The 10 Best Climbing Spots in the USA
There was a time, not very long ago, when rock climbing was a niche activity, an extreme sport practiced by only the wildest and most daring among us. As the proliferation of rock gyms in cities across the United States demonstrates, that’s not really the case anymore. While rock climbing is still very much an extreme sport, it’s no longer one that only exists on the fringes of civilization.
Rock climbing in America has, for better or worse, gone mainstream. You could say that’s a bit of a double-edged sword. With more and more people interested in rock climbing, there are more established climbing routes than at any other time in human history. It’s also harder than ever to get off the beaten path and away from the crowds.
The good news is, the diversity of terrain in the US offers some of the best rock climbing in the world. From the ancient gorges of Appalachia to the rugged deserts of the Southwest, these are the 10 best climbing spots in America.
1. Yosemite, California
Yosemite National Park is essentially the birthplace of modern rock climbing, and visiting this iconic park is a pilgrimage of sorts for climbing enthusiasts. The sprawling Yosemite Valley, with its dramatic granite walls, has been alluring to generations of climbers.
You’ll find just about every type of climbing imaginable at Yosemite. The Northwest Buttress of Tenaya’s Peak offers some of the easier trad climbing, and the sustained crack climbs in Merced River Canyon are the stuff of legends. And then, of course, there is the big wall climbs on Half Dome and El Captian.
Yosemite supports a wide range of climbing styles, ranging from single to multi-pitch trad and sport climbing. It’s not an easy place to climb, and it’s best to have at least some trad climbing experience. Difficulty ratings tend to be in the 5.6 to 5.14 range.
Camp 4 is the classic base camp for climbers in Yosemite. It’s so popular in summer that there’s a lottery for campsites in summertime, but the camp is strictly first come, first served during the off-season. There are few things more inspiring than waking up at this legendary camp and getting ready for your day on the rocks.
2. New River Gorge, West Virginia
West Virginia’s New River Gorge is one of a select few sites that are in close contention for “best climbing in the East” status. The scenery is simply spectacular, which makes the New River a popular destination not only for climbing but also for hiking, camping, fishing, and whitewater rafting.
What makes the gorge special is its Nuttall sandstone, which is basically the perfect rock for climbing. It’s beautifully textured, nearly as hard as granite, and unlike most types of sandstone, it can be climbed even when wet.
The New River Gorge has 60 miles of sandstone cliff walls, where more than 3,000 climbing routes have been established. Routes range from 30 to 120 feet, and you could quite literally spend a lifetime exploring all the possibilities this place has to offer.
Admittedly, the New River Gorge can be a tough place for beginners. Small handholds and bolts spaced far apart are the norm. Some of the easiest climbs are in the Sandstonia and Junkyard areas, where there are routes in the 5.6. to 5.7 range. Throughout most of the gorge, though, ratings tend to start around 5.9.
3. Red Rock, Nevada
Climbers of all skill levels will find challenges and rewards in Red Rock Canyon. There are around 2,900 established climbing routes here, ranging from beginner-friendly 30-foot single pitch sport climbs to epic multi-pitch trad routes. There’s even some great bouldering here, especially at Kraft Mountain.
Red Rock is best known for the beautiful red sandstone that gives the canyon its name, but there’s a great variety of rock here, including limestone and granite. Avoid climbing the sandstone after rain. It can be extremely crumbly in wet conditions.
The majority of the routes in Red Rock Canyon fall into the moderate difficulty range. Calico Hills, with their tri-colored rock strata, is prime territory for intermediate climbers with lots of routes around 5.7 and an abundance of fun slabs, cracks, and overhangs to navigate.
Red Rock Canyon is just minutes from Las Vegas, which makes it an easily accessible climbing destination that feels a lot more off-the-grid than it really is. You can climb here year-round, but the summer heat is pretty brutal, so most climbers stick to the months between September and May.
4. Red River Gorge, Kentucky
The Red River Gorge in Kentucky is arguably the closest contender with West Virginia’s New River Gorge when it comes to great climbing in the East. You could go either way depending on what kind of experience you’re looking for. Honestly, they’re only three hours apart, so you could conceivably climb both gorges on the same trip.
Kentucky’s Red River Gorge certainly has an advantage when it comes to beginner-friendliness. There are quite a few routes rated 5.4 to 5.7, but also some extremely difficult climbs all the way up to 5.14. There are nearly 3,000 routes here in total, and the gorge is mostly known for its single-pitch sport routes with an abundance of handholds.
The defining feature of the Red River Gorge is its multicolored Corbin Sandstone, with cliff faces so near-vertical that they could have been planned out by an architectural engineer. Many of the cliff faces also have a significant enough overhang that the rock stays dry even in rainy weather.
Visit the Red River Gorge in autumn to take advantage of mild, mostly dry weather and spectacular fall foliage. Stop in at the famous Miguel’s Pizza – a combination pizza place, gear store, and campground – to gear up and chat with other climbers.
5. Joshua Tree, California
California is home to a lot of iconic climbing spots, but few are more unique and otherworldly than Joshua Tree National Park. Some of the park’s namesake trees are more than 500 years old, and they live alongside almost cartoonishly giant cacti and rock faces that resemble stacks of house-sized blocks.
It’s a heck of a place to climb. It’s hard to say just how many routes have been established in Joshua Tree, but some estimates put the number over 10,000. Most are fairly short trad climbs that are beginner-friendly, but there are also some extreme challenges here.
