In 1972, the Buffalo River became the Buffalo National River, the first National River in the country. Most of the area surrounding the river went under the control of the National Park Service but not all. The Buffalo Headwaters is in a section of the Ozark National Forest just a ridge or two southwest of Whitaker Point. Like most areas associated with the Buffalo National River, it’s riddled with beauty, hidden in every hollow, bluff line and stream.
Almost 20 years ago, some families living in the headwaters area decided to start building trails that would take them to these beautiful spots but unlike most trails built in Arkansas at the time, these would be ridden by mountain bikes. They built 30 – 40 miles of rough cut trails that were technical and tough. After years of working with the Forest Service and with considerable negotiation, a plan was put together to improve the trails and make them accessible to all mountain bikers. Working with Ozark Off-Road Cyclists (OORC) and the Walton Foundation, funding was put in place to have the trails professionally built. Progressive Trail Design was hired to do their magic, and the rest is history…..well, almost history.
Part of the agreement with the Forest Service is that until the trails are done and signage is up, riding is limited to OORC special events. So to get a chance at them, I signed up for the Buffalo Headwaters Challenge.
Perfect is a strong word, but I really, really, really liked it.
At this year’s event the start temperatures were in the mid-forties and breezy on the ridges but the sun was out and things were heating up fast. It would be a great day for the 80+ riders who showed up. The ride started with a short section of gravel road that took us to a nearby fire tower, the highest point in the Ozarks according to How Kuff, one of the original instigators of this trail system. Once at the high point we jumped on the singletrack for a 3.65 mile down hill flow. (The group I was in took a slight detour in the middle of this for a 2.5 mile up and back down one of the gravel roads, oops.)
At the bottom we started the first creek crossing, Nuckles Creek full of ice flows and slippery rocks. This is the part of the video where you see most riders negotiating the edge of a small water fall while one brave rider rode the slick rocks, you’ll have to watch to see if he made it. It was then time for a short climb to a plateau of single track, winding through the trees. Much of this section was the older hand cut trail but still fast and fun. We eventually dropped back down to the Main Prong of the Big Buffalo Creek. This is where the Buffalo starts and it is beautiful. We followed the creek upstream through several wet foot crossings and at one point took a break in a wonderful spot along the creek where huge icicles hung from the bluff on the opposite side.
After the final creek crossing it was time to go up…and up…and up. 486 feet of climbing in 1.75 miles. The good news is much of the steeper areas were newly cut by Progressive Trail Design. Eventually I reached the top of the ridge, any water that landed on the ground behind me eventually flowed into the Buffalo National River. More beautifully cut trail greeted me for a short but fun downhill section but once that gave out I was on the most technical hand cut section of the day. Gradually going up as the trail wrapped around the mountain back to our starting point at Foggy Bottom Farms. The group had gotten spread out by this point, I was somewhere in the middle of the pack but I saw no one until I was almost back at the parking area. It was a good time to reflect on the fact that I haven’t been riding enough lately.
I changed quickly at the truck and headed down to How Kuff’s house for some grilled cheese sandwiches and soup. I found a keg of beer out on the deck and enjoyed rehashing the ride with old and new friends before leaving for home.
Steve Schneider, our resident “Daisy Dukes” wearing IMBA representative, mentioned that the trail is already under consideration to become an IMBA Epic, this would be the third for Arkansas. Quick reminder, the IMBA Trail Crew will be at the Syllamo next weekend to teach basic trail building and maintenance and trail work days are scheduled for Friday and Saturday. We need to keep our Epics in good shape.
According to OORC President, Phil Penny, the trails at Buffalo Headwaters have about another year of work to be done before they are opened to the general public. How Kuff told me the plans include signs at each trail intersection with maps showing riders and hikers exactly where they are. It is very easy to get turned around and lost out there right now. There are no trail signs out there yet and the hollows, streams and bluffs quickly start looking the same. Keep an eye on ArkansasOutside.com for information on upcoming trail openings.
Enjoy this taste of the trails, we’ll see you out there next year.
Thanks to Phil Penny for many of the photos, I was too busy riding and trying to wipe the grin off my face to stop and take many.