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story.lead_photo.caption Gene Williams (above photo) takes care stepping over an icy patch Jan. 19 on the Buffalo River Trail. Tom Mowry (from left), Thao Nguyen and Karen Mowry wait their turns. (Top photo) Hikers gaze out over a gravel bar along the Buffalo National River. - Photo by Flip Putthoff

Every trail has its ups and downs, especially for those who wander beside the Buffalo National River.

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The Buffalo River Trail runs for more than 50 miles along the storied stream, thrilling hikers with riverside beauty or vistas on high bluffs above the water. A taste of the trail is found on a 4-mile hike from the Ponca low-water bridge to Steel Creek access and back.

Overnight on the trail

The Buffalo River Trail is ideal for day hikes or longer backpack expeditions.

The 11-mile section from Boxley to Ponca is good to consider for an overnight backpack trip. Camping is allowed anywhere along the route.

Start at the Boxley trailhead along Arkansas 21 south of the Buffalo River, just before the highway goes up a long hill. The trek ends at the Ponca low-water bridge. Like the Ponca to Steel Creek section, the trip from Boxley to Ponca has its climbs and descents.

Source: Staff report

From Ponca, it's a steady climb to a summit about a mile into the hike. Then it's down, down, down to Steel Creek. It's up, then down again on the jaunt back to Ponca.

A gaggle of five hikers gathered at the river after winter dealt the Buffalo a cold blow. Ice was thick enough along the stream bank that stomping the sheet with a heavy foot didn't break it. Boots left their tracks where this piece of trail starts on the south side of the low-water bridge.

There's an old homestead area near this start point that's worth exploring before hitting the trail. A sign points the way.

It's easy hiking heading east at the start. The path is well worn and easy to follow as it hugs the river on a mostly level course past cedar and beech trees. The workout starts when the climbing begins.

Close to a mile into the hike, cold had frozen a stream in its tracks where it tumbled down a bluff. Ice falls, not waterfalls, dazzled the eyes at a hairpin turn in the trail. The ascent keeps going along a narrow stretch with a rock wall on the right and a sharp drop on the left.

Trees barren of leaves offered long views deep into the hill country forest.

"I love hiking in the winter," said Gene Williams of Rogers. "The leaves being off make some real nice hiking. In the summer, this would be like hiking through a tunnel."

Twin slabs of rock mark the summit a little more than half way to Steel Creek. The trail goes between the tall slabs that are only four feet apart, if that.

Breathing is a little easier when the Buffalo River Trail starts to drop. It's a welcome descent with switchbacks and a rocky trail tread. "You've really got to watch your step," Williams said, bracing his progress with a sturdy hiking staff.

Hikers gazed down at the clear water, then looked up to watch a bald eagle. The path creeps along the edge of high bluffs with stunning views of the river 100 feet below. Roark Bluff, towering, majestic and sporting many colors, began to show itself across the river. The bluffs signal that Steel Creek is near.

Once the trail levels out at the campground, it cuts through a thicket or river cane. A water and snack break was in order at a picnic table before heading back to Ponca.

It's the same trail on the return trip, but the sights and river views are different hiking the opposite way. The first half-mile out of Steel Creek is a true lung buster. It's steep, all right. Not like the gradual ascent going east from Ponca.

A last stop at the frozen waterfall was in order before finishing the hike back at Ponca about lunch time -- perfect timing for a visit to the Low Gap Cafe, a few miles east of Ponca on twisting Arkansas 74.

Hikers rehashed the trip over lunchtime fare fit for royalty.

"That climb out of Steel Creek? For Arkansas I'd give it a 5 or 6 on the wheezer scale," said Tom Mowry of Nob Hill. "There are a lot tougher climbs, but it's not an easy one."

Four miles on the Buffalo River Trail with a fine lunch to boot fill up a fine winter's day.

Flip Putthoff can be reached at fputthoff@nwadg.com or Twitter @NWAFlip

Sports on 03/06/2018

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