Roads Rivers and Trails

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Monthly Archives: July 2019

Arkansas’ Hidden Gem: A Week on the Buff

By: Will Babb

As a student at Ohio State, I am privileged to work part-time at the university’s Outdoor Adventure Center. The OAC boasts a climbing gym, equipment rental, and trips program designed to let students experience everything from backpacking to climbing to caving all across the world. I’ve spent most of my time as a climbing instructor, but I devote some time as a Trip Leader to share my passion for adventure with as many people as I can. 

I recently attended the OAC’s annual Trip Leader Training, a 12 day staff trip focused on developing both technical skills and interpersonal skills. When my supervisor announced that TLT would be held in Arkansas, I was confused. I wondered where we could possibly go in Arkansas, a state I had never thought of as an outdoor adventure destination. My mind immediately leapt to the possibility of a backpacking trip through the Ozarks. Instead, I was surprised to hear that we’d be spending more than a week canoeing the Buffalo River, a hidden gem of nationally designated wilderness that few people know about. I was skeptical at first, but a Google search of “the Buff” revealed beautiful blue waters, pristine wilderness, gravel bars perfectly suited for camping, and towering bluffs rising over 500 feet above the river.

It is no easy feat to plan a twelve day canoe trip for 16 people, but we managed to do it despite the weight of finals over our heads. We broke the twelve hour drive from Columbus into 2 days, arriving at Steel Creek Campground in the afternoon of the second day beneath grey, rain-filled clouds. We shrieked with excitement and anticipation as we pulled up to the river, staring in awe at black and tan streaked bluffs rising above the water on the far shore and roaring waterfalls pouring over the cliffs. Our excitement turned to nervousness as we looked at the river, whose normally turquoise waters were a turbid brown as the raging river overflowed its banks and twisted around a bend with humbling power and speed. We camped overnight, hoping the river level would drop by the following morning. Rain all night long dashed those hopes, instead showing a rise in water levels.

Many of the Buffalo River’s 135 miles are wide and gentle, but the upper portion of the river just below our launch point at Steel Creek contains technical rapids up to Class 2. With the river in flood stage and park rangers urging us to hold off on starting, we were faced with a choice. We could wait several days to start until water levels receded, throwing us off our itinerary, or we could face the flooded river. We opted to launch into the turbulent waters in a trial by fire. This was not a reckless decision, the entire group had previous paddling experience and was fully outfitted with PFD’s, whistles, throw ropes, pumps, and bail buckets. Half the crew was Swiftwater Rescue certified, and with a whitewater raft guide to lead us through the rapids, we felt confident we could make it.

We loaded the 8 canoes with hundreds of pounds of gear- stoves, food, tents, clothes- and strapped it all down in the center of each boat. We launched into Steel Creek just as the rain let up and then cautiously steered into the river, immediately being tested by fast moving waters. Right off the bat a canoe flipped and we had to stop to rescue swimmers, reposition gear, and bail water. Righting a canoe loaded up with gear and half full of water in a flooded river is no easy task, but we had to do it again and again throughout the day as the Class 2 rapids flipped one boat after another, even the most experienced paddlers. There was a constant threat of strainers and streamers along the overflowing riverbanks and holes and rocks lurked in the turbulent waters. We were forced to learn quickly and work hard, along an intense stretch of river that required full concentration. By the end of the day, we had covered 12 miles and everyone, and everything, was soaked. The first day on the water had tested us, but everyone emerged from the river alive and smiling, enjoying the thrill of riding Class 2’s in a canoe.

The second day saw slightly lower water levels, more rapids, and fewer flipped boats along a 15 mile stretch of water. Overcast skies still loomed on day 3, but glimpses of sunlight taunted us. We flipped less with each day as we grew more comfortable on the water and made it to easier stretches of river, mastering the J stroke, C stroke, and pry as we paddled downstream. Flooded gravel bars left us with few camping options alongside the river, and a planned 15-mile day of paddling on the third day turned into a 30-mile day as we searched for a suitable campsite.

