having been in the river a few times, I knew that in many places the river can be very shallow. So, I thought since there was a trail, albeit a horse trail, that there would be some shallow river crossings. So, I convinced the family that we'd chose option #4. I checked the water level when we got to Ponca, and it seemed to be fairly low, so I thought our chances would be pretty good.

We departed Kyle's Landing around 10am and headed down the short .2 mile trek to our first river crossing. The river was moving fairly swiftly, but it seemed shallow enough. I tested it out and made it across easily, so I retrieved my two "young'uns" and carried them across, then helped my wife and my 12-year-old daughter across. My 13-year-old son was on his own. The crossing was exhilarating due to the 55 degree, knee-deep water. We made it all safely across and arrived at our first landmark, the Arbaugh House. We only stopped shortly, as we were burning up time. After debating the first river crossing and shuttling kids across, we were already 1 hour in.

Another .8 miles and we arrived at our second river crossing. Again, I went in to test the waters. This one was a bit deeper and a bit stronger current. At this point, it was nearing high noon and we still had over 1.5 miles to go and 3 more river crossings just to get to the Hollow. Plus we had to make the return trip. My wife and I made the executive decision to stop here, have some lunch, then head back to Ponca and play in the river. I was a bit disappointed as Hemmed-in-Hollow would remain unseen for another year, but it was definitely the right call.

We returned back to the cabin later that evening, and as we do every evening in Ponca, we walked to the Lost Valley General Store and picked up some ice cream for the kids. You just have to be sure to get there before closing time. As with most places in Ponca and all around Newton County, the Lost Valley General Store operates on a different sort of schedule. They’re operating hours are posted clearly in the window, “Open 9:00-ish to 5:00-ish”. This is one of the endearing qualities of this place, and one of the things that keeps us coming back.

On our second day, we decided to take it a bit easier and hit a place I discovered the week leading up to the trip. It's a place called "Glory Hole". It was described as being a short 1.5 mile hike down a Jeep road to a creek bed which leads you to a rock with a large hole in it where the creek falls through the hole. You can get underneath the rock, which forms a large overhanging cliff and stand below the water pouring through the hole. I had to see this.

In order to get to the "Glory Hole" trailhead, I was given the following directions. These are not atypical of directions in Ponca.

In order to get to this neat little spot, take Hwy 16/21 east out of Fallsville for 5.7 miles. You will pass a red barn on the left that has a large white "E" on the side of it. Go 1/2 mile past the barn and just past a dirt road that leaves the highway to the left, pull over and park across the road from the house that is up on the hill on the left.

After one miss, we found the trailhead, and headed down the trail. About 1 mile in, we found a small waterfall with a slight overhang. The kids enjoyed playing under the falls for a short while. We continued down the creek bed trail past several cascading waterfalls until we heard the roar of the water driving through the hole in the rock. Even from above, it is quite a site to see. It's like a large drain pulling large volumes of water down it to the "cave" below.

We followed the path down to the overhang and were amazed at this wonderful spot. Looking up through the hole, the water took on a blue tint, picking up the color of the sky, and the spray even gave the hole a slight blue glow.
We probably hung out here for about 30 minutes taking multiple pictures under, in front of, and behind the water spout.

As it was nearing lunch time, we headed back towards the car. My 13-year-old discovered a series of slick rock parts of the creek bed that would make a good water slide. He, and the rest of the kids decided it was waterslide time and they had a great time sliding down the creek in the chilly water.

On day 3, we returned to our favorite hike within the area, the 3 mile roundtrip, Lost Valley trail to Eden Falls and Eden Falls Cave. We have done this each year we’ve been to the Buffalo River. The last time we were here, we discovered that you could crawl to the back of Eden Falls Cave which opens into a small room with a 35-foot waterfall inside it.

While this is a beautiful hike, it is also one of the easiest hikes and one of the most accessible in the area. That means, be prepared to share the trail with 90% of the people who come to Ponca. If you do come to the Buffalo, I’d recommend doing this during the week and hopefully, you’ll miss the traffic. Regardless, this is a must-do hike.

