Rock climbing is a pretty seasonal sport. Certainly, you can climb in the winter. However, that’s not what most of us are into. Most of the best rock climbing destinations on the west coast are located in seasonal climates. Places like Joshua Tree National park and Moab, Utah, get too hot in the summer to climb comfortably. Destinations like Colorado, Yosemite, or Squamish, BC, get pretty cold in the winter and weather gets less and less favorable.
So, how do you manage a climbing season that runs year-round? In order to pull it off, you have to migrate with the seasons. Trust me, you won’t be the only one. Every year hundreds, if not thousands of rock climbers make their way around the US on routes that have become common. Each spends time in most of the famous spots across the country.
Usually, you would spend your summers in a northerly destination such as Squamish, BC, and then head south as it gets colder. By the middle of winter, most of us are living in places like Joshua Tree National Park or some even venture as far as Potrero Chico, Mexico.
Today we’re going to go over several of the most popular and historic climbing destinations in the US in order of what time of year they are best climbed. If you’re trying to put together a mega-season of travel and climbing for the year, this guide will help you get a grip on what route might suit you best. We’re going to focus just on the western half of the US. It’s where more of the famous rock climbing destinations are located. Besides, if we were to start talking about the Gunks, and The Red, and The New, pretty soon this article would crash your computer.
Squamish, BC, Canada
Squamish may be in Canada, but you’d be hard-pressed to find a climber who doesn’t consider it one of the premier climbing destinations on the continent. Massive granite walls basically at the road’s edge are hard to beat. Especially if you’re a trad climber, a visit to Squamish is a must. Perfect for cragging, multi pitching up to over twenty pitches in a day or testing yourself on some of the hardest grades in the world. Squamish is truly unique because of the diversity of difficulty and exposure that can be found all in one place. There are low angle 5.6 routes that run halfway up the Chieftan, Squamish’s biggest buttress. You can even summit the behemoth piece of granite climbing at no harder than 5.9+ trad.
Or if you want to try some of the worlds hardest routes, Zombie Roof, 5.12d and Cobra Crack 5.14 are two of the most famous hard trad routes on the continent. Although Squamish is known for trad climbing, and rightly so, there are plenty of sport climbs that even break into the 5.14 range and it’s not all on granite. If you want to switch it up, drive twenty minutes up the Sea to Sky Highway, and you’ll find Cheakamus Canyon, a sports climber’s paradise. Many of the hard routes have perma-draws and camping is free.
Squamish gets its best weather between late May and September. Classically, it’s a very rainy place to climb, even in the summer. However, recent years have seen more and more sun through the climbing season.
The Bugaboos, BC, Canada
So, I know, it’s weird that we’re starting off our list of US climbing destinations with two places in Canada. But believe me, these need to be on the list. Every year some of the world’s best, along with many young and aspiring alpine climbers come out to the Bugaboos. Walls of fantastical granite shoot out of the glaciers of the Purcell mountains.
Climbers from around the world come to test themselves against classics like the Becky-Chouinard route on South Howser Spire or the West Ridge route on Pigeon Spire. The rock quality is almost all world class. Routes range from short to multi-day big walls. And although it’s deep in the alpine, the Bugaboos are remarkably accessible considering how remote they feel.
Don’t go unprepared. Research what it takes to visit The Bugs. Every year, climbers flock to The Bugs between the months of June and September. However, climbing here is so weather dependent that you have to plan carefully. Most climbers will spend the summer in Squamish and keep their eyes peeled for the best weather window. When it comes, Squamish sees a massive exodus of alpine climbers as they head east to the Bugaboos.
Northwestern Washington State
The Cascade Mountains in Washington State are among the most breathtaking and wild ranges on the continent. Most famous for the Liberty Bell Group in Washington Pass, you can find massive granite walls throughout the range. Rock quality is exceptional almost everywhere you go, and although popular, you won’t see crowds anything like you will in a place such as Squamish or Yosemite.
Although they are less popular worldwide, climbing in the towns of Leavenworth, WA, and Index, WA, are some of the best in the United States if you’re into hard trad climbing. Leavenworth also offers a wide range of high-quality bouldering. Washington State also features some of the longest sport climbing routes in the US (over twenty pitches). Not to mention beautiful and remote alpine climbing like none other.
Just like Squamish, most of Washington receives rain through the majority of the year. If you are planning a trip, your best bet is between the end of May and early October. But don’t count on it staying dry the whole time.
