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Take the Highway to New Heights

Climbing Road Trip

4 hours away: Matt Segal on the first ascent of Orangutan Overhang (5.13+) on Independence Pass.

Tired of the heat and the same old scene in the Front Range? Let us take you on a tour of the best climbing road trips to tick off this summer while you are still young.

The climbing road trip. It’s a vacation, a rite of passage and an opportunity. Take it on the road and test what you’ve learned in the gym and on your local crags. The road trip is as American as—apple pie or the Apple Store. With vast spaces and plenty of different rock types out here in the West, there’s no better place in the world to point your vehicle into the great wide open and discover climbing areas, new or old, famous or obscure. Ask any visiting international climber why they came to America and they’ll tell you, there’s something different around every bend in the road.

My first road trip began as a college freshman. The destination was the granite of Leavenworth, Washington. Up to that point the entirety of my climbing experience was bouldering in a quarry, the odd top rope and climbing on the buildings at the University of Idaho. But in the next state over, Leavenworth, Washington, though obscure hosted great cragging and gasp… multi-pitch climbs. The latter were a complete omission in my experience. Leavenworth held the air of the exotic. I’ll skip the details of our beer-fueled antics in Leavenworth town’s faux-Bavarian tourist trap. Let’s just say the attendant zest of the undiscovered made for an appetite, unsated to this day. Plus I led my first 5.10—carried as I was, by the thrill of the new.

If America is the best place for a climbing road trip, then Colorado’s Front Range might be the best staging point in the country. Draw a circle of a few hundred miles and you’ll find stately mountains, steep crags and fields of boulders. Extend that limit and a universe of possibilities emerges. There’s one oddly apt requirement for a summer road trip out of the Denver metro area: you need to get high—either in latitude or elevation. We’re talking cooler temperatures, limestone crags, house-sized boulders and soaring big walls.

The other essential is to find the sweet spot driving-wise. The destination needs to be far enough away to feel you’re somewhere else and close enough to make it there in one day. With that in mind, we have arranged this must-do list by driving distance from Denver. But don’t feel obliged to hit up just one—more is better.

2.5 hours, Vedauwoo

Just up the road in Wyoming, the land of short but fierce crack climbs hosts a high plains ambiance, aspens and thin air. The place is notorious for off-widths but it’s also home to elegant face climbs.

Classic: Friday the 13th (5.10a). Sick stuff.

Pump It Up: Flying Buttress (5.10c). This tough climb typifies the Vedauwoo experience—it requires a ton of determination to get through this offwidth.

Be Sure to Bring: Tape. Lots and lots of tape.

Guidebook: Rock Climbing at Vedauwoo by Rob Kelman

5 hours, Fremont Canyon

This Wyoming river-cut box granite canyon is best approached by lowering in or via rappel. Fremont doesn’t lend itself to the faint at heart as the grades are stout and the climbing physical—primarily steep, enjoyable cracks.

Classic: B-25 (5.9). A pleasant, but popular one-pitch crack close to the visitor’s center.

Pump It Up: Superchunk (5.11+). It’s the type of pumpfest Matt Samet would relish (see page 26).

Be Sure to Bring: Dry bags.

Guidebook: Classic Rock Climbs No. 19: Fremont Canyon and Dome Rock, Wyoming by Steve Petro;

6 hours, Wild Iris/Sinks Canyon 

These crags of pocketed dolomite rise from the plains outside Lander, Wyoming. These bone white limestone cliffs host routes fierce sport routes.

Classic: La Vaca Peligrosa (5.8). The dangerous cow is the perfect limestone sport climb to give anyone a big fat ego boost.

Pump It Up: Wind and Rattlesnakes (5.12a). This pocket-pull beauty typifies the best of what Wild Iris has to offer.

Be Sure to Bring: Your NOLS instructor friends.

Guidebook: Lander Rock Climbs Guidebook by Steve Bechtel

6 hours, Wind River Range 

One of the most beloved ranges in the Rockies serves up alpine rock and huge bouldering potential for the intrepid. Located in central Wyoming, the Winds sport long approaches to classic alpine rock routes and peaks up to 13,000 feet. The preponderance of great alpine routes will keep you coming back year after year.

Classic: The East Ridge of Wolf’s Head (5.5, 12 pitches) is one of several Fifty Classic Climbs of North America in the range’s Cirque of the Towers.

Pump It Up: Black Elk (5.11a, 8 pitches). A true alpine challenge that requires mountaineering and rock climbing prowess.

Be Sure to Bring: Coffee for the alpine starts.

Guidebook: Climbing and Hiking in the Wind River Mountains by Joe Kelsey

6.5 hours, Devil’s Tower

Endless splitters. Classic multi-pitch crack routes on dense hexagonal columns. Most climbers opt to chase shade (or sun), around the thousand foot-high, truncated cone. Be sure to check when climbing is closed for raptor nesting.

Classic: Durrance (5.7+, six pitches) is the line to take if you simply want the easiest route to the top. It’s also listed as one of the Fifty Classic Climbs of North America.

Pump It Up: Assembly Line (5.13a). Not necessarily a hard climb, but it’s one beautiful crack.

Be Sure to Bring: Two ropes for the raps down.

Guidebook: Free Climbs of Devil’s Tower by Dingus McGee and the Last Pioneer Woman

7 hours, The Needles

These lovely towers and spires in the Black Hills of South Dakota, serve up amazing face climbing on quartz crystals. Though often very run out, The Needles offers the novelty of real summits and grades that start at 5.3.

