Established in 1972, Buffalo National River flows freely for 135 miles in Arkansas and is one of the few remaining undammed rivers in the lower 48 states. Once you arrive, prepare to journey from running rapids to quiet pools while surrounded by massive bluffs as you cruise through the Ozark Mountains. At a large curve in the river known as Horseshoe Bend, you can access a dead end canyon with a 210-foot waterfall. If canoeing the river isn’t your thing, you can also get to Hemmed-in Hollow, as the canyon is called, through the Ponca Wilderness via a very steep and plunging trail. The Hemmed-in Hollow Trail intersects with many of the other trail systems in the Ponca Wilderness creating multiple spur trails for the more adventurous hiker. My brother Dave and I visited Buffalo National River on Sunday, May 3, 2015 from 7:30AM to 1:00PM. Our plan was to descend the Hemmed-in Hollow Trail to the waterfall, then take the spur trail to Horseshoe Bend on the Buffalo River. The ascent would be a return trip.
Hike Length: 6.2 miles Hike Duration: 5.5 hours
Hike Configuration: Down and back Blaze: No blaze, but signs
Hike Rating: Difficult. The climb back out of the hollow is very strenuous.
Elevation Change: 1,295 feet, gain 1,720 feet Elevation Start: 2,205 feet
Trail Condition: Pretty good. Some exposed roots and rocks, and minor erosion. When you get into the hollow amphitheater there is some treacherous rock hopping. The riverbank is all cobblestones, so watch your step.
Starting Point: Compton trailhead. Entrance to Ponca Wilderness.
Trail Traffic: We encountered a dozen hikers and another dozen paddlers.
How to Get There: Take Hwy 43 out of Harrison, Arkansas and travel roughly 18 miles to Compton Community. Turn left on the dirt road across from the Compton Post Office and travel one mile. Turn right, and follow the signs to the trailhead parking area. There is room for about 15 vehicles.
Everything Dave and I had read about Hemmed-in Hollow in our preparation confirmed that this is a beast of a hike. Even looking at the topography lines on a map shows the depth of the canyon. It isn’t the descent into the hollow that will get you on this one. It’s the challenging climb back up afterward. So, if you try this one, make sure you’re in good hiking shape. Allow plenty of time. Take enough food and water, perhaps a change of clothes, and any other emergency supplies you may need… just in case.
Starting at the Compton trailhead not far from Hwy 43, you plunge into the Ponca Wilderness immediately. The first quarter mile is benign enough, mostly level, and on this day in early May, lined with phlox and foamflowers. It’s a good warm up to get the legs stretched and ready before beginning the descent.
As you continue for the next three-quarters mile through a dense hardwood forest on a gradually descending path, you may wonder if this is much ado about nothing. But just wait. It will change… and change in a hurry. You will witness a brief overview of the destination as the bluffs above the gorge come into view on your left. As we learned later, because there was little to no water flowing over Hemmed-in Falls, we couldn’t really discern the waterfall from the bluffs. Too bad. It would be a gorgeous sight.
Also, there are all too brief glimpses of the surrounding Ozark Mountains, very reminiscent of the beloved Southern Appalachians back home, albeit on a smaller scale. This trail may be more scenic in winter months when the leaves are off the trees.
About a mile into the hike, the trail begins to descend in earnest. There are several areas where you really have to watch your step as you drop off a bench in the white sandstone and onto a wholly different level. The trail builders did deploy a few switchbacks, but it’s mostly just steep descent in a southerly direction. At the 1.6-mile mark you get a brief relief when you reach a junction with Sneeds Creek connector trail. Be sure to take a hard left here, turning in a north direction, to stay on the Hemmed-in Hollow Trail.
The trail has a lesser pitch past the junction giving those tired knees a chance to recover. The forest is particularly dense the rest of the way down. We were surrounded by that glowing verdant woodland that comes with early Spring. We paused frequently to marvel at the bright green canopy that hushed the woods. And then the silence was broken. Not much at first, but as we continued to drop, we recognized that tell-tale sound of rushing water. We must be getting close to the bottom.
When you reach the creek bed, approximately 2.2 miles from the top, you have a choice. Turn left to go another quarter mile to Hemmed-in Falls, or turn right to go 0.6 mile to Buffalo River. We, of course, were going to do both after coming all this way, but we chose the waterfall first. We wanted to get there quickly before the sun got too high in the sky, creating extreme contrast for photos.
Following the creek northeast to the falls, you understand how this place got its name. You’re surrounded on both sides by a very precipitous and rugged gorge. The trail gets a little sketchy in this area as it’s difficult to maintain a tread through the hollow, but the direction is quite evident. There’s nowhere else to go. Then finally, there it is, the dead end of the canyon. You are truly hemmed-in.
