I recently took a trip with my family to Ponca, Arkansas, exploring the top rated activities in the area. After living in the state for more than 20 years and hearing all about what Ponca has to offer, it was time that we visited this little town for ourselves.
Although there are several fun things to do, in this post I talk about my experience and recommendations for how to spend a weekend in Ponca.
When to Visit
Camping and hiking is open year-round, but one of Ponca’s most popular interests is floating down the Buffalo National River. Typically, rainfall and weather permitting, floating is permitted between March and June.
The water was pretty cold when I visited in late May, so if you are worried about the water temperature, I recommend visiting later in June.
Day 1: Hawksbill Crag
Whether it’s your first visit to Ponca or you’ve seen it a hundred times before, it’s never a bad idea to hike Whitaker Point. This beautiful, iconic outcropping of rock allows an uninhibited view of the expansive Arkansas hill country.
As it is one of the most popular trails in the state, it is likely to be busy, so prepare for crowds. Getting to the trailhead can be confusing as well. A seemingly endless dirt road takes you deep into the woods. You may feel lost on a path with no signs for about 10 minutes, but if you keep going, once you reach your destination, you can’t miss it.
The trail itself isn’t very long. A walk under the shade of the trees and over a few streams now and then only lasts about a mile and a half before you reach the cliff. And what lies before you is a simply indescribable site.
The best view is indisputably on the infamous Hawksbill Crag (named so due to its unique shape). Take some time to sit on the rock, enjoy the views and take some seriously insta-worthy pics. But if there are lots of people behind you, you may have to quickly snap a few photos, get a good look around and step off to let others enjoy.
If you want to read more about my experience on the Whitaker Point Trail, check out my blog post On the Edge: Hiking the Best Ranked Trail in Arkansas.
After our hike, my family and I returned to our car and headed to our lodge to settle in for the night. Although there are a few different options in Ponca, we chose to stay at Lost Valley Canoe and Lodging.
What’s unique about Lost Valley is their wide range of rentals available based on your overnight needs. You can choose anything from a fully furnished cabin with several amenities to a simple, empty campground.
Since my family and I aren’t skilled campers, we chose to stay in the bunkhouse, a small log cabin with eight beds. The Lost Valley website calls it “a step above camping,” but we were pleasantly surprised by the resources available to us.
Outside our lodge was a picnic table, a grill, a fire pit with canoe benches, and a porch swing, not to mention a large bathroom reserved just for us including a toilet, sink and shower.
Click here to find all the lodging Lost Valley has to offer.
Although we were told to bring whatever we would need to camp, we didn’t require much to have an enjoyable evening. After building a fire, we had dinner the old fashioned way, roasting wieners and marshmallows.
It was a great opportunity to spend quality time with loved ones. We talked and laughed around the fire, played some board games at the picnic table and watched the stars as we swung on the porch swing late into the night.
Since my family has never been very outdoorsy, it was really cool to see the excitement on their faces. My parents reminisced about camping trips when they were growing up, and my siblings could hardly contain their joyful laughter.
Although you can stay in a more luxurious setting, I strongly recommend staying as close to nature as possible and allowing your family to have that kind of unforgettable experience.
Day 2: Buffalo National River
The great part about staying overnight at a place like Lost Valley Canoe and Lodging is that you can rent canoes right outside your cabin. All we had to do was walk over to the little shop across the street to sign a waiver, and we were on our way.
Lost Valley offers not only canoes, but also kayaks and rafts, letting you choose the best float for you depending on your skill level. To learn more about Lost Valley’s rentals, visit their web page.
Once we were all packed, we headed for Steel Creek, the most popular entrance to the eight mile long stretch of river. Since the float usually takes between four and six hours depending on how many breaks you take, we packed up some food, drinks, sunscreen and all other essentials in water proof bags.
Our canoes, paddles and life jackets were ready for us beside the river, along with a Lost Valley employee ready to help us carry our boats into the water and give us a quick crash course of the float.
We chose to rent two person canoes, allowing one strong paddler in the back and the weaker paddler in the front. Upon entering the water, I discovered an essential item I myself had forgotten to pack: water shoes. The rocks below us were slick, and it didn’t help that the nearby rapids were pushing us off our feet.
When on the river, it’s important to stay focused on paddling. We quickly learned that the activity isn’t for the faint of heart, and if you are considering bringing younger children aboard with you, I recommend keeping them towards the middle of the boat and leaving the paddling for the adults.
My biggest tip is to not get discouraged. Often times, the speed of the rapids will take paddlers off guard and cause them to hit the shore, spin or even tip over. But it happens to the best of us! Just laugh it off, recollect your things and keep going.
Read more about my personal experience on the Buffalo National River in my post Out of Control: Floating the Buffalo National River.
It’s important to take a few breaks along the river to grab some water and food or rest your arms. But it is essential to make a stop close to the end of the float for the hike to Hemmed-In Hollow. It’s likely that many canoes, kayaks and floats will be parked along the shore at the trailhead, so you can’t miss it.
Follow the trail for about a mile to find the most spectacular waterfall I’ve ever seen. One of the tallest in the country, about 209 feet, this spectacle is well worth your time, sitting down nearby and enjoying the sights and sounds, or even walking below the falls to take a golden shower.
Kyle’s Landing is only about a mile further by boat after your trek back from Hemmed-In Hollow. When you arrive, your friendly Lost Valley employee will be there to take back all your rental items.
We also paid for our car to be driven down to Kyle’s Landing so we wouldn’t be stranded without a ride. Although it is convenient, if you choose valet prepare for a maze of cars on weekends or holidays. You can also choose to take a shuttle back to Steel Creek if you’d prefer it.
Essential Packing List
- Food and drinks for both days (some for camping, some in waterproof bags for the river)
- Sleeping bag and pillow (for camping or bunkhouse)
- Sunscreen (and lots of it!)
- Water shoes (important to prevent slipping in the river)
- Hiking shoes (for Whitaker Point trail and Hemmed-In Hollow)
- Camera or GoPro (critical for recording the amazing views)
Take it from me: a visit to Ponca is unforgettable. If you’re looking to bring you and your family a little closer to nature without sacrificing personal comfort, stay in a cabin at Lost Valley Canoe and Lodging.
Don’t miss the stunning views of Hawksbill Crag or Hemmed-In Hollow. And have a once-in-a-lifetime family experience floating down the Buffalo National River, observing the grand scenery while having a real adventure.
Our experiences in Ponca have become happy memories for my family, and I’m sure the ones you make with yours will last forever.