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Horseshoe Canyon Ranch under new ownership, replaces hooves with wheels

The entrance to Horseshoe Canyon Ranch in Jasper. The ranch has become a hub for outdoor recreation activities like rock climbing.
Jack Travis
/
kuaf
The entrance to Horseshoe Canyon Ranch in Jasper. The ranch has become a hub for outdoor recreation activities like rock climbing.

As you crest the hill above Horseshoe Canyon, the ranch below looks the same as it always has for almost 30 years. A dirt road leads cars through the valley’s green slopes. Climbers are scaling rocky bluffs overlooking the canyon. And a handful of cabins are filled with groups of families and friends.

However, upon closer inspection, you might notice construction vehicles busy building trails for another new sight: mountain bikes. Their presence may seem alarming, but the ranch’s veteran adventure guide, Jason Roy, said he views the new bikes and trails as a sign of much-needed progress that will maintain the interests of all recreationalists who visit.

“There are certain people involved, that want to make sure that this is always going to be available to climbers for generations to come,” Roy said. “And not just climbers, now, it's for mountain bikers, you know, outdoor recreation. There are certain people out there that have the capability of going out and buying their own island if they wanted to. They have unbelievable resources. Instead, they're putting their money back into the states where they came from, and that is pretty awesome.”

Adventure guide Jason Roy stands in the ranch's rock climbing gear closet.
Jack Travis
/
kuaf
Adventure guide Jason Roy stands in the ranch's rock climbing gear closet.

Roy said that the ranch is changing. For example, horseback riding, a popular activity, has been discontinued due to its costly nature. However, Horseshoe Canyon will remain a bastion for Arkansas rock climbing. The famed climbing competition, 24 Hours of Horseshoe Hell, will still occur every year. They’re also adding new events, like the Arkansas Climbers Festival, which took place earlier this year in March. Plus, the ranch will be the second stop for the Arkansas Graveler, a cross-state bike tour that’s preparing for its first year.

New attractions are appearing on the canyon walls, too. Roy said he and his crew are developing new climbing routes, both on smaller boulders and huge cliffs. But he’s particularly excited about the installation of a European climbing activity called via ferratas.

“It's Italian for iron way,” he said. “It's basically a climbing route that follows a permanent fixed cable that runs along the entirety of the route. And so when you're climbing that, you have a lanyard attached to your harness, and you have two different clips clipped onto the cables.”

As you move along the course, you clip into the different cables that run along paths, one carabiner at a time. This way, there’s never a time when you’re disconnected.

“You have rebar that you're holding on to in some spots, like a ladder system,” he said. “You have natural rock holds, you have aerial bridges, we have all of that. We even have like a cave section you can go through, and it has a generator up there that fires up our lights. It's like going through a mine– It's really unique.”

This assisted style of rock climbing allows for increased accessibility without sacrificing the thrill of outdoor climbing.

“People also get, you know, a lot of exposure up there,” he said. “So you're still at height, but you're connected to that cable. But it's like you don't have to have a lot of climbing experience or strength– You don't have to be a very strong climber to go up there and enjoy that.”

There’s a lot of new programming at Horseshoe Canyon that prioritizes accessibility. Roy mentioned the ranch recently changed ownership, and a lot of these changes are happening because of that sale.

Jaime Chalmers, the ranch's general manager, said the original proprietor, Barry Johnson, pursued the new owners. The newcomers remain unnamed, but the ranch is now managed by Ropeswing Hospitality.

“And anybody that does their research at the end of that will find out that we are Walton affiliated, but not Walmart affiliated,” Chalmers said. “So the previous owners just had a vision for the ranch and wanted it to stay the same or similar to just being open to the public, providing outdoor recreation for people. And they sought out the owners that we have now. Because they knew they can carry on that just through the future and make it even more accessible to people with the offer of the new bike trails and things like that.”

A new bike trail in front of a barn-turned-bike shop in Horseshoe Canyon.
Jack Travis
/
kuaf
A new bike trail in front of a barn-turned-bike shop in Horseshoe Canyon.

Walton affiliation, followed by new bike trails, is not an uncommon phenomenon in Northwest Arkansas.

Bike program manager Andrew Onermaa said accessibility has affected their decision-making process regarding cycling at the ranch. For example, they chose to provide e-mountain bikes for rental rather than standard analog cycles.

“We found that the e-mountain bike makes it a little bit more of a level playing field for everyone,” Onermaa said. “It lets them see more without being absolutely exhausted in the first 15 to 30 minutes.”

E-bikes have developed a reputation for being bad for trails due to the increased speed and power their motors allow. Onermaa said this isn’t necessarily the case.

“Really, it more so comes down to the property or the land that it's on,” he said. “So, I actually had a family visiting from Siloam Springs this past weekend. It was a family of six: husband, wife and four kids. They all had e mountain bikes, and they were so excited they could come out here and ride. They've been in other areas like Moab, where they say e-bikes are prohibited. And that comes more so with the BLM land or special relationships with landowners, property owners. And for Moab, for instance, the issue was the microbiome soil, or whatever it's called.”

He’s talking about bioactive soil crust. In arid regions like Moab, Utah, the desert landscape is partially covered by a knobby, black crust made up of living organisms like lichen, mosses, green algae, microfungi, and bacteria. If it's trampled, the crust can take years to recover. To protect the fragile crust, Utah prohibits the use of e-mountain bikes on many trails. Onermaa said e-bikes and analog bikes have the same effect on the trail itself.

“The trails we have here are the same,” he said. “There's nothing that makes it an e-mountain bike trail or standard mountain bike trail. So you can ride either bike and have the same trail experience. It's sheerly just for the amount of vert we have here is really why we are renting them out.”

Bike program manager Andrew Onermaa stands with a Specialized Turbo Levo e-mountain bike, one of the 60 identical bikes available to patrons.
Jack Travis
/
kuaf
Bike program manager Andrew Onermaa stands with a Specialized Turbo Levo e-mountain bike, one of the 60 identical bikes available to patrons.

Climbers may worry that the new trails will encroach upon the spaces previously dedicated to their sport. Onermaa said he used to be a climber and understands their anxieties. Since the trails are on private land, the team at Horseshoe Canyon can work closely with construction crews.

“As far as, ‘Hey, we need to avoid certain climbing areas, we can't be getting too close with the mountain bike trails to where we're now in the way of where the belayers would be or where the crash pads are going.,’” he said. “So, just having that direct communication made that process a lot simpler versus causing problems down the road, where, say, a trail crew comes in and does their own thing and is completely oblivious to the other activity groups. So it's nice that we can have that impact and be cautious with what we do.”

Horseshoe Canyon Ranch is not the only property near Jasper that has come under wealthy new ownership.

Runway Group, a holding company founded by Tom and Steuart Walton, purchased three buildings on the downtown square in Kingston. Johnny Morris, founder of Bass Pro Shops, is developing the land that used to house Dogpatch USA into a private nature preserve. What’s more, Runway Group recently sought public opinion on changing the Buffalo National River’s designation to a National Park and Preserve.

With much change in the air, only time will tell how Newton County’s future plays out.

Ozarks at Large transcripts are created on a rush deadline by reporters. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. The authoritative record of KUAF programming is the audio record.

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Jack Travis is a reporter for <i>Ozarks at Large</i>.<br/>
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