“UNBELIEVABLE!” That’s how climbers always describe their home crags. You never hear them say, “Well, it’s a pile, but it’s here and it’s ours and we’re making the most of it.” People, it seems, always believe their children are the smartest.
So it was with a 10-foot stick of trepidation that this magazine called up local cragsters across North America, and asked for their input in our quest for the “Top 10.”
“Unbelievable rock quality,” said one.
“No crowds—it’s unbelievable,” replied another.
And, “Unbelievable potential for new routes,” was voiced again and again.
Local opinions aside, after much consternation and dart throwing, we finally settled on places that had great and varied climbing in abundance, plus a cool local scene, low crowds, diverse recreational opportunities for rest days, great eats and brews, and reasonable prices. In other words, places where you’d actually want to live.
We tried to surprise you, too, leaving out the obvious, the rote, and the over hyped, while including off-the-beaten-path locales. Our beloved Boulder and Salt Lake City, for instance, didn’t make the cut, while little ole Boise, Idaho, did. Now that’s unbelievable!
1) Chattanooga, Tennessee
CHATTANOOGA IS A kick-ass rockin’ place to be a climber. While the local community is split between radsters and tradsters, everyone can find common ground when there’s bullet-hard sandstone, plenty of new-route potential, and friendly and inviting folk everywhere. Go to Foster Falls, the Obed or Clear Creek for their steep sandstone sport routes. The Tennessee Wall has over 100 single-pitch, well-protected trad lines—don’t leave without climbing In Pursuit of Excellence
(5.9). Little Rock City’s bouldering has it all, but before you climb there, register online at www.seclimbers.org
. Please respect the rules; local access depends on it.
Season: The weather in Chattanooga is great for 10 months. July and August are cookers.
Camping: The free camping at the T-wall is marred only by frequent car break-ins. Remove or hide valuables. At the Obed, consider camping at Del and Marti Scruggs’ private residence. They charge $5/night, and local climbers say it’s worth every penny.
Rest Days: Mountain biking and kayaking galore.
While You’re in the Neighborhood: Horsepens 40, a concentration of sandstone boulders, is a little over an hour away. Rock Town, outside of Atlanta, Georgia, has some of the best bouldering in the Southeast.
Gyms/Gear/Guides: The Tennessee Boulder Authority, (423) 822-6800 is a gym in downtown Chattanooga where all the locals crush. Rock Creek Outfitters, (423) 485-8775, has tons of gear.
Eats/Drinks/Nightlife: Greenlife Groceries, next to Rock Creek Outfitters, carries organic foods. There’s good BBQ at the Sticky Fingers Restaurants. Hair of the Dog, on Market Street, is the classic place to get drinks. Lamar’s has the stiffest drinks you’ve ever had and a huge music hall.
Cost of Living: Inexpensive. Gas is reasonably priced, and you can find rent as cheap at $395/month for a single bedroom.
2) Boise, Idaho
IDAHO DISHES UP more than potatoes and plywood. The capital city of Boise (population 200,000+) has within its grasp a sundry of varied, excellent climbing. There are 475 sport and trad routes at the Black Cliffs, a 70-foot columnar basalt wall that’s accessible by riverside bike path. Table Rock offers sport climbs, moderate toproping, bouldering up to V9 and eye-popping views of the Owyhee Mountains. Mores Mountain is an alpine granite arena with bolted and gear-protected routes from 5.9 to 5.13. Extensive basalt bouldering lies along the roaring Snake River at Swan Falls.
Season: Spring and fall are best. Visit Black Cliffs in the winter. When it’s hot, hoof it to Mores Mountain, the Sawtooths or Riggins.
Camping: Plenty of camping on the BLM or Forest Service land surrounding most climbing areas.
Rest Days: Idaho has more hot springs than any other state. Two of the more accessible springs, the Kirkham Hot Spring and Pine Flat Hot Spring, have campgrounds and are located along the South Fork of the Payette on Highway 21.
