San Diego is a “City in Motion,” from hiking and mountain biking, to surfing and rock climbing. Between the hot rocks and the cool ocean, I’m a happy man.
For someone like me who can’t imagine spending my days indoors, San Diego’s an awesome place to be. With the Pacific on one side and the mountains on the other, it’s like the elements conspired to create a picture-perfect coastal city. As the birthplace of skateboarding, home to some of America’s best surf spots, and an underrated granite oasis for outdoor rock climbing, I have everything I love right here!
Pros and Cons of Rock Climbing in San Diego
When you visit for the first time, you feel it. You notice how chill San Diegans are: the bright faces and sun-kissed hair are the perfect embodiment of laidback beach culture. With the paradisiacal geography and weather, who could blame them?
Since I can hardly sit still I’m constantly outside. And apparently so is everyone else. Wherever you look in San Diego there’s people riding waves, hiking the mixed landscape and rock climbing outdoors. Never has this been more true than today. Gyms have been popping up in recent years and spots that would’ve been empty a decade ago are now constantly trafficked, even on weekdays.
I Found My Home in This Pacific Coast Paradise
I can’t help being enchanted by the San Diego lifestyle. Coming from a small town near the German-Dutch border, there were no mountains or beaches growing up. But we had trees, fences, and barricades. Man, I loved climbing those things! Then one day a friend invited me to the German Alpine Club’s climbing wall and I learned this fascination had a sport attached to it.
About a decade ago I came to San Diego for college, and had no idea what to expect. I skateboarded in Germany so was familiar with California’s scene, and was vaguely aware that there was surfing. Other than that, I didn’t know a thing about the city. Like most Europeans, I recognized its southern neighbor more thanks to Manu Chao’s, “Welcome to Tijuana”—all that “tequila, sexo y marijuana” and what not!
Less surf’s up and more roped-up
When I got to San Diego, I met folks who were into rock climbing outdoors. They started taking me to all these sweet spots around the city and I was dizzyingly tossed into a world of different styles, climbing techniques, and advanced rope skills. Things clicked pretty quickly and I knew I had to move here.
Since San Diego’s rock climbing is best shared—as it was with me—I’ve compiled my favorite spots for all of you below.
The Best, in Excess, and Easily Accessed—Outdoor Rock Climbing around San Diego
The sheer variety of options and laid-back vibe that rivals the climbing in the Gunks make San Diego a top place to live for rock climbing. Most of the areas are just a short drive and have a quick approach. Whether you’re looking for an evening bouldering session or a full backcountry adventure, there’s so many spots to scratch your itch.
People from out of town will often ask, where can you climb in San Diego? I’ve got my list on the ready: El Cajon Mountain, Eagle Peak, Dixon Lake, Mission Trails, Santee, Mount Woodson, Tahquitz and Suicide Rock, and the world-renowned, ever tricky, Joshua Tree.
And obviously, San Diego is nothing without the beach. After a gnarly day on the rocks, ditch your gear for swim trunks because nothing soothes the soul, or roughed up mitts, like a dip in the Pacific. Forget gym-to-crag, we’re going gym-to-sea!
Tie Into San Diego’s Top Roped Climbing Areas
There is a ton of rock climbing adventures to be enjoyed near San Diego County. After guiding here for over a decade, this section will cover the best local spots I’ve found for sport, trad and toprope.
1. Get high and satisfy your climbing needs at El Cajon
Leaving behind a vegetated riverbed your view suddenly opens up to a stunning 450-foot block of first-class granite. This is El Cajon Mountain, lovingly referred to as El Capitan by locals.
It’s renowned for full-days of stellar multi-pitch climbing. The two miles long approach and 1,900 feet of elevation gain means you’re committing, but for climbers of all skill levels who want to get up high and practice their rope management, it’s worth the hike. Most of the areas are as well-bolted as the climbing routes in Red River Gorge, though some of the crack climbs require a few pieces of gear.
This massive outcrop is divided into several areas whose difficulty scales gradually. The left side of El Cajon offers lots of introductory climbs that are 5.9 and lower with Buffalo Bill (5.6) and Meteor (5.8) some of the best beginner rock climbing routes near San Diego. Also starring in this constellation is Leonids (5.9), one of Southern California’s most celebrated routes. As you move further to the right, the cliff gets steeper. Climbs go up to 5.13, like the wickedly overhanging, I’m Your Huckleberry, considered the premiere route for its grade in the area.
The headwall of El Cajon is San Diego’s most iconic face. It has tremendous exposure and an unperturbed view all the way to the ocean. Bring lunch, plenty of water, and a camera to document the occasion.
2. You don’t want to miss Mountaineer’s Wall
Thanks to San Diego’s vibrant climbing scene, more and more climbs have been added to the main cliff and the smaller rock formations around El Cajon. One of my favorites is called Mountaineer’s Wall. It currently holds about 200 climbs, including San Diego’s longest multi-pitch, Sleeping Giant (5.10a). With 10 pitches and 1,000 feet of climbing, this easily approachable behemoth roars to life as you move through low-angle slabs into steeper business towards the summit.
