It's not surprising to learn that most of the quality rock climbing and bouldering in Arkansas is in the western and northern regions of the state, where the Ozark and Ouachita mountain ranges are located.
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Sure, we could go on and on about the excellence of Arkansas rock climbing. But we figured who could do a better job than Rock and Ice, the climber's magazine? The article below, which was featured in the January 2003 issue of the publication, is about the best rock climbing opportunities in The Natural State. But don't just take our word (or even that of Rock and Ice) -- come see for yourself.
Seeing is Believing - America's best unknown cragging may be in the last place you'd look: Arkansas
By Duane Raleigh
Magazine editors -- especially those in the climbing world -- are the worst skeptics. We might, however, forgive them to a small degree because day in and out they are assailed with emails, calls and scribblings from various characters who claim to have discovered "America's best new crag."
Despite the editor's most strident effort to dissuade the enthusiastic correspondent, all too soon the article arrives, usually hand scrawled and accompanied by a handful of murky photos that could well document any interstate roadcut.
Which puts the editor in a tight spot: Does he slip the package into the "inbox" of the editor to the left, or the editor to the right?
I sympathize with the long-suffering and well-intended writer, because mine has been a long battle to get something -- anything -- published on America's greatest unknown rock climbing, the sandstone crags of northwestern Arkansas.
Here, nestled among the hardwood Ozark hills, etched by meandering and bouldered streams lies rock of such quality and scale it is easy to dismiss without seeing first hand. Factor in Arkansas' somewhat less than cosmo reputation and good luck getting anyone to listen to you, let alone take you seriously.
But -- while I have you -- know this: Ozark sandstone, like its brethren to the east, the New River Gorge in particular, is excellent and made for climbing. There are boiler-plate flakes like God's-own jugs, crisp incuts, sinker and shallow huecos, clean and snaggle-toothed cracks, you name it and it's there. And it's solid. There's a lifetime's worth of the stuff, too. Within a 30-minute radius of the quaint hamlet of Jasper, there's already some 1,000 established routes, most in the 5.8 to 5.10 range, and new routes are going in by the hundreds. Drive another hour and the rock just keeps coming.
Chad Watkins may have the climber's dream job. Monday through Friday, nine to five, he rides a Kawasaki four wheeler around the private enclave of the Horseshoe Canyon Ranch, a 350-acre sprawl just south of the scenic Buffalo National River. When a line on one of the 10 nearby crags -- say something over at Goat Cave -- strikes his fancy, he grabs his partner Jason Roy and establishes it. The bolts, the drill, his salary: everything is supplied by the ranch. Set up as a dude ranch that caters to vacationing families, with horseback rides, swimming pool, cabins and a lodge, Horseshoe Canyon Ranch (HCR) recently expanded its operations to take advantage of the cliffs that belt the valley. The idea is to create a climber's utopia of sorts, where you just show up and climb. The pay-to-play destination comes complete with bolt-equipped routes, trad climbs, campsites, etc.
Watkins stumbled into his rock-farming situation in October 2001, when he showed up at the Ranch "just to hang out and climb. Barry Johnson [the ranch owner] bought me bolts because he wanted to know what was going into his cliff, and it just evolved from there."
The rock, though always sandstone and about a half-rope high, shapeshifts drastically from one crag to the next. One morning you're sidepullling on burnt-orange Arapilles style edges and clipping bolts; that afternoon you're toiling on boiler plates like you've never seen and sliding in nuts. The next day, maybe you mosey over and haul yourself out a horizontal roof. Or maybe you'll just toss the Frisbee around the 18-hole course, then have a soak. "Most people don't even know the stuff is here," says Watkins.
"But the rock is similar to the New River and Red River Gorges. Lump the two together and you get the HCR. There's slopers, pockets, crimps, plates, cracks, you name it." Perhaps best, the Ranch has scads of easy routes. You can go there where they have it set up for climbers, and never run out of options. As of this writing, Horseshoe Canyon Ranch hosts over 150 routes from 5.6 to 5.12, and another hundred are slated to go in next year. When all is said and done, Watkins estimates roughly 300 routes will be ready for action. Just bring your rope, a light rack and wallet.
Red Rock Point
Wouldn't you know it -- the single best chunk of sandstone in Arkansas, and one of the standouts in the entire southeast -- is smack dab on private property. Wouldn't you not know that, for once, climbing/landowner relationships have been positive for several decades. About all that's been asked of climbers is that they not burn the place down, don't pester the cattle and keep the gate closed.
Nonetheless, access to the Point's 80 or so routes, which vary from merely stunning to superb, from three-pitch waverley cracks to half-rope jug hauls on what appear to be rock brains, is always in the balance. A sudden onslaught of climbers would almost certainly tip the scales the wrong way. Which is precisely why this crag remains off the map. Visiting climbers who can't resist the yellow, red and blue-streaked bulwark are strongly advised to hook up with a local who has permission and is savvy to the current scene. Eric Forney, a long-distance local who regularly makes the five-hour pilgrimage from his home in Stillwater, Oklahoma, suggests that for a successful tour you bring your best Southern manners and "a smoked ham" as tribute for the landowners.
No one knows for certain when Arkansas rock climbing began, but I like to think it was sometime in the 1820s when Sam Davis, in search of his sister who he claimed had been kidnapped by Indians, climbed on top on a sandstone outcrop and preached fiery sermons to the hardscrabble settlers who lived below. Besides spewing damnation, Davis claimed to have a hoard of gold stashed on the summit of his rock, and built a log blockade across the formation's walk up to keep out would-be thieves. He also said he'd live for 1,000 years.
