Top 5 Rock Climbing Areas in the Pacific Northwest
Smith Rock at Sunset, OR - Photo credit: Rachel Roberts
The Pacific Northwest is known for its grey mountains, green forests, and blue water. Desert rocks don’t immediately spring to mind. But the PNW has desert rocks, as well as the requisite mountain views. Here are just five of the fantastic rock climbing areas the PNW has to offer:
Smith Rock, Oregon
Smith Rock from the top of "Wherever I May Roam," OR - Photo credit: Rachel Roberts
Smith is Oregon’s premier climbing destination, and one of the first sport climbing areas to be developed in the US. Smith rock is an old volcanic caldera. The rock itself is mostly rhyolite, with columnar basalt also available. Due to its volcanic origins, the rock quality varies. The most popular climbs are very clean, but if you find yourself on less popular climbs, you will encounter loose rock and lichen. A 70 meter rope is also a good idea for some of the longer rappels, and even some of the single pitch climbs.
Types of climbing: Single- and multi-pitch trad and sport routes. You’ll find everything from Wherever I May Roam, a 4-pitch 5.9 sport climb, to 5.12 iconic single-pitch routes, and even aid climbing on Monkey Face.
When to go: This is the dry side of the mountains. Peak seasons are Spring and Fall. Hardcore pros climb here in the winter when there is snow on the ground. Most people consider summer too hot. I have climbed there when it’s 100 degrees, but it’s not recommended.
Where to stay: The best camping is in the climbers campground overlooking Smith Rock (located on the rim on the upper left of the above photo. If that is full, there is a BLM campground nearby. Since this is near Bend, OR - Airbnbs and lodging also abound.
Goat Wall rises above the Methow River: Mazama, WA - Photo credit: Rachel Roberts
Mazama is a tiny town in the Okanagon Mountains of Northeast Washington. It’s near the cross-country skiing mecca of Winthrop, and has only recently been developed as a sport-climbing area. It has some of the longest multi-pitch sport climbs in the Northwest.
Type of climbing: Single and multipitch sport; some single-pitch trad. This is probably the best sport climbing area in Washington, and includes such classics as Prime Rib of Goat and Flyboys. Tradies can do some awesome alpine climbing at nearby Washington Pass.
When to go: Spring and Fall are the high seasons. This place is pretty snow-bound in winter (thus the cross-country skiing mecca) and the main highway over Washington Pass closes down. Summer climbing is possible, but with mid-day breaks to sit in the freezing river and eat ice cream. Preferably at the same time.
Where to stay: There are a few Forest Service campgrounds in the area. It is also pretty easy to find a dispersed campsite in Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest. Hotels and Airbnbs are also available.
Damnation, a 5.9 Chimney at Jello Tower: Leavenworth, WA - Photo credit: Rachel Roberts
Type of climbing: Bouldering and single and multi-pitch trad, primarily in Tumwater and Icicle Creek Canyon. There is sport, but it tends to be slabby. If you can snag a camping permit (or hike fast enough to avoid having to camp), the alpine climbing in the nearby Enchantments is both high quality and extremely photogenic.
When to go: Fall and Spring are high seasons. This is just east of the mountains and relatively high in elevation, so this area does get snow in the winter. Summer is also possible, depending on your heat tolerance, and may be less crowded.
Where to stay: There are some Forest Service campgrounds nearby, but they fill up quickly. Some dispersed camping exists, but given the canyon-y geography of the area, are somewhat limited. There are a lot of hotels, some of which come with Bavarian-themed mini-golf.
Frenchman Coulee: Vantage, WA
Columnar Basalt for literally miles: Vantage, WA - Photo Credit: Rachel Roberts
Frenchman Coulee is actually located closer to George, Washington than the town of Vantage, and on the other side of the Columbia River, but for some reason climbers call it “Vantage.” Whatever you call it, it’s a very pretty area of high desert columnar basalt, with sport climbs on the faces and trad climbs in the cracks in between.
Type of climbing: Sport and trad, all single pitch (it’s not tall enough to have more than one pitch). I think the vast majority of the people who go there are sport climbers, but there is trad too.
When to go: High seasons are Spring and Fall, although winter climbing is popular with people who don’t like to feel their fingers. I have climbed here in late June by just making sure I stayed in the shade the whole time, but I have a higher heat tolerance than your average Washingtonian.
Where to stay: You can generally find a dispersed campsite in the vicinity of the parking areas. The Washington Department of Natural Resources even put in a couple of toilets! There are some hotels in George and in Vantage.
Squamish: British Columbia, Canada
The Chief: Squamish, BC, Canada - Photo credit: Rachel Roberts
Squamish has been called the Yosemite of Canada. There are really two main areas: Squamish proper, and Cheakamus Canyon, aka “Chek,” an upstart climbing area further north on the Sea to Sky Highway. Squamish is a scenic logging/outdoorsy town located between the Stawamus Chief and Howe Sound.
Types of climbing: In Squamish, single and multipitch trad and very slabby sport. See the slab in the foreground of the photo, above. Areas like Smoke Bluffs and Murrin Park are great for single-pitch cragging, mostly trad. The Chief has some of the most classic rock climbs in the region, almost all trad. If you’ve got a good lead head for slab, there are some really beautiful multipitch sport routes up the cliff near Shannon Falls.
When to go: When it’s dry, primarily July-ish through the end of September.
Where to stay: There are a few places to camp in Squamish, including camping at the base of the Chief (best snagged on a weekday), and some commercial campgrounds around town. There have been increasing crackdowns on people sleeping in vehicles over the years, so if you’re doing the van thing, try to find an inconspicuous place to sleep.
Guest blogger Rachel Roberts is based out of Seattle, Washington. She enjoys climbing in the warmer months and cross-country skiing once the snow starts to fall. You can follow her inspiring journey back from a severe Achilles injury at www.climbfrominjury.com
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