After a few hiking mishaps in which not knowing the trails cost me valuable time, energy and daylight, the first thing we did was study the route. Our group uses the All Trails Pro iPhone app, which offers downloadable maps with real-time GPS tracking, but I recommend having an analog map and mile-breakdown, too. We printed, annotated and laminated maps from ouachitamaps.com, marking potential campgrounds and places to refill water.
If you’re going in August, take plenty of bug spray, water, water filters, bear spray and a bear bucket or bear bag for food. And because the whole appeal of the BRT is seeing the river from above, know that you have some very serious climbs ahead of you. Trekking poles are your best friend here. Bring a buddy so you can drop a car off at your endpoint, or arrange for a ride ahead of time since cell reception is scarce.
The start of the trail, Boxley to Ponca, keeps you deep in the woods and traverses private lands. It’s buggy, hard to find and there aren’t many opportunities for water. If you’re going to skip a segment, skip this one. However, once you emerge from the woods, the sight of sunlight glinting off the river at Ponca Low Water Bridge is exactly the pick-me-up you need to help you tackle the last few miles to Steel Creek. (If you don’t make it, there’s a bluff-top backcountry campsite a few miles past the bridge.)
As you leave Steel Creek, stop to soak in the view from Steel Creek Overlook, just off the trail. With ample parking and amenities, unbeatable vistas and plenty of picnic-perfect rocks, Steel Creek to Kyle’s Landing makes for a low-hassle day hike. On the way to Kyle’s Landing, the woods become less dense and the sights become even more amazing. Soak in the eagle-eye views while you can, because the last segment near Erbie campground leads down to the river, along valleys, through homesteads and past historic graveyards. The trail has enough geographic diversity to show you this familiar region from a new perspective.
As floating season comes to a close, consider ditching the canoe and grabbing a pack to experience the majesty of the Buffalo River—that is, if your calves ever stop burning.