Far as anyone can tell, Davis isn't around anymore, but his rock, now known as Sam's Throne, still has a following. The Throne itself, a sandstone caprock up to half a rope high, has some 70 established lines. Given its long history, which may include the region's first technical route 30 years ago, it's considered a traditional bastion. Even today, the majority of routes are gear protected, and bolts are few and far between.
According to guidebook author Clay Frisbee, who has added about 200 routes to the area, "Guys from Louisiana put in the first bolt back in 1987. There was a consensus then that the bolt was good on that route, but there was fear that the Tulsa boys would show up and retrobolt the classics."
The grid-bolting of Sam's Throne never materialized. Instead, new-wave climbers focused on the multitude of nearby crags, like Cave Creek, where old- and new-school climbers co-exist in relative harmony. Within a hundred yards of cliffline you might find 20 trad and 20 sport routes, and most will be in the moderate range.
With stone enough to go around, and of a quality that the climbing illustrator Jeremy Collins says is "as good as Red Rocks and steeper, just not as long," the Sam's Throne region remains Arkansas' most popular destination, and new lines go up virtually every weekend, adding to the current 500-plus route tally.
About two hours south of Sam's Throne, just south of Interstate 40, lies the easy-to-overlook crag of Mount Magazine. Though also sandstone and in Arkansas, the similarities between Mount Magazine and the Throne, Red Rock Point and HCR end there. Where the northern sandstone is sandstone like you'd expect in the southeast -- gritty and highly featured -- Mount Magazine, says Arkansas-born Zen Bolden, "is more like quartzite. Vertical to slabby with technical moves, more like hard granite than sandstone."
Perhaps because "Magazine" is so close to the Interstate, perhaps because at 2,753 feet this is the razorback state's highest point, (Todd Skinner even left his mark here, with the 5.12c Comic Savant, the crag was developed -- some say "climbed out" -- years ago while the other crags were still in their relative infancy.
But while new-routing on Magazine Mountain has ground to a halt, there's still plenty of reasons to add this crag to your Arkansas hit list. It boasts over 100 routes up to 80 feet high, mostly in the 5.10 and under range, although says Clay Frisbee, "Magazine is known for stiffer ratings." If you yearn for something a tad longer, you can always occupy yourself with the crag's 17-pitch traverse. You're in the right spot if the thought of that traverse gives you butterflies: every August the mountain is home to an annual butterfly festival, where a reported 94 out of 126 native species have been spotted.
So there you have it. My best spiel on Arkansas rock. And if you think that through some computer-enhanced photo trickery and wordy exaggeration I'm pulling the wool over your eyes in a cruel attempt to lose you in the boondocks know this: I do not stand alone. Just this past October the Horseshoe Canyon Ranch hosted the region's annual Climber's Rendezvous. More than 150 climbers attended.
When. Arkansas, like much of the Deep South, enjoys the damp effects of the Gulf of Mexico. Summer is intolerably humid and hot. Then there are the ticks, chiggers, mosquitoes and reptiles. The upshot is the other months are close to perfect. In fact, winter is best, with cool, crisp rock.
Where. Find Fayetteville in northwestern Arkansas, then trace your finger due east until you land on Jasper, on Arkansas Highway 7. Red Rock Point, Sam's Throne and Horseshoe Canyon Ranch are all near here. Mount Magazine is about an hour and a half south of Jasper, 17 miles south of the town of Paris, just off of I-40.
Access. Red Rock Point is on private land, with extremely sensitive access. Do not go there unless you are escorted by a local who is familiar with current access and politics. Your best bet is to check with Chad Watkins at the Horseshoe Canyon Ranch (870-446-2555). Do not camp near Red Rock Point. Sam's Throne and its collection of crags are in the Ozark National Forest. Camping is primitive and free, but the Forest Service is considering an upgrade, so this could quickly change. Horseshoe Canyon Ranch is private, but climbers are welcome. Check with the ranch about possible camping and climbing fees. Mount Magazine State Park sits on top of the peak. Tent and RV sites are available at the park.
Gear. Bring 20 draws and a 60-meter rope for the sport routes. You'll need a full trad rack, from wires to four-inch cams for the trad climbs, plus lots of over-the-shoulder slings, and chalk.
Climbing shops. The Horseshoe Canyon Ranch will be selling chalk and tape. Full service climbing shops: Packrat in Fayetteville (479-521-6340 ); Ozark Outdoor Supply in Little Rock, 90 miles south, (501-664-4832); Lewis and Clark Outfitters in Springdale (479-756-1344) and Rogers (479-845-1344; The Woodsman in Ft. Smith (479-452-3559).
Guide services. The Horseshoe Canyon Ranch will provide a climbing guide for $50 per day plus $25 per person (year-round).
Rock gyms. LCP200 + Climbing Club and the University of Arkansas Outdoor Center (guest pass needed), both in Fayetteville, The Crag @ Earl Bell Community Center, Jonesboro; The Wall at Russellville Climbing Center; Zion Rock Gym in Searcy; Ozark Bouldering Gym in Springdale, and Little Rock Climbing Center.
Bouldering. There's tons, but largely undeveloped. Local Zen Boulden says the DeSoto boulders, about an hour from Mount Magazine, has the state's best. For more information, inquire at Byrd's AdventureCenter (479-667-4066).
Other. Respect private property. Many of the outlying and tempting crags are private. Landowners in the part of the country take their privacy seriously.
Free topos. Visit rockandice.com for a complete topo guide to the Horseshoe Canyon Ranch.