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Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Black Bears, Americana, and a Dog Named Chili. Or How I Spent the Holidays Climbing in ArKansas

By Randy Baum

Here’s a list of a few things I learned climbing in Arkansas this winter.

1. Arkansas is the land of massive, aircraft carrier-sized Walmarts that never close and act as the hub of communities. And people ask why America has so many problems?

2. People in Arkansas love Americana, especially American flags, Confederate flags, and black bear kitsch. Again, see question posed above.

3. And, most importantly, with 60 degree temps, blue skies, no crowds, quality stone, and a relatively short commute time, Northern Arkansas should be a winter destination for any MN climber.

Significantly closer to Arkansas is my hometown of Lawrence, Kansas. Every December I make the trek back to see family and drink (mainly to drink). Lawrence is not quite Camp Four, so when I heard there would be a large Minnesota group congregating in Arkansas for some winter climbing, I jumped at the chance to escape the flatlands and go climb. Having only been home for a couple days, my Mother was not pleased. But she’s stuck in Kansas. Sucker!

I spent most of the trip route climbing with a few Co-op regulars, as well as my friend Dan and his crew. Dan has his hands full. The guy’s a lawyer, a father, a landlord, a husband, and just an all-around kick-ass dude, always one to pay a positive comment or do you a favor. I really hate the guy. He makes me look despicable.

Our group ranged wildly in terms of ages and abilities. There was Dan’s three year-old who just crushes. There was Dan, who also just crushes. And there was me. Nonetheless, being in Northern Arkansas, there were a variety of areas that featured routes and problems for the beginner to the expert. We were in a good spot. And, if the weather went bad, we could just retreat to Walmart.

We spent most of our trip doing some old fashioned mountaineering within the friendly confines of Horseshoe Canyon Ranch (HCR). (For information on bouldering in the Natural State, see Jordan Seering’s blog post). A working dude ranch, HCR sits in an idyllic valley with rolling hills bisected by a flowing stream. There are horses running freely (and shitting), goats grazing (and shitting), and ranch dogs running to and fro (Chili, a corky mix, is THE bomb dog!).

HCR offers up hundreds of routes, some of which are of New River Gorge quality. Like the New, the best routes tend to run up orange and red streaked walls of bullet hard sandstone. The crags feature state of the art stainless steel hardware, including many permadraws and super cold shuts, most of which I personally tested through constant flailing. The belay areas are great, and most of the Ranch’s best bouldering is just a minute walk from the crags. Be sure to check out these areas, each of which offers climbs from around 5.8-5.12: the Circus Wall at the North Forty, the Far East, the Roman Wall, and Tool Buttress.

We were fortunate to sample and send (not me, of course) many of the Ranch’s four-star lines. Though not officially a roped climb, the V0 highball The Donkey Show at the North Forty is a must-do, with its 30 ft of non-stop jugs. If 30 feet sounds a bit short, at fourteen draws long, the 5.9 Orange Crush at the Far East is a great substitute. Working up the grades, Comotus 5.10a at the Roman Wall and Crimp Scampi 5.10d at the North Forty are two very aesthetic lines that are not to be missed.

Some of HCR’s best lines fall in the 5.11 and 5.12 range. At 5.11b, Sonny Jim at the North Forty begins with mindless jug hauling, only to smack you with a deceptive, thought-provoking crux. A few feet away, another 11b, Big Top, will feel right at home to Willow River fans: steep, pumpy, and not a small hold on the route.

For the 5.12 climber, Lavender Eye 5.12a at the North Forty and Maximus 5.12a at the Roman Wall should also be on the ticklist. Each feature mellow beginnings to pumpy, airy finales. And, if you need more of a challenge, make your way to the Far East and hop on Supersould Sureshot, a 12c on bullet stone that packs three cryptic cruxes.

After a week, with Walmart visited and my projects ticked (but not sent, of course), my work in Arkansas ways done. I took some of the gang to KC for New Year’s. The morning after, heads pounding from too many Boulevards, we drove north and watched the temperature drop and drop. As we drove, I began to rethink my decision to head home, thinking I could maybe live the Arkansas dream and work at Walmart. Nah. Some places are best visited.

If you are considering a trip to HCR or the surrounding areas in Northern Arkansas, here is the key beta:


  • North Arkansas climbing areas are located south of Harrison, near the town of Jasper. From MN, the drive takes 12 hours and passes through Kansas City, Springfield, and Branson (both in Missouri) before reaching Harrison and then Jasper. Be sure to get BBQ in KC! LC’S and BB’s Lawnside are on-route!


  • Stay at the ranch! Our friend’s paid just $20 a night
  • Nearby lodging is also available. We paid around $50 a night for our two bedroom rental.
  • Camping is $5 a day at HCR. There are also sites available in the Buffalo National River scenic area. These are quite sought after, however, and can fill up fast.


  • Jasper (8 miles from HCR) has grocery stores and restaurants. Most agree the Ozark Café is the best bet.
  • The HCR Trading Post sells a limited selection of climbing gear, including ropes and chalk.

Climbing Areas

  • For the most comprehensive guide, buy Rock Climbing Arkansas by Cole Fennel (Fixed Pin Publishing)
  • HCR is the best one-stop destination, with tons of bouldering and route climbing
  • Cowell features mainly bouldering but also some steep sport climbing
  • Sam’s Throne offers the highest concentration of traditional climbing; the area is also adjacent to the Valley of the Blind, which houses Arkansas’ longest sport climbs

HCR Rope Climbing

  • YOU MUST REGISTER AND PAY FOR CLIMBING AT HCR. Register at the Trading Post. Climbing is $5 per day.
  • Must see areas: the Circus Wall at the North Forty, the Far East, the Roman Wall, and Tool Buttress.
  • Must do routes: Green Goblin 5.8, Comotus 5.10a, Crimp Scampi 5.10d, Horseshoes and Hand Grenades 5.11a, Sonny Jim 5.11b, Big Top 5.11b, Lavender Eye 5.12a, Supersould Sureshot 5.12c