The Buffalo Headwaters Trails have existed for almost twenty years. They started as a few hand-cut trails known only to locals and a few others. They were very rough and technical. While many of those trails still exist, over the last couple years they have grown thanks to groups such as the Ozark Off-Road Cyclists (OORC), Progressive Trail Designs, The Walton Foundation, and some of the same locals who have been riding the trails for years. There are now almost 40 miles of trail and they are open to the public!
In 2014 the International Mountain Bike Association (IMBA) gave the trails the status of being an IMBA Epic Ride. According to their website, an IMBA Epic is a “true backcountry riding experience that is technically and physically challenging, more than 80% singletrack, and at least 20 miles in length (www.imba.com).” This is the fourth mountain bike trail in Arkansas to receive this status. Few states have four, if any, IMBA Epics which proves that Arkansas is truly becoming one of the best places in the nation to go mountain biking.
The Buffalo Headwaters Challenge, held at the end of every January, is a great way to be introduced to the trail system. This ride started in the 90s and had humble beginnings as well. What started as a just a couple guys riding local trails at the Buffalo has grown to an event that had over 200 attendees in 2015. There are different ride options depending on how far you want to ride, but regardless of what length you choose be prepared for a tough and fun day of riding followed by some great food and comradery. The event is sponsored by the OORC and details can be found in the events section of their website: www.ozarkoffroadcyclists.com.
THE 2015 BUFFALO HEADWATERS CHALLENGE WAS A RECORD YEAR WITH OVER 200 PARTICIPANTS
With 40 miles of trail there is a lot to ride at the Buffalo. There is a mix of hand-cut and machine-cut trails. The original trails were all hand-cut, but some of the newer trails were done by machine. However, it was decided to finish the remainder of the new trails by hand to maintain the rugged feel of the Buffalo (it also helps prevent erosion). This is noteworthy because there is a distinct difference between the ride of the two types of trails. Sidewinder Trail, for instance, has a fast flowing machine-cut descent that is followed up by a rougher hand-built section at the bottom. No matter where you ride, though, you will have fun at the Buffalo. While the trails would be quite challenging for a new mountain biker, there is bound to be something for everyone. The majority of the trails are an intermediate level with some expert level trails as well. Be prepared to climb. There is no escaping the elevation change, but what goes up must come down. For those who want a downhill challenge, Wildcat is a must. This is not for the faint of heart. It is a loose, rocky descent with a couple of sizeable drops. If that’s not your thing, Azalea falls may be more your speed. For that matter, everyone should ride Azalea falls while they’re out there. It’s a flowy downhill with a mix of dirt and rock gardens that shouldn’t give anybody too much trouble. It even features a small cave and a spring crossing. The Fire Tower Loop Trail is another flow trail that everyone enjoys. In case you’re wondering where the climbing is, don’t worry, you’ll find it. Many of the trails will have climbs throughout and you will also find yourself climbing fire roads when connecting from one trail to the next.
There is also a lot of great scenery to enjoy at the Buffalo Trails, as your ride may take you through areas with creeks, caves, bluffs, and waterfalls. Speaking of creeks, there will be creek crossings no matter where you ride. Some trails have more than others, but just be prepared that your feet are likely going to get wet, depending on recent rainfall. There is so much to see here, that it would be difficult to take it all in in one day. It may be wise to make a weekend out it, so that you see more of what the trails have to offer.
There are some campsites available on the trails. They are located on Foggy Rock Farm. There are about a dozen campsites, and there is also a rustic cabin with running water. If you would prefer something a bit plusher, there are cabins in Ponca which is about 30 minutes away from the trails.
THE UPPER BUFFALO TRAILS ARE VERY WELL MARKED WITH NUMBERED SIGNPOSTS AND MAPS THROUGHOUT THE TRAIL SYSTEM
When you head to the Buffalo, you want to keep in mind that the trails are rough and there are no bike shops out there. Be sure to bring extra tubes, a pump, a multi-tool, food, water, and maybe even a first aid kit. As far as maps go, it’s always a good idea to have one with you, but the trails are very well marked. There is a large map at every junction. The maps are numbered and always facing north so that you can easily orient yourself. It would take a few trips to get the lay of the land, but the maps will prevent you from getting too lost.
The thing that strikes many riders is how remote the trails are. When you ride at the Buffalo there are no highways, no neighborhoods, and few other people. It is remote… but that’s what is great about riding out there. You get to enjoy nature. While the trails are well maintained, don’t expect them to be like the well-groomed trails that you find crammed into the middle of town. Those trails are great too, but the Buffalo is a very different experience. You get a chance to get away. That being said, it is recommended that you not go alone. This is the type of terrain where you want someone with you in case something happens. Most likely nothing will, but just in case… bring a friend. Besides, mountain biking is more fun with friends anyway!
Here is one “recommended route” from the Ozark Off-Road Cyclists that should set you up for success and serve as a great introduction to the Upper Buffalo Trail System:
Park at Knuckles Creek Road Trailhead and ride back up service rd 1476. Start on the Fire Tower Loop Trail. Continue on Fire Tower Trail (signpost 35) eventually hitting the intersection of Knucklehead Trail West (signpost 28). Take a left at this intersection and continue on to (signpost 26) which is the Knuckle Connect Trail. Turn right here and you’ll see (signpost 25) off the road on your left. Stay to the right, and it’s uphill to (signpost 23). More uphill to (signpost 22). Stay right and shortly you’ll come to (signpost 21). Go left here onto South Bench Trail and continue, eventually going by (signpost 10) – stay right. You’ll end up at (signpost 11) which is the intersection at Lower Trail of the Ancients. Go right. Very soon, you’ll arrive at (signpost 12). Go right here onto the upper Trail of the Ancients and uphill to (signpost 19) and across the road to (signpost 20) which begins Azalea Falls Trail. Continue on and arrive back at (21). Stay left here and then left again at (22). Downhill back to (23) and go left to (25) and Knuckles Creek Rd. Then go left back to the trail head you started at which is uphill 2-3 miles. If you have more than 1 vehicle, you might want to skip the uphill back to your car on Knuckles Creek Rd.