For rock climbers who are constantly seeking new adventure, the US boasts some of the most exceptional climbing regions. There are so many that it is hard to whittle it down to a single, short list. Every climber has their own idea of what makes a crag the most ideal area for climbing, factoring in things such as level of difficulty and accessibility.
Here is a comprehensive list of the top ten classic rock climbing destinations not to be missed. These areas cover the gamut as far as offering a diversity of climbs that both beginners and experts alike can enjoy. From bouldering to sport climbing to traditional climbing, the destinations within the US alone are endless! But where to begin?
Located in Oregon, Smith Rock State Park offers a great weekend getaway to local Portlanders as well as out of town visitors. Because it is located in the high desert of central Oregon, the best time to visit is during the spring and fall. Smith is known primarily for its sport climbing, but places such as the Lower and Upper Gorge have truly bomber basalt columns not to be missed!
Bend local Clara Soh says: “The birthplace of American sport climbing has something for everyone: moderate multi-pitches like ‘Wherever I May Roam’ (5.9) that will give you three hundred and sixty-degree views of the entire park to ‘Just Do It’, the first 5.14c in the US.”
Between guaranteed natural beauty and a variety of beginner to advanced terrain for climbers, what’s stopping you? (Maybe you don’t like pretty views of the Cascade Mountains, and who could blame you.)
Yosemite National Park
Yosemite National Park is a climber’s playground that people from all over the world trek to, often with big objectives in mind. However, you don’t have to be planning on climbing the NIAD (Nose in a day) to visit. If you can comfortably lead 5.8 trad, start planning a trip to this California climbing mecca and be prepared for an experience of a lifetime. Easy to moderate climbs can see more crowds, so plan on a true alpine start. The early morning coffee/oatmeal slop breakfast will be worth the breathtaking views.
There is something awe-inspiring from the first moment you enter the park for both climbers and non-climbers alike. Many people have uttered the words, “I’m not ready for Yosemite yet!” but don’t let that be the reason you don’t go. There is a lifetime of granite waiting for you to explore.
Red Rock National Conservation Area
Another area that pridefully boasts some fantastic climbing is Red Rock National Conservation Area located in Nevada. It is easily one of the top climbing destinations in the US with everything from shorter boulder problems to big wall aid and multi-pitch adventure routes. This Vegas-based climbing destination provides reliable weather, which makes it easy to find climbing in the winter, spring, and fall.
Red Rocks offers a variety of rock, and so if you’re stuck with a rainy day, you can give the sandstone a chance to dry out and climb the limestone, granite, and basalt found in other crags. Many climbs, both sport and traditional, can be easily accessed for those only out for a day or half day. Bigger routes further back in the canyons will often require longer approaches, but they’re always worth the fantastic views away from city noise and civilization.
Viewing the unique geologic features of Red Rock is worth planning a trip alone, and you can climb an endless sea of sandstone and hit up the all-you-can-eat-sushi in town shortly after. Viva Las Vegas!
Indian Creek, located about an hour southwest of Moab, Utah, is often considered “crack climbing school” for many beginner crack enthusiasts. Bring tape, bring multiple cams, and bring your game face. Consisting of mostly splitter cracks, the Creek has become a training ground for those with big goals of alpinism or getting up big routes in places such as Yosemite Valley, but also for those interested in figuring out crack climbing technique.
There is something magical about being surrounded by Utah desert scenery. Because the Creek consists of cracks of every imaginable size and difficulty, it’s a great place to learn, train, and enjoy the smooth sandstone desert splitters. Those parallel splitters can go on forever, so make sure that you steal all of your friends’ gear.
Grand Teton National Park
Grand Teton National Park, located ten miles north of Jackson, Wyoming, hosts a range of moderate to difficult rock climbs for the aspiring adventurist. There are some wonderful introductory pitches to the alpine world, as well as some real test pieces for the challenge-seeking alpinists.
“The Tetons are unique because it is the youngest range in the entire chain of the Rockies from Canada to New Mexico. The uplift creates seven thousand feet of steep rock and alpine rising straight off the plains, accessible by car, but affording views of unique prominence. It’s America’s best alpine park.” Ted Eliason, Colorado local. Eliason’s wife, Kendra, agrees: “It’s all easily accessed at trailheads; we can find an amazing exposed moderate alpine climbs, not to mention some of the best bivvy sites! It’s proven when you hear the chatter at the Climbers’ Ranch about your climb upon your return.”
It’s a great way to beat the summer heat at lower elevations, with the highest peak sitting at 13,770 feet above sea level. Experience some of the rich history of rock climbing firsthand in the Tetons on locals’ favorite classics.
There are few formations in the world such as the Devils Tower, just twenty-seven miles northwest of Sundance, Wyoming. It’s a giant, needle-shaped plug made of igneous rock that launches hundreds of meters into the sky. Unique geological formation aside, what makes it even more special is that it is divided by hundreds of parallel cracks throughout.