The first mile or so, is pretty flat and is even being made wheelchair accessible along a straight, wide path next to a mostly dry creek bed. Along the way, there are many large rocks, known as the Jigsaw Rocks, because of their resemblance of jigsaw puzzle pieces. At one section of the Jigsaw Rocks is a large crevice, which leads to a cave. I’m not sure you can get into it, but when there’s water in the creek bed, I’m told you can hear the water pouring into it and crashing against the rock floor below.

Continuing along the trail, at about the 1 mile mark, you will come to a waterfall that is about 10- to 15-feet high, pouring out of what looks to be a cave. It’s not a cave however; it is a natural bridge, giving the falls their name, the Natural Bridge Falls. You can climb up the side of the waterfall, go through the Natural Bridge and emerge on the other side.

Another .5 miles up the trail takes you to a large concave indention into the wall along the right side of the trail, known as Cobb Cave, even though it doesn’t look much like a cave, more like a large amphitheater.

Just beyond Cobb Cave is the base of Eden Falls. This is a great spot to stop and have a snack. The falls are gorgeous and the scenery is spectacular. There are many large rocks to sit on and make a table. Be respectful of others and don’t take too long. Allow others to enjoy this spot as well.

A short, but steep climb up above the falls leads you to the mouth of Eden Falls Cave. I highly recommend entering the cave and making the effort to crawl to the back. Be sure to pack head lamps, and you might think about a helmet, although it’s not completely necessary. I would recommend wearing clothes that you don’t mind getting dirty and ones that will dry quickly (hint: don’t wear cotton). Wear shoes that you can get wet and preferably ones that have some good traction, it’s really slippery. Entering the cave is probably the most difficult part. It’s extremely slick and you either have to contort your body around and jump down into the water running out of the cave, or do what I do and scoot down and across a narrow cross over to the other side of the cave entrance. This seems to be the easiest way I’ve found.

It’s an easy walk back for another 30-40 yards and you can fully stand up. Then, you get to a spot where you can go to the left through the water or slide through a slot on the right of a large column. This requires a bit of crawling, but it’s not too bad. Both lead you to the section of the cave where you’ve gotta get dirty. For the kids, they can crawl on hands and knees. For the larger humans, like myself, it’s an army crawl for about 20 yards to the back of the cave, but well worth it.

The cave opens up into a small room, probably 400 square feet. Pouring into the room is a 35-foot waterfall. Be sure to have some good lighting as it is pitch dark without it. I have yet figured out a good way to take a picture in here and capture the falls. I’d really appreciate some help in learning how to photograph something like this.

Later that afternoon, while the family was playing back at the cabin, I took a short 4-mile roundtrip hike from Ponca to Steel Creek via the Buffalo River Trail (BRT) with a return on the Old River Trail. The BRT is a fairly well maintained trail that spans 37 miles from Boxley Valley to Pruitt, AR. This section leads from the low water bridge in Ponca to the campground at Steel Creek. The climb out of Ponca is a gradual gain in elevation, but is steep enough to get your heart rate up pretty good. There is an equal elevation loss starting about half way taking you down to Steel Creek. Although the BRT is along the river, this section only affords you a few really good views of the river. They are mostly at the beginning of the trail near Ponca and when you are nearing Steel Creek. Apart from that, it’s a really nice walk in the woods.

My original plan was to return the same way, but after consulting my Trails Illustrated map, I decided to return via the Old River Trail. This would require two river crossings, but I was up to the task. The return trip was definitely more scenic, meandering through the woods, adjacent to what has to be some of the prettiest sections of the Buffalo. The river is in plain site for most of the trip, as are the towering 100-200 foot bluffs across the river. The trail is a dual-use trail for both horses and foot traffic, so don’t expect this to be as easy to walk on as the BRT, but I do highly recommend this route over the BRT. The river crossings were not bad at all. The one nearest Steel Creek only got near my knees. The one nearest Ponca got my shorts wet. I’ve even captured it on video.

We left the next day, and headed back home. It’s always sad leaving Ponca, knowing that the hustle and bustle will return, but we are always leaving looking forward to our next trip. I’m looking forward to getting to Hemmed-in-Hollow someday and also wanting to paddle the Buffalo. We all have to have goals in life.

If this inspires you to give the area a try, I highly recommend staying with Mike and the BOC. I’m sure there are other places to stay, but I’m 100% certain none will be as knowledgeable, friendly, helpful or accommodating as Mike Mills and the BOC staff.


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