Buffalo National River’s bluffs, the 500-foot walls of sandstone and limestone that run along much of the river’s length, seem to shepherd the meandering turquoise water. Most of the time, hikers and kayakers can see the bluffs only from above or on the water. But there’s one trail that turns right onto a bluff’s face: the Goat Trail.
Officially this trail got its name from the feral goats that have been spotted nearby, but it also might have something to do with the mountain goat-like steadiness, not to mention comfort with heights, a hiker needs to reach the bluff at its end. Outdoors writer Flip Putthoff recently promised a spectacular view there and said winter was the best time to see it, so I took a shot at it Sunday for my first-ever trip to the Buffalo.
If you’re not on the water, getting to the bluffs means going down – about a thousand feet down, in this case. The Centerpoint Trail, which leads to the Goat spur, slopes downhill through more than 2 miles of rocky road. On this day the weekend’s sunny warmth had turned overcast and blustery. Gusts roared through the bare woods Sunday as the trees creaked like an old house.
Each third or so of the descent of this trail has its own character: I’ll call the first phase the lichen woods, where fibers and sheets and sheets of the stuff encrust boulders and branches, some almost completely. Further down the lichen gradually gives way to vines, tangled woody ropes that pen in the trail. Combined with the strong wind and clouds, the vines gave the place a kind of storybook, haunted-wood atmosphere.
Finally the vines open up into the bluff zone, full of rock and root. Old and tenacious juniper trees, some of them worn smooth by wind-blown grit for centuries, fence in the trail on the downhill side. A pair of prickly pears grow on an outcropping a very long way from the desert. The bluff wall, splashed with pink and black, towers overhead. Slowly the first tantalizing glimpses of the river’s signature blue, caused by suspended particles of clay, flash through breaks in the trees.
Once you get to the end, the view opens to a 180-degree view of a meander in the river too large for my lens to fit into one frame. The trail, sometimes only a few pulse-quickening feet wide, hugs the bluff with a steep drop to one side. This is where the goat name comes in; walking slowly is a good idea, and I got low to the ground here and there, especially with those gusts. This is no place for kids or inexperienced hikers. But even on an overcast day, the view was absolutely worth the trip. The hills faded into blue in the distance, and a buzzard drifted overhead.
It figures that I found out only after driving back home the tallest waterfall between the Appalachian and Rocky mountains falls near this bluff. I guess I’ll have to go back.
Thanks for looking!