SKELETONS OF DORMANT OAK and hickory make way for sweeping, unobstructed views of the Buffalo River. The earthy aroma of leaf litter and traces of last night’s campfire smoke linger on your coat. No bugs. No snakes. No crowds. Just the solitude steeped in an eerie stillness found only in the winter Ozarks.
Lured out of your den by the warmth of spring, you find the forest immersed in birdsong. Wildflowers such as crested iris, fire pink, blue phlox and golden aster line the edges of the trail. You might spot a morel mushroom or two. Nonnative ornamental blooms that seem out of place in a forested wilderness—jonquils, tiger lilies, zinnias—are often indicators of old homesites where pioneers of Buffalo River country put down roots long ago. You ponder their lives and the struggles they must have overcome in these rugged Ozark hills.
Morning summer sun filters through a thick canopy and captures a thread of sparkling silk suspended across the trail. You walk right into it. Struggling to remove webbing from hair and eyelashes, you veer into a thicket of briars and poison ivy. It’s an hour past sunrise and already in the mid-80s with stifling humidity. Taking cues from native wildlife, you know what hours are best to avoid dehydration and heat exhaustion. Real hikers don spiderwebs in their hair.
You take a breather and glance uphill. Almost there. A few minutes later, you’ve made it to the top of the hill and, seemingly, the top of the world. Hundreds of feet below, the Buffalo River makes a dramatic bend, its corridor shrouded in rusty hues of autumn. From the top of this lonesome bluff, you can see for miles. You feel the shifting winds whisk away regrets and worries along with fallen leaves.
Got five days? The 37-mile Buffalo River Trail might just be the perfect way to test your thru-hiking mettle
Leave your ride at Buffalo Outdoor Center and take a shuttle to the Boxley trailhead. You’ll have to cross the highway and Smith Creek. After a short uphill climb, enjoy views of Cave Mountain. From there, it’s another 6 to 7 miles to various backcountry campsites.
After breakfast, the trail will lead you to the old quarry, a big sinkhole and the Ponca low-water bridge. Make a side-trip here to the Jim Villines homestead. You’ll finally emerge at the Steel Creek Campground and get some well-deserved rest. You’ll have covered roughly 12.6 miles over the past two days. You’ll probably feel it.
After a spectacular sunrise (hopefully), you’ll climb to views of Roark and Big Bluffs, passing a large shale outcropping before descending to the edge of the Kyle’s Landing area. Make camp after an 8ish-mile day.
Next morning, you’ll climb more hills (you are in the Ozarks, after all) and pass above Buzzard Bluff and across scenic Shop Creek before touring the Parker-Hickman Homestead and reaching the Erbie Campground. This is another 8-mile day, so make your last camp and enjoy the evening.
Start early and you can get to the Cedar Grove day-use area for lunch. Then you’ll hit the Ozark Campground before arriving at the Pruitt trailhead after about 8.5 miles of hiking. Your vehicle should be waiting on you, courtesy of the Buffalo Outdoor Center’s shuttle valet.