And, much to our disappointment, the waterfall was essentially nonexistent. Apparently there hadn’t been much rain in the days and weeks leading up to our visit. There never is a torrent that plunges from the bluffs 210 feet above, but we were at least hoping to see more than a trickle. Oh well, make the most of what you have.
The sandstone walls of Hemmed-in Hollow are multi-colored, displaying various shades of white, yellow, brown and black. The rim of the bluffs high above is covered with trees, seemingly hugging the rock for dear life at the edge of their lofty perch. We had the place all to ourselves, so we listened for echos of the pitter-pat from the few water droplets that reached the canyon floor. The floor itself is shale-like, layered in shelves that make nice platforms for camera tripods.
We stayed for half an hour, but nothing magical ever happened. It became just a very tall waterfall without any water. So off to the river we went. The Buffalo River is what makes all of this wilderness possible. It’s a little less than a mile from the waterfall to the river, with the trail hugging the picturesque creek along the way. We were treated to blooming roseshell azalea along the way, another advantage of our early May timing.
By this time Dave and I were ready for lunch, so we pulled up a couple stones and took a load off. Horseshoe Bend became quite the scene of activity while we enjoyed our sandwiches, fruit, and granola. Two different groups of canoes arrived, each making a beeline for Hemmed-in Falls. Then we were given a show by a couple backpackers and their dog making a crossing of Buffalo River on the bowling ball-like cobblestones that form the river bed. They had one word when they got to our side, “Cold!!!” We did talk with them a bit later. They had been in Ponca Wilderness for a couple days and nights and weren’t looking forward to the climb back up out of Hemmed-in Hollow.
For me, the river was the highlight of this hike. Peaceful and serene at Horseshoe Bend, it reflected the surrounding bluffs and forest, and the beautiful Arkansas azure sky and puffy clouds. Downstream were shoals, creating the soothing sound of babbling water flow. Most everyone we met were locals. They were somewhat surprised that we would come such a long way to visit their little slice of wilderness. Natural beauty is wherever one finds it.
Dave and I glanced at each other, with that “are we ready for this?” look of foreboding. It was time to tackle the beast. We divided the ascent in thirds, each about a mile long, giving ourselves three different goals, and rewards. The first third would be back along the creek to the junction, then up the lower climb to the Sneeds Creek connector. The middle third would be the hard part. That’s where we would gain a thousand feet in a mile… up to the hollow overlook. Then finally would be the last third, topping out on the plateau, with the last relatively easy walk to the finish. After each, we would reward ourselves with a rest, and some nourishment.
The plan worked. After all, here I am telling you the story. The first third worked out well. We took our time
— slow and easy
— no hurry, no worry. We were back to the connector in no time, perhaps 30 minutes. We sat on a log for 10 minutes, catching our breath, drinking plenty of water, munching on some goodies, and steeling ourselves for the relentless climb ahead.
Once again, we plodded along, very slow and easy. It took us slightly more than an hour to complete. We paused frequently for a 30 second breather. When we reached the overlook we met a group of hikers about our age who had lots of questions about the difficulty of the ascent. Apparently Dave and I didn’t look too exhausted, so they seemed encouraged when we parted ways.
There is one final major ascent at the beginning of the third leg that, once completed, signals the end of the hard work. Now we were moving at a relatively brisk pace. That wasn’t so bad. When we got back to the car we were met by a park ranger asking if we were the ones who had called in about the accidental fire. When we assured him we were not, he continued asking others who were milling about. The parking lot at the Compton trailhead was now pretty much full. It was 1:00 in the afternoon now and we were finished with our hike, while all these others were just getting set to begin.
So let’s summarize Hemmed-in Hollow. There’s no doubt that this could be one spectacular waterfall. If you live nearby, make sure you plan your trip to Hemmed-in Falls during times of reoccurring rainfall, such as Spring, or after an early summer thunderstorm. If you’re traveling from far away to the Ozarks like us, you’re basically taking potluck. It didn’t work out for us, but it all evens out. Over the years we’ve been many other fabulous places and seen many once-a-year sights.
I would not recommend this hike for the entire family. I suggest leaving the younger kids at home. They should probably be at least 10 years of age to try this trail. Further, I would not recommend this hike for those who tire easily. You may make it to the bottom, but that just puts you in deeper trouble if you can’t make it back up.
If you find a dry waterfall, don’t forget Buffalo River. Horseshoe Bend is quite beautiful, but by itself isn’t worth the exertion of the climb out of the hollow. Regardless, it’s still a lush and thriving forest. If you paddle a canoe or kayak, perhaps the best way to enjoy Hemmed-in Hollow is on the river. Certainly there is exercise required to paddle, but not nearly as much as on foot.