No one arrives at the City of Rocks by accident. Perched near the Utah/Idaho border, it’s a remote, beautiful place an hour off I-84 that’s easy to miss. For rock climbers, however, the City of Rocks is a mecca.
For my first visit in summer 2008, I arrived at midnight via a rocky, wandering back road. Rutted dirt roads jousted with the Subaru’s undercarriage, but the car survived and a week of full-moon evenings by the fire and fantastic climbing ensued. I’ve aimed to return ever since.
This time, I skipped the axle-smashing entrance in favor of the main entrance. (Slightly further and worth it!) Fresh off fun in Hells Canyon, my buddy Sean and I rolled up and met my friends Martin and Donna.
Unlike Yosemite and its towering walls, The City creeps up on you. An unassuming, washboard dirt road scatters thoughts (and possessions) as the scene unfolds. First small boulders…then bigger… Then you’re immersed in a landscape where a giant alien dropped his granite marble collection and they shattered into shards of climbable stone.
Top of the park! Sean enjoying the birds-eye awesomeness from the multi-pitch Steinfell’s Dome.
Scattered among these rocks are hiking trails for landlubbers and climbing routes for the vertically inclined. A warren of twisting approaches and dozens of major features with names like Flaming Rock, Electric Avenue, Bumblie Rock or Steinfell’s Dome await you. Even for non-climbers, the City of Rocks is a worthwhile destination for hiking and trail running, not to mention the stars at night are incredible.
More pictures, less talking! What kinda photo essay is this? Last thing I’ll mention: check out Mountain Project for all the details you’ll need to plan your stay. Oh, and while the park is remote, it’s close enough to Boise and Salt Lake City that I recommend skipping spring or fall weekends when the park is buuuuusy.
Here are shots from our week of excellent fun in the City of Rocks and another day at nearby Castle Rocks. Enjoy!
Let’s start this photo series off with a well-composed, poignant shot! (Good grief, how much can two dudes eat in a week?!)
Martin styling the classic Tribal Boundaries. My FIRST rock climb, way back in 2005 (shout out, Keif!).
Sean taking in the park from a primo camp spot.
Me getting creative with body position while eyeing Quest for Fire. (Photo: Sean J)
The awesome Donna and Martin.
Van life pizza! Sean went next level and installed an oven in his Sprinter. #winning
A perfect starry night in the City.
Sean likes climbing! Or pretends to in pictures.
An excellent slab (aka use your feet!) climb in Castle Rocks. (Photo: Sean J)
Granite mattresses haven’t caught on for some reason, but the views can be good.
Sean showing Castle Rock who the boss is.
On the approach to Steinfell’s Dome, a solid hike in and then a long climb to the top.
Getting up high on Steinfell’s Dome!
Climbing: stressful at times, and yet so very fun.
OFFROAD! (And then immediately retreating to flatter ground. The Sprinter ain’t a Jeep!) (Photo: Sean J)
Through the looking glass on Flaming Rock.
Artsy fartsy with Martin in the background.
A “rest day” mountain bike explorer ride around Castle Rocks. Well-worth the spin!
Sean rambling about in Castle Rocks.
Me getting chomped by Loch Ness Monster. (Photo: Sean J)
Camp spot with a view! (Photo: Sean J)
Not a bad spot for dinner, if you ask me!
Calling it a day on Firewater. See ya next time, City of Rocks! (Photo: Sean J)
A couple excellent days of riding around Boise on the way home! The quick access from town reminded me of Bend.
https://www.traipsingabout.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/11/City-of-Rocks-climbing.jpg6831024Dakotahttps://www.traipsingabout.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/03/Traipsing-About-logo-white-background-450x156.pngDakota2018-11-30 06:45:592018-11-29 22:01:42Eye Candy from the City of Rocks (A Photo Essay)
Sometimes I visit a new destination carrying expectations. For rock climbing in Hells Canyon? Nope!
I van tripped there on a passable rumor from a guy (who knew a guy) claiming the existence of hundreds of bolted climbing routes. The interwebs proved less helpful: “There is no guidebook – hike up and climb stuff.”
SURELY there is a route somewhere around here. (Photo: Sean Jacklin)
Heading Into the Canyon
For the uninitiated, Hells Canyon forms the border between NE Oregon and Idaho. The Snake River separates the two states and cuts the deepest canyon in the states. Steep trails head uphill from the many pullouts along the road.
The road from Baker City heads east, cell signal weakening. Around Oxbow, a tiny town on the border, no signal is the name of the game. Put that phone on airplane mode and enjoy the serenity.
Pulling into the campground with my compadre Sean, right across from the routes!
