Rock Climbing in Arizona: In Search of New Frontiers

Even though you can see for miles across the landscape, Arizona rock climbing has managed to remain a secretive affair in plain sight. Recent development is beginning to reveal its true potential.

Dropping down through Oak Creek Canyon, a river gorge with hairpin turns, I thought to myself, I guess I don’t know Arizona. All around, 800 foot sandstone cliffs and pillar formations cast up as we drove—a golden sea splashing with buffed gray, giving way to ferric reds bounding thick strips of limestone.

I couldn’t believe I hadn’t been down here before. But descending was only half the fun that day.

Later, topping out on a tiny spindle big enough for just a couple, looking at the air underneath and all around, it felt like we were at the edge of a map peering—at a new frontier of climbing.

Rock climbing in Cochise Stronghold, Arizona.
Some say Arizona boasts the most exposed rock in the entire country. I can’t verify that, but there is plenty of stone—much of it still to be discovered and developed!

A Primer for Rock Climbing in Arizona

Climbers have long since flocked to the Southwest for sunshine and splitters year-round, often overlooking Arizona for other nearby destinations like Moab, Joshua Tree, or Las Vegas. Moving here from Colorado, I thought it would be a step back in terms of climbing options too. Instead, I found an expanse of untapped potential—and that’s not counting the 9,000-plus named routes that already exist!

What a lot of people don’t realize is that the state is home to more than desert. Well let’s be clear, there is a lot of that—including the four distinct regions of the Chihuahuan, Mojave, Sonoran, and the Great Basin—but you also get tall mountain ranges (which are snowy enough for backcountry skiing), subalpine forests, deep canyons (including some of the best hiking in the state at the Grand Canyon), and mesas.

Throughout Arizona’s geologic diversity is a wealth of climbable rock: granite, quartzite, basalt, limestone, sandstone, gneiss, welded tuff, and many other types. In the north, you have higher elevation crags around Flagstaff, Sedona, Prescott, Queen Creek Canyon, and McDowell Mountain, while in the southern end surrounding Tucson is one of the largest undiscovered frontiers of climbing in the U.S. Even the places people know about, such as Mt. Lemmon and Cochise Stronghold, have a lot of room for expansion and development.

There is some rock climbing at the Grand Canyon, but the best stuff is away from the crowds.
While Arizona is most known for the 6,000 foot deep Grand Canyon, there is plenty of rugged terrain to explore, and only a fraction of the crowds.

Of what is known, there’s a little something for everyone—from clipping bolts and climbing hard on some of the steepest granite crags in the Southwest to gritty adventures pulling off hunks of rock and cleaning dirt out of your ears for days after.

As you can imagine, word is starting to spread and interest in Arizona climbing is growing. At least for now, you can still get out on one of our many bluebird days and have no trouble jumping on the route you want. I like that feeling, of being in an area where there’s a lot of untapped things to explore, it only took me moving to a city to realize it.

The Music Reverberates in the Desert

In another life in another universe I am a studio musician.

It’s not far-fetched; I went to a big city to get perspective and a music degree. Halfway through school though, I realized, I’m probably going to pursue something that will keep me away from the mountains. So I cut loose.

These days I still play, but whenever I try to make money off music it starts to blow a hole in all of it. Now, I find and make music among the desert and natural amphitheaters—the warble of my Navajo flute soars like a cactus wren surfacing in the sky.

The open desert environments are also excellent for climbing. It’s that potential that drew me to starting a guiding company, Arizona Climbing Guides, in the state that until recently has been somewhat of a “wild west” of development. While climbing in Arizona has remained less well-known, I’m hoping this guide can be a jumping off point for those wanting to adventure here.

Cochise Stronghold

1. Cochise Stronghold

TOP CHOICE FOR MULTI-PITCH BACKCOUNTRY ADVENTURE
Something for everyone in a backcountry setting
Great for getting into moderate multi-pitches, both trad and sport
Beautiful wilderness typically without crowds
Closures for raptor nesting
Approach roads not suited to all cars
Climbing at Cochise Stronghold is a backcountry adventure, and you should prepare accordingly!
Cochise Stronghold, in the Dragoon Mountains, is full of rugged canyons and towering granite domes. The climbing can be a route-finding challenge, like navigating the terrain itself. Photo courtesy of Jayci Ferrimani

A Serengeti of the southwest

Entering Cochise, I feel like I’m in the Serengeti. As a transition zone between the climate of the Sonoran desert and higher elevations, there’s scrubby trees and tall native grass that resembles the grasslands of Africa.