As we paddled, we watched turtles resting on logs and swallows dive in continuous arcs across the river. Eagles, stately rulers of the river, perched in trees overhead. A mink dipped into the muddy waters and kingfishers squawked noisily as they flew across the river. The monolithic bluffs rising alongside the water captivated us as we strained our necks to stare upward at the impressive rock formations. We camped each night on sandy or gravel beaches with bluffs rising on the far shore, whippoorwills calling incessantly, and the murmur of the river ringing in our ears as we fell asleep.

One evening we watched an otter swim gracefully down the river. As the skies cleared on day 4, we marveled at a sky full of stars in the evenings. We skipped rocks across the river and did push-ups on rocks at every stopping point. We quickly became used to routine on the river and the days went by in a blur. We swam in the frigid waters beneath a scorching sun and practiced rescue techniques in our free time. The muddy waters reverted to the beautiful blue color they are known for and we lazily drifted down the calm stretches of river, enjoying every moment we had on sister river. Sunny weather lifted our spirits and we splashed each other and tried to capsize other boats in bouts of piracy.

The days passed quickly and the miles flew by. Our group of leaders bonded together; the river nourished new friendships for us as it nourishes life in this wondrous wilderness. After 8 days and 100 miles on the water, we pulled our canoes out of the water at Buffalo Point. There was no doubt in our minds that we were far more skilled on the water now than we had been on day one, so the only logical thing to do was to test our skills on the eight mile stretch of rapids from Steel Creek to Kyle’s Landing that had flipped so many boats on the first day. Back at Steel Creek, the river was completely transformed from what it had been 8 days earlier. Sparkling, clear, turquoise waters rolled across rocks and rapids where floodwaters had been before. We could see the bottom of the river and rocks that had been submerged before were now obstacles to steer around. We started paddling the next morning, eager to ride some more waves in canoes empty of gear.

The change was clear- we had mastered steering and could pick the best lines through each set of rapids. We navigated around strainers and avoided the holes that could flip a canoe instantly. Where on day one we had nervously steered away from the biggest rapids, we now turned the bow of the canoe directly into the most exciting water and enjoyed cruising through technical stretches of river. Perhaps we were a bit overconfident, as several canoes flipped. A storm rolled in right as the first boat flipped, turning a pleasant morning cold and dreary in a flash. As more boats went over and the downpour continued we got cold and paddled hard to make it to the takeout. A canoe in front of mine flipped on the final rapid and the upside-down boat bounced off a rock and floated right beneath my canoe as we tried to navigate the rapid, flipping the boat and leaving us shivering and dripping. Even still, we couldn’t help but enjoy a final challenge on this river.

A wet morning on the river marked the end of our long float. As we waited for the vehicles to shuttle back to our takeout point and carry us home, we gathered, shivering, in the small bathrooms at Kyle’s Landing and huddled together for warmth, taking turns crouching beneath the hand dryers until we had dry clothes to put on. Two days later, we rolled back in to OSU. Twelve days without a shower on the river had left us smelly and bedraggled. We were all anxious to get back to Columbus, relax, and be clean, but I think I speak for the whole crew in saying there was a part of us that was sad to leave “the Buff.”

That river had challenged and rewarded us and it became home for us, an escape from school and work and responsibilities. Any time we set out on an adventure, whether it be to the mountains or paddling a scenic river, we go home. Our true home is in the outdoors, in the places we can go to time and again for healing, renewal, and growth. These beautiful, wild places challenge us and bring us together, they ground us and remind us who we are and why we do what we do. The wilderness is the greatest teacher, it brings people together and exposes people for their true selves in raw form. Each trip out leaves us exhausted but unbelievably happy and fulfilled, ready to face the real world until once again adventures call us and our spirit needs to be quenched with time spent in the outdoors. My trip down the Buffalo River had done all that for me. Each time we adventure on the roads, the rivers, and the trails that beckon us, we are going home for a time, and there is no greater feeling in the world than that.

