BOXLEY VALLEY — As decisions go, it is a good one.
It is good for the economy.
It is good for tourism.
But, and most importantly, it is good for the elk.
In 1981, the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission reintroduced elk into the state with 112 animals from Colorado and Nebraska.
A breed known as the eastern elk was native to the state but went extinct in the 1840s.
An attempt to reintroduce the elk in 1933 in northern Franklin County with 11 elk worked for a while. The herd grew to approximately 200 before the animals vanished in the 1950s.
Why they disappeared still isn't known, but the likely culprit was a confluence of "illegal hunting, natural mortality and shrinking habitat," according to Game & Fish.
Then, decades later, Arkansas tried again.
The fruits of those labors were on display on a recent trip to Newton County and the Buffalo National River.
Game & Fish estimates about 450 elk now roam 315,000 acres of rugged mountain terrain and along the river bottoms.
The area is a mix of private property and National Park Service, National Forest and Game & Fish lands.
The effort to preserve and grow the elk habitat is a joint undertaking of private groups and the state and federal governments.
Game & Fish has partnered with the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, especially at the Gene Rush Wildlife Management Area.
The National Park Service has also worked the 95,730-acre Buffalo National River to improve and maintain the land as an elk habitat.
The elk have free range, and NPS said the best viewing area is in the Boxley Valley that runs along state Hwy. 21 and beside the Buffalo River.
"Usually the easiest place to view elk is along the six miles of Hwy. 43 and Hwy. 21 through Boxley Valley," NPS said.
They also said there's a "better than average chance of seeing elk in the fields during the autumn months of October and November."
True and true, at least for us.
Over a weekend, we took five elk-gazing drives, with the hopes of batting .400, and instead we had five perfect outings, seeing elk Friday evening, Saturday morning, post-lunch and before dinner, then again on Sunday at dusk.
The counts ranged from a pair to herds of 15 to 20, as calves pranced in the open field on Saturday afternoon.
NPS said, "the bull elk have large antlers to show off to their harems of cow elk, other bulls and the audience of spectators along the fence line."
The elk may not acknowledge your presence, and certainly didn't for us, but "they know you are there," NPS said.
October and November is also rutting season, when the bull elk clash in the fields and bugle their triumphs.
It was quite a show to watch the bulls clash antlers, which you could hear even hundreds of yards away.
To get a better view, having binoculars really helps.
As for the leaves, the foliage was post-peak at higher elevations, but the drive up Hwy. 21 had some spectacular color popping through.
It was still a good, colorful show near the top of the ridge where our cabin was.
Getting to Boxley Valley isn't terribly complicated coming from central Arkansas. From Maumelle, it is roughly two hours of easy driving on I-40 before taking the Lamar exit to get on U.S. Hwy. 64 near Clarksville, then turning north on Hwy. 21.
For lodging, there’s an abundance of cabins, short-term rentals and campgrounds, most of which are primitive, meaning no hookups, but spots for RVs and pull trailers are available.
There's not much in the way of groceries, though the Buffalo Outdoor Center and Ponca General Store both have a limited selection of food and bagged ice in Ponca.
So, the best plan is to bring groceries for the length of your trip.
In our case, we did that and also hit up Count Porkula to get a couple pounds of pulled pork for easy sandwiches. Also, of note, the impulse purchase of the sweet-and-spicy pecans at the checkout might have been the best buy.
Also, fill up that tank before you go!
Boxley Valley: As already noted, the stretch along Hwy. 21 is prime elk viewing area. But a couple of things to remember: Pull completely off the road so you don't impede traffic. Hwy. 21 is a surprisingly busy road. Also, at times, it will seem the elk are close enough to reach out and touch. That's a terrible idea! As the National Park Service noted, "elk are wild animals, do not try to get close to them" and "elk can feel threatened by your presence." Remember, some are armed with antlers!
Boxley Baptist Church: On Hwy. 21, the church has two structures along with a cemetery and playground for the church youth. The views are picturesque.
Ponca low-water bridge: The low-water, one-lane bridge across the Buffalo River is off Hwy. 21. Plenty of parking and a restroom are available, and it's a terrific spot to watch elk, as the river bottom pasture nearby was a popular place for the animals to gather, play and graze.
Ponca Nature Center: Game & Fish maintains a two-story elk information center at 4642 Hwy. 43 in Ponca. There were a surprising number of things to do there for all ages and worth an hour or two, if you make it that direction.
Steel Creek: North of Ponca, on Hwy. 74, Steel Creek is a National Park Service campground with a total of 40 campsites, 26 for tents and 14 for those with horses. I wouldn't want to pull a horse trailer up, or down, the road to the campground, but the views along the Buffalo River and Roark Bluff, above, are a treat. Just make sure your brake pads are in good working order.
Jasper: You might remember Jasper from an ’80s visit to Dogpatch. The town doesn’t appear to have changed much, but Ozark Cafe is a good place to get something delicious, and there’s also a Harp’s if you have grocery needs. Jasper is roughly 15 miles of twisty mountain road east of Ponca. The small courthouse square is picturesque, and Bubba’s Buffalo River Store seems like a good place to buy a T-shirt or other souvenir, even though we didn’t get the opportunity as it was closed on our Sunday afternoon visit.