If satin sheets and candlelight dinners are essential to your idea of a romantic getaway, then bring them along for a visit to Buffalo River country. The romance here is in the scenery and the chance to get away - really away - from it all.
The steep-sided Buffalo Valley is one of the most isolated parts of the Arkansas Ozarks. Towns are few and far between, and most are far from the river itself.The green-tinted Buffalo River winds for 132 miles across north-central Arkansas, from a few miles above Boxley to its confluence with the White River at Buffalo City. In 1972, Congress made the Buffalo the first national river, thus saving it from a long-debated plan to dam the river.
The National Park Service manages the river and a 2- to 4-mile-wide strip of park land bordering it. The Park Service has barred most development along the river in response to public sentiment that it should be left as pristine as possible. As a result, there are few stores, lodging places or restaurants within the valley.
The experienced traveler brings picnic supplies and food that can be fixed quickly on a cabin stove. Many of the small grocers in the valley are open only in the busy summer season. Even then, the selection can be extremely limited except in larger towns like Yellville or Harrison, both a long drive from the river on narrow, winding roads.
The best times to visit the valley are early spring and the fall, especially on weekdays. Major access points such as Ponca can be crowded in summer and on warm spring weekends. At other times, the river and surrounding country are all but deserted.
Throughout the valley, the river is the main attraction. Slow, sleepy pools alternate with riffles running past bluffs as high as 500 feet. Box canyons, wide gravel bars and clear, spring-fed tributaries tempt the floater to stop and explore.
The most spectacular float is from Ponca to Pruitt, a two-day outing that has some whitewater in the spring. Lazier day floats include Maumee to Buffalo Point or Buffalo Point to Rush, an abandoned mining camp on the lower river.
Float services at Ponca, Jasper, Gilbert and other access points rent canoes for day trips or overnight adventures. The Buffalo Outdoor Center at Ponca offers wilderness guides, canoe rentals and supplies from March through May.
Hikers can enjoy wide vistas across the green valley, scramble over rocks in the Lost Valley area near Ponca or walk down a tree-shaded trail to the Indian Rock House from the ranger station at Buffalo Point.
Hemmed-In Hollow is a popular destination for hikers in the upper valley. In the spring, a waterfall plunges down a towering semi-circular bluff. Canoeists on the Ponca-to-Pruitt float can hike a short distance from the river to see the hollow, too.
The biggest commercial area is at Jasper, which has motels, restaurants and other attractions. Within the park, the most developed area is at Buffalo Point, which was Buffalo River State Park until the state donated it to the park service in 1973. Buffalo Point is about 20 miles south of Yellville, on the north shore of the river a few miles off winding state Highway 14.
Buffalo Point has the only cabins that can be rented within park boundaries. There's also a large campground and picnic area, small visitor center and several hiking trails. Most accommodations in the area are very basic - some would say primitive.
The eight modern cabins at Buffalo Point, the National Park Service headquarters, consist of one main room with a kitchen alcove, one enclosed bedroom and a bath with shower. Linens, soap and toilet tissue are furnished, but visitors must bring cooking utensils, flatware and any kitchen supplies.
Buffalo Point also has five rustic cabins, built in the 1930s. These stone-and-log cabins have big stone fireplaces and screened porches along the back. There's a bed in the main room, right in front of the fireplace. It's a cozy place to spend a chilly evening or an occasional rainy day.
The cabins are available from April 1 to Nov. 30. The concessionaire will begin taking reservations on Feb. 15. Rates for this year may go up, but last year the cabins rented for $44 a night for the first two people, plus $5 for each additional person to a maximum of six. Children 6 and under are free.
Reservations for the cabins can be made by calling the Buffalo River concessionaire, (501) 449-6206.
If the water is too low for floating or if the weather threatens, several other northern Arkansas destinations make good side trips from the Buffalo River Valley.
Blanchard Springs Caverns is a large underground cave system maintained by the Forest Service.
The Ozark Folk Center at Mountain View isn't far from the cave, but it can be an outing all on its own.
Information on the Buffalo River and surrounding areas can be obtained by writing Ozark Mountain Region, P.O. Box 122, Dept. T4, Mountain Home, Ark. 72653, or the Harrison Advertising and Promotion Commission, P.O. Box 939-ATG 84, Harrison, Ark. 72601.