While You’re in the Neighborhood: City of Rocks [See “Lost City,” R&I No. 160] is a world-class destination three hours southeast of Boise on I-84. The Sawtooths are two hours northeast and there you’ll find Elephant’s Perch and over 30 routes as easy as 5.9, and up to 12 pitches long. There are also good alpine ice couloirs that top out on jagged granite ridges. Visit the Valley of the Giants for alpine bouldering. For steep limestone, Hell’s Canyon, outside of Cambridge, is said to have as many sport climbs as Smith Rock. Riggins has over 100 steep sport routes up to 5.14.
Gyms/Gear/Guides: You’ll find six climbing gyms in Boise. The best are Boise Peak Fitness and the Nicros wall at Boise State. Buy gear at Benchmark, (208) 338-1700 and Idaho Mountain Touring, (208) 336-3854, and the REI. Sawtooth Mountain Guides are based in the small hang of Stanley just to the north.
Eats/Drinks/Nightlife: Parilla Grill, Guido’s New York Style Pizza, Cobby’s Sandwich Shop, West Side Drive In, and Pollo Rey Mexican Rotisserie. Visit Highlands Hollow for strong drinks, especially the “Hippy Shake.” Find clubs and bars on Main Street and Sixth.
Cost of Living: Reasonable, with rooms as low as $300/month.
3) Ogden, Utah
THE CITY OF OGDEN has made it clear that it wants climbers. The town holds a mountaineering art and literature festival every spring and a climbing film festival every fall. It also has advanced plans to establish a 12-route ice-climbing tower downtown. Jeff and Greg Lowe have been at the heart of the Ogden climbing community for decades, and today, Ogden is poised for another leap forward, as many limestone crags await development, and the town is practically begging climbers to come.
The School Room Cliffs host a concentration of trad and sport. Park at the north end of 22nd Street and book it uphill for 45 minutes. Try Tree Crack, a splitter 5.11 finger crack. The 9th Street Crag has cushy roadside sport climbing. Modern-style sport routes (as hard as 5.14d) have recently been developed at Causey (see Super Guide, Rock and Ice No. 150) on blue limestone that rivals that of Europe. There are Teton-esque multi-pitch adventures at the nearby Willard Spires. In town, visit the boulderfield with 20 boulders and problems ranging from V0 to V11. Waterfall Canyon has a handful of three-pitch moderate ice climbs.
Season: Spring and fall. Summers are perfect in the mountains. In winter, climb ice or take your chances at the west-facing School Room.
Camping: Difficult to find in Ogden, but the mayor has commissioned the “High Adventure” committee to establish free or low-cost camping in town. There is $16/night camping at Willard Bay State Park.
Rest Days: Cruise town, soak in the Great Salt Lake, or ride the 22 miles of single tracks that circumnavigate town.
While You’re in the Neighborhood: The great crags of Salt Lake City are only an hour to the south.
Gyms/Gear/Guides: Summit Shop on Washington Boulevard, and Canyon Sports, (801) 621-4662, in Riverdale sell climbing equipment. Ogden Climbing Parks is in the process of becoming a guiding powerhouse and plans to have up to 12 AMGA-certified rock guides. There are EntrePrise walls at Weber State University and the Salomon Center, the largest indoor wall in Utah. In November the Salt Lake City gym The Front will open a 15,000-square-foot climbing facility near downtown Ogden.
Eats/Drinks/Nightlife: El Matador offers large, satisfying Mexican platters for under $10. Piccolo’s Pizza and Pasta also has hearty helpings at a low cost. The Oaks Eatery on Ogden Canyon Road and the Rooster’s Brewery Company on 25th Street have beer.
COST OF LIVING: Gas is relatively cheap, and rooms can be rented for as little as $300/month.
