The Buffalo National River is more than a wild and scenic river. The area offers numerous gorgeous hiking trails to explore on foot if you are tired of floating, or simply want to hike. The Ponca Wilderness is a jaw-dropping area to be seen on foot or from the river.
Tim Ernst produces a good book, “Buffalo River Hiking Trails,” with detailed trail descriptions of the area. Also I highly suggest bringing a map, the trails can be tricky. National Geographic makes an excellent one.
The Upper Buffalo is some of the most rugged terrain in Arkansas. In this area, near Ponca, Ark., you can view the highest waterfall in between the Appalachian and Rocky mountains. Hemmed-In Hollow drops 209 feet from the cliffs above.
The Goat Trail leads hikers high above the river along one of the signature bluffs on the Buffalo National River, but be careful this trail is not for those with vertigo or small children.
Also hiking in the Ponca Wilderness Area, you can view several historic buildings and catch a glimpse of life long ago in the area. A map of the entire area can be viewed here.
A good day hike to incorporate all three of these features is hiking from the Centerpoint Trailhead, just north of Ponca, to the Compton or Hemmed-In Hollow trailhead at Compton.
The collection of trails is about eight miles and can be done by shuttling, or leaving a vehicle at each trailhead. If you want to add mileage, you can loop into the Sneeds Creek Trail, and back up the Centerpoint Trail for a round trip to and from the Centerpoint Trailhead.
Last year in May, Lagena, Zach, and I hiked from Centerpoint to Compton in the Ponca Wilderness. The Centerpoint Trail begins at the trailhead with its name and travels down a little more than 1,000 feet to the valley floor of the Buffalo River. The Goat Trail, which takes you to the edge of Big Bluff over the river, is a spur trail from the Centerpoint Trail. From the bottom of the Centerpoint Trail, we hiked along the Old River Trail, until we met up with the Hemmed-In Hollow Trail.
Centerpoint and Goat trails
The Centerpoint Trail seemed to be an old road. It had rained recently before we were there and the trail was more of a small creek. It is also steep and doesn’t incorporate many switchbacks so it was a little slick. I made the comment that I was glad we were going down hill and not walking up hill because I would be worn out. However we paid for the downhill trek on the steep uphill climb on the Hemmed-In Hollow Trail.
In late May everything is extremely green, thick, and lush. But at the very beginning we caught glimpses of vistas across the valley through the trees.
Where the trail meets up with the Goat Trail, it isn’t marked clearly so you have to watch for it. Here there is a great place to pitch a tent if you are backpacking.
We followed the Goat Trail down a little ways toward Big Bluff. Lagena and Zach are not the biggest fans of heights, so we stopped for lunch not too far along the bluff. The trail is extremely narrow with lose dirt in some places, and as I said before, it is not for everyone.
I chose to hike along the bluff a little further leaving Zach and Lagena, but even I got a little scared and turned around.
We hiked back to the Centerpoint Trail and continued toward the falls. Along the trail, we could see an old wall from residents in the Ponca Wilderness long ago.
Old River Trail
The Centerpoint Trail ends at the Sneeds Creek Trail. Here you want to go right toward the river for a very short way to meet up with the Old River Trail. Hiking along the Old River Trail, you have a wonderful view of the river.
Along this portion of our hike we also came across the Henderson House. Granny Henderson was one of the last residents in the Buffalo River Valley before the land was set aside by the National Park Service. I loved exploring the cabin and imagining what life was like there 100 years ago.
The connector trail from the Old River Trail to Hemmed-In Hollow Trail splits from the Old River Trail to the left at Sneed Creek. This trail intersection can also be confusing. Someone had written “Falls” in the sand to direct paddlers on the river to the falls. If you miss the intersection, a spur trail from the Old River Trail is available for paddlers a little further down river. The one catch is the river needs to not be roaring, as it was when we were there, because the Old River Trail crosses the it.
Lagena and I were glad we brought river shoes because we had to cross Sneeds Creek which was little high for crossing and keeping our feet dry. So we swapped our hiking boots for our river shoes.
After crossing the creek, we were a little mixed up on which way to go. The trail seemed to end at what looked like a rock wall, so we chose to take a faint trail to the left. As the trail got narrower and narrower, we realized we went the wrong way. When we got back to the rock wall, we saw that the trail did indeed go up and over it.
Hemmed-In Hollow Trail
The spur trail from the Old River Trail intersects the Hemmed-In Hollow trail as it makes a turn to go into the narrow valley of Hemmed-In Hollow. It follows the creek from the water that pours out of Hemmed-In Hollow until it ends in the falls. From the trail intersection, the waterfall is 0.7 miles.
Hemmed-In Hollow is an amazing site to see. And if you are able for the steep hike back to the car or river crossings, it is worth the hike. The falls cascade over a painted rock bluff like many others in the Buffalo National River and Ponca Wilderness Area.
When we were there, it was after a major rain, and the falls were beautiful. Rain gear would have been helpful because the spray from the falls got me soaked. Zach and Lagena walked around and behind the falls. If you chose to do that, the rocks can be slippery.
We hiked back to the trail intersection of the Hemmed-In Hollow Trail and the spur of the Old River Trail. We then headed up the mountain to the Compton Trailhead on the Hemmed-In Hollow Trail. And this part is steep! One problem with starting the trail from the top, is you have to make the climb back up when you are tired. We huffed and puffed, and we took lots of short breaks.
Another problem we had was the trail was muddy and some parts I would slide down a little every step I took.
About half way up, there is an overlook for the falls. It is so amazing to see how water sculpts the land.
These trails are just a few you can hike in the Ponca Wilderness Area. The area really is amazing and offers so much to see.
There are many places to camp in the area, but the trail also make for excellent backpacking.
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Hemmed-in-Hollow is definitely a beautiful sight, but the walk back up the hill to the Compton parking lot is a killer for sure!
Water and fruits/nuts/jerky become your best friends here for sure.
I was just talking about that walk! It sure is a killer.
My husband and I are planning to combine the Sneeds Creek trail and the Hemmed-in-Hollow trail two weekends from now.
I’m glad I came across your description. It will help us be the right kind of lost for sure!
Awe, thank you ? I’m glad you enjoyed it! Hope you have a great hike!
About how long did it take you to complete this trail? Would a 6 year old be able to do it? We would be backpacking overnight.
It took us between eight and 10 hours. It was definitely and all-day hike. Splitting it up into two day would be great. There are lots of goods places to camp in the valley. The Goat Trail and Big Bluff I don’t think I would advise for small children. The trail along the bluff is very high and narrow. Also around Hemmed-In Hollow it is really rocky and slick. We passed a woman who was hiking out and said she had just sprained her wrist. We also hiked it after a lot of rain and the steep parts of the trail were muddy and slick. So there are those to consider when hiking with a 6-year-old. I hiked west end of the Buffalo River Trail last year in that area, https://www.rightkindoflost.com/brt-boxley-valley-to-steel-creek/. I think it would be a lot easier for a 6-year-old. The part between Ponca and Steel Creek the trail got a little narrow along a bluff, but not like Big Bluff.
After hiking from Centerpoint trailhead to Compton trailhead, would you recommend doing the hike in reverse or recommend with the way you went?
I think the doing the trail in reverse would be just fine!
Is there a way to cross the river from the other side (Buffalo National River Trail)? I’d like to start in Ponca and possibly camp in the Horseshoe Bend area and then day hike over to Hemmed-in Falls and the Goat Trail.
I haven’t done Hemmed In Hollow but always have wanted to do this hike. Thanks for your description. It will be a big help.