Finding the Wild in Your Own Backyard: Rock Climbing in Jasper, Arkansas

by Brett & Kate McKay on December 16, 2013 · 26 comments

in Manly Skills, Outdoors


We’re all born wild. The trick is staying that way. 4Runner remains a rugged beast of a body on frame. The perfect companion for those brave enough to keep it wild.

I fancy myself an outdoorsy guy. I love to camp, hike, canoe. I really believe that getting out into nature is an important switch of manliness. We all have a bit of wild in us, and the less time we spend in nature, the more disconnected from that core aspect of our being we become. In my experience, if you don’t periodically tear out into the woods, restlessness, depression, and a distinct malaise so common to modern life sets in.

But being a dad of two young kids and living in the suburbs of Tulsa, Oklahoma, I always felt my options for outdoor recreation were limited. There are a few state parks nearby, but they’re nothing to write home about. The campgrounds look like some sort of tamed suburban park, complete with manicured lawns. Not very wild. And while I know there are plenty of folks who don’t mind taking their youngins camping, Kate and I would rather wait until the tykes are out of diapers before we bring them along.

If I wanted to go somewhere really cool, I figured I have to fly or take a long road trip, but then I’d need to find someone to watch the kiddos for at least several days. My in-laws were willing to watch the kids for a weekend, but it didn’t seem like I could do anything or go anywhere worthwhile in just two days. I felt pretty stuck.

As I’ve discussed before, I’ve admittedly experienced acute cases of FOMO talking to our editor and community manager Jeremy or the gents at Huckberry. Jeremy lives in Denver, Colorado and has lots of beautiful national and state parks at his disposal. He and his wife get out and into the mountains for hiking pretty frequently. Whenever I hear him talk about his recent outdoor adventures, I get a bit envious. The Huckberry guys live in my favorite part of California — San Francisco. They’re just a drive away from the Redwood National Forest as well as Yosemite National Park. Browsing their Instagram feed often fills me with FOMO.

But lately I’ve been doing some thinking. Somehow I built up this stupid idea that if I couldn’t hike or camp in the Sierra Nevadas or Rockies, I might as well not even try to get out in the wild.

How stupid and self-defeating is that? Pathetic. I’ve long argued that just because you can’t take on a pursuit in its most ideal or “authentic” form, doesn’t mean you can’t do something. Sure, I can’t get to Yosemite right now, but that shouldn’t stop me from experiencing Mother Nature closer to home. I love the outdoors, so instead of wallowing in FOMO, I decided to find some adventure in my own backyard.

I pulled up Google Maps and gave myself a three-hour drive radius around Tulsa to find some wild adventure. It’s long enough to really get away from Tulsa, but short enough that traveling didn’t suck up an entire day. I’d heard great things about the Ozarks so I decided to chart a course to Arkansas.

Then, I thought about what to actually do on our weekend adventure. Kate and I have already camped a lot, so I wanted to try something different to really get out of our rut as much as possible. I came up with two outdoor activities that I had almost no experience with: rock climbing and kayaking.

I knew Darren Bush (one of our regular contributors) had recommended the Buffalo River as one of the best wilderness canoe and kayak trips in the country, so I used his post to find an outfitter. Now I just had to set up a rock climbing excursion. My climbing experience was limited to a single outing at an indoor gym, so I knew we needed a guide to…ahem…show us the ropes. I asked around and came up with a tip for the Horseshoe Canyon Ranch in Jasper, AR. With Kate’s parents agreeing to take the kids for a weekend, we were locked and loaded.

Total time spent planning this trip? About an hour.

I’ll admit that my expectations were pretty low going into the weekend. Would going away for such a short amount of time even be worthwhile, and could the Ozarks really satisfy my craving for beautiful, wild nature? I mean, I’d seen a few pictures and heard a few good things, but come on. How could it be as good as the Green Mountains of Vermont (where I’ve spent several summers) or the Sierra Nevadas (where I dream of going)? Could there even be good rock climbing in this area of the country? Would the Buffalo River just look like the Arkansas River here in Tulsa (which is usually a not-so-picturesque sand bar)?

Over the course of two posts, I’ll be sharing my answers to these questions. These posts will be one part travelogue, and one part how-to, all with the goal of inspiring you to find some wild and adventure in your own backyard.

Today, I share my experience rock climbing at the Horseshoe Canyon Ranch and hiking in the Ponca Wilderness Area.

Rock Climbing in Jasper, Arkansas

Kate and I dropped off the kiddos at Nana and JaJu’s house early Friday evening and headed out to Jasper, AR. We arrived at the Horseshoe Canyon Ranch around 10PM. Total trip time was, as planned, a little over three hours.