Do campgrounds get any better than this? Right on the river, quiet, with a magic tree. (Photo: Sean Jacklin)
Miles back on the east side of the Snake River is the Alison Creek pullout. From the parking lot, a half dozen hulking limestone formations loom just a short (steep) hike away, most stacked with bolted sport routes.
Every climbing area has its own ethics. In Hells Canyon, the local route developers keep new projects under wraps and suppress any guidebook or online route guide development. Having climbed frequently at the zoo that is Smith Rock, I appreciate their perspective! Hey, they’re nice enough to bolt the routes, so I’m not going to complain.
Sean scoping out routes at the base of the Flatiron.
The canyon lies in national forest with prime free camping next to the river. We chose a perfect spot shaded by arching cottonwoods that framed views of the water and our climbing destination. Not gonna lie, the pull to hang in a camp chair and read a book was stronnng.
All Alone in Hells Canyon
Somehow, we rallied. Hiking in to climb on day one, we met a couple from my hometown (shout out to Moscow, ID!). They told us two things: 1) an irritated rattlesnake lay poised just upstream and 2) “The route on the left side of that wall is an 11c; the ones to the right are harder.” No dummy, I sent Sean ahead in his long pants and hung back yelling “HEY SNAKEY SNAKEY,” a variation of my ultra-effective bear repellent song (heyyy bear!).
Those vague tips were the only beta we received in three days. In fact, those were the only other people we saw the entire time. Hells Canyon is a remote, untrammeled area of the world, and I bet it stays that way. With few amenities, no guidebook, and GASP no possibility of posting Instagram Stories while there, it won’t turn it into a Yosemite Falls gridlock, don’t worry.
Heading down to the vans for a well-earned dinner!
Some steep, entertaining approaches to routes in the canyon.
This isn’t a climbing blog, so I won’t bore you with tales of glory and the excellent fun. (A small victory, I did onsight the aforementioned 5.11c.) Beyond the climbing, my favorite aspect of Hells Canyon was the remoteness and discovery aspect. Every route offered panoramic views of the canyon.
After two days of shredding our fingertips on sharp limestone, we opted for a rest day trail run. Sweaty uphill work brought us to a ridge traverse through wildflowers, a rollicking jaunt with sweeping views of the canyon. The route finding and downed trees stayed right in line with the rowdy spirit of the canyon.
We cleaned up with a dip in the brace-yourself cold river, then ate lunch sitting by the side of the river. (Mega burritos for the win). The serenity, lack of cell service, and excellent options for adventure made it hard to peel away so fast, but it was time to point the vans south to meet some buddies. Onward to the City of Rocks!
Cruising along a ridge traverse 3000′ above the river (after some hard work getting up there!) (Photo: Sean Jacklin)
Nomnomnom. Final lunch in the perfect campsite before hitting the road.
All the Logistics:
Hells Canyon is hot (as hell) in the summer. Spring and fall is the best time to go, with fall better because the wet limestone can seep water in the spring, especially on the steeper routes.
Pack plenty of water and food for your trip because the campsites are no-frills-just-an-outhouse style. Last stop for food is the town of Oxbow at the bridge crossing from Oregon into Idaho. Copperfield Campground is a big, well-appointed one (we opted for free, remote camping up-canyon).
There’s an RV water fill a few miles up canyon from Oxbow. (Lowest water pressure ever, but it’s free!)
There is zero cell service in the canyon. You’ll lose it before Oxbow. Enjoy the silence!
To find the climbing, use the Mountain Projects app and find Hells Canyon, then use the “get directions” feature. It’ll take you right to the trailhead. (Or just go to this Google pin.) Any of the pullouts from there bring you to fantastic river camping spots.
If you want amenities close to the climbing, Hells Canyon campground is about 5 miles south of Alison Creek and has water, electric hookups and freshly mowed grass to roll on.
SO much undeveloped rock in the canyon. (Photo: Sean Jacklin)
The rock is featured limestone and the routes we climbed were vertical to overhanging. Not a ton of steep caves, but routes are steep enough that you are working – this isn’t slab climbing.
Onsighting is tough because there aren’t any tick marks on the holds. Search and destroy!
The orange rock is loose/sketchy; the best rock is blue in color with pockets and water runnels.
Rumor has it there are multi-pitch climbs up the 400-600′ walls, but as newbies to the area, we didn’t attempt to find any.
There are reportedly hundreds of routes to climb. We did maybe a dozen of them. If you can find someone who has climbed there before, listen to them!
