Friendship ranks way up there on the list of good things in life that I value and cherish. Girlfriend getaways (GGs) are great opportunities for bonding with your besties, which is why I love them and have taken quite a few. Yet when Deb Peterson asked me to share five things that make a great GG, I decided I should book another one (for research you understand) and share it with you!
There are so many marvelous things about GGs that it was difficult to narrow them down to five, but here’s what I came up with.
1. SOME GREAT GIRLFRIENDS
There’s no magic number of friends to include on a GG. I typically let the circumstances dictate how many and who I invite, and I love to mix it up. For this one, two willing friends joined me: Joyce Cameron (who I’ll refer to as Joyce C. throughout) from Mountain Home and Joyce Wagoner (who will hereinafter be Joyce W.) from Little Rock.
Based on my memory of previous trips to the chosen destination, we anticipated an easy, relaxing couple of days at a dude ranch in the gorgeous Ozark Mountains. We were pleasantly surprised that it was so much more.
2. AN INTERESTING AND DIVERSE DESTINATION
It’s been a dozen years or so since I was a guest at Horseshoe Canyon Ranch, near Jasper, Arkansas. I love any chance to be with horses, so I thought I’d give the ranch another go.
We drove the long, winding dirt road that leads through the welcome gate into HCR, nestled in a beautiful valley defined by rock bluffs naturally shaped like a horseshoe. Since my last visit, what was once a quiet little family dude ranch has evolved, including becoming an internationally renowned destination for rock climbing. Capitalizing on the sandstone rock bluffs and boulders, the ranch owners have developed more than 300 climbing routes and an entire Adventure Course, which I will detail a little later.
The ranch experience is designed, primarily, as a weeklong experience, but they can accommodate a shorter stay with in-season and off-season minimums. We chose four nights and three very full days. Arriving on a Sunday (the check-in/check-out/no activity day) gave us the opportunity to settle into our cabin, explore the ranch a bit, and wish it had been warm enough to take a swim in the pool.
The log cabins provide all modern amenities, yet retain a rustic charm. The smaller cabins have one queen bed, a living room with fireplace, a dining area, and a kitchenette with a mini refrigerator and microwave—just enough for extra goodies you may bring to supplement the three square meals provided each day in the ranch lodge. The larger cabins have a queen bedroom downstairs along with the same living room, dining and kitchen amenities. An open loft above holds a row of twin beds, perfect for families or a bunch of good friends. All cabins have a large bathroom with a tub and shower. We took a larger cabin and had plenty of room. Our cabin was perched up on the hill behind the ranch office with a view out across the valley, which most mornings was softly cloaked in fog.
We enjoyed Sunday afternoon on the deck of our cabin with a lovely snack of assorted cheeses, grapes, apples, and wine that we had brought. The two Joyces had never met, so this was a great opportunity to get acquainted. Later we met the ranch owners, Barry and Amy Johnson, the staff, and the other guests in the lodge. We were thrilled to learn that people had come from all over the world: two sisters (one from Georgia and the other from Florida), a couple from the United Kingdom, two brothers and their families from the Memphis area, another family from Little Rock, the parents of one of the young staffers from Australia, and a man from Hawaii with his granddaughter. This wonderfully diverse group meant mealtime conversations were anything but dull in the ranch dining room with family-style seating and serving. The head cook prepared well-balanced home-style meals and went out of her way to accommodate dietary restrictions and special requests. Our favorite, though, was the bottomless homemade cookie jar.
3. A SENSE OF ADVENTURE
Every great GG needs a little excitement. However, while flying through the air 150 feet above the valley floor trussed in a sling, with wind whipping through my hair, and gripping my cell phone camera in one hand and hanging on for dear life with the other, my heart raced as I questioned the sanity of my decision to ride the zip line!
This was my first time on a zip line. And when I say my heart was racing, it was with exhilaration. I loved it! What a view from that high wire, up and down the entire valley. The sun was shining, the sky blue, and yes, I just soared off a high bluff for no good reason, other than seeking a thrill.
The zip line is the final wild and crazy portion of HCR’s Adventure Course. Perhaps I should have done my homework more thoroughly when planning this GG to have some idea of what this Adventure Course included. However, had we known what was in store for us, we may not have shown up at the lodge at the designated hour. And we would have missed out, big time! But I’m getting ahead of myself.