The H.C.R. is a dude ranch that sprawls across 350 acres of beautiful, rugged Ozark landscape. On the way in I almost hit one of the horses that they let roam freely at night. When we arrived we settled into our rustic, comfortable cabin. Tent camping is allowed on the property, and normally we would have been up for that, but since Scout was just two months old at the time, the chance to sleep uninterrupted in a real bed simply couldn’t be passed up. Kate and I hit the sack as soon as we got in; the next day was a packed itinerary.


The view from the porch of our cabin: the Horseshow Canyon Ranch

When we rose in the morning, we stepped out of the cabin and took in the fantastic view. The fall foliage was just past peak color, but still pretty vibrant. The H.C.R sits adjacent to the Buffalo National Wilderness Area, nestled in a valley that is flanked by large sandstone bluffs. On those bluffs is where we’d be doing our climbing.

After being featured in major rock climbing magazines, the Horseshoe Canyon Ranch has become something of a climbing mecca in recent years and is one of the premier spots in the Southeast. When the cold and snow come to other areas of the country, climbers of all ability levels head to the ranch to extend their season. The crew at the H.C.R has built over 400 climbing routes of varying degrees of difficulty into the valley’s bluffs.

Our guide for our half-day of climbing was Jason Roy. He’s what you’d imagine a rock climbing guide to be — laidback, funny, and extremely patient with noobs like us.



We started off our day on a short rock face to learn the basics — how to tie ourselves in, along with some basic climbing techniques.


The big takeaway in our training was that rock climbing is all in the legs. Before my one-on-one with Jason I had a tendency to just rely solely on my upper body strength. Now I know better.


The climbs themselves were great. Jason did a fantastic job of finding our “flow” zone – those routes that were neither too easy nor too difficult for us.


The view from the top of the rock.

The best part was definitely the views from the top. The fall colors were amazing, and the landscape looked an awful lot like my beloved Vermont.

Jason was gracious enough to take part in a few short videos that serve as a primer to rock climbing. We go over the very basics, from how to tie yourself in to basic climbing footwork.

I also created a video of my climbing experience. I experimented with a GoPro, so you can see the climb from my point of view.

I was incredibly impressed with the ranch (can’t wait to take the kids there), and impressed with the killer climbing available there. Who knew there was a super cool climbing spot in my own backyard?

Hiking in the Ponca Wilderness Area

Wilderness is:
“…an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.”
“…land retaining its primeval character and influence, without permanent improvements or human habitation.”
“…affected primarily by the forces of nature, with the imprint of man’s work substantially unnoticeable.”

–Excerpts from the Wilderness Act of 1964


After our rock climbing excursion, we took the recommendation of our guide and went for a hike in the Ponca Wilderness Area. The Ponca Wilderness features over 11,000 acres of land full of, as the Arkansas Travel Bureau puts it, “scenic waterfalls, majestic bluffs, ancient caves, mountain streams, historic homesteads, and rough terrain.” All of it runs along the Buffalo National River.

We started off from the trailhead at Kyle’s Landing campground and followed the Indian Creek Trail, and then splintered off on to another trail whose name eludes me. We spent much of the time hiking in a dry riverbed that went through a canyon. The fall colors were amazing and the air crisp. Perfect fall hiking conditions. I again marveled at how much the scenery reminded me of Vermont.


Our first look at the Buffalo National River.

Man, I sure do love hiking. Kate and I kept telling each other to get our “forest bath” in. It would be a while before we could be surrounded by nature like this again. I soaked in the scenery as much as I could, and we mostly walked in silence. We’re both the type that enjoy letting our mind wander in a sort of meditative state while we’re hiking. Every now and then one of us would pipe up with some sort of thought and we’d have a discussion, but we mostly just soaked in the beauty around us.


There was hardly anyone on the trail, but on the way back, we ran into a couple and started to chat. They were perfect examples of Southern hospitality: friendly, warm, and eager to share information with us outsiders. They were from the area so they had plenty of dope on where the best hikes and sights were. We realized how many amazing trails were waiting to be discovered in the area and we vowed to return to this beautiful locale again to explore them.

We probably hiked a good hour and half out. We wanted to make it to the end, where a beautiful waterfall waited, but it started to get dark and we had foolishly neglected to bring out flashlights, so we headed back to the car. It was getting dark by the time we made it back to the trailhead, so we made a good decision. We pulled away to our next destination — the awesomely-named Yellville, AR — which was about an hour to the northeast.


We had booked that night’s lodgings at the Silver Run Cabins — located just a couple of minutes away from the kayaking outfitter we’d be using in the morning. Our cabin was quaint and rustic, and there was a firepit in the back, so we spent a good hour sitting around it, recounting our day’s adventure and talking about our family and personal goals. A perfect way to end the day.