“I couldn’t have asked for a better place to get back on the rock in over four years than Devil’s Tower. The Durance route my father and I did in seven pitches, and while they range in difficulty, none are a throwaway. The hardest pitches being the second and third are long sustained crack/offwidths that are followed by some more cracks, face climbing, and even an awkward chimney. Every belay spot though offers big places to sit and enjoy the view. Even for a solid 5.11 climber, I couldn’t imagine not enjoying climbing that route, but that might just be the high of remembering how much I love climbing coming back to me.” — Birk O’Halloran
The high concentration of cracks offers something for crack climbers at every level, although there are very few face or sport climbs on the feature. This is primarily a traditional climbing area and ranges from stout 5.6 to spicy 5.12. The power of the tower will be sure to cast a spell over you if you’re willing.
The famed Gunks, short for “Shawangunks”, is one of North America’s premier trad climbing destinations, located just outside of New Paltz, New York. The distinctive white cliffs draw you in with a strange allure, and you can climb them anytime between April and November (not counting bonus winter days, of course).
Over the years, it’s become one of the busiest east coast crags, bustling with climbers from the NYC metropolitan area and beyond. With well over a thousand traditional gear routes, the Gunks offers an experience like no other. Its cliffs are made of quartz conglomerate and offer horizontal (rather than vertical) crack systems, airy traverses, savage roofs and hero jugs. The fact that you can pull an epic roof on either 5.6 or 5.10 is reason enough to visit, but if you make a trip during the fall season, you’re guaranteed some equally epic fall foliage with your exposure.
New River Gorge
The New River Gorge boasts some of the best single-pitch lines, both bolted and on gear. The climbing is a little bit stiff, and while it isn’t a climbing mecca for the beginner, it’s a destination that should not be missed. Crags such as Summersville Lake and Bubba City will have more moderate climbs, but will surely be packed with groups of people and dogs during weekend days.
Despite the busyness, one can still find solitude in other areas. The New is huge and spread out over 63,000 acres, you can find thousands of established rock climbs. Bulletproof sandstone that differs greatly from that of the west, you’ll find yourself falling in love with the coolest small town in West Virginia, as well. Filled with outdoor enthusiasts and mountain folk, Fayetteville couldn’t be a better central location to some of the most amazing crags at the New.
Red River Gorge
Red River Gorge offers climbers an array of many levels and styles of climbing, ranging from beginner to expert. It has both traditional and sport climbs, and both are as classic as they come. Centrally located in Kentucky, the popularity of this crag has been absolutely booming over the last several decades. Between its ferociously steep, overhanging walls and classic huecos, the bolted lines are world renowned. The traditional climbing is sometimes mixed in at the major sport crags, but can be found at crags such as Fortress Wall and Pebble Beach. The grades on most of the trad routes can be considered stiff.
For those who are unaware of the scenic natural area, a vacation to Kentucky might seem a bit odd. But the Gorge attracts thousands of visitors every year, including hikers and campers as well. The Red is one of the most classic climbing destinations east of the Mississippi, and if you visit, make sure you stop by Miguel’s for some post (or pre) sending pizza.
Located just outside of beautiful Chattanooga, Tennessee is a gem of a crag known as the Tennessee Wall. The Chattanooga region, in general, is known to accommodate many well-developed crags with primo climbing, as well as hidden gems. It’s a sandstone mecca with something for the pebble wrestlers, bolt clippers, and gear junkies.
Specifically, the T-Wall alone contains roughly six hundred classic routes, and even in the depths of winter, with southern exposure, you can climb in a t-shirt. The T-Wall has some moderate to hard sport climbing, but is primarily a traditional, single-pitch climbing area. Since 1984, everything from 5.8+ (In Sight of Power, Tennessee Wall’s very first route) and beyond began being developed and have made it a classic destination climbers, both visiting and local.
It could be the high-quality sandstone or the indescribable southern hospitality, but either way, it won’t take long for this crag to win your heart. People here are happy to share their backyard with travelers from out of town, will give you helpful beta, a soft catch, and then invite you over for lemonade and cookies.
Please keep in mind that climbing is an inherently dangerous sport and should be performed only with the proper instruction and supervision of an experienced climber. The author and publisher of this web page assume no responsibility for any injuries incurred by the reader.
The author would also like to note that when visiting these crags (or any other amazing outdoor destination) that we all share the same responsibilities. Whether a visitor or a local, keep informed of current closures and respect the request not to climb wet rock (specifically sandstone) after a storm. Research land rules and regulations, including things such as camping and bivvy permits, late exit passes, and dog regulations. Human waste issues plague many of our climbing areas, so be responsible and clean up and pack it out. High traffic areas require us to tread lightly so that the fragile environments we love to visit can last for future generations. Thank you!
This article was previously published by Seneca Creek here on August 18th, 2016.
Cover photo courtesy of Kurt Ross.