Since routes aren’t marked and there is no guidebook, you never know what you’re getting into. Bolts are close together and you can basically aid the routes, but I recommend feeling solid leading 5.11s outside if you’re making the long drive out here. At the very least, bring a bail biner with you.
The routes are long! Bring a 70m rope and lots of quickdraws; many of the routes are 17 draws. That said, the bolting is closely-spaced (WOOT) and you can skip a bolt or two or downclimb to grab one a draw on many of the routes if you are running low.
My favorite routes were on the crag high on the left drainage (30 min steep hike uphill from Alison Creek TH). Apparently it’s called the Flatiron. Otherwise, we just jumped on interesting-looking routes all over the canyon.
Til next time…
https://www.traipsingabout.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/10/Rock-climbing-Hells-Canyon-limestone.jpg6831024Dakotahttps://www.traipsingabout.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/03/Traipsing-About-logo-white-background-450x156.pngDakota2018-10-30 06:21:232018-10-31 16:10:30A Rock Climbing Van Trip to Hells Canyon
Las Vegas. Land of casinos, water fountains spraying mist into the desert air, blackjack tables shrouded with cigarette smoke.
Forget that noise.
Our Vegas lives and breathes 15 minutes west of town, fired by the sun. Red Rock Canyon, land of glowing sandstone, home to over 2,000 rock climbs scattered among giant boulders and soaring towers, cacti and sandy washes at their base.
Patrick enjoying the texture of Red Rock.
Three sun-starved dudes from the PNW, we journey to Vegas not for gambling, but to hang on cliff sides in the desert warmth. We soak in sunsets bubbling bright as champagne, sit watching the hulking rock formations disappear into the dark.
Between climbs and during approach hikes, we trade stories of adventures and down burritos from Habeneros. In a week, we each almost crack double-digit burrito consumption and develop a rating system akin to the climbing scale based on taste, spice levels, size and cost.
This little guy thought the warm burrito in my pack was the perfect heater. I suspect he was right.
Paul rappelling off Birdland after our first multi-pitch trad lead.
The days bleed into one another, a routine of eat, joke around, load the car and drive to the park, hike/boulder hop our way to that day’s destination. Fingertips sing from rock raspy as a panther’s tongue; toes twinge from tight climbing shoes. Maybe those exposed nerve endings make this sport so addicting?
We climb in tight canyons, high on big walls, out of a giant enclosed pod like a mother’s womb as the moon crests over the park. Not a single time do we stop climbing before it’s dark. Hiking out under a full moon in the still desert air talking about the day is almost as good as climbing.
Shutting it down at sunset yet again! Photo: Patrick Means
A run-out 10 in the Black Corridor. Photo: Paul Lacava
A sunset climb high above the park.
Climbing can sink teeth in deep and utterly absorb a person. The varied movement, the creativity, the fear management, sense of accomplishment – everyone has their reason for getting sucked in. We’re all there with our own mission, even if we don’t realize it.
People on pilgrimages from the cold north abound. One couple from Quebec drove 40 hours one way to climb in the sun. Her shirt says “Eat fruit, not friends.” #veganpower There are dirt bag climbers on the road for months, plus weekend warriors hacking five hour drives to enjoy the magic of this place.
Yet it’s certainly not all fun. Climbing is a chaotic blend of mental, physical and emotional effort, one which varies day to day for seemingly no reason at all. A climb that’s hard and scary one day is a perambulatory stroll another.
Bring baggage from your life to the crag and pay for it with loss of focus and wobbly knees high on the wall. Show up with a Texas gun fighter’s steely eyes, a loose grip and a positive attitude, and success is yours. (Maybe.)
It’s also intensely personal. It’s you and the rock. There is a narrowing of intention – tunnel vision – that happens when you’re high enough that falling equals death. Our pre-frontal cortex reasons, “Don’t worry, the rope will catch us,” but the lizard brain is screaming “What the fuuuuck are we doing up here?!” The flow state when you’re in the zone is magic, but sometimes the amygdala wins.
In the end, the magnetic pull of climbing erases the memories of sketching out 10 feet above the last bolt, scrabbling for holds with sweaty palms. Life in modern times is too easy; we need pressure like this sometimes.
Calling it a day at Lime Kiln. Photo: Patrick Means
Paul soaking up the desert vibes on our final drive out. Photo: Patrick Means
Seven days in the desert felt good, really grin-inducing good. Emotionally cleansing, simple. The sun baked the stress out of me.
Now I’m back in Bend, home, normal routines, a meowing cat at the bedroom door. A dance with domesticity.
Fingertips raw, I grin and think of tossing veggies in the air to chop them up mid-spin in the rental house. The sunsets glow in the back of my mind, a place where memory will expand them until they cover the entire sky in bright southwest vibes.