Next week, I’ll recount our kayak trip down the Buffalo National River and offer a primer on picking the best kayak from Darren Bush. Until then, stay wild my friends.

What are some lesser known wild places in your backyard? Share with us in the comments!

{ 26 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Thom Phan December 16, 2013 at 12:29 pm

I’m trying to get a group of friends together to do the Maryland Appalachian Trail Challenge (All 43 miles in one day) since the trail is only 2-3 hrs. from my house and lately I haven’t been able to hit the woods as much.
Kept feeling jealous of my friend who’s in enlisted training while I’m stuck in some medical mess trying to get paperwork through to the right people. When I reread about the challenge, I realized that it was exactly the kind of thing I needed.

2 Rory.Average December 16, 2013 at 12:43 pm

Welcome to the wonderful world of climbing!
Pretty soon you’ll be looking at buildings around town, saying to yourself “I bet I could climb that!”

3 Alex December 16, 2013 at 1:19 pm

As an Eagle Scout from a rather built up area I can attest to the rarity of good forested area’s. But I can tell you its out there. I live right outside of Pittsburgh on a farm, not fifteen minutes outside the city. Sometimes if you just want a good does of trees without the cars and roads you should check the local farm land. I know everyone around where I live is happy to have hikers on their property.

4 Brock December 16, 2013 at 1:25 pm

You were only 20 miles from my home town, Mountain Home Arkansas when you were in Yellville! This just reminds me that I need to get out more in my own backyard. If you ever need some more people to come float the river or lakes let me know, happy to have you in the neighborhood .

5 ratedgg13 December 16, 2013 at 1:30 pm

Repost from my comment on facebook: My wild places are secrets I’ll take to the grave. For all the men reading this out there – go find your own secret wild place – its a deep and important part of you. Don’t give it up for money or popularity, share it with those close to you who deserve it.

6 Andrea December 16, 2013 at 1:31 pm

Alaska has plenty of different land terrains to explore if you can handle cold, dark, and isolated during the winters!

7 Dallas December 16, 2013 at 1:52 pm

I’ve been climbing for 3 years and I’ve got to say it’s definitely one of the best hobbies in the world. You can get outside, hang out with friends, get great exercise, and push yourself to grow outside of your comfort zone. It’s definitely worth checking out for anyone who is even remotely interested.

A great companion sport to climbing is slacklining. It’s also a great way to get outside and be active without even having to travel. All you need is a park or you can even use two trees in your own backyard if you want.

8 tom stewart December 16, 2013 at 2:04 pm

I grew up in Eastern Oregon, so after living in the Detroit area for eight years, I had to get back to the west. I now live next to the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness area. With this, The Gospel Hump Wilderness and all the national forests around, wild places are a short drive (20 minutes) away. The nearest McDonald’s is 100 miles down the road. Only bad part is making a living in a small mountain town, but life is wonderful.

9 Austin December 16, 2013 at 2:18 pm

I’m from Northern Arkansas and I miss all the adventures I had living in the Ozarks. I’ve been to Horseshoe Canyon Ranch several times. If you ever have a chance to check it out do it! They don’t call Arkansas the natural state for nothing.

10 Jesse December 16, 2013 at 2:24 pm

For some good hiking and wildlife, check out the Wichita Mountain Wildlife Refuge in SW OK, near Medicine Park, OK. There’s buffalo, longhorn cattle, deer, elk & prairie dogs. There’s a nice road to drive through the refuge with many places to stop, a very nice visitor center & several lakes to fish.

11 Dustin December 16, 2013 at 3:07 pm

Being from Arkansas, I can say I myself have probably under appreciated what we have. I’ve floated, camped and hiked the areas you’re talking about since I was little but haven’t done much of it elsewhere. Thanks for the read and the reminder of the little hidden treasure I’ve been able to enjoy time and time again.

12 Adam December 16, 2013 at 4:25 pm

I’m in the same boat as you Brett. Living in Shreveport, there isn’t much in the immediate area, but Arkansas has tons of things to do 3-6 hours away. We frequently go camping in the Ouachita Mountains and kayaking on the Caddo River. If you ever looking for a multi-day backpacking trip, I highly recommend Eagle Rock Loop. It’s the longest loop trail in AR (27 miles) and is a great weekend hike if you get there early Friday. Sadly our 3 day canoe trip on the Buffalo got stormed out this spring but we are gonna try again next year. Can’t wait to read the next article!