Top Resources for Getting You Outside

By: Ben Shaw

If you’ve ever been in the shop and asked one of us for help when planning a trip, we’ve most likely pulled up some website or resource that you might not have been familiar with.  After years of planning trips and adventuring around you tend to start collecting these resources, but I understand they can be hard to find at first, especially for those who aren’t research oriented.

My goal here is to throw out some of my top resources for getting you outside and trip planning.  The resources that will help for a specific trip are going to vary wildly, but the ones I’m going to cover will hopefully span a vast amount destinations and trip types.

For more trip planning help check out our trip planning services here.

Mountain Forecast

Mountain Forecast is an awesome tool. It gives you the ability to search by range, sub range, and specific mountains.  You can search for the weather on summits all over the world and it can make a trip anywhere from climbing 14ers in Colorado to walking up Mount Rogers more enjoyable.

Mountain Forecast only gives the weather 6 days out; it shows wind forecast, sunset and sunrise, and temperature both at the summit of the mountain and typically at the base.  Some summits will also indicate a halfway up measurement.  I have had fairly good luck using Mountain Forecast for managing expectations on trips as far as weather was concerned.  One heads up, the default for Mountain Forecast is to display in Celsius, so make sure you switch that over to Fahrenheit unless you’re secretly Canadian and understand the Celsius scale…

National Park Service/National Forest Service

For the hiker, biker, climber, backpacker, boater, mountaineer, or really anyone trying to get outside, you’ve at some point found your way into a National Park or a National Forest.  Both services oversee huge swaths of wilderness and land open to recreation.  They all have rules and regulations that vary slightly from one park or forest to another.  Luckily, each one lays the information out fairly the same on their websites.

Say you were going to visit the Smoky Mountains, once you search for the park you would land on a page similar to this for each park with alerts and general information.  From here you can access park maps in the upper right hand corner, as well as reservation links for permits, campgrounds, and other facilities.  On the left, you can click on the “Plan Your Visit” drop down and search for different places to stay, how to get to the park, popular trails, activities such as backpacking, climbing, canyoneering, as well as rules and regulations on those activities.

Again, this is going to vary wildly from park to park so do your research before you go and feel free to get a little lost on the specific park website you’re looking for to make sure you found all the information you need.

Looking for information on the Forest Service websites can be a little more complicated, as their sites are a bit more dated, but once you know the basic layout you can find almost anything you need.  For example, say you were heading down to Red River Gorge and want to backpack, but know nothing about the place.  You can search for the Daniel Boone National Forest and you’ll land on the page above.  From here, you can find information on “Passes & Permits”, “Alerts & Notices”, as well as “Recreation”.  The “Recreation” tab will have information on backpacking, hiking, biking, boating, climbing, and many other activities, that again, will vary from forest to forest.

Note that specific areas in each national forest will be managed by different ranger districts and the rules in each district can vary as well.  Many national forests will offer maps of trails, information such as usage, ease of access and amenities.  National Forests are probably among my favorite places to visit because they are typically less traveled, more rustic and less developed.


This was a resource I debated writing about, but it’s been one of my most useful when it comes to camping on the fly or looking for places to stay on the way to a bigger destination.  Half of the users for this site are RV travelers (nothing against you), so many of the free sites (noted in green) are simply Walmart or Cabela’s parking lots as well as rest areas along the road.  Red indicates pay for camping, and blue indicates permit camping, where you need to acquire a free permit to camp.

In my 3 years using this site I’ve only found 1 yellow, needs to be researched, site.  While, as I said above, many of the free sites are more for car campers, I have found Bureau of Land Management (BLM) Sites as well as various state park dispersed camping and private land owners who have opened their unused land up to recreation.  These have mostly been out west and up north along the Canadian Boarder but this has been a great, easy to use resource.

Again, trying to use local destinations: you could search for Stanton, Kentucky as a location and Red River Gorge would pop up as a “Pay” location.  Each campsite page gives GPS coordinates (for dispersed camping these typically just go to a trailhead), as well as the 5 day forecast, user reviews and ratings, trip photos, and phone signal availability.

