Plan Like A Park Ranger - 10 Tips for Responsible Recreation

A group of park rangers
A black and white image of a group of park rangers at Buffalo National River.

NPS/T. Fondriest

Park rangers are often called upon to provide recommendations and insight on how to make the most out of a Buffalo National River adventure. They're also the ones who get called to help out when those adventures go wrong. When it comes to responsible recreation, we know what it takes to have a great experience at the Buffalo, and we are excited to share some insider tips to help you #PlanLikeAParkRanger.

A little advance trip planning can ensure that your only surprises are happy ones. If you've discovered this article, you're well on your way! The following top 10 list was compiled just for you by park rangers at Buffalo National River. Give it a read, and contact us directly if you have any follow-up questions as you start planning your next trip!

1. Come Hail or High Water

Weather conditions and water levels can make or break a trip to Buffalo National River. High water is often swift and dangerous, and low water makes for an excruciatingly long day. Before you get in your vehicle to head this way, check the weather forecast and the river conditions for the area of the Buffalo River you'll be visiting. This will help you make smart decisions while you're out!

2. Plot Your Path

Besides taking photos, your cell phone will be worthless in most areas of Buffalo National River. For this reason, visitors need to plan their routes and activities in advance. It's extremely wise to carry a detailed topographic map to help you navigate the rugged hills, hollers, roads, and trails surrounding the Buffalo.

Also, consider advising friends and family back home that you won't have cell service for the duration of your visit. Park rangers routinely get phone calls from worried spouses and parents who aren't able to get in contact with their family members who are visiting the Buffalo. This worry can be mitigated by clear communication on the front end of your trip.

For offline information about Buffalo National River, make sure to download the National Park Service App before you leave home.

3. Reserve Your Spot

Especially during busy seasons (spring and fall in the Upper District, summer in the Middle and Lower Districts), campgrounds fill up long before the weekend arrives. If you'll be driving a long way to get here, you need to book a campsite as early as possible. Campsites at Steel Creek, Tyler Bend, and Buffalo Point can be reserved online up to 6 months in advance at Please use this resource so you'll have a guaranteed place to stay when you get here.

Remember, some campsites at Buffalo National River are non-reservable. These first come, first served campsites cannot be "saved" or paid for in advance. Campsites must be occupied every night for which they are registered and paid.

4. B.A.R.K. Rangers On Duty

Pets are welcome at Buffalo National River, but there are many restrictions for the safety of the park resources, wildlife, and other visitors. Pets and pet parents should follow B.A.R.K. Ranger principles while recreating in the park:

5. Poop Properly

Did you know that there are 4 ways to poop at Buffalo National River, depending on where you are in the park? In a national park unit that offers so many opportunities for water-based recreation, human waste is a major water quality concern, so it is critical for visitors to help with proper waste management while they're here.

In non-developed areas, solid human waste must be:
  • deposited in fixtures provided for that purpose
  • buried in a cathole 6” to 8” deep and at least 200’ from water, camp, and trails
  • packed out in a disposable biodegradable bag toilet system approved for landfill disposal (WAG bag or similar system)
  • packed out in a self-contained washable, leak-proof, reusable toilet system.
Go like 'Squatch and always practice Leave No Trace.

6. More Elbow Room

Crowds not your favorite? Try visiting popular locations on a weekday for a little more elbow room. Alternatively, visit a lesser known area of the park during busy seasons and weekends. Here are the busiest months for the most popular areas of Buffalo National River:
  • Boxley Valley/Ponca Area: April - May, October - November
  • Pruitt Area: June - July 
  • Tyler Bend Area: June - July
  • Buffalo Point Area: June - September
Check out these Trip Ideas to make the most of your visit, no matter the season!

7. #FindYourParking

With more people visiting Buffalo National River than ever before, it's imperative for visitors to park vehicles in designated spaces in order to protect park resources and visitor safety. Drivers should never stop in the middle of roads or highways to view wildlife or vistas; instead, use designated turn-outs and parking lots. If a parking lot is full, please don't attempt to create your own parking spot. Come back at another time when space is available.

8. Rig to Flip

Nobody ever plans to turn over in their canoe or kayak, but it's inevitable. To protect the Buffalo River and its banks from accidental littering, paddlers are required to secure all gear to the inside of their watercraft. Get rigged to flip! For more information, check out the River Rules.

9. Get Out and Scout

There is absolutely no shame in getting out of your boat to scout out obstacles downstream. This is what the experts do, and it often saves lives. If you see a rootball or a down tree up ahead, don't paddle right into it like an amateur. Pull over on a gravel bar, take a closer look at the obstacle, and make a safe and responsible plan of action. Sometimes this means portaging around it.

You know what else experts do? They wear their life jacket. Do it. More information: Preventative Search and Rescue.

10. Climbing Skyscrapers

Did you know that the majority of rescue operations at Buffalo National River take place on hiking trails, not the river itself?

The terrain surrounding the river is unassumingly steep, rocky, and rugged, which can cause trouble for unprepared hikers. The park's most frequent rescue location--Hemmed-in Hollow Falls Trail--involves about 1,200 feet of elevation gain. This is equivalent to climbing the stairs of the Empire State Building. Are you up for that? If not, consider selecting an easier trail. Trust'll be a much happier hiker that way, and so will the members of our search & rescue team.

Buffalo National River

Last updated: July 25, 2021