Top Ten National Parks for Rock Climbing


A half-century ago Yosemite's El Capitan was considered impossible to climb. Then in 1958—after a total of 47 days spread over 17 months—a team led by Warren Harding ascended the sheer face of El Cap's Nose. In the world of climbing this was an epic achievement, not unlike Roger Bannister's 1954 sub-four-minute mile. The very idea that it could be done lent a foot up to those who would follow.

The proliferation of rock climbing has much to do with the successes of Harding, Royal Robbins, John Salathe, and many others in the heyday of Yosemite Valley. Since the 1960s the area has been synonymous with rock climbing in the United States. It is appropriate that the activity, which has only recently been considered a sport, began in one of the nation's favorite protected places. In the spirit of the original conservationists, Yosemite National Park and its climbers worked together to develop an ethic that allowed for both the enjoyment and continued protection of the land. As rock climbing grew in size other national parks—Joshua Tree, Grand Teton, Seqouia and Kings Canyon among them—became part of the rock circuit and continued to champion the Yosemite ethic.

It is no secret that rock climbing is hugely popular today. Some of the world's finest rock can be found in the parks listed on the pages that follow this article. The parks here were chosen for the number of routes available, the ease of accessibility, the quality of rock, and the beauty of the climb. You will no doubt notice a conspicuous lack of some of the alpine classics America has to offer. Places like Mount Rainier, the North Cascades, and Denali are wonderlands of rock and ice, but this is a list of places where technical climbing is king.

These national parks offer mainly trad climbing, in which the climber places his or her own protection. Most have sport and top-roped climbing as well, and those that do not, such as Utah's Capitol Reef, offer quality alternatives nearby.

A high standard of respect for these wild places is expected of all visitors, and the climber must adhere to stringent rules to maintain these lands. Bolt only where absolutely necessary, leave stone-colored webbing when recovery is impossible, and follow all local rules and regs. Whether the terrain is granite, sandstone, gneiss, or schist, the ethic remains.

Recently, the climb that took Harding and his team more than a year to complete was done in less than four and a half hours. Technology has allowed us to climb higher and harder with less impact on our natural settings than ever before. Climbing's reward comes not in conquering nature but in enjoying it and overcoming obstacles. Alpine-high views of breathtaking settings don't hurt, either.



Sign up to Away's Travel Insider

Preview newsletter »