4 day Buffalo River canoe trip

A friend and I would like to take a 4 day canoe camping trip down the Buffalo River between March 15 and March 30. I figure about 8-10 miles/day, so maybe from Ponca to Carver?? I’m used to slow waters and like to be on the water maybe 4-5 hours/day. I’ve got some mild whitewater experience, he is a fast learner.

Can you recommend a good canoe livery for our shuttle? Is the section I mentioned a good one? Will there be a big Spring Break river dork crowd that maybe we should look for another river or another time? Any comments are appreciated.

The Buffalo has a small watershed and water goes up and down really fast
Done it several times including the entire river downstream of Ponca in 4 days during high water
Ponca can be a rough start if water is high or low
Buffalo Outoor Center can put you in at Steele Creek and you can go down to Woolum or Carver
8 miles a day is horridly slow. More realistic is 12-15 unless you just want to float and not paddle. I aim for 15-20

You will need to be flexible when planning a trip on the upper Buffalo in advance. Water levels are not a given. If you look at historical discharge data for the Ponca USGS gauge, daily mean flows for the period March 15 - March 30 averaged over the last 8-9 years are anywhere from 234 cfs to 818 cfs. Remember, these are mean flows for an 8 year period, so in any given year the flow for the particular date may have been considerably lower or higher than that.

Two hundred thirty four cfs is pretty low for putting in at Ponca, especially if you are paddling a loaded tandem canoe. Over 800 cfs is pretty high and may be above your comfort level. There is at least one Class II rapid between Ponca and Kyle’s Landing, and at higher water it might be Class III and multiple other rapids will rate Class II. So you will need to check gauge levels as your planned departure date approaches and may need to shift to another river or a lower stretch of the Buffalo if levels are not suitable.

Last year there was an enormous spring flood in the area, and a group of three canoe campers were caught on an island during rapidly rising water, a little above Kyle’s Landing. Two of the paddlers swam, lost gear and boats, and one drowned when they tried to paddle off. They recovered the body during our last spring Rendezvous just upstream of Erbie. So pay close attention to the weather reports, and avoid camping on islands or any site from which there is not a clear escape route to higher ground.

Assuming that the water level is good, Ponca to Carver would definitely be the most scenic stretch. Check the park map:


Clearly, the shuttles to access points below Carver become significantly more painful. If you plan to use one and plan to use an outfitter to shuttle, you need to be sure that they would be willing to do so and what they would charge. Setting up your shuttle could take the better part of a full day.

I agree that four days to paddle Ponca to Carver would be rather painfully slow. I think Three days and two nights is more reasonable, allowing time to set up the shuttle the first day, and allowing you to get off the river at a comfortable time the third day. If Ponca if running, you will surely be sharing the river with others. The crowd will likely thin out significantly below Kyle’s Landing.

FWIW most of the schools within reasonable proximity of the Buff have spring break scheduled the week of the 19th, so if you’re looking to avoid that type of crowd you might be better served to launch Sunday the 25th which should work nicely with your schedule (assuming there’s water). Please feel free to shoot me an email if I can help with specific beta or possibly even shuttle if it turns our dates overlap. It’s just a two or three hour drive for me depending on the section so I’m up there quite a bit.

Thank you very much for all the good info. I’m a slow paddler used to very slow rivers. Since we do want to go for 4 days minimum, I’m now thinking about going down to Woolum from Ponca/Steel Creek. The Buffalo Outdoor Center seems to be shuttling there, but I’ll call them first.

Are there any other hiking opportunities directly from the river, other than Hemmed-In Hollow? It would be fun to mix in a couple of hikes, maybe even a layover day.

I think if you are planning for 4 relatively full days of paddling, Ponca or Steel Creek to Woolum would be a good distance. Ponca can be a bit of a madhouse to put in at when the river is running well, especially on a weekend. I would be inclined to try to set up your shuttle the day prior to putting on, camp at Steel Creek and put in there as early as reasonably possible. That would put you ahead of the rush, if there is any.

The only hike I have done on the Buffalo is to Hemmed-In Hollow. I understand there is a nice 2.8 mile hike up to a scenic overlook starting at the Steel Creek campground, but I have never done it. If you planned to camp there and got set up early enough, that might be a nice option.