Named after the Chiricahua Apache Chief, Cochise, this rock fortress was his and his followers’s home for some 15 years in the mid-1800s as they evaded and fought against the U.S. army. In modern day, Cochise is a beautiful wilderness setting where you can spend a day climbing even the most classic routes without seeing a single other person.

Climbing at Cochise Stronghold is all about having a remote desert experience and getting high off the ground on one of its many multi-pitch options. You can keep it low-commitment by cragging, maybe getting on some slab, or go for a bit of an adventure on a run-out granite face climb up one of the domes. There are also a lot of cool routes perfect for an introduction to moderate multi-pitch climbing on impeccable rock with incredible views.

Overall, the vibe here is old-school adventure climbing, with longer approaches and a plethora of high-quality crack climbs. The majority of the routes are trad, with 600-plus routes on the yellow and pastel green formations that reach up to 800 feet. There’s also plenty of bouldering and sport for those who want it. With Arizona’s temperate climate, Cochise Stronghold is climbable year-round, though conditions are most comfortable in spring and fall.

Take a tourist rest day at Tombstone

Tombstone is one of the many southeastern Arizona towns shaped by the unpredictable economy of mining, and formerly by gold. In a wilder era, the town was known for its residents, both outlaws and lawmen such as the Cochise County Cowboys and Virgil Earp.

Today, while a bit cheesy, it’s a fun place to grab a bite to eat, drink a beer, and watch people walk around in period clothing after a long-day of climbing at Cochise Stronghold. You can also catch the daily high noon gun battle.

Recommended climbs at Cochise Stronghold

What’s My Line — 5.7

Three-pitches which starts with a required pendulum before bringing you out of a gully with 250’ feet of open air below you. This route is great because while the climbing is easy, the exposure is on par with something three grades harder due to the start.

Ewephoria — 5.8

Another good, slightly longer climb comprised of 5-pitches of crack and face climbing. After the first pitch, it is mostly bolted, though you can place gear if you want to run it out less. Finish going over an overhang and end a sharp arete.

You get these huge plates that look like scales and can turn into something of a sky ladder. It's almost like it's made to be climbed.

Jayci Ferrimani

1. Cochise Stronghold - Good to Know

Skill level

Beginner to advanced

Climbing style

Mostly traditional crack climbing

Getting there

For east, take exit 318 off I-10 through the town of Dragoon and then a right onto Cochise Stronghold Road. For west, take highway 80 from Benson and then after 20 miles a left onto Middlemarch Road

Access

Day use fees are $8

Accomodation

Dispersed camping offered in both East Stronghold and West. There is an established Forest Service Campground on the east side with toilets but no water

Season

Year-round climbing but best conditions in Spring or Fall

Eats

La Cocina/TallBoys (now merged) in the Historic Presidio District of Tucson is my choice for outdoor dining and live music. For authentic Mexican, try El Charro Café

For gear

Summit Hut is a local chain first opened in 1967. With two locations (one in Tucson, another in Oro Valley) they have all the goods you may have forgotten at home

Guidebook

“Cochise Stronghold: The Complete Set (2017)” by Tanya Bok

Mount Lemmon

2. Mount Lemmon

TOP CHOICE FOR SPORT CLIMBERS
Huge variety of options and climbable year-round
Easy access
Lots of camping available
Highway traffic driving up the road
Flash floods during monsoon season
Climbers atop Hitchcock Pinnacle, one of the most recognizable rocks on Mt. Lemmon.
Windy Point West is one of the most iconic climbing areas of Mount Lemmon, and Steve’s Arete (5.11a) on Hunchback Pinnacle (Hitchcock Pinnacle shown here) was actually one of the reasons I came here for the first time. The views of the Tucson valley can’t be beat. Photo courtesy of Jayci Ferrimani

Choose your adventure: Altitude and style for everyone

Just outside Tuscon in the Santa Catalina Mountains, Mt. Lemmon is one of the most popular climbing spots in Arizona. It boasts thousands of climbs—from bouldering at Mystic and Linda Vista to 10-pitch sport climbs—and because the average highs are in the 70s in February, it makes a terrific winter destination. The majority of routes are accessible via the Catalina Highway (recently designated as the Sky Island Parkway) so you can have a full day of climbing and easily return to town for dinner.

