If you’re looking for a big view of the Buffalo River combined with a world-class geologic experience, then Big Bluff and its narrow Goat Trail is your kind of place. At 550-ft tall, Big Bluff is just that—big. In fact, it’s so big that it has the distinction of being the tallest sheer bluff face found between the Rocky and Appalachian mountains. Enjoy the view but use extreme caution on Big Bluff.
Download the Big Bluff & Goat trail map.
Directions from Ponca
From Ponca, drive 3 miles north on Hwy 43 to the Centerpoint Trailhead, located at the Firetower Road junction.
You’ll Get a Workout
It takes 4 to 5 hours to complete the round-trip hike, most of which is along the Centerpoint Trail, the trailhead for which is located 3 miles north of Ponca on Hwy 43. The Centerpoint trail is broad and easy to walk, although like so many trails in mountainous Buffalo River country, it’s basically uphill all the way back (2.5 miles). This is another trail on which you’ll want to have plenty of water and a hearty snack along, as well as possess a reasonably good physical fitness level in order to enjoy.
From the Centerpoint Trailhead, it is about a 1-hour hike to the spur trail that takes you out onto Big Bluff. This is where the trail corridor opens up into a large, rounded flat area with a fire ring that directionally is at about one o’clock on your right. The spur trail (Goat Trail) to Big Bluff is off to the right of the fire ring. From here, it’s about a 1/4-mile hike out to the start of Big Bluff.
Goats and Buzzards
The Goat Trail is the narrow ledge trail that spurs off of the Centerpoint Trail and takes you out onto Big Bluff. It gets its name from the feral descendants of domesticated goats (brought here by pioneers) who either escaped captivity or were turned loose in the wilderness and eventually became wild. While you’ll rarely see a wild goat on Big Bluff these days, a few feral goats do still roam the upper Buffalo River wilderness.
Buzzards tend to be the wildlife one sees on Big Bluff or at least an abundance of the gray down feathers you’ll find scattered about where they roost. There’s also a dead tree on the bluff that has years upon years of “buzzard stuff” lacquered over it.
Wander Past the 800 Year-Old Juniper Trees
Speaking of trees, one of the great privileges of being out on Big Bluff is the chance to see the large, aged junipers that somehow manage to grow along the trail’s edge, clinging to what seems like nothing but sheer rock and very little soil. Some of these trees have been dated to over 800 years old by the National Park Service, so take a few moments to pause and wonder at these tenacious, gnarled sentinels as they watch over the bluff and the river.
Scenic Photography Opportunities
As for photography, we’ve found the best time to capture Big Bluff is in the afternoon once the sun has moved into mid-afternoon position, say 3:00 PM or so. Although there is a perspective from the far eastern side of the Goat Trail (behind where the hiker in the photograph is walking) that is better suited for morning photography as it’s a west-facing shot.
OK, let’s talk about the ledge trail (or Goat Trail) on Big Bluff for a moment. This is not a place for folks with vertigo or a dislike of heights. Nor is it the place for a beer fest or the intake of any other substance that can alter your balance and/or judgement, even if it’s a Dramamine. THIS IS NOT A PLACE FOR YOUNG CHILDREN. Besides, the long hike out will be a struggle for them (and you). It is also not a place for older kids or adults, for that matter, with a penchant for risk taking or horseplay. Big Bluff demands we all be on our best behavior in exchange for enjoying one of the most lofty views of the Buffalo National River accessible by hiking trail. With that being said, hundreds of people safely enjoy Big Bluff every year, so if you feel this is a hike for you, then the physical workout you’ll get is worth the stunning river view.