Center Point Road/Goat Trail Lead To Spectacular Views Of The Ponca Wilderness
In this segment of KSMU’s Sense of Community Series, we travel to the Buffalo National River to hike the Center Point Road Trail. KSMU’s Michele Skalicky first discovered this hiking trail in the 1990s on an Ecotour hosted by the Newton County Resource Council. A storyteller took a group to Big Bluff and told stories along the way about the people who used to live in the area.
The in and out trail starts on Highway 43 at a trailhead between Compton and Ponca, and it's open to hikers and horseback riders.
Hikers and horseback riders, can make the Goat Trail, which leads to Big Bluff towering 350 feet above the Buffalo River, their destination or they can go less than a mile further to Sneeds Creek and the Buffalo.
The Center Point Road Trail was actually a road, which people lived along before the area became a national park on March 1, 1972.
"That was how people got in and out of the Buffalo," said Buffalo National River park ranger, Kevin Middleton. "It went all the way to Sneeds Creek and joined the road that went up and down the Buffalo."
To learn more about the the trail and its history, Skalicky met up with Middleton and park ranger, Lauren Ray, at the Steel Creek Ranger Station, which, at one time, was part of an Arabian horse ranch owned by the Yarboroughs before the Buffalo National River was established, Middleton said.
There was one family, the Parkers, according to Middleton, that had several houses along Center Point Road: An older man and his sons.
"There's one place down there you can see an old spring box, and, sort of, you can tell that a home was there, and that was the old man Parker, and they call that Parker Spring, and the water still flows out of it," said Middleton.
There used to be a barn or two hikers could see along the trail, but Middleton said those are just piles of rocks and boards now.
Granny Henderson is perhaps the most famous person who lived along Center Point Road, and her cabin is still there—not too far past the Goat Trail if you keep going toward the Buffalo River.
"She'd lived there her whole life and had cattle and goats and everything and just hauled water from the river," he said. "I mean, she was a tough, smart, little lady that could just take care of things."
Henderson lived on her property along the Buffalo for years after her husband died. She moved only when the National Park Service bought her property for the new park, and she died soon after.
"I just get a good feeling by going there and sitting on her porch for a little bit and just trying to imagine what it was like," said Middleton. He honors her by telling her story to visitors. It was a hard life along Center Point Road, he said, but "that's all people knew, so that's what they did," he said.
Middleton hopes people who use the Center Point Road Trail will remember those who had to sell their homes along the road in order for the area to become a national park.
"That was their life. That was their road. That was their tie to everyplace else," he said.
Children in the area attended the Center Point School, which was located near the Buffalo River. A hole in an outcropping of Big Bluff is said to have been made by parents who wanted a safer way for their children to navigate the path high above the Buffalo on their way to school. But Middleton isn't sure that story is true. He said it would have been easier for kids to walk down Center Point Road to get to school, but he's not entirely discounting that tale.
Most of the Center Point Road Trail is through hardwood forest, and Ray said you might see some wildlife.
"There are black bear sightings along the Center Point Trail. Now, one thing to know about the black bears at the Buffalo," she said, "these guys are really quite skittish. They are true wild bears, so, generally speaking, if you see a bear just give it space, make some noise, and it's going to run off. They're not typically going to be a threat to hikers. You might run into some feral hogs and then deer, raccoons, foxes coyotes, there's always a chance of seeing things like that."
There are also many species of birds that live in the Ponca Wilderness, which the trail runs through, butterflies and other insects--you'll probably run into a few spider webs--and snakes. Skalicky once saw a pygmy rattlesnake sunning itself on Center Point Road and another unidentified snake along the Goat Trail.
Center Point Road is six miles roundtrip to the Goat Trail, and it descends more than 1200 feet in elevation.
Ray suggests taking plenty of water and snacks, wearing sturdy shoes and using bug repellant and sunscreen. Allow about four hours to complete the hike or you can backpack in. There are connecting trails off Center Point Road to other parts of the Ponca Wilderness and the Buffalo National River. And anyone can set up a tent or hammock in the park as long as they are at least a half mile away from any designated day use area or parking lot, according to Ray. There are some camping sites near the start of the Goat Trail, but no camping is allowed on Big Bluff.
When you first start out, you can glimpse a sweeping view of the Ponca Wilderness through openings in the trees.
You can’t help but feel a sense of gratitude as you hike along Center Point Road for those who gave up their homes and for those who had the foresight to preserve this pristine wilderness.
As you hike to the Goat Trail, there are some flat stretches, but also lots of downhill parts, and you have to be careful due to loose rocks and some mud on the path.
Eventually, you exit the forest and enter the bluff—it’s arid and feels much different here. After a climb over some rocks and around some stunted evergreens, you get your reward for making it this far: A breathtaking view of the Buffalo River, and a dramatic bend in it, far below and a lush blanket of trees that call the Ponca Wilderness home. This view is why many people hike the Center Point Road Trail.
The Goat Trail allows you to walk for a little ways along Big Bluff—not recommended for anyone with a fear of heights--and you really have to take it slow and watch your step.
It’s a strenuous hike back up the trail to the trailhead parking lot, especially in the summer heat, but it’s worth the effort. If you hike Center Point Road in the summer, be sure to visit again in the fall, winter and spring, too. Lauren Ray said the trail looks different in every season.