THE INDIAN ROCKHOUSE: The trail to this prehistoric peoples' shelter starts at the Buffalo Point trailhead.
The upper part of the Buffalo River may be the most scenic stretch of the national park, but it's all relative. The middle and lower sections are spectacular compared to just about anywhere else in Arkansas and, for anyone outside of North Arkansas, they're closer. From Little Rock, you can be splashing in the river at Tyler Bend in just about two hours.
Rough it ... or not
Pitch a tent in the Tyler Bend Campground, operated by the National Park Service 11 miles northwest of Marshall, off U.S. Highway 65. It's open year-round with flush toilets and even a shower with hot water. Great hiking nearby, too. Or take state Highway 27 north in Marshall to state Highway 14 to the Buffalo Point Campground, the largest campground on the Buffalo National River. It puts you a short walk from one of the best swimming holes on the Buffalo and near to the Indian Rockhouse Trail. But take note, there's no water or electricity during the off-season, from Nov. 15 to March 15. If you require more amenities, try Buffalo River Cabins, at 99 state Highway 268 E, south of Yellville in the Buffalo Point Park area. There you'll have your pick of rustic cabins. Or check out the range of cabins for rent from Buffalo Camping & Canoeing, which operates out of the Gilbert General Store. Most are mere yards from the river.
Load up on smoked meats and cinnamon rolls
If you're setting out in the morning on your excursion from Central Arkansas, you'll hit the Buffalo at just about the time to start thinking about lunch. Bring an ice chest, because you'll want to stop at Coursey's Smoked Meats, off Highway 65 just up the hill from where the highway passes over the Buffalo. It's been smoking meats since 1945. Load up on smoked deli meat, cheese and thick-cut bacon, or if you just need lunch for a hike or a float, get a deli sandwich to go. Just across the highway from Coursey's is Ferguson's Country Store and Restaurant, where you can get a plate lunch, burgers, pie and cinnamon rolls as big as your head. Great spot for breakfast, too. Another stop, farther down south on Highway 65, just south of Leslie: Serenity Farm Bread, where you can pick up hand-shaped sourdough loaves cooked in a wood-fired brick oven along with all sorts of pastry delights.
WHEN IT'S TIME FOR PIE: Or a plate lunch, or burgers, try Ferguson's.
Canoe or kayak
Unlike the upper stretch of the river, the middle and lower parts can be floated just about any time of the year. Tyler Bend to Gilbert (4.4 miles) or Grinders Ferry to Gilbert (4 miles) are probably your best bets. There are several places to rent boats along Highway 65, including Buffalo River Outfitters and Silver Hill Float Service, or head down to Gilbert to Buffalo Camping & Canoeing. If you haven't yet, browse around the Gilbert General Store, established in 1901, and park your car where you'll be taking out and avoid two shuttle rides.
Get in the woods
For a stunning view, hike the Riverview Trail from the Tyler Bend Visitor Center in St. Joe to the bluffs that overlook the Buffalo. The trail also affords a tour of an early 20th century cabin at the top of the hill. Round-trip, it's about 3 miles. More seasoned hikers, keep going past the homestead on the Buffalo River Trail, which runs the entire stretch of the river. From Tyler Bend to Gilbert is 5.5 miles, a 4-5 hour hike. The popular Indian Rockhouse Trail starts at the Buffalo Point Trailhead. It's about 3 miles round-trip, strenuous (according to the National Park Service) and passes by a sinkhole, a small waterfall and a bluff that once sheltered prehistoric Native Americans. Farther downriver, south of Yellville just off Highway 14, the ghost town of Rush is worth a look. The mining town was founded in the mid-1880s by prospectors looking for silver. They never found any, but they did find zinc, including a 13,000-pound zinc nugget nicknamed "Jumbo." The short half-hour Morning Star Loop will take you by the remaining structures and mines, or a longer loop will take you beyond the town and past a spring and Rush Creek.
Dinner at a dairy bar
If you didn't plan for dinner at the campground or cabin, head to Marshall for dinner at the Daisy Queen, which has been serving up burgers and shakes since 1966. It's on Highway 65 and worthy of a stop even if it's not mealtime for a fresh fried pie or a cone of soft-serve ice cream.
APRÈS HIKE: A fried pie at the Daisy Queen will hit the spot.
Drive-in for a movie
The Kenda Drive-In, nearby on Highway 65, is one of only three remaining drive-in movie theaters in the state, and the only one to stay open year-round. From roughly the end of September to the end of March, it operates on a winter schedule and shows films only on Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights. Go to kendadrivein.com to see what's playing.
30 minutes for a cuppa Rock-N-Java Ozarks
Just past Marshall, the scenery explodes. The road begins to wind more narrowly and Ozark Mountain calendar panoramas spring up on either side of your car. If you're not planning on stopping for coffee at the Serenity Bakery in Leslie — a noteworthy bakery six miles north the road — keep an eye out for Rock-N-Java, a tiny Highway 65 N coffee shop with quirky furniture (look for the table shaped like a giant matchbox), an upbeat vibe and postcard-worthy periphery.