Upper Buffalo Wilderness Trip Report

I hadn’t been down to Arkansas in over two years. That’s entirely too long. The northwest part of that state is simply amazing. Driving along the high ridges on the road down into Ponca makes one think they’re somewhere out west. But it Arkansas, and it’s beautiful. Starting in the Upper Buffalo Wilderness, the Buffalo River carves a deep, meandering valley between neighboring 2,000’ summits, which are ringed with rocky cliffs and outcrops. Two years was two too many.

As an organizer for the Ozark Adventure Group on Facebook, I asked the members if anyone would be interested in heading to Arkansas for some outside time. I have already backpacked a big chunk of the Buffalo River Trail and Old River Trail on the National Park Service land. There is a lot more to explore there, but I wanted to head south into the Upper Buffalo Wilderness area.

I had to postpone the original trip which was planned for January, and rescheduled it for the last week of February. Because of that, the number of participants dropped down to four. In the end, that ended up being about the perfect number of participants for this trip.

Upper Buffalo Wllderness

There were some small patches of snow above 2,000′.

The Upper Buffalo Wilderness area presented certain challenges. Areas such as this one are already devoid of any improvements, but many at least have some trails. The Upper Buffalo doesn’t really have any; none that are maintained anyway. So our route would be a bushwhack. The difficulty that presented made up for the lack of mileage between our starting and ending points.

Upper Buffalo Wllderness

The first streams we came to weren’t Boen Gulf Branch. This would be a great area for a easily accessible wilderness overnighter.

We met at the Buffalo Outdoor Center in Ponca, and drove to the Hawksbill Crag trailhead on the western boundary of the wilderness area. The drive was a steep, narrow gravel road, but we made it and consolidated our gear into my car and headed to our trailhead on the opposite side of the wilderness. Our intended route intended route started high above the Buffalo. We planned to drop down into Boen Gulf Creek and follow it all the way to its confluence with the Buffalo. Then we would turn right and hike downstream until we saw Whitaker Creek enter the river on the opposite side. We’d camp there, then follow the Whitaker Creek drainage all the way back up to the cars.

Upper Buffalo Wllderness

Since we only had to cover a short distance, we took out time to explore Boen Gulf. The drainage was full of small cascades about this size.

All in all, it would only be about nine miles or so. Not having a trail and having to scramble and climb would make those nine miles challenging.

Upper Buffalo Wllderness

Large obstacles in the creek often required us to climb up and around them; then we’d drop back into the stream bed. Here we are trying to find a safe place to descend after bushwhacking up and around giant boulders.

We parked on a Forest Service road, gave our packs a final once-over and hit the trail. That’s right, initially we were able to follow a fairly well-developed trail from where we had parked down to where a couple of small creeks joined. The plan had been to get to Boen Gulf as far upstream as possible. However, we didn’t anticipate the trail being there. It ended up shaving a lot of distance and time bushwhacking off of the trip. I had failed to download the maps to my phone prior to the trip, so I did the best I could with paper maps. I knew Boen Gulf drained this entire area, so either one of the two creeks was Boen Gulf or we’d find it a little further down the route.

Upper Buffalo Wllderness

For a few hundred feet, Boen Gulf Branch disappeared. It ran underground for that distance before reappearing downstream; leaving us a rocky scramble.

Upper Buffalo Wllderness

I’d like to explore this area a bit more in the summer, when I could bring a small, light pack and stay in the stream more often.

The latter turned out to be true. We followed this shallow but strong-running stream downhill about a quarter mile and found it running into Boen Gulf Creek. The area was absolutely stunning. The warm weather allowed us to soak in a lot of sun while we lounged on granite boulders and snacked, or hopped across creeks to take photos

Upper Buffalo Wllderness

This trip was all about finding the path of least resistance. It also proved to be a pretty good test for our gear and navigational skills.

From this junction we had about a mile and a half to the Buffalo River. The good news was it was all downhill…theoretically. In reality, there was plenty of uphill in there as well. For though Boen Gulf did in fact flow downhill, we often found ourselves climbing up and out of the immediate creek bed when things became impassible on foot. This happened quite a few times when we encountered waterfalls that were too high for us to safely scale, or when giant granite monoliths blocked our path.

Upper Buffalo Wllderness

As we turned north along the Buffalo, we stayed high to survey places to ford the river.

These obstacles forced us to climb out of Boen Gulf, traverse the drainage sideways for awhile, then we’d drop back into Boen Gulf once we had passed the problem. Then we’d repeat those actions; often on the opposite side of the creek. It was a fun challenge. At times, the four of us would stop and assess what the best route would be for the next 100 yards, we’d travel those yards and then assess the next 100, and so on and so on. A couple of times one of us would bushwhack ahead a few hundred feet – or around a bend – just to make sure the that the obvious path of least resistance wouldn’t end up in a dead end.

