By: Mike and Bekki Boyd
On the centennial of the establishment of Yellowstone as our nation’s first national park, the little known Buffalo River in northern Arkansas escaped years of proposed damming when designated by the National Park Service as our nation’s first National River in 1972. Today, the Buffalo National River meanders through 95,700 acres of protected steep, rugged and remote wilderness. Outdoor enthusiasts enjoy the more than 100 miles of trails, canoeing and fishing the 150 miles of tranquil waterway and camping in the 14 designated campgrounds containing more than 200 sites within the park. With its pristine turquoise waters, towering sandstone bluffs, majestic overlooks and abundant wildlife, it is no wonder the Buffalo National River has been called one of America’s finest free-flowing rivers and is one of my favorite photo subjects.
The Buffalo National River offers many wonderful photographic opportunities throughout the ever-changing seasons. Waterfalls are abundant in the spring, and the beautiful fall foliage of the mostly deciduous forests can rival that of the colors found in the eastern United States. The winter snows are rare yet lovely additions to the various scenes found at the national river while the summer is a more challenging season due to the heat, humidity and insects.
Spring is overall the best time to visit the Buffalo National River. From the middle of April to the middle of May, first-time visitors are pleasantly surprised with the river’s abundant wildflowers, luscious green foliage, hundreds of ancient waterfalls and serene yet sometimes turbulent creek scenics. When planning a trip to the Buffalo River, spring is definitely a must-see.
The river and surrounding areas boast some of the most photographic waterfalls in the United States. Due to the extreme age of the Ozarks, geologic time has allowed water to carve wonderful and mysterious hollows throughout the Buffalo River region. Of the many spectacular waterfalls located in the area, none exemplifies this carving better than the very unique Glory Hole. Over time water cut its way through solid rock, creating a hole in the roof of an open den where Dismal Creek now plummets 15 feet to the floor. The intimate lines and colors of the rock along with the heavy flow of a spring thunderstorm make Glory Hole an unparalleled sight indeed.
Another very unique waterfall known as Twin Falls is located near Richland Creek, a tributary to the Buffalo National River, where two creeks spill side-by-side over a 20-foot bluff into an enchanting turquoise pool. Hemmed-in-Hollow waterfall is one of the best known waterfalls in Arkansas. Spilling over a 200-foot bluff, these falls are the tallest between the Rocky and the Appalachian Mountains. For the more adventurous, there are many lesser known waterfalls located throughout the national river area. Two extraordinary examples discovered in the very remote hollows of the Upper Buffalo Wilderness are the unnamed falls of Terrapin Branch, where several waterfalls plummet into a V-shaped canyon, and Bowers Hollow waterfall, where the creek descends a sheer drop of over 100 feet into a bowl-shaped canyon. Finally, for those with less time, a short hike into Lost Valley is a great introduction to the beauty of spring with several waterfalls located along an easy hike ending at a waterfall inside the far reaches of a cave. These are only a very few of the many beautiful waterfalls in and around the Buffalo National River, so be sure to save time to explore and discover your own.
Heavy spring rains flowing off the Ozark mountains are what make the otherwise pristine slow-moving waterways turrets of agitated white-caps. This is a great time to photograph the boulder-shrouded white water of Richland Creek and Twin Falls (AR16) in the Richland Creek Wilderness, as well as the splendid scenics on the Buffalo National River. Richland Creek Wilderness harbors several campsites in an obscure setting as well as the 128-mile Ozark Highlands Trail. This trail is considered one of America’s finest by many hiking enthusiasts. Though out of the way, Richland Creek is the essence of white water in the Ozarks and is an Arkansas jewel in itself. The Buffalo National River is not as wild as Richland Creek; however, it is always a great photographic subject. In the spring, early morning fog shrouds the tremendous weathered bluffs that tower over vibrant, green vegetation and crystal-clear waters.
Among the admirable wildflower vegetation of the hardwood forests that abound the Buffalo National River are the breathtaking dogwood and redbud trees that bloom in the spring. The dogwood generally bloom from mid-April to early May whereas the redbud trees typically begin to blossom earlier, near the end of March, and mostly in groups of two or three trees. They are among the first native Ozark trees to blossom in the spring. Depending on the weather, the redbud bloom usually lasts about two to three weeks. They are seen especially well among cedar stands as the dark green of the cedars contrast well with the purplish-pink redbud blossoms. Also in great contrast is the dogwood tree with its brilliant-white blossoms amidst the hardwoods’ under story. In some areas dogwoods and redbuds do bloom at the same time, making the spring season even more enjoyable with the two trees side-by-side in their glory. It is quite a treat to photograph a cluster of dogwoods and redbuds framing the river or perhaps even capture their essence up close. Combined with the intricate play of light and shadow, many ground varieties of flowering plants, including the crested iris, mountain azalea, spring mayflower and wild honeysuckle make for beautiful macro compositions and can be located on any of the trails in and around the park.