City of Rocks, Idaho
Although not as famous as many other climbing areas in the northern United States, City of Rocks boasts some impressive terrain. Most notably, the granite in City of Rocks is remarkably different than most other granites. The rock is covered with a metallic varnish-like mineralization. When it wears through, pockets form with interesting edges and shapes. The result is a climbing style unlike just about anywhere else in the world.
Most of the climbing here is mixed and not for the faint of heart. Many routes are old and graded accordingly. Bolting is also restricted now and carefully monitored, so you’re liable to run into all sorts of protection. Not your average granite outing. City of rocks still feels pretty off the beaten path. Very wild west. Camping is free in nearby BLM land or paid in maintained and designated campsites inside the park. The season is roughly the same as in Washington State and Wyoming except that it cools off earlier in the year and can often get snow as early as September.
Smith Rock, Oregon
Although Oregon has plenty of places to go rock climbing, we really need to spend most of our time talking about Smith Rock. That’s because not only is it a world-class sport climbing destination with easy access and excellent weather year-round, but it’s also the site of the world’s first 5.14a, To Bolt Or Not To Be.
For generations, Smith Rock has been a place where the limits of sport climbing are pushed. However, there is also excellent trad climbing on the basalt columns of the Crooked River basin. Best of all, because most people visiting the park are sport climbers, the gorge is often free for the trad climber’s taking.
Camping at Smith Rock is not free, although free camping can be found in the area if you’re resourceful. However, dispersed camping is available right on the edge of the park for a reasonable price. The Smith Rock climbing season runs nearly year-round because it is situated on a high-desert plateau. However, the best times of year are in the spring and fall. Rain is rare, and that’s when the temps are the most moderate.
Colorado, the entire state
I’m not really sure how to pin Colorado down to just one area, or one style of climbing. From some of the most famous alpine climbing in the US to the hardest sport climbing on the continent, Colorado has it all. And the list of world-class climbers Colorado has produced over the generations is staggering. That list includes the likes of Tommy Caldwell, Layton Kor, Lynn Hill, Daniel Woods, Margo Hayes. It just goes on and on without end.
That’s because nearly every part of Colorado is covered in vast mountain ranges with beautiful lines of all natures. That may sound pretty alpine to you, and much of Colorado is. However, sport climbing Meccas like Rifle Mountain Park are also to be found in the state. You could likely spend your entire life climbing in just the state of Colorado and never climb even half of the routes.
Colorado’s climbing season runs short due to its higher elevation and heavy snowfall. Most parts of Colorado are covered in snow for up to half the year. Climbing is usually best between May and October. On the edges of that range, don’t expect to be climbing deep in the mountains either.
However, on the edge of Colorado is Grand Junction and the Colorado National Monument. This formation is actually in the same geographical climate as Moab and Indian Creek. That means it’s often climbable through much of the winter. Climbing near Grand Junction is on sandstone, much like in Utah, and feels entirely different than the rest of Colorado.
Yosemite Valley, CA
Yosemite should need no introduction. However, if you’re unfamiliar with the historical and geological significance of Yosemite, you’ve got some learning to do. Aside from being the single most influential location in all of rock climbing history, it’s also one of the most mind-blowing arrangements of rock on the planet. If you haven’t seen it yet, get on Netflix and watch the movie Valley Uprising. It will fill you in on the history of Yosemite.
As far as making your own pilgrimage to the Mecca of rock climbing, you’re going to need to go prepared. I mean, don’t get me wrong, prepared can be as simple as open eyes and the desire to learn. However, if you really want to get on the walls of Yosemite, you’re going to need a lot of gear and the experience to know how to use it. Although there is plenty of sport climbing in Yosemite, that is decidedly not why people go. The granite of Yosemite will test you by more than just it’s scale too. The mineral compounds present in The Valley create a slicker granite than almost anywhere else.
Peak climbing season for Yosemite depends on how hard and how high you’re trying to climb. The weather is generally cooperative from March to November. However, the summer can get scorching hot in The Valley, and most serious climbers head elsewhere until late August or early September. If you’re looking to tackle some big walls or some serious test pieces, you’ll want to follow their lead and wait for cooler temps.
Moab area, UT
Moab, along with most of the state of Utah is littered with amazing climbing areas. The town of Moab just happens to be particularly close to a tremendous amount of it. If you’re looking for a more in-depth guide to climbing in Moab, this article will tell you everything you need to know about climbing in the Moab area.
Moab and the surrounding area is technically climbable all year, however, the summer is definitely too hot for most people, and the winter is a bit too cold. If you’re trying to hit peak season in the Utah desert, it’s undeniably the Thanksgiving holiday.
