Words and photos by Nathan Hadley. Photographs from a spring trip to Joe’s Valley, UT.
Compared to the nationalistic conquering of high peaks, boulder climbing, or “bouldering,” had whimsical beginnings. Bouldering allowed for grown men and women, metaphorically, to still climb trees and rationalize it as training for mountains. From reading early accounts of bouldering and from first-hand experience, it seems that climbers have an irresistible urge to scale anything that rises above their heads, 10-foot boulders included. Bouldering is, quite justifiably, the best foundation and training ground for any grand rock wall, but it is also fun, and a way to get outdoors and enjoy the company of friends.
The gentlemen and women of the British Isles, as well as the French, were first on the scene in recorded bouldering history. One Scottish climber, bouldering as early as 1880, wrote that bouldering provides the climber practice “at least as good” as a golfer who putts on his drawing room carpet. By 1898, the earliest diagram of a boulder with descriptions of unique “problems,” possibly the first bouldering guidebook, had appeared in a hand-drawn guide of a particular boulder in the British Lake District.
In France, the first documented attempts at bouldering were in fact a bit earlier—the 1870s. Indeed, many argue that the true birthplace of bouldering as a serious sport was Fontainebleau, a magical-boulder-forest-garden just outside of Paris. Though the Scottish and the British may have started bouldering around the same time, they did not continue with it with the same consistency as the Parisians. Fontainebleau nurtured bouldering until the world was ready to legitimize the intrinsic value of the activity, which was not until the late 1900s.
I am someone drawn to the adventure of the high mountains—hiking in them, scrambling their ridges, and climbing their walls. But bouldering is a welcomed change of pace. Constant movement is replaced with short efforts in which every movement is thoughtful and precise.
Getting into bouldering is easy, and has become the standard entrance into the sport of rock climbing. Indoor rock climbing gyms are sprouting up everywhere and they are a good place to start. Find out if there are any boulders near you. Usually they’re not too far away.
Pierre Allain, who popularized climbing in Fontainebleau in the 1930s and 40s, called bouldering the “school of climbing,” but also was one of the first to assert that bouldering had value in and of itself. In Alpinisme et Competition, Allain wrote, “And—to tell the truth—it isn’t solely with an eye to mountain routes that we go to Bleau and climb there, it’s above all because we make a game of it, one that arouses our passion in and of itself. It’s good training? All the better, but even if that weren’t the case, for the majority of us nothing would have changed.” Keep the young tree-climbing spirit within you alive.
Region by region, the best classic bouldering spots in the U.S.:
- Northwest: Squamish, British Columbia; and Leavenworth, Washington
Just over the border in southern British Columbia, the town of Squamish is a bouldering paradise set amid lush temperate rainforest in a towering granite-walled valley. Though notoriously soggy a good portion of the year, the Pacific Northwest does deliver dry and strikingly beautiful climbing windows throughout the winter, and its summers are sunny and relatively mild.
Head down into Washington State, and the small hamlet of Leavenworth is situated on the drier side the infamously rugged Cascade Mountain Range. Beyond the tourist-filled town, the surrounding terrain is quiet, mountainous and emerging as a world-class bouldering venue. However, snow blankets these boulders during the winter months.
- California: Yosemite, Joshua Tree, and Bishop
California gets its own category, but justifiably, as the state is huge and has three iconic bouldering settings. These places really speak for themselves. Yosemite had bouldering activity as early as the 1940s and is home to the famous modern test-piece, Midnight Lightning (V8), which was first climbed by Ron Kauk in 1978—way ahead of its time.
As much as Yosemite has historical significance to climbing, Joshua Tree has the strikingly austere beauty of the desert. Here, amid the flat landscape and the park’s namesake trees, piles and piles of boulders, from 5 ft. to 100 ft. tall, wait to be climbed.
Further up the state, Bishop’s reputation proceeds itself as a first-class bouldering destination. At the eastern fringe of the Sierras, the setting, needless-to-say, is dramatic. But while the media is flush with images of the area’s “highballs,” not everything at Bishop is quite so tall and intimidating.
