Rappelling in The Natural State
It's not surprising to learn that most of the quality Arkansas rock climbing
and bouldering is in the western and northern regions of the
state, where the Ozark and Ouachita mountain ranges are located.
Arkansas Climbing Coalition
Ozark Mountains Information:
Ouachita Mountains Information:
Sure, we could go on and on about the excellence of Arkansas rock climbing. But we think Rock and
Ice, a national climbing magazine, does the best job. The article below, which was
featured in the January 2003 issue, is all 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 these glorious places 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
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.
Rockclimbing in the Ozarks
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
sidepulling 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
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
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
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.
Lost Valley Trail on the Buffalo National River
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, offers some of
the state's best bouldering routes. 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 this area take
their privacy seriously.
Free topos. Visit rockandice.com for a complete topo guide to the Horseshoe Canyon Ranch.
Come explore one of America’s top areas for rock climbing! Make your travel plans, pack your equipment and get ready for Arkansas rock climbing adventures.