On Mt. Lemmon, you can decide what elevation and rock type they want to climb. Ranging from gneiss and year-round warmer temps at 2,000 feet to alpine granite at the summit, nearly 10,000 feet above sea level, the mountain provides plenty of options depending on your interest and weather that day. In fact, driving through the pass will bring you up and down more than 5,300 feet and through five of North America’s distinct ecological zones.

Something for everyone

Historically, Mt. Lemmon was home to old-school trad. While those are still available, modern development has expanded the style primarily towards sport climbing and routes suitable for beginners.

This wide variety is part of what makes Mt. Lemmon special; at Windy Point, for example, a group including someone climbing for the first time and a 5.14 crusher could head up and spend the day cragging within walking distance of each other.

It's really hard to think of anything negative to say about Mount Lemmon: you have a good combination of ease of access and a variety of different climbing—from multi-pitch trad to 1,000s of sport routes.

Jayci Ferrimani

2. Mount Lemmon - Good to Know

Skill level

Beginner to advanced

Climbing Style

Multi-pitch trad, sport, bouldering

Access:

No fees for most trailheads with the exception of the $10 per day for the summit. Note that some areas have seasonal closures from January-July for the protection of peregrine falcons and bighorn sheep

Accommodation

There’s a plethora of developed camping alongside the roadway such as Molino Basin. For a little more luxury, one could stay at the Ventana Canyon Lodge or even Dove Mountain Ritz Carleton

Season

Year-round, especially below mid-mountain

Eats

Hit up LaCo (La Cocina, aka Love and Community) for a rustic cantina and live music under the stars

For gear

Summit Hut is a local chain first opened in 1967. With two locations (one in Tucson, another in Oro Valley) they have all the goods you may have forgotten at home

Guidebook

Squeezing the Lemmon III Enough Lemmonade for a Lifetime: A Rock Climber’s Guide to the Mt. Lemmon Highway Arizona (2015)” by Eric Fazio-Rhicard

McDowell Mountains

3. McDowell Mountains

TOP CHOICE FOR THE BEST CLIMBING NEAR PHOENIX
Great place to learn multi-pitch skills
Close to Scottsdale and Phoenix
Introductory crack climbing routes
A significant population of killer bees
Very hot in the summer
Climbing at the McDowell Mountains, some of the best climbing near Phoenix and Scottsdale.
The granite climbing here is much different than the limestone and sandstone common in other areas. Expect a lot of friction-based slab and cracks. Photo courtesy of Jayci Ferrimani

Granite climbing at it’s finest (and hottest)

Located a little less than an hour via car from Phoenix and only twenty minutes from Scottsdale, the McDowell mountains offer a great introduction to Arizona granite climbing while remaining close to urban areas. The best seasons to climb are winter, spring, and fall as the Phoenix metro area has some of the highest average temperatures in the U.S. (including an average high of 104.5° F in July), which makes the 20,000-plus acre McDowell-Sonoran preserve a recreational reprieve.

The climbing in the McDowell Mountains is largely single-pitch trad from 5.3 to 5.12, but you can also find some bolted routes and bouldering here. The Gardiner’s Wall offers a few multi-pitches excellent for beginners to practice their skills. In fact, the Gardiner’s Wall is one of the few spots available for multi-pitching northeast of Phoenix. A few easy-to-moderate multi-pitch classics include the two-pitch 5.5 Hanging Gardens and 5.7 Renaissance Direct.

