The Homestead: How You Can Help Save This Desert Tufa-Climbing Mecca

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Rob Pizem sampling clean, tufa-tastic limestone on Black Sunshine (5.12b), Tufa City.

Rob Pizem sampling clean, tufa-tastic limestone on Black Sunshine (5.12b), Tufa City.

When climbers think tufas, tropical destinations like Thailand, Mexico, and Kalymnos usually come to mind. But tufa climbing set against a backdrop of saguaro cactus? That’s only available at the Homestead in the Sonoran Desert of Arizona, where climbers can sample backcountry sport climbing without ever stamping their passports.

Situated between Globe and Winkelman, and within a two-hour drive of both Phoenix and Tucson, the Homestead offers 250-plus climbs on 12 limestone walls up to 115 feet in height. Though relatively little known, it has hosted itinerant climbers from as far away as Alaska and Europe; even luminaries such as Alex Honnold have made the trek. The canyon features long, technical face climbs, short, bouldery climbs, and lower-angle moderates. Not to be missed is the crown-jewel tufa wall, Tufa City, home to 30-plus routes from 35 to 115 feet, including one of the best 5.11 sport routes in the country, Tufa Yard Dash (5.11c). The 70-foot route starts off with steepening climbing on one of the largest tufas anywhere, then moves into overhanging buckets to culminate with a crux into a mantel—a smorgasbord that’s reason enough to visit the Homestead.

Aside from the occasional busy weekend in peak season—winter—visitors will often have the canyon to themselves. Lucky climbers may also encounter bighorn sheep, Gila monsters, desert tortoises, bears, and even the elusive tiger rattlesnake. Within some of the canyon’s walls, climbers will also find pristine fossils like horn corals, or other features like chert nodules that resemble large worms and provide excellent edges. One killer route for “fossil hunting” is Radical Self Expression (5.11b) on the Finland Terrace.

This special place has also, over the years, experienced access issues—the rough, three-mile 4WD access road, parking, and climbing encompass a matrix of private, Bureau of Land Management (BLM), and State Trust land. The most coveted walls—Tufa City, Rough Rider, North Buttress, and Finland Terrace—are on BLM land. However, to access them, climbers must drive and hike through private and State Trust land.

One of the area’s signature saguaro cacti.

One of the area’s signature saguaro cacti.

While local climbers Fred Amrhein, Ben Boyd, Jason Stoddard, John Rosholt, and others first ventured out to establish routes in the mid-90s, subsequent development from the likes of Scott Ayers, Eric Fazio-Rhicard, myself, and others came in spurts, due mainly to the epic road and aforementioned access concerns. Some of the earlier testpieces include Ground Effects (5.11c), The Rough Rider (5.11+), Cold Fusion (5.12a), Black Sunshine (5.12b), and The Riddler (5.12+), with additional classics such as Great Northern (5.11+) and the cruxy Tufa King (5.13) coming later. As the area has evolved, developers have been meticulous about installing high-quality hardware on aesthetic climbs free from potential rockfall. Some developers and other locals have also built switchbacking trails and rock staircases to prevent erosion and create more sustainable approaches. For the most part, climbers and others who use the area—mainly ranchers—have had a longstanding copacetic relationship.

In the Homestead’s early years, a local rancher advised climbers not to disturb the grazing cattle and keep the gates closed. By honoring these wishes—and even repairing and replacing gates along the access road as they wore out—climbers have maintained a friendly relationship with ranchers. In fact, the area took its name from the surrounding private ranchland believed to be homesteaded in the early 1900s. The region encompassing the Homestead has been inhabited for thousands of years by ancient Puebloans, followed by the Hohokam, Salado, and Apache people. Following the narrative of much of our land, it was then colonized by early Spanish explorers, miners, and homesteaders.

In 2014, Bank of America foreclosed on the 1,687-acre Dripping Springs Ranch, which overlapped key portions of the access road, trailhead, and the first few dozen routes of the canyon. Had the parcel been sold to a non-climber-friendly buyer, access to the entire Homestead area, including the coveted walls on BLM land, could have been lost. Fortunately, Access Fund intervened in 2015 and secured temporary ownership of these access parcels, utilizing $152,000 of short-term financing from the Access Fund Climbing Conservation Loan Program to cover initial acquisition costs, with the goal of raising an additional $73,000 for upkeep and future improvements (road, camping, trail, toilet).

Kelly Cheney warming up on Elsa (5.8), FInland Terrace, the Homestead, Arizona.

Kelly Cheney warming up on Elsa (5.8), FInland Terrace, the Homestead, Arizona.

Since then, Access Fund, Climbing Association of Southern Arizona crew leaders, and volunteers have built a parking area, campground, and new approach trail, as well as repaired the worst section of road on State Trust land. (For several years, the access road’s severely eroded condition challenged even highly experienced drivers in capable 4WD vehicles.) However, none of these improvements will last without climbers giving back. Access Fund and its partners need the community’s support to repay this loan, in order to return funds to the revolving loan program and help save other threatened areas. Thanks to grants and fundraising by local climbing organizations and gyms, so far over $95,000 has been raised. Yet, the gap and cost of additional improvements still need to be raised so Access Fund can line up a long-term climbing-friendly owner. Candidates include the BLM, a land trust, or a local climbing organization (LCO).

As Fazio-Rhicard, who wrote the definitive guidebook to Tucson’s Mount Lemmon, says, “Having lived and climbed in southern Arizona for the last 37 years, I think the Homestead is the single best sport area we have. The solitude, fabulous camping, variety of movement, and great tufa routes in the different sections of the canyon are why I keep going back.”

For more, visit accessfund.org/homestead.

Join Access Fund and Phoenix Rock Gym May 2nd for a family and community-focused gathering to support the Homestead!

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Access Fund needs your help to bring the climbing community together to enjoy this remarkable climbing destination and give back to Homestead’s conservation. 100% of event proceeds will contribute to the amount owed for the land—currently over $65,000—to keep Homestead open and accessible to climbing and recreation for years to come. Plus, Phoenix Rock Gym will match both online and event donations up to $5,000 on May 2nd!

Access Wins and Red Flags

The Access Fund (AF) has been lobbying for access since 1991. We’ve teamed up with them to present key victories and threats.

Big Wins

  • The Bears Ears lawsuit will stay in Washington, DC—an important victory which acknowledges that this case will set a nationwide precedent for all national monuments. Judge Chutkan cited AF’s advocacy efforts on behalf of the American climbing community as a reason she decided that the case is of national importance.
  • The midterm elections were largely positive for climbing, and a new, bipartisan Congress will have more checks and balances to help prevent important conservation laws from being diminished—improving AF’s ability to protect climbing areas on public lands.

Red Flags

  • AF has appealed an addition to the Inyo National Forest Plan that could prohibit new bolts in Wilderness Areas. This restrictive language could have national ramifications and set a bad precedent regarding fixed-anchor management.
  • Crag conservation is at a tipping point, and we’re at risk of closures and restrictions if we don’t get real about impacts and help AF bring major resources to bear—join AF today and support your LCO!