Yeah, I know. Boulder (or Seattle, or Salt Lake City) is the best climbing town in the US of A. Any day of the week, I could climb classics of any grade, in any discipline of the sport. The best in the world come to climb and train there, and have for the past forty years. The town is young, hip, and has great access. The thing is, I just don’t want to live in a town that big.
I have always loved the idea of a small town. I want to live in a place where “the other side of town” is a five minute walk, and I recognize everyone I see. I want to live in a place where dogs don’t need leashes, and I can ride my bike to the crag. I want to live in a place where I can hear a river at night, not ambulances and trucks. I want to live where I can pee off my front porch.
So for all of those who are like me, people who love climbing and want to live in a town smaller than most public high schools, here’s my list of the five best climbing towns with less than a thousand residents.
Yes, I am biased on this one, because this is where I live. Springdale is the entrance to Zion National Park, home to the biggest, baddest sandstone walls in the country. The Park itself has a number of classic, moderate big walls, as well as some of the best hard multi-pitch free climbs you’ll find anywhere. The town is also only an hour away from high quality limestone sport climbing around St. George. What ultimately won me over, though, is the amount of unclimbed rock here. There are miles of untouched cliffs, both short and tall, waiting for the intrepid first ascentionist.
Notable Crags: Zion National Park, The Virgin River Gorge, Snow Canyon State Park, The Hurricave, various other limestone crags near St. George.
Worthwhile distractions: Deep Creek Coffee, The Bit ‘n’ Spur Saloon, Café Soleil, Zion Mountain School.
Ouray is best known for the Ouray Ice Park, possibly the best place on earth to learn to ice climb, but in addition to the farmed ice, the surrounding mountain passes hold a huge array of ice and mixed lines, from fun moderates to modern test pieces. In the summer, climbers can head to any number of small local crags, drive a couple hours to desert sandstone, or get their alpine fix in the surrounding San Juan Mountains. There are few things better than ending a long day of climbing with a soak in the hot springs, provided by the Ouray municipal pool.
Notable crags: Ouray Ice Park, Camp Bird Road, Red Mountain Pass, Eureka, Pool Wall, Ophir Wall.
Worthwhile distractions: Ouray hot springs, Mouse’s Chocolates, Ouray Brewery, Ourayle House, Ouray Mountain Sports.
If you’ve ever driven to Yosemite from the east, you passed through Lee Vining. The town sits at the bottom of Tioga pass, the northeast entrance to Yosemite National Park, where Tuolumne Meadows is. Add the access to the High Sierra peaks, winter ice climbing, and the local welded tuff crags, and the Lee Vining area starts to look like the best little climbing town in California. Although the town is pretty sleepy, there is four star food and five star parties at the local Mobil station, where the east side and Yosemite crowds meet and dance to bluegrass shows in the summer.
Notable crags: Yosemite Valley and Tuolumne Meadows, Lee Vining Canyon, Dana Plateau, June Lake Boulders, Mammoth Lakes area cragging.
Worthwhile distractions: The Whoa Nellie Deli (in the Mobil station, music in the summer), Mono Lake.
The residents of this small town on the east side of the Cascades, named it after what they thought was the Greek name for “mountain goat.” It turned out that they were looking in the wrong dictionary; “Mazama” means mountain goat in Spanish, not Greek. Still, it is an apt name for the town, as it sits just below Washington Pass in the North Cascades. In addition to the roadside alpine rock and access to some of the best alpine lines in the lower 48, there is great cragging in the summer on several different rock types, and backcountry skiing in the winter. Mazama is truly a small rural town; there is no chain store or stop lights for 70 miles.
Notable areas: Washington Pass, Fun rock, Goat Wall, Gate Creek, Prospector area
Worthwhile distractions: Goat’s Beard, The Mazama Store, Old School House Brewery, Kelly’s at Wesola Polana, North Cascades Adventure Hostel.
The only people who know of Ten Sleep are bikers, cowboys, and climbers. It’s also the only town where you’ll meet someone who fits into all three categories. If you drive east on Highway 16 into the Big Horn Mountains, you’ll find yourself gawking at the miles of cliffs in Ten Sleep Canyon, home to some of America’s best limestone sport climbing. The climbing is usually long, vertical, and very technical. The high alpine setting makes it a great area for the summer months, and in the winter there is backcountry ice to explore. There are also huge granite and gneiss walls deep in the Cloud Peaks Wilderness area, home to long, obscure adventure routes.
Notable Areas: Ten Sleep Canyon, Cloud Peaks Wilderness Area, various limestone canyons and spires in the Big Horn Mountains.
Worthwhile distractions: Dirty Sally’s, Ten Sleep Saloon, The Paintrock Inn.
I’m sure there are more out there, perhaps in New Hampshire, or deep in the southeast? More suggestions are appreciated!
Ethan Newman is a climber and writer based in Springdale, Utah. This is his first article for SplitterChoss.com.