4) South Lake Tahoe, California
IN HIS GUIDEBOOK to the Tahoe area, Chris McNamara writes, “We all love Yosemite, but the fact is it’s often a logistical hassle. Not so in Tahoe. No advanced planning, no reservations, no fees, and no ranger presence. You camp for free on most Forest Service land, and there is always a supermarket, restaurant or latté nearby.”
Amen. Lover’s Leap, 20 minutes from South Lake Tahoe, offers an extraordinary concentration of trad moderates, especially the 300-foot Harvey’s Wallbangers (5.6), and the four-pitch Traveler’s Buttress (5.9). Thirty minutes from town is Luther Rock, a sport crag with dozens of 5.10s and 5.11s. There are stellar boulders scattered around town at Echo View, Bliss State Park and The Secret. [See Super Guide Rock and Ice No. 147]
Season: Visit Lover’s Leap May/June, and September/October. In the summer, head to Eagle Lake for over 60 cracks at 5.8 or below. In colder months, climb at the recently developed Woodford Canyon or Sugarloaf.
Camping: Lover’s Leap campground is free and has running water. More important, there’s a nearby bar. Rules? Four tents max per site, and a 14-day limit.
Rest Days: Head to the Lake: Sit on the beach, kayak or water-ski. Ride the renowned single-track trails Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride and the Flume Trail. Sierra and Cycle Works rents bikes for $7/hr.
While You’re in the Neighborhood: There’s good basalt sport climbing by North Lake Tahoe at the Big Chief in the Truckee River Canyon. Visit Donner Pass for awesome granite sport and trad climbing.
Gyms/Gear/Guides: There are AMGA-certified guides at Lover’s Leap Guides. Get gear at Sports Ltd., (530) 544-2284 and (530) 542-4000, and Tahoe Sports Exchange (530) 582-4510, or in Truckee at the Granite Chief (530) 587-2809. Pump plastic at the Gad Gym on Eloise Avenue.
Eats/Drinks/Nightlife: The Strawberry Lodge is five minutes’ walk from the campground and serves burgers ($9). The Divided Sky on Highway 50 sports drinks and live music.
Cost of Living: California has the nation’s priciest gas. The cheapest one-room rental is about $500/month.h Traveler’s Buttress (5.9). Thirty minutes from town is Luther Rock, a sport crag with dozens of 5.10s and 5.11s. There are stellar boulders scattered around town at Echo View, Bliss State Park and The Secret. [See Super Guide Rock and Ice No. 147]
5) Leavenworth, Washington
“WHATEVER BOULDER, Colorado, is,” says John Race, owner of the Northwest Mountain School, “Leavenworth is the opposite.”
The climbing community in Leavenworth is diffuse, but highly motivated. Still, the town’s self-styled “Bavarian Village” can feel like Disneyland. The lederhosen and beer steins arrived on Main Street in the 1960s as a last-ditch effort to save the economically depressed town from obscurity. It worked, as now more than a million tourists visit Leavenworth every year.
Icicle Creek Canyon, the primary destination, is covered with granite formations. Go cragging at the 8-Mile Campground or hike an hour to the Snow Creek Wall and do Orbit (III 5.9) and Outer Space (III 5.9). Visit Nason Ridge for well-bolted overhangs, and Castle Rock in Tumwater Canyon, for two tiers of multi-pitch trad routes from 5.6 to 5.11+. Nearby, Mount Stewart’ s North Ridge (IV 5.9) is one of Steck and Roper’s 50 classics. Bouldering is spread across town at Mountain Home Road and the Mad Meadows.
Season: May is perfect. Climb in the mountains or at Nason Ridge in July and August. Autumns are nice, if short, giving way to a four-month winter beginning in November.
Camping: Most climbers join the RV crowd at 8-Mile Campground ($15/night) on Icicle Creek Road. The Tumwater Campground ($16/night) is located on Route 2.
Rest Days: Go rafting and kayaking on the Wenatchee River, or fish for salmon in Icicle Creek. Check out the faux Bavarian village downtown.