The three of us, Joyce C., Joyce W., and I, had agreed not to rock climb when we discussed the trip, but when the staff offered to take everyone to the beginner climb, we went along because we wanted to watch the others. When we witnessed everyone else overcome their insecurities and conquer that rock face, we couldn’t resist joining. To ease any trepidation guests may feel, the ranch employs several 20-something young men to guide and assist guests with climbing and the rest of the Adventure Course. They were not only extremely experienced, knowledgeable, and safety conscious, they also thoroughly enjoyed having “newbies” on the course, playfully teasing and taunting us throughout.
“I had zero intention of rock climbing and continued to say I was not interested as I hiked up the mountain to watch the others,” Joyce C. said. “With encouragement and a true belief in the guides’ capabilities, I did in fact rock climb! What a rush!”
It was fun and not nearly as difficult as we thought it would be. (I think those young men probably hoisted at least half our weight so we could do it!) But what I really loved about it was that most of us guests had never done this and didn’t know if we could. Yet we all did, which gave us a boost of confidence and such satisfaction. Little did we know that was just a taste of what we would experience the next day.
Bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, that next morning we naively followed the staff as they loaded us all up with climbing gear, harnesses, helmets and such, and drove us to the opposite side of the valley. We started by climbing up and around the face of an enormous rock bluff. At each step of the way we were astonished by the next challenge in store for us on the Adventure Course and equally astonished when we mastered them. There was a point where we had to skirt around a jutting corner, the Via Ferrata, and Joyce W., being in the lead, experienced a bit of anxiety and trembling hands while trying to figure out how to maneuver it, but maneuver it she did. Then, just when we felt the security of a rock ledge under our feet, a tightrope loomed overhead.
“Seriously?” Joyce C. asked. “You expect us to walk on that across this abyss?” She had heart palpitations just looking at it, but again, the guides got us all harnessed in safely and, one by one, we cautiously stepped along the Cable Bridge. The key, here, is to not look down! When each of us reached the other side the exhilaration coursing through our bodies was equally matched by the amazement of completing it.
At the other end of the Cable, where a guide was waiting to assist, we transitioned to a climb along the opposite rock face, and by then had begun feeling pretty confident. And then, as we made our way down into a large notch between two rock faces, we realized the next adventure that awaited us… a giant pendulum swing, the Screamer!
“Oh, heck no, we’re not doing that!” we unanimously said, shaking our heads.
But those tenacious young men don’t take no for an answer, well, at least not when they know they’ve got some girls who can’t resist a challenge. I must give a special nod to Ben and Morgan who seemed to have the great “miss”-fortune of being stuck with we three amigos on many occasions that week. One by one we allowed them to hoist us up to the highest point of the swing and let us loose. What a rush to swoosh through the air on the biggest swing ever! Everything from screams (thus the name) to whoops to hysterical laughter escaped us. And, in my case, a little scolding of those naughty boys for releasing me without warning just to see the surprise on my face!
“The swing! Oh, let me try to describe the swing,” Joyce C. exclaimed. “A 3-second feeling of free falling with mountainous ground 50-100 feet below. After your heart skips a beat and the adrenalin rush hits, you swing back and forth, laughing through the release of fear and all inhibition, and just living in the moment.”
One might think, “Surely that’s all,” right? Nope, not yet. From the swing we maneuvered around the cliff face to a small platform for the Quick Jump, where our harnesses were clipped to a heavy line that, when you jump out into the thin air in front of you, allows you to free fall for a few seconds before the contraption slows you to a fairly gentle landing on the platform some 50 feet below. At first, I thought it was a bungie and I had no interest. But when I realized you didn’t bounce back up, I decided to try it. In the entire Adventure Course, this was the hardest thing for me to do. Convincing myself to jump off the platform for a free fall took some psyching up. My stomach was in knots. Again, though, my buddy Morgan was there to encourage me and assure me that I could do it. And I did!
Last, but certainly not least, we climbed our way around the rocks on the route that HCR has so cleverly and expertly built into this natural setting and arrived at the launching pad for the zip line. This was the one part of the Adventure Course that I’d previously read about and couldn’t wait to attempt. Some guests were not as eager, specifically the youngest child and, ironically, her father, and required a bit of coaxing and a thumbs up via walkie talkie, from the other side, to amass the courage to lift their feet and fly out over the tree tops. I guarantee, though, that all were so happy they did. What an amazing escapade!
