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Three Great Climbing Destinations in the Wild West

Wyoming, Colorado, and Kentucky
By Nancy Prichard - August 2nd, 2000

Devil's Tower, Devil's Tower National Monument, Wyoming

The next time you find yourself heading towards Mt. Rushmore on a family trip, don't despair. Just a few hours west of the presidential visage is one of the world's premier crack-climbing venues, with multi-pitch routes ranging from the classic Durrance Route (5.7) to test pieces like One Way Sunset (10c) and Mr. Clean (11a). The 865-foot igneous plug is a worthy destination for non-climbers as well. The camping along the Belle Fourche River is as a Bierstadt landscape. A 1.25-mile paved path encircling the tower affords spectacular views of the Tower's sweeping stone columns, as well as the surrounding Black Hills.

The only way to the top is via climbing one of the technical rock routes. The Tower was first climbed in 1893 using ladders for the first 350 feet; now climbers use ropes, nuts, and camming devices. The Durrance Route, pioneered by Jack Durrance on a daring rescue in 1938 to save a parachutist stranded on the summit, is a world-renowned classic. From the summit of the Tower, you can see the Black Hills and five different states. You can also watch monstrous thunderheads and black storm clouds race across the plains. The post-climb cocktail at the campground, watching the Tower fade fiery red in the sunset, is not to be missed. If you're climbing and see dark thunderheads rolling in, descend at once. The Tower is the highest point for miles and thus acts as a lightning rod of monumental proportions.

Climbers must register at the Devil's Tower Visitor Center. There is a voluntary moratorium on climbing in June to give the Native Americans an opportunity to conduct religious ceremonies. The KOA at the park's entrance has showers and food. Contact Devil's Tower National Monument (307-467-5283) for more information.

Sport Climbing at the Red River Gorge, Boone National Forest, Kentucky

(near the town of Stanton)
Kentucky will never rival Yosemite or the Shwangunks as a climbing destination, but the sandstone cliffs lining the Red River Gorge provide plenty of fun for anyone willing to learn to strap into a harness and tie a figure-eight knot. The sleepy eastern Kentucky backwater boasts some of the finest sport climbing in the country, as well as first-rate scenery. Routes of all abilities trace the cliffs that are tucked among hardwood ravines, rhododendron groves and creek-fed waterfalls.

Most of the climbing focus in this area has been sport routes (climbs with pre-placed bolts for protection), but there are loads of traditional lines just begging to be climbed. Hardmen should try Welcome to Ol' Kentuck (5.13a), reputed to being the hardest pure crack climb east of the Mississippi. The rest of us can have fun on Roadside Attraction (5.7) or Rock Wars (10a).

Lexington is a 45-minute drive, so bring along plenty of supplies. The Red's sandstone is highly abrasive; a healthy application of tape is recommended. The local climber's hangout is Miguel's Pizza right by the entry way to the Natural Ridge State Park. The owner sells chalk and supplies as well as pizza, and you can pitch your tent for $2 per tent in the backyard. Most of the climbs are bolted, so all you'll need is a rope and rack of quickdraws. For more information, contact Phillip Galls Outdoor Shop, Lexington, KY (606-266-0469), and ClimbTime Climbing Gym, Lexington, KY (606-253-3673).

Key Hole Route, Longs Peak, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado

Here's a treat for adventurers who love altitude, but prefer third class to technical climbing. The trophy of Rocky Mountain National Park is 14,225-foot Longs Peak. While there are many technical routes up the north face (The Diamond), the Key Hole route, up the north/northwest ridge is somewhere between a rock climb and a hike. This classic trail to the summit of Longs Peak weaves through a notch in the summit ridge that allows travelers to circumnavigate sheer faces and technical climb in favor of a more easily negotiable trail. The route starts at the Boulder Field (12,750), passes through the Key Hole, and gains the summit ridge. Faint traces of red paint spots with yellow centers mark the trail, but shouldn't be depended on for route finding. Experienced backcountry travelers leave the Longs Peak Ranger Station (9,400) at or before sunrise for the eight- to ten-hour trip. This increases your chances of avoiding late-afternoon squalls that haunt the peak in late summer. Or of being benighted on the descent.

The trip from Longs Peak Ranger Station to the Summit gains 5,000 feet over seven-and-a-half miles. The view from the top is spectacular - on a clear day you look down on Black Lake, Spear Head and Mount Meeker to the south, the great prairies to the east, and see peak after peak along the Continental Divide.

In good conditions, the Key Hole isn't a technical climbing route, and in good conditions doesn't require ropes and hardware. But fickle weather conditions can turn a clear day into a raging storm in a moment's notice, so hikers should be prepared in terms of clothing, backcountry experience, and fitness. Contact Rocky Mountain National Park (970-586-1399) for information. The Backcountry office can be reached at 970-586-1242.


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