Few outdoor pursuits are so popular these days than rock climbing. High-profile films such as Free Solo and The Dawn Wall, social-media documentation of gnarly pitches and problems, the proliferation of climbing gyms, the whole vanlife culture: Climbing’s surely never enjoyed a higher profile than it does right now. And it encompasses so much something-for-everybody variety, from bouldering to speed climbing to big-wall specialization.
While many modern climbers spend most or all of their time gripping plastic, nothing compares to the experience of scrabbling up natural rock in the great outdoors. What follows are 10 of the very best rock-climbing destinations in the U.S.
A climbing destination of worldwide renown, “the Red,” as devotees know it, marks a gorgeous chasm on the Cumberland Plateau—one of the East’s standout canyons. Famed for its sandstone cliffs and arches, the Red River Gorge has thousands of routes drawing rock-climbers of all abilities to Muir Valley and a host of other hotspots, mainly in fall and spring. It’s best known as a single-pitch sport-climbing destination, but there are top-notch trad options as well, not least on the Long Wall in the gorge’s northern section. Many crags are directly owned by the Red River Gorge Climbers Coalition (RRGCC), which also puts on the popular annual Rocktoberfest event. The toughest challenge in the Red is likely the 5.14+-rated Golden Ticket.
Joshua Tree’s landscapes, strung between the Mojave and Sonoran (Colorado) deserts, are famously otherworldly—worth the price of admission alone, not least for the namesake giant yuccas. But those Joshua-tree forests come framed by astounding rock formations—boulder gardens, wacky buttes, weathered mini-domes—that make this Southern California park another flat-out legendary climbing and bouldering magnet. Trad face and crack climbing predominates among the better than 8,000 routes, which include such classics as Hot Rocks, Sail Away, Double Cross, Bird of Fire, and Imaginary Voyage, but there are few notable sport climbs, including one of the toughest in the area: The New Deal (5.14a). The camping’s astoundingly beautiful and puts world-class crags just steps away, but it’s also mighty competitive. Winter’s prime time here in the desert, which gets blistering in summer.
The otherworldly volcanic monolith called Devils Tower presents one of North America’s most arresting topographic spectacles, looming in the Bear Lodge Mountains of northeastern Wyoming as a massive, nearly 900-foot pillar of fluted rock. Multiple Plains Indian stories ascribe the grooves in the Devils Tower to the raking of a giant bear’s claws. The sheer walls and those tremendous grooves translate to highly esteemed trad crack climbing. The vast majority of routes, which range from 5.7 to 5.13, are multi-pitch, and only a few bolted face climbs exist. The most popular climb is the second-oldest route, the Durrance, rated at 5.6 but widely regarded as tougher than that; among the hardest options are Brokedown Palace (5.12a) and 411 Southwest (5.12b). Be sure to abide by the voluntary June seasonal climbing closure, a tradition followed out of respect to the regional American Indian cultures for whom this igneous intrusion is deeply sacred.
Yosemite, of course, is on the shortest of shortlists when it comes to the world’s most famous rock-climbing destinations, and certainly ground zero for big-wall craft. Here’s a place where elite climbers come to hone their skills, and where everyday dirtbags can make the pilgrimages of a lifetime. There’s quality climbing throughout the park, but of course Yosemite Valley, with its giant, impossibly beautiful granite faces, is the centerpiece: Church Bowl, Reed’s Pinnacle, Arch Rock—and, of course, the iconic walls of Half Dome and El Capitan. El Cap’s the most famous big wall of all, with insane routes such as The Nose (5.13+), the Salathé Wall (5.13b), and the Dawn Wall (5.14d), one of the hardest climbs in the world.
Set at the margin of the Colorado Plateau, Zion offers some of the most extraordinary scenery in the country—and some of the richest rock climbing. Gorgeous sandstone pitches await you here, from such standard (and awesome) routes as Spaceshot and Touchstone to the tricky Namaste (5.11d) and Moonlight Buttress (5.13c). Given summer’s scorch, spring and fall are the most popular windows for climbing in Zion.
Less celebrated than many of the spots on this list, Acadia offers outstanding climbing in an unforgettable setting. There’s top-quality granite in abundance, and the pitches, ranging widely in difficulty, enjoy a Gulf of Maine backdrop. Unique sea-cliff climbing is available at spots such as Great Head and the well-known Otter Cliff, host to dozens of routes, including the Great Chimney right above the brine. Acadia’s a somewhat more off-the-radar rock-climbing destination, so you usually don’t have to contend with crowds—all the more so when you hunt out lower-profile (but still awesome) spots such as Pleasure Dome and Eagle’s Crag.
The great tilted Appalachian ridge known as the Shawangunks—or, simply, “the Gunks”—runs some 50 miles to the north of New York City, which puts ace climbing within ready reach of the Big Apple. Mostly protected by the Mohonk Preserve, the bedrock cliffs of the Gunks have supported a rich climbing tradition since the 19th century and remain a genuine bucket-list destination for single- to three-pitch trad climbing. From the diverse, easily accessible routes of the Trapps and Near Trapps to the more farflung backcountry climbs of Millbrook and the top-roping and bouldering on offer in Minnewaska State Park, the Gunks is a wonderland—especially in the crisp weather of fall, when jaw-dropping autumn colors frame your maneuvers on those roofs and overhangs.
The ancient defile of the New River Gorge boasts extensive cliffs and walls of spectacularly hard sandstone, ranking it among the top rock-climbing destinations in the East. New River Gorge National Park and Preserve encompasses more than 1,400 established routes, most of them graded 5.9 and up; this isn’t the best place for a newbie, but mid-range and advanced sport and trad climbers will love their options. Popular spots include Endless Wall, Sunshine Buttress, Bubba City, and Ambassador Buttress. Spring to early summer and fall are the best times to climb in the New.
Weathered and eroded from volcanic tuff erupted by the mighty Crooked River Caldera, the rock formations of Smith Rock make a famous landmark of Central Oregon “high-desert” lava plateau—and a truly world-class climber’s playground. Towers, spires, hoodoos, crags, and gorge walls here harbor more than 1,500 routes, including some of the country’s best sport climbs. From the Marsupials and Dihedrals to Spiderman Buttress and the emblematic pillar called Monkey Face, Smith Rock’s routes—cast against the volcanic skyline of the Cascades to the near west—include something for climbers of all levels. Some of the toughest climbs here are Just Do It (5.14c) on Monkey Face and Assasin (5.14d) in Aggro Gully. Year-round climbing is possible at Smith Rock, which enjoys oodles of winter sunshine.
The international renown of the Bureau of Land Management-overseen Red Rock Canyon—a stone’s throw from downtown Las Vegas—has increased dramatically in recent decades, and for good reason: There’s an utterly dazzling array of climbing options here amid the cliffs and crags of Aztec Sandstone, from single-pitch sport climbs to long, multi-pitch routes and big-wall tests. The bevy of Class 5 routes run the gamut from 5 to 5.14. From Solar Slabs and Cloud Tower to the Rainbow and Buffalo walls, Red Rock lives up to its reputation, big-time. And, hey, this is none other than free-solo guru Alex Honnold’s local climbing retreat...
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