Although the summer season is not always a good opportunity for nature photography, due mainly to the heat, humidity and insects, it is a wonderful time to spend with friends and family in and around the refreshing waters of the Buffalo National River. No one is denied the joy of catching a fish at this river either. Though there are "catch and release" guidelines, the many hits received on one fishing pole make the sport worthwhile. From late June to late September, most people are found escaping the heat and humidity by either wading and fishing the clear waters or by taking a leisurely and quite satisfactory dip in the deep pools spread out along the river.
In late October to early November, the once vibrant green hues of spring and summer make way for autumn colors. With many shades of red, yellow and orange foliage, it’s no wonder the fall season is a great time for nature photography. From foggy sunrises to river vistas and quiet pools where spring and summer waters have collected, the desirable cooler weather makes for a very enjoyable time to discover the many hidden wonders of the Buffalo National River. A drive along Scenic Highway 7, south of the park, gives away gorgeous views of the fall foliage in the Ozarks. A hike on the Buffalo River Trail passes openings at the top of many bluffs along the waterway, imparting even more scenic overlooks with blazing autumn colors. A worthwhile hike on the Old Horse Trail will bring you closer to the splendid colors of fall as the trail runs along and crosses the low waters of the river. The calming pools of water collect fallen leaves, creating a glass menagerie of the Buffalo River’s intricate shapes and colors.
Beginning in December and on through the month of March, temperatures can vary greatly on any given day, but if temperatures fall below freezing and conditions are right, magical events begin to unfold. Winter normally brings gentle snow coverings less than a week out of the year. Because of this rarity, it’s quite a unique experience to photograph beautiful snow scenes. Once every few years per chance, a heavy snow might blanket the surrounding Buffalo River area and reward viewers with breathtaking scenes from scenic vistas such as Hawksbill Crag (AR1), Arkansas’ most recognized point of interest, or Big Bluff. Ice formations are also a treat. Formed by the run-off of melting snow or perhaps an easy rain and then the dropping temperatures, ice formations are particularly enchanting in the hollows of the Upper Buffalo Wilderness. Lost Valley’s waterfalls have a tendency to freeze in the colder temperatures of the hollow.
When planning a trip to the Buffalo National River, any season can make for a rewarding and inspiring photographic experience. Unlike many of the national park and forest lands in the west and the east, the Buffalo National River is much less photographed, making photography in this lesser known area a much more unique and special experience. Though popularity has been increasing steadily, many times one can still find him or herself alone in a favorite spot for hours exploring the creativity of composition through the camera with very little distractions from others. This peace of being alone with the visual beauty of the Buffalo River promotes the intimate relationship between the individual, the subject and visualization, achieving a greater appreciation of the natural world. This is why the Buffalo National River is my favorite photo subject.
Located only a couple of hours north of Little Rock, Arkansas, the Buffalo National River can be easily accessed from the towns of Ponca, Jasper and Harrison where lodging, meals and canoe rentals can be found. Many campgrounds are located along the length of the river including Lost Valley, Steel Creek, Tyler Bend and Buffalo Point. For more information, contact the park headquarters in Harrison at 870.741.5443, or visit Parknet on the web at www.nps.gov/buff/index.htm.
About Mike Boyd
A nationally published landscape photographer, Mike Boyd is a native of Northwest Arkansas and loves to capture beautiful images of his state, as well as many other locations across America.
Mike’s images have appeared in magazines such as At Home in Arkansas, Little Rock Monthly, Camping Life, Nature Photographer, and Outdoor Photographer as well as newspapers, postcards, travel brochures, posters, and books. Recent gallery showings include Arts Center of the Ozarks and Walton Arts Center in Northwest Arkansas.
Mike’s portfolio can be viewed atarkansasphotography.com.
Good source for spring wildflowers and fall foliage reports in Northwest Arkansas.
All you need for Arkansas’ beautiful state park system.
Helpful maps of Arkansas’ rugged Ozark and Ouachita Mountains and hollows.
Great source for America’s first national river. Also very useful for river and creek levels across Arkansas. A waterfall chaser’s must.
Arkansas road conditions for winter photography trips.