Texas is known for its private-land rights and its lack of public space to recreate on—more than 95 percent of the state is private. Sure, the Lone Star state has a handful of famous public climbing areas, including the granite domes of Enchanted Rock, the adventurous limestone of Big Bend National Park, and the syenite porphyry boulders of Hueco Tanks. But the bulk of the rock—especially the limestone in and around the Hill Country—is private.
In this 25-county region of Central Texas north of San Antonio and west of Austin and Waco, spring-fed rivers and creeks snake through valleys, cutting dramatic cliffs. By law, the public is allowed to recreate on the rivers, but private land comes up to the banks, including any tempting limestone cliffs. Many landowners post “No Trespassing” signs and string barbed-wire fences; the threat of prosecution is a real danger.
While the Texas population has boomed to nearly 29 million, the amount of public land has remained stagnant, creating problems for outdoor users—climbers included—says Brian Tickle, the Texas regional director for the Access Fund (AF). Texas, says Tickle, has a ton of rock, but is more in tune with hunting and fishing and less familiar with—if not downright suspicious of—climbing.
Fortunately, there are pockets of privately owned rock on which the owners have been open to climbing. One was Reimers Ranch in the Hill Country 30 miles west of Austin, comprising a serene limestone canyon and connecting bluffs up to 50 feet tall with 450-plus routes (before the collapse of a portion of Prototype Wall in early 2019) from 5.6 to 5.14a above the Pedernales River. Formerly privately owned, the ranch in 2005 became Milton Reimers Ranch Park, now managed by Travis County. Reimers shows just what can happen when climbers are proactive in working with a private landowner, setting a valuable template that could help open other Texas climbing sites.
For Milton and Joy Reimers, the ranch’s former owners, forming relationships with people who wanted to enjoy their land is part of their history. The Reimers family has been in Central Texas since the 1800s, and Milton’s father allowed the public to access their ranch for fishing. Lorinda Preslar, one of the Reimers’ daughters, says her family was always open to visitors: “We grew up looking out the window to see if … a car was coming down the road”—fellow Texans wanting to fish, camp, and, eventually, to climb.
In the 1980s, local climbers from Austin discovered the area and began discreetly (read: secretly) developing routes. In 1986, Bill Gooch, a software developer, bolted the area’s first sport route, the two-bolt Pocket Rocket (5.10c), with the help of Scott Hudson, a University of Texas geology student. “I told Scott, ‘We’re not talking to the owners about this,’” Gooch says. “I said, ‘Let’s not make this known to the climbing community because we’ll get tons of people out here, and we want to make sure that we do it right and [don’t] over-bolt this place.’” However, word soon leaked out, and by spring 1987 other climbers began showing up. For Hudson, who now lives in Colorado, developing the short, white-and-grey, vertical to wildly overhanging walls made him feel “like a kid in a candy shop.”
“Not just because of the rock but the whole setting, the nature, it was just so pristine,” he says. “The [Sex Cave] area where Liposuction [5.12a] and Elephant Man [5.13a] are, the dripping stalactites, the lack of other people—that’s where we would go to get away.”
As Preslar recalls her mother, Joy, telling her, it was family members walking around the property who discovered the climbers. While the family was never sued over a climbing-related accident, the Reimers were worried about liability. So was the local climbing community says Rick Watson, an Austinite and then president of the Central Texas Mountaineers (CTM), the main group representing climbers in Texas. (CTM has since become the Texas Climbers Coalition [TCC].)
“I think things add up, and he (Milton Reimers) wanted to protect himself,” Watson says.
Watson and Gooch approached the Reimers and proposed a solution—create a liability waiver and button system to identify those who had already signed the waiver. The Reimers agreed, and Watson said the community self-policed well. Climbing continued at Reimers through the 1990s and early 2000s. However, by the early 2000s, the Reimers wanted to sell the land, and some feared it could be developed. The local climbing community thus led an effort to collect signatures for a ballot initiative, and then worked to convince Travis County voters to buy the property.
In November 2005, Travis County voters approved a $62 million bond package that included funds to purchase the Reimers’ ranch and adjacent land owned by local climber John Hogge, who compiled the official guidebook for Reimers. Today, Milton Reimers Ranch Park has more than 2,400 acres of public lands that include hundreds of feet of limestone cliffs. Often cloaked by thick scrub, the limestone rises are topped by cactus, junipers, and oak trees.
Travis County paved the roads and built new facilities like bathrooms. After the park opened, it spent thousands of dollars on bolts, hangers, and other gear that, in partnership with the CTM, were used to develop routes, particularly at the North Shore, a 2,000-foot-long cliff acquired at the same time as the Reimers’ property. Milton Reimers Ranch Park also attracts mountain bikers and hikers to its miles of trails.
The limestone here offers a range of holds, with some walls looking like Swiss cheese and others as blank as a chalkboard. On some climbs, the abundant hand- and footholds grow sparser at the anchors, with climbers below shouting beta. On a busy weekend, you’ll see large groups sharing topropes, with veterans offering help leading routes for less experienced climbers, lending out gear, and imparting beta. The routes today are maintained by the TCC.
“It’s interesting to think about how to motivate just climbers in general … to mobilize to get access done,” Watson says. “That’s always been the key—you can’t climb someplace if you can’t get on that land … we tried to show Reimers as a model to landowners and say, ‘Look, so far, successfully, we’ve been able to do this.’” Along those lines, the AF and TCC recently teamed up to purchase Medicine Wall, a limestone cliff in San Antonio, working with a private landowner to take control and create a conservation easement for the property. Climbing is expected to reopen there in 2020—the cliff has potential for dozens of routes, and had been visited by climbers illicitly until a climbing accident in 2015 killed two people. The landowners subsequently stripped the hardware.
Medicine Wall will give San Antonio an outdoor area much closer than Reimers Ranch or E-Rock, each about 1.5 hours away. “Medicine Wall is a great crag for the San Antonio climbing community, and we’re really excited to serve that community through this acquisition. This is something we’d like to repeat across the state,” says TCC President Adam Mitchell.