While You’re in the Neighborhood: There’s basalt sport climbing at Frenchman Coulee in Vantage, 80 minutes east. To the west is Index, a 500-foot granite face laced with steep routes. If you can get a permit, do the West Ridge (5.7) of Prusik Peak in the Enchantment Range. Three quarters of the permits are acquired through reservations while the rest are doled out at the ranger station during daily lotteries.
Gyms/Gear/Guides: The Northwest Mountain School, (509) 548-5823. Visit Leavenworth Mountain Sports, (509) 548-7864, for gear.
Eats/Drinks/Nightlife: O’Grady’s Pantry, located three miles down Icicle Creek Road, for affordable breakfast and lunch. Go to Gustav’s restaurant for bratwurst and beers like the Warsteiner Dunkel. Uncle Uli’s Pub, however, is just for drinking.
Cost of Living: A one-bedroom apartment goes for $500/month.
6) New Paltz, New York
NEW PALTZ IS A FUNKY and eclectic college town that is as much hippie as it is Hell’s Angels. Most famous for being home to the Shawangunks—the historic trad area with the most exposed 5.5s in the world—New Paltz draws a vibrant and diverse community of pink Tricam-wielding climbers who own Mondo bouldering pads.
There’s no better place to start than the 200-foot quartzite outcrops known as the Gunks. Don’t be afraid to hop on easier climbs than you are used to, especially: Gelsa (5.4), Disneyland (5.6), Birdland (5.8+), High Exposure (5.6), Son of Easy O (5.8) and Modern Times (5.9). After getting pumped and scared stupid on these “moderates,” join the masses bouldering on Carriage Road.
Season: September and October are best. Summer is muggy, but popular.
Camping: The New York State DEC Multi-Use area on Route 44/55 is crowded, loud and free. No sleeping in your vehicle. Camp Slime, designated strictly for climbers and also free, is a five-minute walk from the cliffs.
Rest Day: Hop on the train in Poughkeepsie and go to New York City.
While You’re in the Neighborhood: In the winter, there’s great ice climbing just 30 minutes north in the rugged Catskills. The Adirondacks are three hours north, and the crags of Western Mass are less than two hours away.
Gyms/Gear/Guides: Rock and Snow, (845) 255-1311, owned and operated by the long-time Gunkie Rich Gottlieb, is on Main Street. There are plenty of guide services in town, including the EMS Climbing School, located by the deli on the corner of Route 44/55 and Route 299.
Eats/Drinks/Nightlife: Rocco’s Pizza serves the best pie in town and the Mountain Bistro Store dishes up breakfast and deli sandwiches. The Guilded Otter has a great beer selection. Bacchus is a grotto-like restaurant/bar.
Cost of Living: Not cheap, but we looked the other way this time. It costs $10/day just to climb at the Gunks (or you can get an annual membership to the Mohonk Preserve for $50). One-bedroom apartments start around $600/month.
7) Fayetteville, West Virginia
CLIMBERS CONGREGATE at Roger’s Rocky Top Retreat, the local campground, to climb at the New River Gorge during the day and join the PBR-charged festivities at night.
Life is simple in rural Fayetteville. The locals are kind and respectful, and you should return the favor. According to local Maura Kistler, climbers in Fayetteville tend to be “low-key and low-spray. When you live in Appalachia, nobody is too cool for school.”
The New River Gorge offers 60 miles of bullet sandstone with more than 1,600 sport and trad routes.
Season: When it’s cold, climb at the Cirque, a bowl-shaped wall that traps sun. In the summer, chase the shade, or go to the Kaymoor Wall. In the fall and spring, climb anywhere.
Camping: Roger’s Rocky Top Retreat ($5) is where it’s at, located above the Kaymoor Wall. Roger’s has easy access to climbing, pleasant tent sites, showers, coffee and WiFi.
Rest Days: Hike, mountain bike and kayak in the Gorge, or lounge around Roger’s.