Upper Buffalo Wllderness

We finally found a good crossing spot by connecting some shallow gravel bars. Our feet still got plenty wet though. PC: Jesse Brown

The mile and a half along Boen Gulf Creek took us the majority of the afternoon. We reached the Buffalo in the late afternoon and I was a little worried about losing the sun behind the western summits over the river. We had to bushwhack a mile down the Buffalo before we reached Whitaker Creek on the opposite side. A necessary goal became staying as dry as possible during our required crossing of the Buffalo. Things didn’t start our well as it looked at least waist deep everywhere we looked.

Upper Buffalo Wllderness

The bottom 400 yards of the Whitaker Creek drainage were beautiful, and provided a nice place to camp.

We climbed the immediate bluffs along the river along an ancient river road. From there we noticed a place where the river shallowed significantly. It required a reverse scramble to get back down to the river, but this was by far the best place to cross. Following the obvious gravel channels the water was only shin-deep; deep enough to wet our feet but not deep enough to make us cold all night.

Upper Buffalo Wllderness

Enjoyed bushwhacking up this creek, although the travel was much more difficult than the Boen Gulf descent.

 Once across the river, we quickly found and crossed Whitaker Creek and set up camp near a chimney that was once part of a homestead. We ate dinner, chatted and dried our socks and shoes around the campfire. The weather stayed very warm for February, not even getting down to 40 degrees that night. I slept very good. I slept warm.

Upper Buffalo Wllderness

The Lower Fork drainage was steep and we encountered many 3-6′ waterfalls. This is also a good example of an obstacle that required us to climb up and around.

After breaking camp in the morning, we set off up Whitaker Creek in much the same way we had came down Boen Gulf. Closer to the Buffalo, it was fairly easy to follow the actual creek, without needed do evade obstacles. But as we started gaining elevation in the Upper Buffalo Wilderness, the blockages became larger and it became more and more difficult to stay in the creek.

The plan that day had been to follow Whitaker Creek all the way to the car; a distance of about four miles. Unfortunately, by the time we came to the confluence with Lower Fork, we were a good 75 feet above Whitaker Creek, sitting on a steep slope, with no convenient way to get back down. We chose to follow Lower Fork until we were able to find a place to descend into it.

Upper Buffalo Wilderness

On either side of the Lower Fork there was a shelf. It required a steep scramble to get to it. PC: Valorie Hendrix

It actually didn’t take that long, but by that time the group had decided to continue to ascend Lower Fork instead of bushwhacking back down to Whitaker Creek. I suppose in any other season besides winter, we probably would have been more accepting of staying closer to – and actually walking in – the creek.

Heading up Lower Fork was a great decision and although the drainage become more and more narrow and steep, we were able to stay closer to the stream. Finally we traveled up the western bank, which was steep enough that we had to grasp from tree to tree. We found a bench to hike along which lead to an overlook above a beautiful waterfall. I stayed above while some of the other hiked down to its base.

From there we started heading due west, a direction that would eventually take us across the road where our cars were parked. We still had plenty of uphill bushwhacking to go. It wasn’t as steep as the creek drainage, but it was still hard work without a trail. At about 1900’, we found ourselves at the base of the 20-30’ cliffs that ring the tops of the ridges in northern Arkansas. We had no other choice other than to bushwhack along its base until we found a place where we could climb it. We finally found a notch we could climb through.

Upper Buffalo Wilderness

After following this row of cliffs, we finally found a notch we could ascend.

After scrambling past another freestanding chimney and bulldozing through a wicked briar patch, we reach an old forest service road on the ridge. This was the first walking we had done with a “trail” to follow. We hiked it for about a half mile to the gravel road.  From there, we weren’t far from our cars at all.

Upper Buffalo Wilderness

This is the second of two freestanding chimneys we came across.

Since our cars were at the Hawksbill Crag trailhead, three of us decided to go ahead and hike the 1.5 miles to see Arkansas’ most photographed place. It’s clearly the most populated place in the Upper Buffalo Wilderness. I gotta be honest – it was awfully nice to hike on-trail for a change.

Upper Buffalo Wilderness

We finally crossed a Forest Service road on top of the ridge, which we followed back to the cars.

The Upper Buffalo Wilderness is a challenging area. Good navigational skills are required due to the lack of improvements and maintained trails in the area. It truly a wild area. I’m already looking forward to exploring the area some more, and visiting some other spots in northwest Arkansas.

Upper Buffalo Wilderness

This was our planned route.

Upper Buffalo Wilderness

This was our actual route. The double-back at the end is actually the Hawksbill Crag trail.

As always, thanks for stopping by.

*A special thanks to my adventure partners on this trip: Valorie Hendrix, Jesse Brown, and Michael Kurtz. Trips like this are much more fun with a solid group of teammates. I’m looking forward to getting back out on the trail with you soon.

*If you’re interested in finding out more about my gear choices for this trip, check the Upper Buffalo Gear Grades post.

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