3. McDowell Mountains - Good to Know

Skill level

Beginner to advanced

Climbing style

Crack and slab on rough grained granite are the name of the game

Getting there

Start at Tom’s Thumb Trailhead. To get there, head east on Happy Valley Road until it turns into 118th north bound. Make a right on Ranch Gate Road (look for signs to the trailhead) and go east to 128th Street. Make another right and go south until you reach Tom’s Thumb Trailhead

Access

Free but must be accessed via established trails and trailheads

Accommodation

Scottsdale offers many Airbnbs options. The Bespoke Inn Cafe and Bicycles bed and breakfast is good for those willing to splurge

Season

Winter and spring (gets toasty in the summer; Phoenix has some of the highest temperatures in America)

Eats

Blue Clover Distillery in Old Town Scottsdale is a good spot to grab a drink, and their menu includes a create-your-own pizza and salad option

For gear

Just Roughin’ It. Guiding service turned gear shop, this is an excellent local option for picking up any gear you need

Guidebook

“McDowell Rock — A Climber’s Guide” by Erik Filsinger and Cheryl Beaver

Bee-ware

Central Arizona is home to Africanized honeybees, sometimes referred to “killer bees.” As long as you don’t swat, you will generally be safe

Queen Creek Canyon

4. Queen Creek Canyon

TOP CHOICE FOR BOULDERING AND SPORT
Wide range of difficulties, from 5.6 to 5.13
Fun volcanic pockets
Close to the cities of Phoenix and Scottsdale
Ongoing land use battles
Copper mine is an eyesore
Climbing at Queen Creek Canyon, some of the best outdoor sport climbing near Phoenix and Scottsdale.
Queen Creek also includes the Oak Flat campground, Apache Leap, and Devils Canyon all with this particular volcanic type. Photo by Courtney Dean licensed under CC BY 2.0

Get ready to try hard

The Queen Creek climbing area is conveniently located 45 minutes southeast of Phoenix. Filled with towering spires and endless fields of boulders, there are about 1,000 routes and nearly 2,000 problems across a wide range of difficulties. In fact, the Phoenix Bouldering Contests were hosted in Queen Creek for 15 years from 1989 to 2004.

Unlike the rest of Arizona rock climbing, Queen Creek Canyon is full of volcanic towers which makes for a unique style of pocketed volcanic tuff and tiny-crimps (similar to the type of climbing you’ll find at Smith Rock). It’s the perfect place for those wanting to crank hard on friction face climbs.

Unfortunately, Queen Creek Canyon is the site of several land use battles. The Resolution Copper Mine owns most of the land so access is a bit precarious. Since the Queen Creek Coalition signed a Recreational Use License with the mine, climbers are able to use the area after registering and filling out a liability waiver.

Take a dip at The Pond

As one of the most popular destinations in the Queen Creek Canyon, The Pond showcases sunny, south facing walls with lots and lots of deep pockets and plenty of moderates. It is part of “The Road Area” making it easily accessible. There are almost 300 mostly sport routes and nearly 100 boulder problems.

The Queen Creek area has a lifetime of routes and boulders to be climbed.

Jayci Ferrimani

4. Queen Creek Canyon - Good to Know

Skill level

Beginner to advanced

Climbing style

Pockets and crimps on featured faces and slabs

Getting there

Located four miles outside of Superior, AZ, take Highway 60 east from Phoenix for about an hour and through the Queen Creek Tunnel

Access

Registration needed to climb at Pond and Atlantis areas

Accommodations

The Oak Flat Campground offers free camping (Forest Service land)

Season

Year-round, although summer can get hot

Eats

Joyride Taco House is a good bet for a post-climb meal, and for sweets I recommend Karl’s Quality Bakery

For gear

Arizona Hiking Shack has been locally owned since 1972, started as a literal 10′ x 20′ miner’s line shack. Today, it has plenty of gear for backpackers and climbers

Guidebook

“The Rock Jock’s Guide to Queen Creek Canyon Superior, Arizona” by Marty Karabin

Granite Dells and Granite Basin

5. Granite Dells and Granite Basin

TOP CHOICE FOR BEGINNER AND INTERMEDIATE CLIMBERS
Very accessible from Prescott
Good beginner to moderate terrain
Alternative to the climbing around Sedona
Not as close to the larger metro areas of the state
Monsoon season flash floods and lightning storms
Climbing at the Granite Dells on a sunny afternoon.
The climbing at Granite Dells tends to be shorter on rounded desert granite formations. Fun fact: the rock has been dated to about 1.4 billion year old. Photo courtesy of Jayci Ferrimani

Easy access by staying central

If you want to add a little more to your Arizona experience beside the Grand Canyon tour, the Granite Dells and Basin are excellent options. The Dells are actually within the city limits of Prescott, making it one of the most accessible locations—it’s just about a ten minute drive with another 10-20 minute approach.