During late November every year, climbers from around the world flock to Indian Creek for what is known as Creeksgiving. The Moab area fills with climbers from all walks of life in the month leading up to Thanksgiving. One week after, the town feels empty, and climbing partners are much harder to come by.
While in the Moab area, you should definitely go to Indian Creek and take lots of #2 camalots to protect perfect hand cracks that go on for miles. You should definitely climb a couple of desert towers. And you should definitely keep your ears open for secret desert gatherings, usually involving partying, highlining, base jumping, and of course, climbing.
Red Rock Canyon, Las Vegas, NV
Much like Moab, the Las Vegas area is a climber’s paradise. Although many people think of casinos and wild parties when they hear the word Vegas, climbers think of something entirely different. Red Rock Canyon is not only some of the most beautiful desert climbing spots on the planet, but it is also a perfect place to post up for the winter. Between May and September, however, it’s basically unbearable, and you definitely won’t be sending.
Temperatures in the Las Vegas area are usually a little warmer than in Moab through the winter months, and precipitation is minimal. Just be careful if it does rain. Climbing sandstone after rain is not only dangerous to you, it can also be really harmful to the rock. That’s because it softens and is prone to breaking under the force of a big whipper.
One key thing to note is that the Red Rock loop road is closed at nights and late exit can earn you some spendy tickets. Considering that Red Rock is home to a number of really tall multi-pitch routes, this is critical to note. There are late exit permits available through the BLM, but you have to fill them out in advance of your intended climb. Check out Mountain Project for more information.
Joshua Tree National Park, CA
Almost as historic as Yosemite, Joshua Tree has been in the books since climbing in the United States started. J-tree hasn’t been around for all that time without building a steady reputation, either. Known for long run-outs, edgy free-solos, and an anti-bolting mentality, Joshua Tree is not a place for the faint of heart.
If you’re the type to want more bolts or an easier way up, then this probably isn’t the place for you. If you like classic lines up some of the most textured granite on the planet, then come one, come all. J-trees granite is quartz monzonite. It’s way grippier and much lighter in color than most other types of granite. That means lots of smearing. It can feel pretty scary if you’re not used to the rock.
J-tree is also well known for having stiff grades. Don’t roll in here expecting to push your grade right away. Be humble and be ready to get your little booty whooped. After a couple of weeks though, you’ll be climbing like the legends of old.
J-tree is only climbable from October through March or so. Once April rolls around, it starts heating up fast. Camping in the park can also be hard to come by during the high season (winter). Reserve ahead if you can. Also, be aware that vehicle entry is $25 per car and valid for seven days.
Potrero Chico, Mexico
Last on our list, and another great winter destination, is Potrero Chico, Mexico. Sure, it’s not on the West Coast. In fact, it’s actually almost all the way over on the eastern coast of Mexico. It’s also not in the United States. But at just three hours from the border of Texas and about 24 hours from Las Vegas, Potrero has definitely become a part of the climber’s pilgrimage in the last decade.
Massive limestone walls come right down to the edge of the road. Routes are up to 23 pitches long (Timewave Zero 5.12 and possibly the longest sport route in the world). Not only that, but bolting is reasonably new and well maintained all throughout the canyon. That’s thanks mostly to a dedicated local crowd, as well as a whole troop of Texans who spend months down here every year.
Ever since Alex Honnold free soloed El Sendero Luminoso (5.12+) Potrero has been on most people’s maps. However, it’s not just massive lines that make Potrero so great. A friendly community, excellent accessibility, and a wild feel all contribute to the excellent vibes here. The fact that you’re spending pesos is also a huge plus when you get down from a long day on the wall and want to gorge on tacos al pastor.
Planning a climbing road trip?
I don’t suggest that you try to hit all of these destinations in one year. That would be madness. Even though they are all reasonably well lined up and their seasons do lead into one another pretty well, there’s just too much to do and see. In my opinion, the ideal climbing season would involve stays in four to six of these places for a month or more at a time. After all, in order to really achieve some big goals and become comfortable with each new kind of rock and climbing, you need to put in the time.
Wherever you plan to start and end, having a vehicle will be invaluable. I have met climbers hitchhiking their way along the west coast. As crazy as that sounds, some guys and girls do make it work, gear and all. However, getting a good van, a Subaru, or another car ready for a lot of miles and desert roads will make a world of difference. I definitely suggest a vehicle you can live in comfortably as you’ll cut your costs down dramatically.
So, whether you visit all eleven of these destinations next season or spend all year in just one or two, you’re bound to have the time of your life. Climbing in each of these places is absolutely world class, and they all draw people of equally high quality to them. Just take an open mind, full rack, and new rope along for the ride, and you’re sure to have the best year of your life.
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