This January, Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgensen free-climbed the 3,000-foot Dawn Wall in Yosemite, perhaps the hardest big-wall climb in the world. Their accomplishment was featured everywhere from Outside to the front page of the New York Times and CNN. “Climbing has a way of inspiring people that makes them live at a higher level,” Caldwell told us after completing the historic ascent. “You end up spending your days in the most beautiful places in the world, and you get this intense relationship with nature that tends to be lifelong.”
Do you need to crawl up the most difficult rock faces in the world to find that feeling? Hardly—but you should at least get out of the gym. Good news: North America has a bounty of sweet climbing spots that offer their own contribution to the sport. Some are ideal for rookies, while others focus on specific climbing styles. Here are just five rock climbing spots in North America worth traveling for.
Sport Climbing in the Kentucky Backwoods
Red River Gorge, Kentucky
If you developed your skills inside a climbing gym, make your first destination Red River Gorge in Kentucky. It’s home to 29,000 acres of sport routes (clip into preplaced bolts and anchors along the route) that make it an ideal place to transition to real rock. Start on the Boiler Plate, a 5.8 that’s been a local warm-up favorite for three decades. Then move on to Boltergeist—a 5.10a made up of 100 feet of slab climbing. Before jumping on the wall, head to Miguel’s Pizza, a restaurant/climbing shop, to get acquainted with the local scene. Make your base camp at one of the cabins the shop offers up for rent or, if you’re on a budget, at the campground next door.
Raising the Bar with Trad in New York
The Gunks, New York
Trad (traditional) climbing adds an additional layer of challenge to sport climbing in that you must place your chocks and cam devices as you go to protect against a fall. One of the most classic spots to trad climb is the Gunks (short for Shawangunk Ridge), a long ridge of bedrock that’s part of the Appalachian range in New York’s Hudson Valley, just 85 miles from Manhattan. Climbers have been scaling these walls since the 1930s. Don’t skip High Exposure, a 5.7 classic that saw its first ascent in 1941. Part of the thrill is imagining the old pioneers Fritz Weissner and Hans Krauss out on the rock with now-antique gear. Start in New Paltz, and make a stop at local climbing shop Rock and Snow for more recommendations on where to climb. You can also hire a guide to be safely initiated into the nuances of trad. If you can, make the trip here in autumn, when the leaves are turning.
The Best Crack Climbing Is in the Southwest
Indian Creek, Utah
Crack climbing relies on outward pressure from your hands and feet (aka jamming) to get the friction needed to ascend. Tommy Caldwell says Indian Creek, in Utah’s Canyonlands National Park, is one of his favorite crack-climbing zones in the country. It showcases the archetypal Southwest high-country landscape—red rock, blue skies, quiet solitude. Most of the routes here are not suited for beginners, but a good starting point is Generic Crack, a 5.9 with a crux right at the beginning, allowing you to get the confidence boost necessary to top out on beasts like the 5.11b Scarface and, if you dare, the 5.12c Slice and Dice. The area is under the jurisdiction of the Bureau of Land Management, and camping is possible for a maximum of 14 days. Peak times here are spring and fall. It’s almost impossible to climb for any length in the summer, when the desert heat makes the rock nearly untouchable.
A Climbing Bum’s Paradise in British Columbia
Squamish, British Columbia
Squamish is home to exceptional routes for both sport and trad climbing. From the 5.6 single pitch Klahanie Crack up to the 5.12 eight-pitch University Wall, you’ll find something to match or push your skill set. The centerpiece of the valley is the 2,300-foot face of the Stawamus Chief, which you can see in full view from any vantage point within a ten-mile radius of town. There’s also bouldering, camping, and the town of Squamish (population 17,158), which has become a climbing mecca over the past few decades. Pro cimber Matt Maddaloni calls Squamish home and says that being out of the United States has certain benefits for climbers. “One is that the attitude toward climbers is welcoming. They are considered an asset as opposed to a nuisance. In places like Yosemite, you can only camp out for two weeks. In Squamish, I’ve stayed in my van for two weeks without seeing a cop or park ranger.” Just a few hundred yards from the base of the Chief is Mag’s 99, a Mexican/fried chicken restaurant that has become a popular hangout for the climbing community.
How Nonpros Can Tackle the Icon: Yosemite
The iconic park’s history is embedded into the DNA of rock climbing (see Valley Uprising). While it has some record-worthy climbs like the Dawn Wall, there are many climbs that don’t require a decade of preparation—for example, Snake Dike on Half Dome. It starts with a six-mile hike along the Muir Trail. The hardest climbing is 5.7, but you will need some trad experience to place several cams along the way. The icing on the cake is the view from the summit as you look over miles of ancient glacier-carved granite. From the top, you can just make out the Dawn Wall of El Capitan in the distance, reminding you that in climbing, there will always be another route to push yourself a little further.