13 John Hollinger December 16, 2013 at 6:18 pm

I lived in Arkansas most of my life. Most folks don’t think of Arkansas as a beautiful place to vacation, but the only mountains between the Appalachian and the Rockies are the Ozarks, other than the Black Hills. The Buffalo is free flowing, with no dams, so it makes for a great float trip.
Other oddly named towns in AR:
Buck Snort
Bald Knob
Toad Suck

14 Slawek December 16, 2013 at 6:29 pm

Did you visit Dogpatch USA?

I love Jasper, AR (for the motorcycle riding). :)

15 Martin Blass December 17, 2013 at 1:18 am

Ad Pic 1…

I got this exact rope… :-)
Nice article by the way

16 Matt C. December 17, 2013 at 7:07 am

Well, in Georgia there are about a thousand places still pretty wild. Around Savannah, there are some great hideaways in Wassaw Sound–little islands with no name that are perfect for camping, flounder-gigging, and kayaking bases. The northwest corner of Georgia gives us Cloudland Canyon, Lookout Mountain, the Cohutta Wilderness. The Appalachian trail starts in Kennesaw. In the Northeast, there’s The Blue Ridge Mountains, the Chattahoochee River, Tallulah Gorge.

17 Justin December 17, 2013 at 8:49 am

Sam’s Throne is really close to Horseshoe and it also is a fantastic climb. Then there is a great old burger joint called Ozark cafe too!

18 Steve Mazur December 17, 2013 at 11:14 am

Great job, Brett. There is beauty and wonderful “forest baths” almost everywhere. You just gotta GO. I grew up 2 hr. from Yellowstone and rarely went. I live 3 hr. from Glacier and haven’t been in 12+ yr, mostly because I find wonderful places within 1 hr.

19 Ben Wiz December 17, 2013 at 11:35 am

Great intro post on climbing. Been climbing for 6 years, now, and its awesome. Im a frequenter at HCR and this site, and when I saw this I had to tell you that you should also try the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge, in your home state of OK.. They dont have as good options for beginnner climbing, but its WAY more scenic than Horseshoe for hiking, etc. And its probably closer! (well about the same distance, but less time to get there bc its mostly interstate, compared to the backwards highways that you have to take to get to Jasper..)

20 Alex Espinosa December 17, 2013 at 3:40 pm

I love climbing.
Having been plagued with years of injuries, I had all but given up on outdoor sports. About a year and a half ago I walked into a local rock climbing gym and feel in love immediately. Climbing a 5.8 at the gym seemed impossible at the time but I kept with it, met a lot of people, and stayed positive. Just climbed my first 5.11D and climb outdoors weekly in California. By the way, no matter what level of rock climbing you are at, you should own this: best resource around.

21 Lurpy December 17, 2013 at 4:17 pm

Just started rock climbing myself, at a local gym–I’m planning to do outdoor climbing when I get back to Utah (no car, no gear, and no friends who do outdoor climbing here in DC make it a bit difficult), so I figured I’d get in shape and figure out how it all worked now–and it’s a great activity. I love hiking, letting my mind sort of wander, like you mention, but climbing is the exact opposite in a way–it requires total focus on what you’re doing, which has been a nice break from the business of law school that consumes my weekdays. I can’t wait to combine that intense focus with the great outdoors next summer. Rory’s right though–now that I’ve been going for a couple months, I see handholds everywhere!

22 Bill Ramsey December 17, 2013 at 4:30 pm

Let me encourage you, good man, to go back to Ponca, and hike Whittaker Point & Lost Valley. Go in the springtime for great canoeing and smallmouth fishing. While there, book your stay with the Buffalo Outdoor Center [BOC], and meet Mike Mills, the owner/one of the manliest men alive! [How many of us have canoed solo, UPSTREAM, in flood waters, to save someone clinging on for life? Mike has.] While there, take a zipline canopy tour.
Then thank me when you return.

23 Alex Schuch December 17, 2013 at 8:26 pm

My own backyard! So cool to hear you got to enjoy the things I take for granted every weekend.

24 Josh E December 19, 2013 at 9:43 pm

I actually live in North East Arkansas and have frequented the Buffalo River as a child. This really brings back those memories. I think I’d like to venture there soon.

25 Lee December 20, 2013 at 11:04 am

I enjoyed both of your write ups on the Buffalo River, the Rock Climbing, and especially finding adventures in your own back yard. I live in Kansas. Trust me it’s easier to find adventure in SE Kansas and Eastern Oklahoma. I spent my summers as a kid playing in the creeks and forests of north central Arkansas and everytime I go there I find something I want to do. Truly an underrated place for adventure.

26 tom January 22, 2014 at 9:14 pm

I live in Conway, Arkansas. Just spent the weekend on beaver lake by fayatteville.

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