Completing the Adventure Course brought the entire group of guests closer together. We shared a sense of accomplishment, of overcoming fears, of doing things we didn’t think we could and the camaraderie of doing it together, encouraging and cheering for each other each step of the way. I had not planned for or anticipated this resulting exhilarating emotion when I put this GG together, yet it was the best part about it and perfectly fulfilled the desire to experience something new.
In case you think you couldn’t, or wouldn’t, attempt this Adventure Course, I’ll share with you that all of the guests did it; all ages from small children to grandparents, all sizes and shapes, and all levels of athleticism, from none to plenty.
“With age, my body aches no matter what I do, so I figured I might as well try everything the ranch had to offer,” Joyce C. admitted, and Joyce W. and I agreed.
Though being fit is helpful, it is not a prerequisite. The shared experience and feeling of accomplishment it renders is so worth overcoming any hesitation you may have.
Now, of course, HCR is first and foremost a dude ranch. They have a full herd of wonderfully trained horses and, with the information we supplied before arriving, the staff matched each of us up with a horse and tack that fit our sizes and experience levels. I, appropriately, was assigned a really cool looking Appaloosa named Bartender. Joyce C. rode Plankton and Joyce W. climbed atop Noah.
The riding trails on the 300+ acres of the ranch weave through hills and valleys, ponds and creeks, woods and pasture. It’s such a beautiful place and is kept neatly nibbled by the goats that freely roam the entire valley. Their soft bleating is a sweet and soothing sound. Scott, the head wrangler, regaled us with the history and stories of the ranch along the rides. As a more experienced rider, I found the trails not too challenging but perfectly satisfying. For a less experienced rider, they are plenty challenging. For the scenery, alone, it is worth climbing up on a horse, and if you happen to go in spring or fall, as we did, you get the added benefit of the gorgeous seasonal colors.
One morning the staff loaded up all the fixin’s for a cowboy breakfast cookout. We rode out to a lovely picnic site nestled among lichen-adorned rocks and hardwood trees. Once the horses were tied off to the hitching post, we gathered at the picnic tables with plates of eggs and mugs of coffee. There’s something about eating food out in nature that makes it even more delicious.
We spent part of another morning taking turns trying our luck at some activities most don’t do every day. They included archery, tomahawk chucking, and rifle shooting. What fun! Who knew it could be so satisfying to “stick” a tomahawk or two into a wooden wall from 20 feet away? Again, each of us enjoyed a fair amount of success at these challenges with the guidance of the staff members. I can’t praise them enough for their knowledge, patience, skill, and great senses of humor.
4. UNPLUGGING FROM THE WORLD
The litany of activities offered by the ranch was organized on a daily basis. When we were all gathered in the lodge for meals, options were offered and each guest would choose what they were interested in. The staff did their best to remain flexible in helping each guest do what they wanted. Though you could opt out of anything, or everything, why would you? Everything was fun and fulfilling, and we stayed so busy we didn’t for one second miss television, Internet, phones, etc. (though we could access them if needed).
Occasionally, we’d find some time to enjoy separate things we each found interesting. I love photography and the ranch offered plenty of subject matter. Joyce W. loved sneaking a bag of carrots out to feed the horses that grazed throughout the ranch when not under saddle. Joyce C. loved the opportunity to talk with everyone else there and learn their stories.
One activity we didn’t have the opportunity to enjoy was a trip to the stunning Buffalo River. During the right time of year and during a weeklong stay, floating this national treasure can be arranged and would be a wonderful outing, especially if you’ve never experienced it.
Each day at the ranch was so full of activity and adventure that, though the staff offered fun things to do as a group after dinner as well, the three of us typically retired to our cabin for conversation (recalling in awe what we had experienced that day) over a delicious glass of vino. We might also play a game of Scrabble or cards, or perhaps take a much-needed soak in the hot tub under the stars.
“I am recommending Horseshoe Canyon Ranch to anyone who will listen to me!” said Joyce W. “The experience was wonderful for sure. I did things I didn’t know I could do like rock climbing and tomahawk throwing, and I shot a 22 rifle!!!”
“This was such an exhilarating adventure,” Joyce C. added. “You’re truly never too old to have fun with a new activity.”
So when it’s time for a little escape from life and you decide to gather some girlfriends and head out for a GG, keep these five elements in mind when planning the who, what, when, and where, and have a Marvelous Adventure!
Visit horseshoecanyonduderanch.com for more information about the ranch. M! February/March 2016