10 Rock Climbs You Might Not Die On

Free solo climber Alex Honnold competed Mexico’s 1,700 foot El Sendero Luminoso on January 15, 2014 and the internet exploded. This 20-something American climber made the record-breaking ascent without ropes and with no safety net in place. 

Luckily for those of us who felt a pit in our stomach when cameras panned over the climber’s exposed form, you don’t have to take the ultimate risk to enjoy rock climbing. In fact, with skill and training, rock climbing can be safe and enjoyable for everyone – you just have to know where to look. 

For the best rock climbing that will get your heart racing, but won’t bring on a panic attack, here’s where to look first:

South Gateway Rock, Garden of Gods Park [Colorado Springs, Colorado]

Garden of the Gods, Colo. | Colorado Springs has a climbing mecca right at its doorway. All you need is the proper gear and a pen for a signature on a park form. 

Garden of the Gods is a series of red limestone rock formations which rear up out of the scrubland where the desert and the mountains collide. White capped Pike’s Peak is in the background and the area has been a popular road trip destination since the days of horse-drawn carriages. Garden of the Gods has so many routes that there will be something for climbers of all abilities. If you’ve never rock climbed before, there are several outfitters who will take you out on guided adventures. 

Red River Gorge, Ken. | Red River Gorge’s climbing destinations are at their best when the scent of spring blossoms fills the air, or when the leaves are changing red and gold. Without summer’s humidity, or winter’s ice, you’ll be climbing during the safest and most comfortable part of the year. 

Red River Gorge is all about the sandstone and people have been drawn to the irresistible cliffs long before rock climbing was a recognized sport. Sport climbers will be in heaven with dozens of routes to choose from. Don’t miss pizza at Miguel’s – a local climbers’ institution where you’ll find gear and cheap camping along with dinner. 

Teton Crest Trail [Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming]

Grand Teton National Park, Wyo. | Craggy and saw-toothed from afar, Grand Teton National Park looks even better up close. Especially if you day entails athletic climbs and sweeping views. Experienced climbers can take a look at the weather and set off on whichever sunny crag they please. If you’re just learning, you can take a two day class with several local outfitters before tackling some of the more epic routes or trying your hand at mountaineering.

During the winter ice climbers with avalanche training will find plenty to be happy about. Everyone else can visit the newly opened Enclosure Indoor Climbing Center in nearby Jackson Hole. 

Smith Rock State Park, Ore. | Up in the Oregon high desert you’ll find Smith Rock where American sport climbing took off – that’s climbing with fixed anchors and bolts instead of adding and removing your own bolt as you go. Of course you can clamber over the basalt and tuff rocks as a boulderer or a traditional climber. The landscape is honey brown, especially as the sunshine slants into the park during the late afternoon. 

If you’re lucky, you’ll see a golden eagle or a prairie falcon during your ascent.  At the end of the day there are 24 breweries in central Oregon where you can unwind after a strenuous day. What could be better? 

The City of Rocks National Reserve, Idaho | The pioneers who first set foot in this part of Idaho named the landscape the City of Rocks after the spires and steeples that dot the landscape. Instead of thinking fondly about civilization, today you’re much more likely to be visiting City of Rocks to escape it. This wild, wonderful landscape is a great place to get back to nature and enjoy some fantastic rock climbing while you’re at it. 

The City of Rocks is made from sturdy granite and the excellent conditions attract climbers from all over the world. If you’ve never climbed before, the City of Rocks Ranger Station offers the Climbing Experience Program to get you started.

Canyonlands National Park [Moab, Utah]

Canyonlands National Park, Utah | Canyonlands National Park looks fantastic in panoramas shot from a helicopter. What makes you think it will look any less epic as your rest halfway up a cliff face? 

Island of the Sky is the best area to climb with the safest rock and the largest number of legal climbing spaces. This landscape stands out with sheer 1000 foot cliffs dropping down to the desert below. 

Elsewhere in the park you’ll find arches and towering pinnacles, but you’ll have to enjoy those from below – climbing is not allowed on arches, cultural sites or unstable rocks.  

Mount Rushmore, S.D. | No you can’t climb over the faces carved into Mount Rushmore, but you can scramble all over the granite rocks that fill the Black Hills National Forest. Arrive in the early spring to avoid the crowds and then get ready for challenging traditional routes as well as some great bouldering. 

Most climbers focus in on the area called The Needles, but you can also climb the backside of the Mount Rushmore monument. Just don’t get too close to the carvings themselves – a loud and embarrassing alarm will go off and you’ll lose a climbing day explaining yourself to the Park Service. 

Echo Lake and Cathedral Ledge [North Conway, New Hampshire]

North Conway, N.H. | New Hampshire’s rock climbing gurus congregate in North Conway to climb the cliffs and overhangs of the White Mountains. You’ll be climbing on granite and schist cliffs with the blue sky above you and maybe a flowing waterfall nearby. 

If you’ve never rock climbed before, this is a great place to start. Guided tours, private outfitters and other climbing instructor businesses like to use North Conway as their summer basecamp. You’ll be scampering up cliffs before you know it. Despite the abundance of beginner instruction, more advanced climbers will have plenty to challenge them and the long distance views that make getting to the top that much more rewarding. 

Devil’s Lake State Park, Wisc. | Devil’s Lake vies for the title of best Midwestern climbing destination. Regardless of your opinion on its ranking, you’ll have to agree that this state park is a fantastic climbing destination. You’ll be climbing on pink quartzite and the rocks are almost as pretty to look at as the rolling green hills and lake below. On the plus side, you can end the day with a swim in in Devil’s Lake, or transition from climbing to camping.

View of El Capitan [Yosemite National Park, California]

Yosemite National Park, Calif. | Yosemite is the legendary daddy of American rock climbing. When climbers want the ultimate challenge they bag El Capitan and if they want to create a new record, they do it here. You don’t have to be a pro to have fun at Yosemite. You can enjoy crack climbing in the Merced River Canyon, challenging ascents on the Tuolumne Meadows or even attack the easier routes on the big domes. The scenery and the rocks are completely epic. 

Looking for something a bit more challenging? Here are The World’s Most Dangerous Rock Climbs


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Carmen Fifield

The delight of finding an unknown park, a captivating history museum or a fantastic desert means exploration is never far from Carmen Fifield’s mind. Carmen’s favorite travel memories include biking to historic sites on the island of Guernsey, huffing and puffing up the stairs to the Great Wall of China and eating the most delicious crab cake ever in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

Carmen’s Favorite Travel Tip: Say goodbye to airplane food and tuck some fruit and your favorite sandwich into your carry-on.