- Mountain West: Joe’s Valley, Utah; and Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado.
A realm of black and tan streaked sandstone boulders, Joe’s Valley offers world-class desert climbing minutes from the car. The charted routes are plentiful and range from expert to beginner level with comfortable holds on an aesthetic canvas. The climate here makes this zone a three season spot as the summer days can be scorchers.
In the Front Range, folks can duke it out over what they perceive as their top bouldering spots, but the obvious classic is Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP). While its alpine boulders can only be climbed in the summer, the park’s wild setting, unpredictable weather, and relatively easy access to beautiful and difficult problems make RMNP unique. In the winter, Colorado Springs, CO, and Laramie, WY, offer plenty of options for the serious among this tribe. Virtually any canyon—Clear Creak, Eldo, Boulder, Poudre, etc.—afford prime bouldering opportunities.
- Southwest: Red Rocks, Nevada; and Hueco Tanks, Texas.
Both Southwestern destinations are perfect in the winter and climbers flock to them from around the globe. Bouldering in Red Rocks can be enjoyed from a cheap hotel in Vegas, and is definitely more convenient than climbing in Hueco, where you have to make reservations and be guided. However, many people believe the bouldering in Hueco is the best in the world.
- Midwest: Devil’s Lake, Wisconsin; Jackson Falls, Illinois; and the Black Hills, South Dakota.
Climbing in the Midwest? Yup, it has a bit. As an Indiana boy, I know. Funny enough, Devil’s Lake is one of the birthplaces of modern bouldering in America. Here, towering quartzite rock cliffs and the jumbled piles of boulders afford hundreds of routes near the serene, forest-lined lake.
Located in the beautiful Shawnee National Forest, Jackson Falls in southern Illinois sports the greatest amount of quality climbing in the state. Beneath the soaring green canopy, the ancient boulders rise high above the canyon floor—all of it a massive playground for boulderers looking to hide amid the shade, though the heat and humidity will find you anywhere.
In South Dakota, Black Hills is a gem long ago discovered by some of climbing’s pioneers, including Herb and Jan Conn. For the best bouldering, head to Old Baldy near Mt Rushmore, a spectacular zone of giant granite slabs set amid the arid mountainous landscape. Further north, limestone canyons and sandstone offer great bouldering outside of Rapid City.
- Southeast: Horse Pens 40, Alabama; Rocktown, Georgia; and Stone Fort, Tennessee.
All of these areas are within an hour and a half from Chattanooga, TN, making the city one of the best in the country for rock climbers. All three bouldering areas are on the same kind of sandstone, and more or less similar in quality with a similar chunky and fractured aesthetic, though the locals probably argue about which area is the best. They’re all worth visiting. As a side note for the Southeast, South Carolina also hosts a fair helping of boulders, mainly in the Ashville area.
- Northeast: The Gunks, New York; Great Barrington and Farley, Massachusetts; and Rumney and Pawtuckaway, New Hampshire.
The Northeast has a wealth of climbing and is perhaps the true birthplace of bouldering in America, with activity dating back to the early 20th century. The Gunks is legendary in the history of rock climbing in general, and is a must for all serious climbers. Its hard quartz overhanging slabs are home to more than 250 boulder problems, and with highs here into the 70s, the climbing is year-round.
Massachusetts should not be overlooked. Hosting some of the best bouldering and hardest boulder problems in New England, climbers are treated to gorgeous woodland and quality rock, including high pinnacles and rock bands. Most of the spots are easily accessed on the outskirts of Boston.
Pawtuckaway harbors some of the best bouldering in the country strewn through the beautiful mountains of New Hampshire. Hundreds of giant granite boulders left as glacial drift throughout the forest are evidence of the ring dike produced by the area’s extinct volcano. Nearly two dozen separate bouldering areas offer various levels and quality and even more hidden gems abound. In Rumney, check out Black Jack Boulders and The Pound, where the massive chunks of rock will make you feel small in a big world.
Nathan Hadley is a Seattle-based photographer, and a route setter at Seattle Bouldering Project.
Visit his website at brnathan.com.