This is not my last trip to the land of red rocks, and certainly not the last dude’s winter climbing trip to the desert. I’ll be back to climb the multi-pitch magic of Levitation 29 and Unimpeachable Groping. See you next time, Red Rock!
Yes, I always screw up group photos…
Where and What We Climbed – Highlights
As a Canadian named Nick said, “Geez, you guys climb a lot of routes each day.” Rather than sit around, I tend to keep the party moving and aim for 8-10 routes per day on a road trip. Hey, I didn’t get on a plane to sit around…I can do that at home.
Nick and his cool dawg, Loki
Rather than bore you with all the ticks, here are my favorite routes from the trip!
Day 1: Multi-pitch in Calico Hills on Riding Hood Wall and a bit of cragging on the Panty Wall. Favorites were Big Bad Wolf (5.9) and then Totally Clips (11a). Honorable mention to the sweaty-palm-inducing Panty Mime (10d) – WHERE ARE THE HAND HOLDS?
Paul getting up close and personal on a slabby 10+. Photo: Patrick Means
Day 2: The Black Corridor – highlights were Rebel Without a Pause (11a), Idiot Parade (10c) and Vagabonds (10a)
Day 3: The Gallery, Wall of Confusion – favorites were American Sportsman (10c) and Super Guide (11a). I’ll be back for Yak Crack and The Gift!
Me on American Sportsman. Photo: Patrick Means
Day 4: our “rest day.” Birdlands, my first multi-pitch trad lead! 5.7+ and awesome. Bolted anchors rule.
First pitch of Birdland.
Day 5: Wake-Up Wall. Lots of 10s and great place to hang in the shade on a hot day. Highlights were Shut Up and Climb (11a), Mic’s Master (10b), and Spanky Spangler (10c)
Lining ’em up on Wake Up Wall! Photo: Patrick Means
Day 6: Day trip to Lime Kiln from Vegas. GO HERE. Amazing limestone wall with lonnnng routes. Highlights: Khaleesi (11c), Homeostasis (11b), Last Supper (11b).
https://www.traipsingabout.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/02/Red-Rock-scene.jpg435580Dakotahttps://www.traipsingabout.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/03/Traipsing-About-logo-white-background-450x156.pngDakota2018-02-28 23:05:422019-01-22 19:32:04Climbing in Red Rocks, aka The Only Good Reason to Go to Vegas
I’m balanced on my toes 300 feet off the ground, chalk dust blowing off my fingers. My friend Brandon yells encouragement, but the gusting wind gobbles up his words.
It’s my first time climbing Monkey Face, the famous feature in Oregon’s Smith Rock State Park. Tomorrow, we’ll crush plates full of Thanksgiving food. Today, I’m tied into the sharp end of the rope thinking about nothing except where to put my feet and how much air is between me and the ground.
Monkey Face! We climbed up the opposite side, then out the mouth on the right to the top.
This is where the rubber meets the rock. The route I’m climbing, Monkey Space, is famous for its exposure, and I’m overgripping like mad at the moment. My mind knows the rope I’m tied to will keep me safe, but my amygdala is screaming “WHAT ARE YOU DOING?”
A little background: I inked “Climb Monkey Face” onto my bucket list soon after arriving to Oregon. It only took 10 years to stand on top! It’s a must-do for any experienced climber visiting Smith Rock.
To add some adventure, Brandon and I loaded up both our climbing gear and mountain bikes. After a two-wheeled approach to the base of The Monkey, we laced up our shoes and headed skyward. Our route: three 5.8 trad pitches via the West Face Variation of the Monkey, then enjoyed the infamous exposure of the two pitches of 11a/11b sport climb Monkey Space.
Climbing out of the Monkey’s mouth on the 11b final pitch to the top of Monkey Face. (An old photo of mine from 2012!)
https://www.traipsingabout.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/11/Monkey-Face-Smith-Rock-e1512012011265.jpg435580Dakotahttps://www.traipsingabout.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/03/Traipsing-About-logo-white-background-450x156.pngDakota2017-11-29 19:33:532018-02-27 11:26:06Climbing Monkey Face at Smith Rock (with an Approach on Mountain Bikes!)
Whoa, how did two months pass since I last posted? Whoops… For all you new subscribers, howdy! Don’t worry, there’s not usually this much radio silence.
Not that I’ve laid around in traction or anything! Far from it.
Climbing in the Marsupials above Smith Rock.