While You’re in the Neighborhood: Summersville Lake is about half an hour from Fayetteville up Route 19. The super-strong will appreciate the Coliseum, while the Orange Oswald Wall offers something for everybody. Seneca Rocks has old-school three-pitch trad adventures that summit on narrow spires.
Gyms/Gear/Guides: Appalachian Mountain Guides and Climbing School, (304) 640-1755; New River Mountain Guides, (800) 732-5462; Waterstone Outdoor Sports (304) 574-2425.
Eats/Drinks/Nightlife: Start the day at Cathedral Café on South Court Street. For dinner, slice into Pies & Pints. Rowdy nights at Roger’s provide plenty of inebriated entertainment. However, you can have a real experience at Charlie’s Pub, a dive bar serving two-dollar highballs that Kistler says will “knock your teeth out.”
Cost of Living: A two-bedroom house or apartment rents for $500/month.
8)Vancouver, British Columbia
THE STARS AND STRIPES do not encompass Vancouver, but many Americans include this granite-endowed region in their circuits. The Yosemite crowd flocks to Squamish when the Valley is too hot, while boulderers dig the dank blocks nestled in the shadow of the Chief.
The climbing community is “crazy active,” according to one Vancouver resident. Friendly and super-motivated locals keep the routes in great condition. The Banff Film Festival has a regular stop in Vancouver, and the city also hosts its own (squamishfilm.com). Numerous climbing gyms and recreational mountaineering clubs based in Vancouver make it easy to be introduced to climbing.
After work, Vancouver locals get a pump on the dozen or so sport climbs at Lynn Canyon Park, in North Vancouver. There is lots of potential for new routes here. You’ll find bouldering in Cyprus Provincial Park, off Vancouver’s Cyprus Bowl. Squamish, of course, is the region’s crown jewel. The 2,000-foot Chief has hundreds of glorious cracks and engaging face routes. The bouldering at the base of the Chief is equally celebrated.
Season: March and April have good temps, but are rainy. Summer is prime. Because of Vancouver’s maritime climate, July and August are the driest months.
Camping: Drive into the mountains and camp on Crown land, Canada’s equivalent to BLM land. Most climbers stay in Squamish. Situated beneath the famous Chief wall and stellar bouldering, the Grand Wall campsite ($9/night) is a classic haunt.
Rest Days: Go to the Vancouver Museum, theater or opera. There are rope swings above Cat and Brohm Lake in Squamish.
While You’re in the Neighborhood: Horn Lake on Vancouver Island has great limestone and basalt sport climbing. You can climb these steep, perennially dry lines when every other crag is getting rained on.
Gyms/Gear/Guides: Cliffhanger Vancouver and The Edge Climbing Centre are two great gyms. Buy gear at Valhalla Pure Outfitters, (604) 892-9092, in Squamish. Guides can be hired from Canada West Mountain School, (604) 878-7007, or Squamish Rock Guides, (604) 815-1750.
Eats/Drinks/Nightlife: The Hurricane Grill serves entrees for under $10 and always has a hockey game on TV. The Brew Pub is the quintessential Squamish experience. The Vancouver nightlife triumphs over Squamish, and Grandville Street is the place to cruise after hours.
Cost of Living: Expensive. In Vancouver you’ll shell out $1,000/month for a one-bedroom apartment. Squamish is quaint and more affordable, but many residents suspect that the large-scale development surrounding the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics will change that.
9) Flagstaff, Arizona
NAMED AFTER A FLAGPOLE, this low-key but upscale city tucked in the evergreens is far from unassuming with a great mix of trad, sport and bouldering. The Pit (aka La Petit Verdon) is 15 minutes from Flagstaff on Lake Mary Road and sports about 100 clip-ups, mostly 5.11 and 5.12. Paradise Forks, in Williams, is the place for basalt cracks, dihedrals and stemming corners, mostly 5.10. Pad people go bouldering at Priest Draw, 20 minutes down Lake Mary Road, famous for its horizontal roofs and variety of limestone pulling.