Traditionally, this has been a local’s area but has seen a lot of development over the past ten years or so. The rock is a small, grainy composite—much like that found in the Sierras—setting the Dells apart from the climbing in the rest of Central Arizona. Much of the climbing is on large standalone boulders and rounded cliffs, with many right on the shore of Watson Lake if you want to take a dip to cool off (or paddleboard or kayak for that matter). When the Dells get too hot in the summer, further to the west in the Prescott National Forest is the Granite Basin which features cooler temperatures year-round and a more remote experience.

Climbing at Granite Dells and Basin started in the 1970s with trad and bouldering, but with recent development has become beginner and intermediate friendly. The routes tend towards the shorter end, though there are more than enough—600-plus, primarily in the 5.6-5.12 range—to get mileage in.

Where to climb at Granite Dells

Some of the first places developed in the Granite Dells were the Granite Gardens and the High Rappel Area. The High Rappel Dell features more tough, old-school trad routes but it holds value for beginners as well, especially those that want to practice rappelling on the huge eyelet bolts.

Across Granite Creek is The Oasis area of the Granite Gardens. One of the newer areas is Shady Grove, which as the name suggests, is south-facing and shaded by trees.

Recommended climbs for beginners

Panda Cub — 5.5
Sport route at the Panda Wall which follows a left-facing corner to bolted anchors.

Hop, Skip, and a Jump — 5.7(ish)
This trad route at the Grotto, a small canyon along the Grotto Trail, follows an arete and requires a particular move, as the name suggests.

Magister Ludi — 5.7+ (PG13)
This is the go-to route in the area. At the Waning Wall, a cliff that runs about 100’ tall, the climb follows a crack up into a shallow left-facing corner before continuing into a better crack to the top.

Déjà Vu — 5.8+
In Shade Grove, this sport route climbs on classic Dells slab and somewhat tricky feet.

5. Granite Dells and Granite Basin - Good to Know

Skill level

Beginner to moderate

Climbing style

Traditional (grades can be a bit stiff), sport and bouldering

Getting there

Only a 10 minute drive outside Prescott and 45 minutes from Sedona

Access

$2 admission fee

Accommodation

Camping for $10-15 dollars at the Granite Dells or base of Granite Mountain, or look for camping in the National Forest land around Prescott. If you want to stay in Prescott, there are plenty of affordable hotels

Seasons

All seasons. It can get warm in the summer but there are plenty of shady spots

For gear

Granite Mountain Outfitters or The Hike Shack

Guidebook

“The Granite Dells Climbing Guide” by Kevin Keith

Acknowledging the past and present

Much of the climbing in Arizona rests on the historically Indigenous lands of tribes such as the Apache, Cherokowa Apache, Puebloan groups, Zuni, and others, and remains near present day reservations. This legacy is a very present part of the culture and it’s important to both acknowledge and educate oneself about when visiting the area.

When at Cochise, I talk about what the Cherokowa-Apache went through, such as getting shipped off to reservations. I talk about Geronimo and I try to point out to people the pictographs on overhanging rocks. I also share that the indigenous peoples are still here in the area, still valuing the land, and consider it part of their people.

A Frontier for Everyone to Access

While Arizona is already known for its hikes and mountain biking, rock climbing is growing as another way to enjoy this vast landscape of red rock and towering spires. For me, the joy of living here has been about the exploration—like crafting a new song, you’re never quite sure what you’ll come up with. In the end, I’m glad I made my way here, and I hope to keep welcoming folks to this slice of the Southwest.

Want to explore the new frontier of climbing the American Southwest? Join Jayci for a day out in Arizona!

About the author
AMGA Rock Guide, Founder of Arizona Climbing Guides

Jayci Ferrimani is an AMGA certified Rock Guide passionate about helping others pursue the sport. Growing up in the Colorado mountains, the outdoors has always been a fundamental part of Jayci’s personality but it wasn’t until he left them to study music at Berklee College of Music in Boston that he realized he wanted to make a career out of his love for the outdoors. Since then, he’s done just that all over the United States.

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