Classic: Moonlight Rib (5.3). The ideal first lead for beginning climbers. It puts you on top of a picture-perfect summit.

Pump It Up: Hang a Right at Fourth Avenue (5.10b). Pure enjoyment.

Be Sure to Bring: Mountain bikes for off days. There’s great singletrack here, too.

Guidebook: The Needles: A Climbing Guide to the Black Hills Needles by Zach Orenczak and Rachael Lynn

8 hours, Ten Sleep 

User-friendly bolted limestone, Ten Sleep offers extensive sport cragging in beautiful northern Wyoming. It has become quite popular, but don’t let that keep you away.

Classic: Colors of Heaven (5.10). A two pitch sport climb that’s damn fun.

Pump It Up: Sky Pilot (5.13c/d). Grit it out.

Be Sure to Bring: Lots of chalk.

Guidebook: Ten Sleep Canyon by Aaron Huey

9 hours, The Tetons

So you want a taste of truly big mountains? The 13,775-foot tall Grand Teton rises for more than 7,000 feet of elevation gain. And the whole range is best defined as classic routes on classic summits. There’s everything from two-pitch cragging to mixed alpine climbs.

Classic: Most first timers will want to do the crowded Exum Route (5.4) on The Grand. The Direct Exum Ridge (5.6) is listed in the historic climbing text, Fifty Classic Climbs of North America

Pump It Up: The North Ridge (5.8, 10 pitches). Arguably the most aesthetic route to the top.

Be Sure to Bring: A waterproof/breathable shell.

Guidebooks: Teton Classics, 2nd: 50 Selected Climbs in Grand Teton National Park by Richard Rossiter; A Climber’s Guide to the Teton Range by Renny Jackson

11 hours, City of Rocks

This Mecca of high desert granite is famous for varnished sport routes and stout trad climbs up to eight pitches. The City is a cragging scene with great camping but it still retains remote ambience.

Classic: Whet Thin (5.7). Enjoyable climbing up a flake that’s easy to protect.

Pump It Up: Beware of Nesting Egos (5.11b). A fun mix of sport and trad.

Be Sure to Bring: Campground reservations.

Guidebook: City of Rocks Idaho: A Climber’s Guide by Dave Bingham

15 hours, Elephant’s Perch

An alpine Shangri-la of golden alpine granite in the Idaho backcountry, Elephant’s Perch is located eight miles from the trailhead in the Sawtooth Mountains of central Idaho, The Perch is 1,000 feet high with classics ranging from 5.9 to 5.12-.

Classic: The Mountaineer’s Route (5.9, seven pitches). A nice intro to alpine climbing.

Pump It Up: Direct Beckey (5.11a, 12 pitches). This baby goes right up the middle for those climbers who like the most obvious line.

Be Sure to Bring: A helmet. There can be lots of falling rock.

Guidebook: No guidebook but see

The Path
18 Hours Away: Ethan Pringle takes on the second ascent of The Path (5.14R), Lake Louise, Canmore.

11 hours, Yosemite/Tuolumne

The iconic heart of American climbing and arguably the most famous climbing area in the world deserves at least one pilgrimage from Front Range climbers. Why? It’s simple: world-class granite in the world’s greatest climbing area. From big walls to boulders, The Valley needs no introduction. Further up at 8,500-feet, Tuolumne Meadows may be less popular in the mainstream imagination, but it’s the place to be in summer. Though hot at the height of the season, Yosemite’s high country domes offer gorgeous climbing on gold, knobby rock.

Classic: Beyond the obvious, The Royal Arches Route (5.6, A1 or 5.9, 16 pitches) and North Face of Fairview Dome (5.9, 12 pitches) are a few of Yosemite’s Fifty Classic Climbs of North America.

Pump It Up: Dream up your own project.

Be Sure to Bring: Your pride… to swallow.

Guidebooks: Yosemite Valley Free Climbs: Supertopos by Steve Roper, Todd Snyder, Greg Barnes, Chris McNamara; Yosemite Big Walls: Supertopos by Chris McNamara; Tuolumne Free Climbs: Supertopos 2nd Edition by Greg Barnes, Chris McNamara, Steve Roper; Yosemite Sport Climbs and Top Ropes: Suertopos by Chris McNamara and Chris Van Leuven.

11 hours, The High Sierra

California’s answer to Rocky Mountain National Park is home to a slew of world class formations. The Pine forests crystal lakes, and lush meadows provide the setting for some of the best high altitude granite in America. Well worth the drive.

Classic: The Incredible Hulk (11,040 feet). The Red Dihedral (5.10, 12 pitches) is one of the best routes of its grade in North America.

Pump It Up: Positive Vibrations (5.11a, 12 pitches) is  a harder, yet even more pleasing, multi-pitch crack climb up The Incredible Hulk.

Be Sure to Bring: A copy of John Muir to read.

Guidebooks: High Sierra Climbing by Chris McNamara

24 hours, Squamish

British Columbia’s Squamish is home to fantastic bouldering, cragging  and big wall climbs on endless, perfect granite. Roadside approaches, lush coniferous forests and often plenty of rain fill out the unique costal ambience.

Classic: Rock On (5.10a, five pitches). This beauty feels like an alpine climb, serving up a bit of everything. It’s ideal for a first big challenge.

Pump It Up: Sentry Box (5.12a). This finger crack will definitely get your heart pumping.

Be Sure to Bring: Bomber rain gear. This is not the high, dry Rockies. Oh, and your passport, eh?

Resources: The Climbers Guide to Squamish by Kevin McLane •

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