The route known as Clean and Jerk has some textbook face climbing as well as an intimidating crack, with a 5.10c rating. The intense overhang of Big Moe on North Face of Echo Cove is rated 5.11a, and has a reputation for denying even the most advanced climbers.
With its desert climate, rain seldom spoils the climbing at Joshua Tree. Spring and fall offer prime climbing conditions, and there are several National Park campgrounds close enough to the rocks that you don’t have to drive around too much. Book a site well in advance; they tend to fill up.
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6. Wild Iris, Wyoming
Perched at an altitude of 9,000 feet, Wild Iris is a smooth crag of beautifully pocketed limestone on Limestone Mountain. It’s arguably the closest thing we have in the US to iconic French crags like Buoux or Verdon Gorge.
More than 300 bolted sport climbs have been established on Wild Iris. Most have ratings in the range of 5.6 to 5.14. Aspen Glade is where advanced climbers can find some of the most challenging routes, while the Main Wall is best for beginners. Intermediate climbers will find plenty to explore in the O.K. Corral area.
One of the great rewards of climbing at Wild Iris is the scenery. You can get expansive views from atop the crags, especially toward the end of summer when the fluttering canopy of aspen trees below begins to turn golden.
Wild Iris is very much a summer crag thanks to Wyoming’s relatively short climbing season. Snow often lingers into June, but climbing conditions are usually warm and welcoming through September. Summer weather can actually get deceptively hot on the south-facing rocks of Wild Iris.
7. Shawangunks, New York
Known affectionately as “the Gunks,” the Shawangunk Mountains of New York stretch from the New Jersey state line to the southern edge of the Catskills. At the center of the Shawangunks is a stretch of rock face that extends for several miles and includes over 1,000 established climbing routes.
There are one to three-pitch climbs here for pretty much every skill level. Most routes are rated from 5.3 to 5.13, so there’s a pretty broad range of difficulty here. The Shawangunks have impeccable rock quality and an abundance of horizontal cracks that will aid beginners.
The most popular and well known route is known as High Exposure. It’s a 250-foot trad climb with a 5.6 rating and an intimidating overhang midway up the cliff that’s often touted as one of the best 5.6 climbs in the world.
Being about 85 miles from New York City, the Gunks are probably the most popular climbing area on the East Coast. They’re also one of the most well-established, having been first climbed by Fritz Wiessner in the 1930s. Try to visit on a weekday to beat the crowds.
8. Smith Rock, Oregon
Smith Rock is a legendary climbing area and one that could very well claim to be the birthplace of American sport climbing. In the early 90s, some of the routes here were the most challenging that had ever been climbed in the US.
Located just a few miles from the city of Bend, Oregon, Smith Rock’s most recognizable feature is the Dihedrals. This accordion-like series of steep volcanic rock fins is a magnet for advanced climbers. It lends itself to extremely technical climbing, with many routes way up in the 5.12 to 5.14 difficulty range. In many cases, the first bolts are 15 to 20 feet off the ground.
Still, there are also options here for fewer hardcore climbers. Smith Rock has more than 2,000 established routes in total, including many on the Morning Glory Wall and the Llama Wall that are accessible to beginners.
Smith Rock State Park provides camping within walking distance of the rock. The area can get a bit overcrowded with hikers and climbers alike on prime summer days, but this is one place where braving the crowds is more than worth it.
9. Indian Creek, Utah
Just 50 miles from Moab and a 30-minute drive from Canyonlands National Park, the Indian Creek climbing area is at the heart of Utah’s most spectacular scenery. As beautiful as it is, be aware that the Wingate sandstone that forms the canyons is about as solid as chalk, and face climbing here can be a dangerous game.
Fortunately, Indian Creek isn’t really about face climbing. This is crack climbing territory, and Indian Creek is famous for its picture-perfect splinter cracks. The sandstone in these canyons forms long, parallel-sided, amazingly consistent vertical cracks, offering what just might be the best crack climbing in America.
Most routes are trad climbs over 30 meters (or 100 feet). The upshot of that is you can never have too many cams, or too long of a rope. It’s common practice for climbers here to pair up and share gear. There’s a great teamwork-focused climbing culture around Indian Creek.
Indian Creek is on Bureau of Land Management land, which means dispersed backcountry camping in undeveloped areas is allowed. This is a great place to pitch a tent after a long climbing day and enjoy the incredible night sky with almost no light pollution.
10. Devil’s Lake, Wisconsin
One can’t help but sympathize with Midwestern rock climbers. Pretty much all of the most famous rock climbing destinations in the US are in the East or the West, thousands of miles away. But there are some great, overlooked rock climbing areas in the heartland, and Devil’s Lake is one of them.
The cliffs overlooking Devil’s Lake in Wisconsin are part of a region known as the Baraboo Hills, typified by quartzite bluffs and unique formations of stacked and balanced rocks. They’re very welcoming to beginners and intermediate climbers, with numerous routes rated 5.5 and under, as well as much more challenging climbs up to 5.11.
There are well over 1,500 climbing routes at Devil’s Lake. It’s pretty much all trad climbing here. The tops of the bluffs are mostly accessible by hiking or scrambling up the backside, which makes it easy to set top rope anchors. Consequently, no bolts have been put in place, and sport climbing is not an option. It’s actually quite refreshing to climb in a place unmarred by bolts.
Devil’s Lake is also known for great bouldering opportunities, with more than 1,000 established problems. The rocks are located within Devil’s Lake State Park, which offers camping and is a convenient day-trip from just about any Midwestern city.
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