Fall is prime hiking time at the Buffalo National River with miles and miles of trails close to the water and on lofty ridges above it.
Some lead to stunning vistas or rock features sculpted by nature. Others teach a history lesson, including a one-half-mile loop trail around the historic Villines family farmstead at Ponca.
It's an easy walk across the Ponca low-water bridge over the Buffalo to the Villines family cabin, barns, smokehouse and outhouse situated a stone's throw south of the slab bridge. All are still standing thanks to preservation by the National Park Service.
A gate and sign mark the start of this short hike that's long on history. Follow the path to an information sign about the 1800s farmstead built by James A. "Beaver Jim" Villines. Beaver Jim was born in 1854 at Boxley. Later in life, he moved across the river after marrying his bride, Sarah, and started work on the cabin and buildings in 1862, according to National Park Service information. Folks called him Beaver Jim for his skills as a trapper.
From the sign, hike to the right along a level trail that leads to a barn built of logs and planks weathered by decades of age.
Continue uphill a short ways to more barn-like buildings and the family's cabin. Here visitors can also explore the smokehouse, outhouse and root cellar. The root cellar was the family's refrigerator, keeping food items cool. A Park Service sign reports that Beaver Jim liked to take afternoon naps in the cellar during summer after a morning of hard work.
The smokehouse was vital to pioneer survival as well. In early winter, the Villines family would butcher hogs and smoke hams and sides of pork over low heat. The smoked, salted meat kept for months without refrigeration, an information sign says.
Walking through this rugged, historic place, it's easy to imagine the hard work of making a living and surviving in Buffalo River country. All logs were cut and shaped with hand tools and notched near the ends so they'd fit together.
"Imagine the never-ending tasks of planting, hoeing, harvesting, fixing, making do, sorghum boiling and doctoring that made up the self-sufficient lives of the Villines," reads another information panel.
Another sign says it's unlawful to go inside the buildings, but the doors to the cabin are unlocked and easy to open for a peek inside.
Finish the loop by hiking downhill and back to the low-water bridge.
Fall and winter are ideal times to explore the farmstead. Visitors can also see elk in the meadows between Boxley and Ponca, then tour the Ponca Elk Education Center operated by the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission.
The Buffalo River is typically low this time of year. It's a fine time for a stroll beside the stream or enjoying a longer hike on the Buffalo River Trail or other pathways around Ponca and Boxley.
More history to explore
Two other pioneer farms are open to visitors in Buffalo River country.
The Parker-Hickman farmstead is situated near Erbie campground north of Jasper. From Jasper, travel Arkansas 7 north to the sign for Erbie campground. Turn left on the gravel road and follow it just past the campground to the farmstead.
The Collier homestead is open at the Tyler Bend visitor center in the middle portion of the Buffalo along U.S. 65 south of Harrison.
— Source: National Park Service