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The Romance of Disney

Wrangler wannabees saddle up for a super family vacation in Arkansas.
By Barbara Gibbs Ostmann

Home, home on the range … in Arkansas. Whoa! A dude ranch in The Natural State? You bet. Arkansas offers horse vacations to suit every budget and skill level, from an all-inclusive ranch to camping options for folks traveling with a horse.


In Title: Village Creek State Park is another option for horse lovers. Arkansas Parks & Tourism photo

Above: The spread at Horseshoe Canyon Ranch. Barbara Gibbs Ostmann photo; Boots ©B. Holmes/ photo

Below: A trail ride in progress at HCR. Arkansas Parks & Tourism photos

trail riders

Take, for example, Horseshoe Canyon Ranch (HCR) in northwest Arkansas that offers a traditional dude ranch experience along with lots of extras to keep everyone in the family happy. There’s plenty to do–including horseback riding, rock climbing, skeet shooting, hiking and gliding down a zipline–any time of year, regardless of the weather.

“We had so much fun at the ranch,” said Margaret Prine, of Jackson, Miss., who visited HCR last fall with her husband, Robert Lewis. A few days after their trip, she said she tried to figure out why she liked the ranch so much. “It finally hit me; it’s like sleep-away camp for the entire family,” Prine said.

At HCR, the lodge is used as a meeting and dining hall; the staff serves as counselors and activity directors. “The other guests become fast friends. The activities are planned so that you are never bored, but you still have ample free time to sit on the porch and enjoy the scenery or explore on your own. But unlike the average camp, you have private lodging, beautiful scenery, and food, and all activities are included in the price,” Prine said.

Life on the ranch

Such guest satisfaction is music to the ears of Barry and Amy Johnson, who, along with Barry’s parents, Martha and Jerry Johnson, own and operate HCR. Barry and Amy met while working on a dude ranch in Wyoming when they were students at Brigham Young University, and they envisioned creating a traditional dude ranch where they could raise their family and share the lifestyle with guests.

They found and purchased 350 acres in one of the most scenic parts of the Ozarks, about seven miles west of Jasper, near the Buffalo National River. The ranch opened in 1997, branded as a Western-style ranch with Southern hospitality. The way it has turned out has exceeded their dreams and that of their guests.

Praise for the staff was unanimous from all the guests we met. From wranglers Tember Hursch and Cody Schmidt to climbers Morgan McNeill and Jason Roy, the staff makes the experience memorable. They are as likely to play the guitar and lead songs or read a storybook to a young child as to rope a horse or lead a hike.

“I like that we and our staff eat with our guests,” said Amy Johnson. “Our focus is on families. This is a traditional ranch, but untraditional in the amount of activities.”

The Johnsons’ four children–Cameron, 17; Cody, 14; Sierra, 11; and Creed, 8–often join guests at the table. Cameron sometimes helps out as a wrangler and Cody as a climbing guide.

The ranch is home to more than 270 goats and about 45 horses. Two Anatolian Shepherd dogs guard the goats. There’s a pool and hot tub, petting zoo, and a fishing pond. The Buffalo National River is next door, so floating is a seasonal activity, as is elk watching.

Full-service guest packages are offered from the second Monday of March through Thanksgiving. Cabins can be rented throughout the year, but the meal with activity package is not available in the off-season.

The cabins are made from solid-log, hand-peeled yellow pine. A microwave oven, small refrigerator, coffee maker and wireless Internet access are included. You won’t find a television or phone in the room. There is a theater/television room in the lodge, and cell phone reception is good.

Camping options

If you prefer to bring your own horse, both state and national parks offer equestrian camping options.

At Buffalo National River in the upper river section near Horseshoe Canyon Ranch, there are two horse camps, Steel Creek and Erbie. They provide basic facilities such as fire grates, toilets and space for horse trailers. Steel Creek has 14 sites and Erbie has five. According to park rules, use is limited to six people and four horses per site, with a seven-day limit per stay. No authorized commercial horse outfitters operate at Buffalo National River.

Village Creek State Park on Crowley’s Ridge near Wynne offers a horse camp featuring three stables with 66 stalls complete with water, electricity, ceiling fans, horse washing bays, and a compost pit for manure disposal. There are 30 camping sites for the horses’ people. More than 25 miles of riding trails meander through the 7,000-acre park. There are no horse outfitters within or near the park.

Make mine a combo

If you like to ride but want to do some shopping and sightseeing, too, try combining a day or two at a ranch–or even just a trail ride or two–with a getaway in a popular destination such as Eureka Springs or Hot Springs. Panther Valley Ranch, near Hot Springs, is more than 100 years old, making it the longest-established vacation ranch in the state.

There are more than a dozen vacation ranches in Arkansas; for a current listing, visit A stay at any of these ranches will bring you up close and personal with The Natural State.

Barbara Gibbs Ostmann is a horse lover and contributor from Gerald, Mo.

Jan/Feb 2012 Issue


For more information, contact Horseshoe Canyon Ranch in Jasper, (800) 480-9635 or; Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism, (800) NATUR AL (800-628-8725) or

To visit Arkansas guest ranches, first stop by your nearest AAA service office for maps, reservations, TripTiks® and TourBook® guides.

Order free information about Arkansas through the Free Travel Information online form.

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