Season: At 6,910 feet, you can climb here almost year-round. Fall and spring months are prime. Summers are surprisingly temperate, and winter weather is unpredictable.
Camping: The city is surrounded by national forest, so just about anywhere is game: free camping is endless. Priest Draw is a popular spot for boulderers. Paradise Forks has camping all along the road; Oak Creek has pay camping.
While You’re in the Neighborhood: Jack’s Canyon, an hour east of Flagstaff on I-40, boasts almost 300 sport climbs from 5.5 to 5.13. Check out the iconic sandstone towers in Sedona.
Rest Days: Check e-mail at the public library on West Aspen Ave., take a dip and a shower at the Flagstaff Aquaplex, or watch BMX bikers get wrecked at The Basin, a concrete skatepark located on East 6th Ave. The Grand Canyon is an hour and a half north.
Gyms/Gear/Guides: Vertical Relief climbing gym has a gear shop and runs guided trips. Babbit’s Backcountry Outfitters, (928) 774-4775, and Peace Surplus (928) 779-4521, sell gear.
Eats/Drinks/Nightlife: Beaver Street Brewery has hot plates, cold microbrews and pool. The bar in the Monte Vista Hotel, according to a local, “is sleazy, cheesy, kinda nasty, and all the climbers hang out there.”
Cost of Living: Gas and food prices are average, and you can find a one-bedroom rental for $500/month.
10) Boone, North Carolina
DANIEL BOONE lends his name to this cool college town in the Blue Ridge Mountains. The frontier spirit permeates the local climbing community, which has established and discovered some of the East Coast’s best climbing. One leg of the Triple Crown, the country’s biggest outdoor bouldering comp, is held at Hounds Ears, just outside of town. Boone is a town of friendly folk and rowdy college kids who want to live it up in the Appalachians.
Boone has gneiss bouldering, and plenty of it. The Blowing Rock boulders are the most popular and crowded. Try the Highway 221 circuit, which consists of six or seven roadside classic blocks. The Cap Rock Boulder is home to Ominous Roof (V9), which James Litz “accidentally” flashed in the video “Witness This.” Rope up at Ship Rock, especially Boardwalk (5.8). Other favorites include the 120-foot Linn Cove Lullaby (5.10a) and the scantily protected Gumfighter (5.11b). There is sport climbing at The Dump, also located off highway 221. Ice occasionally forms at Dalton Park, but you need to be “on-call” to catch the fleeting flows.
Season: Boulder year-round, especially spring and fall. Most climbers go multi-pitch climbing in the summers.
Camping: The Grandfather Mountain Campground charges $20/night. National Forest land near Linville Gorge offers free camping.
Rest Days: Boone’s mountain biking and kayaking is unrivaled. Keep your eyes peeled for swimming holes and rope swings.
While You’re in the Neighborhood: Linville Gorge, 45 minutes from Boone, has hundreds of trad routes. Shortoff Mountain, located at the southern end of the Gorge, is particularly popular. Stone Mountain, about two hours northeast of Boone, is home to runout multi-pitch granite climbs.
Gyms/Gear/Guides: At Footsloggers (828)262-5111, you’ll find climbing gear, an outdoor wall, and a guide service, Rock Dimensions. Misty Mountain Threadworks, manufacturing technical sewn climbing gear since 1984, calls Boone home.
Eats/Drinks/Nightlife: Score cheap eats at Black Cat’s Burritos, next to Footsloggers. The Mellow Mushroom is a funky pizzeria that cranks out pies like the “Kosmic Karma” and the “Magic Mystery Tour.” The Boone Saloon was the place to get beers after climbing, but it recently caught fire. It’s expected to be up and running again this summer.
Cost of Living: Inexpensive. Monthly rent for one-bedroom apartments starts at $350.