Kayaking on the river
Paddling in the Upper District.

NPS Photo

The Buffalo River flows freely for 151 miles. Typically, the paddle season begins on the upper Buffalo in the spring. More water makes this section attractive for visitors seeking a higher level of challenge with whitewater kayaking. The season moves downstream with the months, varying from month to month with rainfall. Unlike rivers that are fed by perennial springs, the Buffalo is largely rainfall dependent. In dry years, the paddling season is short and quickly moves down into the Middle and Lower Districts. In wet years, use of the upper river is prolonged with paddling opportunities spread out through the park for the entire season.

Below you will find the river broken down by district. Select a district to learn about the various paddling opportunities available. For further information about floating the river call the Tyler Bend Visitor Center at 870-439-2502 or visit the park's River Rules page. Visit the park's Canoe Rental page for information on authorized concessioners and the River Accesses and Mileage page to plan a trip based on mileage.

Always check river levels before putting on the river. The river changes, sometimes daily, weekly, and certainly with the seasons. We may make generalizations about river conditions, but it's hard to detail every gravel bar, sweeper, or the speed of the river when you are planning a trip. The U.S. Geological Society (USGS) has several gauges along the river and provides real-time river levels and discharge, but it can't tell you that a tree fell down last night and is blocking the side channel a half mile below the gauging station. And typically, neither can the ranger on the phone or behind the desk. The river changes just that fast and it's really up to you to be responsible for your own safety.

River levels greater than the indicated levels are unsafe:
  • Ponca gage: 1300 cfs
  • Pruitt/Hwy. 7 gage: 2000 cfs
  • Grinder’s Ferry/Hwy. 65 gage: 8000 cfs
  • Dillard’s Ferry/Hwy. 14 gage: 9370 cfs
Backcountry camping is allowed on the river. No permit required. Visit the park's Backcountry page for further information. Regardless of how long you are on the river don't forget to reapply your sunscreen and stay hydrated. We hope you have a safe and enjoyable float!

Be Prepared. Plan Ahead.

Wear your life jacket. All persons floating or paddling the Buffalo River are required to have a personal floatation device (PFD) in their boat. All children ages 12 and under are required to WEAR their PFDs at all times while in the boat. This isn't just a good idea, it's the law. Be sure your PFDs are US Coast Guard approved, in serviceable condition, and are worn properly. The park recommends that ALL persons, even those age 13 and up, wear a life jacket while on the river. Remember, "It won't work if you don't wear it."

Tell someone where you are going. Leave a detailed itinerary and map of the area with a responsible person at home or work on whom you can rely to report you overdue in the event that you become delayed. Give them the telephone number to Buffalo National River's 24-hour dispatch: 1-888-692-1162. Remember, cell phone service is unreliable in the park.

Know your limits and prepare. Search and rescue missions often result from visitors who get in over their head and quickly become overwhelmed by trip duration, trip difficulty, or environmental conditions (air and water temperatures). Things you should ask yourself include, are you a strong swimmer? Do you possess basic survival skills, such as lighting a fire, and can you perform those skills while soaking wet and shivering? Are you healthy enough for strenuous activity? If river conditions change do you know when to pull off of the river and wait for better conditions?

Check the weather forecast and river gauges. Thunderstorm events can cause rapid short term changes that need to be taken seriously. Awareness of the likelihood of a storm will help you make a decision about whether to go or not to go, or at least how far away from the river to set up camp and pull your boats. These storms are sudden and can happen far away from where their affects are eventually felt. It depends on the severity of the storm and the watershed into which it falls. A major storm in the Upper Buffalo can cause serious problems in the Middle and Lower Districts without you ever hearing a clap of thunder or even seeing a cloud!

Tube responsibly. While personal flotation devices (PFDs) are not required while recreating in an inner tube, we strongly recommend the use of one while floating or paddling the river, for both children and adults. Without a paddle you are at the river current's mercy and you cannot steer or make the tube go faster. For this reason the park recommends tube trips no longer than 1.5 miles. You are very limited as to what you can take with you on a tube and there is often no room for water, snacks, or sunscreen. Please take all of this into consideration when planning a float on tubes.

