Exploring the Buffalo National River can be done by water or land. The area is so rugged and beautiful that you almost have to explore it both ways to get a full appreciation of the wonders it offers. The Buffalo River Trail is about 37 miles total but can be hiked in several smaller sections. The Kyles to Ponca portion of the Buffalo River Trail might be the hardest section but offers an amazing payoff.
Buffalo River Trail – Kyles Landing to Ponca
This section is about 10 miles one way and can be hiked from Kyles Landing to Ponca or from Ponca to Kyles Landing. My GPS clocked me at 12 miles. I did get a little confused and walked down the wrong path at one point, but other than that little half of a mile, I stayed pretty much on the trail. But both Tim Ernst and the Buffalo River’s information say the mileage is 10 miles. I’m not sure where the extra 1.5 miles came from, but for clarity when I give mileage points, I’m going by what my GPS said. I also subtract the 0.5-mile mistake and note it when I refer to it later.
Whether you hike the trail from Kyles Landing to Ponca or Ponca to Kyles Landing, it will give you some good elevation gain. So there’s not really an easy way to hike it. I have hiked from Boxley to Steel Creek in the past so this hike is my second section toward completing the Buffalo River Trail.
I hiked the Kyles to Ponca section of the Buffalo River Trail in mid-June with my friend and fellow blogger, Kaci of The Car Camping Queen.
Shuttling the Buffalo River Trail from Kyles to Ponca
We chose to hike it from Kyles Landing to Ponca because it was the easiest option for shuttling. Since we both were coming from different directions we met up at Compton and car camped Friday night. We then left my car in Ponca and drove to Kyles Landing to begin our hike.
I had read in the Tim Ernst Buffalo River Hiking Trails Guidebook to not leave a vehicle overnight at the Ponca Trailhead when hiking the Buffalo River Trail. He states the river can rise and flood and possibly wash away your vehicle. There was only a 10 percent chance of rain during our hike, but Leave No Trace Principle 1 tells us to Plan Ahead and Prepare.
I was able to park my car at the Buffalo Outdoor Center. They did not charge, but only requested I leave my key with them in the event they needed to move my vehicle. A side note: I brought an extra key, just in case something were to happen, on the trail causing me to not make it back before they closed on Sunday. You never know what could happen and I had to be at work Monday morning.
Kyles Landing to the Slatey Place
We left Kaci’s car at Kyles Landing and began our hike.
Once you leave the trailhead, you almost immediately come to an intersection. The Old River Trail goes to the right or toward the river. There are several intersections like this along this portion of the Buffalo River Trail, but there is wonderful signage to point you in the right direction.
You will soon come to another intersection. This is where the Buffalo River Trail continues to Erbie if you bypass Kyles Landing. Here you will want to go straight, or right, toward Ponca or Steel Creek.
When you leave Kyles Landing the trail stays in the river bottom and then takes you up a short hill before dropping back down into the river bottom.
After you leave the valley again you begin the largest climb in elevation of your trek. The trail zigzags with switchbacks until you get to about mile 2. With the large climb at the beginning, it was nice to have it over with but my legs were jelly because I hadn’t really warmed up yet.
As you climb toward the top, keep your eyes toward the river below for glimpses through the trees of Gray Rock, a bluff on the Buffalo River.
At mile 2.7, you come to the Slatey Place. When I first saw this on the map, I thought Slatey was a name and this was an old homestead. But when I got there and saw the large shale or slate pit, I knew it was named for the rock, not a homestead. And there may have been a homestead there at one time. Because there is a large pond full of frogs nearby.
The Slatey Place is a wonderful backcountry campsite, but we wanted to make some more miles before stopping for camp.
The Slatey Place to Big Bluff Overlook
From the Slatey Place, the Buffalo River Trail turns and heads toward the south, or the left, if you are coming from Kyles Landing. (It goes to the right if you are coming from Ponca.) I made the mistake of not checking the map and thought it went to our right. But Kaci stopped us and corrected the mistake.
If you go to the right, or north, it will take you the river where you can eventually find your way to Hemmed-In Hollow.
From the Slatey Place, the trail snakes toward the south around hollows of the terrain before dropping down into the valley for Beech Creek at mile 4.0. We knew our planned campsite might not have a water source, so we filled up our water for the evening.
After crossing Beech Creek, the trail climbs out of the valley toward the northwest. At mile 5.93, you get an amazing view of Big Bluff across the river. If you squint your eyes, you can probably see hikers along the Bluff. Having hiked Big Bluff a few times, I enjoyed seeing it from the other side of the river. Later, I did go look through the pictures I had taken from Big Bluff to see if I could spot the Buffalo River Trail with hikers going from Kyles to Ponca. But the forest is thick in the Ozarks and I didn’t see the trail or hikers.
Big Bluff Overlook to Steel Creek
After the Big Bluff overlook, we continued on with peaks of the bluff through the leaves. At mile 6.55, the trail makes U-turn, and this is where we set up camp. To the left just before you get there, we saw some great flat spots. But we were hoping for a view, so we pushed on. There is a gorgeous view where we camped…through the tree.
From our campsite, the Buffalo River Trail heads south again (going from Kyles to Ponca). Here it follows the ridge before coming to another amazing overlook, the Steel Creek Overlook, at mile 7.37. You’ve probably seen pictures from this overlook. It really is one of the best views on the Buffalo River.
From there, you drop down into the Steel Creek valley. (The valley of the actual creek, not the camping complex.) Be on the lookout for waterfalls. There are some really cool ones along this stretch. At mile 8.5 the trail crosses the creek. We were able to cross without getting our feet wet, but if it had been much higher, I’m not sure we could have.
From Steel Creek, the the trail climbs a little out of the valley. At mile 9, the Buffalo River Trail intersects with the road to Steel Creek Campground. Here the trail crosses the road, but we decided to use the restroom and fill up our water at Steel Creek Campground.
Steel Creek to Ponca
After taking a breather at Steel Creek Campground, we hopped back on the trail, but not at the right place at first. There is a trailhead at the restroom at the campground, but we thought you could also get on the trail at the end of the road. You can get on the Old River Trail from this point, but not the Buffalo River Trail.
The Old River Trail crosses the river immediately, but we kept following a trail thinking we were on the Buffalo River Trail. However, we must have been on a social trail, because we ended up having to turn around.
There was a sign that said “BRT” but we couldn’t figure out anyway the social trail connected.
After walking back to the restroom, we got on the right trail. From this point on for the sake of clarity, I’m subtracting the mistake and backtrack from my mileage points. However, the mistake will still be on the map and elevation photo.
After you leave Steel Creek, the trail climbs fairly steeply out of the valley, but when you get to mile 10.25, you are finished with all the climbing!
From there, the trail follows the ridge going through some pretty cool rock formations before dropping a little and becoming parallel to the river.
At mile 11.65, you hike under the Highway 74 bridge and come to the Ponca Trailhead. If you’re not too tired, take a short spur trail to the Villines Farmstead and step back into history.
Buffalo River Trail – Kyles Landing to Ponca
The Buffalo River Trail form Kyles Landing to Ponca takes you through some of the most beautiful parts of the Buffalo National River. It’s a gorgeous hike. There are several spur trails and trail crossings, so you’ll want to be sure and pay close attention to the signage the park has out.
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- 12 (my GPS) or 10 (BR and Tim Ernst) miles one way
- Elevation gain 2,125 feet and loss 2,015 feet
- Dogs not allowed
- Backcountry camping – yes