I’ll reiterate what I said above, this is an extremely useful website but take reviews with a grain of salt.  I’ve been to some sites that had great reviews a few years back and they were terrible, but I’ve also been to ones with terrible reviews and I had the best time and enjoyed the site immensely.

Bureau of Land Management

For BLM’s website I’m just going to throw it out there and let you go down the rabbit hole…  There is a stupid amount of maps and information on this website, you almost need to know where you’re going, but I’ve come on here before and found places to stay as well as new areas open to off trail backpacking, 4-wheeling and mountain biking.

BLM manages 245 million acres of public land, 40% of what the federal government is responsible for.  Most of this land is open to recreation but can be extremely difficult to access as almost none of it contain improved infrastructure.  You will find a lot of dirt roads, beautiful views, pit toilets, lack of people, lack of water, and boundless possibilities for adventure.  If you click on the “Visit” tab, you can start your journey down the rabbit hole.

Summit Post/

Summit Post is probably my favorite route finding website as far as mountaineering and climbing anything Class IV and down.  It shows routes, how to get there, and “red tape” for summits all across the country and the world.

On the other hand, if you find yourself wanting to do any kind of big summit out west, check out  This website lays out information on specific big peaks such as routes, weather, trip reports, maps and other useful details.

Each of these sites will lay out information differently, but I often cross reference them when possible to make sure the information they are giving is solid.  I used Mt. Elbert as an example, for Summit Post, they list everything, so as you scroll down you find more info on routes, and rules.  With, they have various tabs along the left hand of the screen, you can look at routes, trip reports, peak conditions and more information.

I have always found these websites to both be well put together and reliable.  They are managed largely by user posts and both create an environment where knowledge can be passed on to other climbers and hikers.  Keep in mind, simply reading about someone else’s experience doesn’t mean you’re ready to go out and start climbing, make sure you’ve done your research and know what to expect.

All Trails

All Trails and I have a love-hate relationship.  It’s great for finding trails and getting some basic information, but it does have pay for features and requires an account to use many other features.  All Trails is simple, search your destination and you get this:

A list of trails, a small map for the trail, photos, reviews and difficulty rating. Are supplied for each loop.  The mapping software All Trails uses is pretty accurate and all the trails I have use from it have worked out but I typically take the trail location and move to the specific Forest Service website or local state park website for the maps that I use on the trail.

USGS Water Measurements

The US Geological Survey puts out a lot of different information, the most useful of which is probably their river data information.  They have water gauges on almost 3000 bodies of water around the country and can provide you with some look at river conditions, mostly in the way of water levels.  This is something that can take some research in knowing what the normal water level is.  For example, at 30’ on the Ohio River you can paddle up or downstream, but higher water will create currents too strong to easily paddle up river.

On the Little Miami, a Milford level around 6-7’ is a good water level to not bottom out on some of the rockier sections of the river.  Below you can see an example of the water level graph that USGS puts out for these water gauges, this one is for the Little Miami River.

River levels, speed and safety is to be taken very seriously. If you are not familiar with a stretch of river it’s always a good idea to contact a local outfitter or livery for up to date safety information. Read more about Little Miami Safety here.

  1. CalTopo

CalTopo is a freeware gem of a website.  It combines USGS mapping, Google Maps and much more all into a fairly easy to use interface that will let you plan your trip to wherever you need to go.  With this site, it’s not designed for finding trails it’s designed for helping you plan it once you’ve picked a route.

In CalTopo, you can add lines to create your route.  You can either do it overland or via trails and roads, once you’ve created a route you can view the elevation profile and distance as well as taking information along the route and around the route.  Data points include point elevation, forecasts and line distances.

Still Not Finding All the Information Youre Looking For?

Don’t hesitate to pop into the shop or give us a call! RRT has helped plan trips all over the world. Even if we haven’t been there, we’ll enjoy pulling out a map and looking at these online resources with you, to help make it happen.

This are just a small sample of the resources that are available out there to you.  With any resource you find, take it with a grain of salt, research it further, talk to people who have been there, and make sure you know what you’re signing up to go do.  I hope all of these things help you to be a little more prepared next time you get outside and hopefully find new destinations for your adventures.