We arrived at the West Campground at Horseshoe Canyon Ranch (HCR) to find two tents pitched on a grassy knoll, a bathroom/shower building, and a large, open-air pavilion with electricity. After finding one of the most level parking sites yet, we thought things couldn’t get better. And then a mini horse walked by, quickly elevating our opinion of HCR to the “best campsite ever.” I must also boast that in the middle of the night we were woken by a not-so-stealthy Armadillo walking under the van. Further evidence of our presence in a foreign land.
Horseshoe Canyon Ranch is like no place I have ever been. Nestled in the Northwest side of the Ozark Mountains, HCR is a 500-acre family-oriented Dude Ranch. People began climbing on the ranch in the late eighties, but the development began in earnest around 2002 with the vision of creating one “of the best and busiest” sport climbing areas in the country. With over 400 sport routes, close to 500 bouldering problems, and approximately 100 traditional routes, Horseshoe Canyon Ranch claims to have the best variety and best maintained climbing in Arkansas. HCR also hosts what is considered the best climbing competition in the country called 24 Hours of Horseshoe Hell. Over 250 Climbers compete for the greatest number of routes climbed in a 24-hour period, and climbing legends such as Tommy Caldwell and Alex Honnold are among the competition’s featured winners.
Given its proximity and reputation, we decided to get to know HCR via the crag closest to our campsite, the North Forty. We easily selected our first warm-up climb, a 5.6 called “Emma’s got a Mullet.” To be honest, Emma is starting to grow a bit of a mullet, and the climb was an easy warm-up to orient us to the climbing features we are likely to find on HCR Sandstone. We followed this climb with “Green Goblin,” which is touted as “the best 5.8 on Earth,” and then progressed to a few 9+’s and 10a’s on the list of classics in the crag. The ratings seem similar to Red River Gorge, but the climbing is a little less steep and a little more technical for the grade overall. As a result, it feels like HCR will be able to challenge us a bit more based on our climbing skill, rather than based primarily on our upper body strength. This is a welcomed change of pace after a couple weeks of mostly “jug hauls” in The Red.
While the sandstone in HCR feels a little softer and more brittle than the Corbin Sandstone in the Red, the general morphology is similar with “chicken heads” and large “plates” providing prominent holds on overhanging climbs. The routes are well-bolted, minimizing a climber’s chance of hitting the ground during a fall early in the climb, and are abundant. HCR has been likened to an outdoor climbing gym, and I would have to agree. Unlike a gym, however, we did not see any other climbers the entire day. We literally had over 100 climbs to ourselves! I’m well aware that this is the exception here, not the norm, and likely the result of the last warm weekday before a cool weekend. In fact, I’m writing this from the van while waiting for the cliffs to dry after the leading edge of a cold front brought thunderstorms to the region.
HCR does offer some unique challenges to climbers. Most notably, there is goat shit EVERYWHERE making it essential to have a tarp underneath a climbing rope at all times and making it difficult to find a place to put one’s pack. I know goat pellets are relatively innocuous when it comes to animal poop, but I don’t love the idea of a goat dung-covered rope heating up as it passes through my belay device and subsequently onto my hands. The amphitheater shape of the ranch also accentuates and reverberates the yells of other climbers in the canyon. While we did not see any other climbers, we could hear them and some of them were taking what sounded like big falls. This disrupted my concentration while at the technical crux of a very thin 10a, causing me to hang on poor holds and fatigue a bit before pulling off the move. Lastly, the animals are a total distraction, and Emma seems more interested in petting the horses, goats and ranch dogs than getting to the cliff.
To be fair, Peanut has stolen my heart. He is a Jack-Russel type mutt who we met our first morning here. He was blocking the office door, indicating that a full body scratch was a required fee for entry. He even met us at Vanna last night, eagerly wagging his little tail and his stout little body while we, again, delivered the required scratches. In all seriousness, provided I can keep Emma from letting the goats into Vanna, I think the animals will serve as a perfect compliment to our climbing in HCR!