Climbing in Horseshoe Canyon: A Sandstone Paradise

Al Smith
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“Soak it in, John. We wont ever have it this good again.”

It was February 2014, and John and I were staying in our friend’s luxurious four-bedroom cabin for free. We were a mile away from the Horseshoe Canyon Ranch, a western style vacation resort in Jasper, Arkansas where you can ride horses, visit pigs and goats, shoot guns, ride zip-lines, play in the barn, and stay in cabins.

But that’s not why we were there. The ranch just so happens to sit in a small valley lined by some of the most outrageously beautiful sandstone cliffs in the United States. Beneath them lie perfectly sculpted boulders that are an example of sandstone’s finest, and that’s exactly what we were after.

The rock’s texture is consistently friendly, and the holds are a diverse array of ergonomic shapes. Between the boulders lie open fields with goats and horses and dogs that are free to roam. The Midwestern valley creates a more exposed feeling than is typical in Southeastern sandstone areas, where you’re usually deep in the woods and can’t see sweeping pastures or an open horizon.

Al Smith

The experience was incredible in every way, from the scenery to the grains of sand that made some of the most perfect holds I know of. It was sandstone perfection in an unmatched setting. It was my dream world.

That first trip ended too soon, and it was back home to Chattanooga. Our friend in Arkansas who owned that amazing house decided to sell it, meaning we would probably have to camp if we ever returned.

But as fortune would have it, exactly one year later, we were sitting on those same couches in that same house with five friends eager to climb the same sandstone that we'd never placed too far out of our memories. Apparently, our friend had sold the house to the Ranch! And for roughly $20/night/person, we were back in that perfect place, the place where the world disappears and is replaced with lucid dreams of sending, punting, peeling off ruined skin, conquering new boulders, and nursing sore muscles. This is the world we lived for, and we were finally back.

The Routine

Al Smith

Whoever woke first sounded the alarm. No matter where you were in the house you could hear the clinking of the dishes as breakfast got started. Sunbeams poured through the windows, and one by one we surfaced, walking slowly towards the kitchen with tight muscles, hoping someone else had already started the coffee.

“I wish we could just live in this house all winter,” John said. “We could work and climb and stay here, all of us.”

Alas, we only had two weeks, so time was of the essence and we got right to work. We were giddy with excitement as we drove down the winding dirt road toward the ranch. The sun was shining and our skin was fresh; I almost jumped out of the moving car when we drove by the first sandstone blocks.

Climb as much as possible was the game plan. We had a big crew, so rest days were different for everyone. Resting only meant that you would join the crew at the Ranch and try to resist the urge to pull on to the rock.

At night, we lounged around the house in our pajamas with the heat blasting. We drank whiskey and cooked and played games, and from a climber’s perspective, we lived like kings and queens.

The Projects

Al Smith

John cued up to make the first crux toss. He stuck it again; he always did by that point. Encouragement immediately flowed from the hushed crowd.

“Come on, son!” I hissed. “Relaxed and smooth.”

He closed his right hand on the edge and hand-foot matched the left hand, swimming up to the wooden hold.

“Dig with the toe!” Courtney shouted, as John was burning a hole in his feet with a focused, piercing glare.

Twisting up to the mono and controlling the next sloper was all it would take. Then he would hit the eject button for a wild jump move to catch the bucket jug on his way into the atmosphere.

Al Smith

We were screaming at him like wild monkeys, jumping up and down.

Before we knew it, the whole thing was done. The stress and doubt disappearing in a hard earned wave of jubilation. Once the ruckus calmed down we decided where to go next. “I don’t care. I’m playing with house money at this point,” John said.

I think he was the whole time.

It was a perfect day, late in the trip. Another friend had just surprised us by showing up to join the team. It was cool and sunny, and morale was high in the aftermath of the morning send.

I still needed to convince my girlfriend, Julie, to enter the Speleo Box, and I still had my own white whale to conquer, but with what felt like 50/50 odds on both, I felt great and cautiously optimistic.

We wrapped up a mid day session and prepared to go to the East Side, where my project, Aura, was waiting. Could I even do the first move?

The Barn and The Speleo Box

Al Smith

I crawled through the pitch-black tunnels, cold and parched, knocking my bony hips and knees on every corner. I was inverted and stuck, with my head and shoulders curled through a hole in the tunnel floor just large enough to squeeze through. Unable to move in either direction, I stopped struggling and relaxed for a moment, playfully wondering if I was going to get stuck in this giant wooden box.

I was trapped in the Speleo Box: 100 feet of tunnels weaving intricately behind the walls of the barn. A Speleo Box is an obscure recreational obstacle that originated in Europe and has mostly avoided mainstream detection. The staff at Horseshoe Canyon Ranch, however, is anything but mainstream and resolved to build one inside the barn. An outstanding cave simulator, a hilarious challenge, and a claustrophobic psychological test, the Speleo Box is not to be missed.

The barn has limited hours, so if you find it locked, visit the office to see if someone will let you inside. A staff member, Jason, generously agreed to give me the VIP tour and I’m sure he would do the same for you. My personal piece of advice for this challenge is to do it without a light. It makes it much more thrilling. The barn also houses a basketball court, an excellent bouldering wall, top-rope routes, and a tractor tire to use however you see fit.

Our last day passed in a blur. John was on fire that day and sent two V10’s, and I gave my project my best but couldn’t quite pull it together for the send. When sundown came, we hiked out battered and happy. We had fallen into a rhythm out there, but it took almost until it was over to feel it. Short trips always go that way. It takes two weeks to get warmed up! I thought about how most people consider two weeks a long vacation and felt even more grateful for my last few hours at the ranch.

I’ve been saying it for a year: the Ranch is like heaven. The rock, the atmosphere, the lodging, and the animals—everything about it is a climber's dream come true. To anyone who feels like they’ve already gotten their fill of sandstone: You haven’t!

Please put this destination on your bucket list, you won’t regret it.

The Details

Al Smith

The Cabin:  When you visit the Ranch during the winter, rent a cabin! If you can get a large enough group together, the large and fully furnished house called the Tie Hack cabin is the one you want. It is $150/night for 4 people and an additional $10/night per extra person. It has 4 bedrooms, 2 bathrooms, a huge kitchen, 4 Queen Beds and 2 Twins, back porch, and a grill. There are also other cabins available at the Ranch which are much simpler, smaller, and cheaper.

How to get there: Jasper, AR is the nearest town. Once you get into Jasper, take a left onto 74 and stay on it for 8 miles. You’ll eventually see the Horseshoe Canyon Ranch entrance on your left.

The Climbing Fee: It’s currently $5.50/person/day to climb at the Ranch, regardless of whether or not you’re sleeping on site.

The Alcohol: Jasper, AR (Newton County) is a dry county, so you’ll have to drive 30 min to Harrison to the closest liquor store.

The Food: Harps Grocery is 10 minutes down the hill from the Ranch. There are a small number of breakfast cafés downtown, but be prepared for a slow morning.

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