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Travel: Best Places To Climb Outdoors

There are literally thousands of places to learn to climb in the United States, from the alpine peaks of the Rocky Mountains to the thousands of small outcrops dotting the countryside or the rocky shores lining both the Atlantic and the Pacific. Indoor climbing gyms have sprung up like dandelions, allowing people with no access to real rock the opportunity to experience at least some of the facets of climbing.

But taking those skills outdoors is courting true adventure. Chances are you can find a place to learn to climb within a few hours drive of your house, but why not learn in one of the country’s best climbing destinations. Here are the top three picks for magnificent scenery, superb rock, great instruction, and most importantly, unparalleled bragging rights.

Yosemite Valley, California

This is the home of the awe-inspiring El Capitan and Half Dome, whose beauty captivated the imagination of explorer John Muir in 1868 and, over a half century later, served as an outdoor studio for the world-renowned photographer Ansel Adams. Climbers were also drawn by the valley’s magic and, as early as 1869, visited the area to attempt its inaccessible spires and shimmering rock walls

The golden age of climbing in Yosemite occurred in the late 1960s and early ‘70s. Adventurers such as Royal Robbins (founder of the eponymous brand) and Warren Harding (known for daring behavior both on and off the rock) pioneered routes up rock faces previously considered impassable. The Valley (as it’s called by locals) is still the benchmark for assessing one’s climbing ability—it is said that if you can climb there, you can climb anywhere. Climbers from around the globe spend years training and planning, hoping one day to conquer a legendary Yosemite Route.

Although Yosemite remains a venue for some of the best climbers in the country, it is also an excellent place to learn to climb. Yosemite climbing school instructors rate as some of the most proficient in the world. The rock is extremely solid. While Yosemite Valley proper is known for its steep splitter cracks, during the summer months you can climb in the cooler altitude of Tuolumne Meadows, where the gently rounded orange and white domes are not as high-angle and far less intimidating. Get in touch with Southern Yosemite Mountain Guides or Yosemite Mountaineering School.

And while you’re there, don’t miss Camp 4, the iconic climber’s camp. Watch life-long rock rats as they solve problems on nearby boulders, traverse big-face routes, or swill cold beer and talk about their exploits and future plans.

The Shawangunks, New York

Only an hour and a half from New York City, the Shawangunk Mountains are a virtual shelter from the urban storm. Although this is one of the oldest established rock climbing areas in the country, the scene remains low-key and relaxed (although weekends can be fairly crazy). The majority of the cliffs that make up “the Gunks” are part of the Mohonk Trust Preserve, which encompasses more than 5,000 acres of open space. The ridge is a conglomerate rock formation that characteristically sports horizontal sedimentary bands. The pale gray rock is coarse in nature, and numerous pebbles and crystals make for interesting and enjoyable routes. The Gunks are renowned for their overhanging climbs, which may appear impassable at first, but closer scrutiny reveals abundant hand and foot holds. An old carriage trail skirts the bottom of the cliffs, making access to the climbs a pleasurable experience in its own right.

While the climbing season at the Shawangunks stretches from early spring to late fall, the best time to visit is autumn. The view from the cliffs across miles of glorious red, yellow, and orange leaves is spectacular enough to tempt even the most acrophobic person to climb. The nearby village of New Paltz has great coffee shops and a decent bakery; pick up climbing gear at Rock & Snow, one of the countries oldest outdoor specialty shops.

The Shawangunks history is as colorful as the brilliant foliage. The historic struggle between the Appies (straight-laced, conservative members of the Appalachian Climbing Club) and the Vulgarians (unaffiliated, irreverent longhairs with little patience for rules and social mores) made the late-1950s and ’60s in the Gunks a time of epic parties, philosophical skirmishes, and guerilla warfare pranks. While the Gunks still have plenty to offer climbers of all ability, the area’s strength is in the abundance of climbs of easy to moderately difficulty. Beginners and intermediates will discover more accessible climbing here than any other area in the country. Gunks.com lists authorized guides and schools for the area.

Eldorado Canyon, Colorado

Eldorado State Park is a multi-faceted gem tucked into the foothills of the Rocky Mountains just a few miles south of Boulder, Colorado. The intricately featured sandstone leads a person to believe that when the All Mighty created the world, he had climbers in mind. Tower Tow, the highest peak in Eldorado Canyon, soars a majestic 800 feet above South Boulder Creek. While the steep walls may at first intimidate, closer inspection reveals thousands of cracks, ledges, and ramps adorning the rock’s rust-colored face.

If you are going to climb in Eldorado Canyon, treat yourself to a quick history lesson before you arrive. It was first discovered by climbers in the mid-1930s and has continued to be referred to by locals as “the center of the climbing universe.” Eldorado climbers have made a reputation for themselves as being somewhat eccentric, even controversial characters whose vision shredded the envelope of “what is possible.” Almost every climb has a story behind it—and most involving two or three versions. Adjacent to Eldorado Canyon are the aptly named Flatirons, which also provide beautiful, manageable climbs. One’s so easy that there is a local contest for a speed ascent, naked and on roller-skates.

One advantage of climbing in Eldo (as the locals call it) is the close proximity to Boulder. You can climb all day, and then hang out on Pearl Street mall with college students, tourists, and world-class athletes. Click here for more information.


Photo: #Omniten member, Dave Sandel.

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