A Superlative Expedition: The Buffalo’s Tallest Bluff

If you have done much hiking or paddling through the Ponca Wilderness of Buffalo National River www.nps.gov/buff, chances are good that you have admired magnificent Big Bluff—purportedly the tallest bluff on the Buffalo River. Well, if superlatives are what you seek in the Ozarks, you’ve been fooled by a common misnomer. Big Bluff is not, in fact, the tallest bluff on the Buffalo. 

Photo 1: The view from atop Big Bluff, which—perhaps disappointingly—is not actually the tallest bluff on the Buffalo River. 

That might sting for a minute, but we think we can help. 

For starters, you’ve been on the wrong end of the river. This superlative expedition will take you to THE tallest bluff on the Buffalo River, located near the “duck head” between Dillard’s Ferry and Rush Landing.

Photo 2: A panoramic view of the back of the Duck Head, which includes the Buffalo’s tallest bluff. Photo by Gina Poulson/NPS

Our adventure begins about an hour east of Harrison, or 16 miles south of Yellville, AR, at the Highway 14 Bridge, otherwise known as Dillard’s Ferry. Long before the lofty bridge was constructed, brothers Pate and Ira Dillard operated a ferryboat here to help vehicles cross the river…hence the name of the river access. Throw your boat on early to avoid the crowds on summer weekends, and get to paddling because this one’s a long haul.

Photo 3: History behind the name: Brothers Pate and Ira Dillard operated a ferry here before the Hwy. 14 bridge was constructed. Photo: NPS Archives

Striking geology and long pools make this float visually interesting, and the slower current makes it particularly appealing for novice paddlers. Be warned, though; during times of low and slow water, this 9-mile float can require a lot of self-propulsion. For this reason, make sure you check the river levels https://ar.water.usgs.gov/buffaloriver before you go. You’ll also want enough sunscreen, snacks, and drinking water to make it through the whole day. 

Photo 4: Skull Rock, a geologic landmark.

After about a mile, you’ll see Skull Rock come into view far ahead on river left. Skull Rock juts out above a narrow chute in the river where paddlers can gain some short-lived but welcomed momentum. If you get out and clamber to the top of the rock, the cratered surface will make you feel like you’re standing on the moon.

Just downriver is the beginning of Painted Bluff and a fantastic swimming area at Buffalo Point Campground https://www.nps.gov/buff/planyourvisit/buffalo-point-campground.htm. In the fall and winter, watch the trees along the top of this bluffline closely; bald eagles love to hang out here. Buffalo Point is a great campground with amenities like running water, electricity, cabins, a restaurant, and a dump station for RV campers. Don’t forget to stop in the ranger station and say hi to the friendly rangers! Seasonal interpretive programs are also available here on weekends between Memorial Day and Labor Day.

Photo 5: Painted Bluff at Buffalo Point.

Paddling onward, you may lose yourself in a trance induced by the synchronous rhythm of your breathing and paddling, the whisper of the wind, and absolute solitude. Mile after mile, bend after bend, you’re sure to enjoy it all the while.

The start of the “duck head” is where things get really interesting. Also known as Seven Mile Bend, this is an elongated oxbow that happens to resemble a duck’s head from an aerial view of the river. At the “neck” is a sharp left curve called Bice Bend, and here on river right is 590-foot Ludlow Bluff…the tallest bluff on the Buffalo. It stands in unassuming grandeur, as much of the bluffline is hidden by vegetation. In fact, there are several 500+ foot bluffs within the duck’s head, and by cruising some of the county roads near Rush, you may discover some hidden and unmarked trails leading out to spectacular views from those bluffs.

Photo 6: Ludlow Bluff, the tallest bluff on the entire Buffalo River and the moment you’ve all been waiting for.

After a long day of paddling, your weary arms may wail, but keep on paddling because we’ve saved the best for last. Your take-out point today is Rush Landing, an abandoned mining boomtown between the banks of Rush Creek and Clabber Creek. During the zinc-mining boom of World War I, Rush had a population of approximately 5,000. Today, there are dilapidated buildings, gated mineshafts, cable car lines, and other eerie remnants hidden throughout the riverside ghost town. There are two hiking trails and a campground here at Rush Historic District https://cast.uark.edu/hicks.php that allow for easy access to this historical treasure trove.

IMPORTANT NOTE:Take great care not to miss the sign for Rush Landing as you paddle this section of the Buffalo River. If you paddle past Rush, you’re in for a long, multi-day float through the Lower Buffalo Wilderness—a 24-mile section of absolute remoteness with no vehicular access or cell reception whatsoever until you’ve reached the confluence with the White River at Buffalo City. People have accidentally done that before. Actually, it happens all the time. Don’t be that guy.

Photo 7: Rush Historic District, a ghost town worth exploring after your paddling trip. Photo by Suzie Rogers/NPS