Avoid sweepers and strainers. A sweeper or strainer is a tree or trees that have fallen across or along the edge of the river but may be above the river level, partially submerged, or may lie just under the surface of the water. Often these are found on the outer side of bends where the river is fastest, or in fast-moving and narrow chutes. Either way, they can cause a canoe or kayak to capsize and require extra care to avoid. Experience is the best practice, avoidance is the best caution. The park removes downed trees when they are judged to be a hazard. Operating a chainsaw in a boat on a river is a very dangerous undertaking. Not all trees are removed. Some are considered nuisances and not hazards, and are part of the river experience.

Secure your gear. Be sure to place all of your equipment in sturdy waterproof bags and tie everything down in your boat to prevent it from washing away if you capsize.

Bring sturdy footwear. Flip-flops or slip-on water shoes can get pulled off of your feet and swept downstream if you capsize. If your boat becomes pinned or washed away, you must be able to hike out - have study footwear with you just in case.

Do not attempt to unpin a pinned boat. If your boat becomes lodged, DO NOT ATTEMPT TO UNPIN IT! This is a very dangerous situation with extremely powerful forces being exterted on the boat. Leave it where it is and report its location to a park ranger as soon as possible.

Wear the right clothes. When paddling during the fall, winter, or spring wear wool or synthetic fibers such as polypropylene, or a wet suit. Avoid cotton because when cotton becomes wet, it loses the ability to insulate and quickly contributes to a hypothermic state. Hypothermia results when your body loses heat faster than it produces it and can be deadly. Waterproof outer garments are also highly recommended.

Be aware of other floaters. Chances are you won't be alone on your river trip. You may run into people with expectations of quiet and solitude. On the other hand, you may encounter groups who wants to play loud music and drink alcohol. It's important to understand that the National Park Service manages for multiple interests, placing limitations or prohibitions only where absolutely necessary to preserve the resources and insure visitor safety and satisfaction. And speaking of safety, the operative phrase may actually be "run into" at certain times. If you are approaching a narrow chute or bend and see the potential for congestion, slow down to avoid a collision that could result in anything from inconvenience to injury. This includes other watercraft, swimmers, and horses!


River Terminology

The Put-In
This is where you enter the river, either by using one of the park concessioners, or with your own canoe, kayak, john boat, or raft. Depending on the location and time of year, conditions may be very congested in the parking area and on the river bank. Tempers can run short as visitors are anxious to get on the river and cool off. Be patient, be considerate, be safe. Some put-ins have parking restriction to accommodate commercial boat rentals and their trailers. Please be aware of these restrictions and keep these areas clear.

The Reach
"Reach" is a term used to describe a section of the river. The reach you select will be defined by your put-in and take-out locations. Each reach has its own beauty and challenges. Some are longer than others, some have more or less remote highway access, some are only navigable when water levels are adequate for floating. The park brochure shows river mileage between access points along the bottom margin. Remember that river travel is not strictly a miles-per-hour undertaking since different reaches have different flows and impediments.

Gravel Bars
These guys are like living creatures and are generally taken for granted except when they've swallowed alive your boat trailer or truck. You camp on them, build fires on them, drag your canoe across them. Fortunately, they are periodically renewed by flood events, keeping them fresh for the next season of visitors. The gravel in the river provide critical habitat for many living things, but when it comes to planning your trip the issue is usually whether or not the water depth is sufficient. At any time it is possible that the load your craft is carrying and the depth of the river at certain points will require you to get out and haul over a gravel bar. Usually, this is a minor inconvenience and should be anticipated. "River shoes" or old sneakers are a big help at times like this. In cases where the river levels are seriously low, your trip plans should be altered to avoid getting into a potentially dangerous, not to mention unpleasant, situation of hauling for mile after mile to the next available take out. It does happen and it's not fun.

Last updated: December 24, 2021

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