It’s merely that Bend is the ultimate distraction. Turns out that 1) the city and surrounding area are an outdoor playground with too many potential sports and 2) everyone visits if you move here. Since January, athletic fun and constant guests conspired to leave minimal time for blogging.
Hosting vegan cookbook club in Bend.
My friend Eric skins up Tumalo Mountain on a backcountry ski outing in the Cascades.
Rather than writing, my creative outlet shifted to shooting and editing videos for Instagram on my phone with the Cameo app. My rule: a limit of 15 minutes for editing, which helped me avoid perfectionist tendencies that find me editing for untold hours. During March, I cranked out 10 of them.
It was easy to find material for quick, fun cuts thanks to 30 days of skiing this year (for my first season, I almost don’t suck!), plus rock climbing and mountain biking. Throw in a Portland road trip and a few days in Palm Springs for a wedding and where DOES the time go?
South Sister through the looking glass on a bluebird day.
Check out our recent shenanigans! Here are my favorite Instagram videos (all less than 60 seconds) from the last couple months, all edited on my iPhone using Cameo. Pick a few that sound interesting and crank the sound up!
On top of Tumalo Mtn – hard work done, time for the fun!
https://www.traipsingabout.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/04/Stoked-to-ski.jpg24763714Dakotahttps://www.traipsingabout.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/03/Traipsing-About-logo-white-background-450x156.pngDakota2017-04-05 22:59:132018-02-27 14:20:50Spring Shenanigans in Bend
Me high above the Crooked River at Smith Rock on the aptly-named “Screaming Yellow Zonkers.”
Have you ever quit something you used to love? A job? A relationship?
Well, four years ago, I quit rock climbing. It was no longer fun for me, so I stopped after a decade going at it.
At the time, I was also cranking on my fledgling business and every day was intense. Keeping climbing in the mix felt like tapping a dry reservoir, not a release of pent up energy.
Kicking back around the fire after a great day outside.
Enter mountain biking. Instead of static, cautious moves on a rock wall, I spent hours pedaling through wild areas and ripping down rocky trails. I was a control freak in my business, but I could hit a flow state on a bike. I shelved my climbing gear and spun pedals, initially near home and then all over once we hit the road in 2013.
I still love biking, but a funny thing has happened since we landed back in Portland two weeks ago – I’m stoked to climb again. And now I have two things I previously lacked in Oregon, our Sprinter and a flexible schedule to explore my backyard.
To kick off our Pacific Northwest spring/summer stay, we landed and I quickly turned around to hit the road with my friend Martin. Bachelor trip! Chelsea waved sayonara and went back to back to relaxing at home, exactly where she wants to be right now.
Martin at the top of a climb at Smith Rock.
For me, five days in Central Oregon followed. I’d forgotten the easy nonchalance of a bro trip, the swing of pushing hard physically and then sitting around a campfire trading stories. With the van as base camp, we launched into days rock climbing at Smith Rock and a “rest day” mountain biking in Bend.
After 2.5 years traveling, I’ve found that I’m definitely calmer and more centered now that work doesn’t dominate my mental space the way it used to. (Martin even noticed.) The angst I used to feel climbing a hard route is still there, but to a much lesser degree. It was actually fun to be on my edge, teetering on a cliff, not just a fear-soaked experience.
Nothing like a trad lead to keep the heart rate high. Here I am on Spiderman at Smith Rock. (Photo: Martin Tull)
I attribute this to happiness via subtraction, as these days I’m rarely doing things I dislike. The result is that I don’t hit decision fatigue, mental exhaustion, or frustration as often. I’m still working on curbing my road rage though!
Realizing my head is stronger while tied into a climbing rope is one thing. Translating that into appreciating being home for awhile is another game entirely, and I’m trying to apply my feeling of contentment to the (relatively) stationary life.
Smith Rock in all it’s glory. This place should be a national park!
After all, I can do all the things I enjoy here, even if it doesn’t carry the cool factor of traveling to new places. We both want to be in one place to just hang out and not constantly be exploring distant realms.
My goal is to appreciate the Pacific Northwest for all the excellent fun it offers, whether in or around Portland. It just takes a new head space. As travel writer Pico Iyer penned, “Going nowhere is not about austerity so much as about coming closer to one’s senses.”
Ryan tightrope walks the ridge on Indian Point, a calf-buster hike east of Portland with killer views.
https://www.traipsingabout.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/04/Screaming-Yellow-Zonkers-Smith-Rock.jpg45996791Dakotahttps://www.traipsingabout.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/03/Traipsing-About-logo-white-background-450x156.pngDakota2016-04-29 10:52:372016-04-29 12:22:16Quitting Doesn't Mean You Can't Start Again