3. Soaking up the backcountry views on Eagle Peak’s orange granite
Located near Descanso and surrounded by the Cleveland National Forest, Eagle Peak offers similar thrills to El Cajon, but with a much shorter approach. What’s interesting is you actually take a 45-minute hike down because the parking area is located above the 350-foot wall. The granite here is excellent, with climbs ranging from 5.8 to 5.12 (all bolted).
Eagle Peak is remote. There’s no noise or crowds here, only nature and the occasional airplane flying overhead. One of the popular routes is called 95 Degrees in the Shade (5.12b), which tells you everything you need to know about summer climbing. If you don’t plan for a cloudy day and a cool breeze, your best bet is coming early or hiking through the midday heat to hit the walls in the shade.
4. Perfect intro climbs at Dixon Lake
When I’m working with beginner climbers, my go-to spots are Dixon Lake and Mission Trails. These areas are both close to San Diego and ideal for intro rock climbing lessons like teaching TR skills and drilling the fundamentals.
Dixon Lake has been a popular outcrop since the 70s, in no small part to its 2-minute approach from the parking. While the wear and tear is notable, the cracks and faces that have remained clean offer prime training grounds for aspiring rock climbers. Unfortunately, Dixon Lake doesn’t take more than 20 people, and works on a first-come, first-served basis. Sometimes you’ll strike out here.
5. Find your space, and footwork, at Mission Trails Regional Park
In contrast, the brilliant Mission Trails is one of the largest urban parks in the country and it’s just a 20-minute drive from downtown.
The granite is the smooth, slippery kind that does wonders for your footwork. Around half of the climbs are trad or mixed, but most anchors are bolted which means a quick setup for us guides and those wanting to toprope. Another plus is that the top is accessible from the backside. With tons of climbing between 5.4 and 5.9, no crag in San Diego lets you knock off as many routes in a single day.
Many first-timers have this perception that height equals difficulty. That’s not necessarily the case. In fact, longer routes are often a challenge for their endurance requirements and techniques, which means you don’t have to crush to go big.
Seeing beginners celebrate after sending the long routes in Mission Trails is one of my great joys—you’d almost think they just conquered the Dawn Wall!
The Skyline Pinnacle (5.7) is one such entry-level climb that offer a powerful sense of accomplishment. As you scale the route, be sure to enjoy the scenic views of the national park and San Diego River flowing 400 feet below you. With vistas to rival the best Joshua Tree hikes, this route is truly top-notch and my clients can’t get enough of it.
Now about that San Diego heat. Since Mission Trails faces west it gets a lot of morning shade, which makes this a great year-round climbing destination.
The Finest Bouldering This Side of Joshua Tree
1. Get in a good workout on Santee Bouldering
Personally, I’m more into long routes and technical ropework, but I love bouldering for a quick, intense session. Located right next to Mission Trails, Santee Boulders is another classic San Diego rock climbing spot. Well known for its thin slab faces and mantels, Santee also features challenging cracks that are well worth the try. Because it’s so accessible, a trip to Santee feels like going to the gym—put in a workout and you’re back home before you know it.
2. Mount Woodson—a massive hillside sprinkled with superb problems
Props to Santee, but hands down the best bouldering in San Diego is on Mount Woodson. Trust me, it’s worth the 40-minute drive to Ramona. Here you’ll find thousands of boulders of all sizes, many of them just tall enough for rope climbing (but doable with pads), spread out as far as the eye can see. It’s easy to get lost among the countless rocks peppering the mountainside jostled between large bushes and chaparral.
The high-quality monzogranite, similar to what’s found in Joshua Tree, feels great on the hands and is filled with perfectly sized cracks. You won’t find too many high-end problems here, but you could climb these sheer, egg-shaped rocks forever and never get bored. One of the famous routes is Robbins Crack (5.10a), named after Royal Robbins, a legend of the sport, while Mother Superior (5.11+) is a very difficult, overhanging off-width test piece. If you cast your gaze upwards from there, you can make out Uncertainty Principle’s (5.11c) sharp contours jutting into the sky. This tried-and-true classic is revered.
Notable Climbing Destinations For a Day Trip
1. Mastering your movement in Joshua Tree
No list of SoCal climbing spots would be complete without the climbing in Joshua Tree. If you’re in the mood for a road trip, JTree’s just a three-hour drive from San Diego and offers some of the best outdoor rock climbing in the country. The short routes and the grippy monzogranite make this national park an inviting option, and due to the intricate footwork required, hundreds of climbers choose to learn lead climbing at Joshua Tree every year. But be prepared to get your ass kicked the first time you come.
Regardless of the grades, climbing here requires intricate movement that you can really train anywhere else. There’s a lot of chimneys, maneuvering around corners, and seemingly impossible slab that you somehow stick to because the friction is just that good. The thousands of routes and boulder problems make Joshua Tree a world-class climbing destination.
2. Brushing up on your decimals at Tahquitz
Nestled in a high mountain valley in the San Jacinto Mountains, Idyllwild is an unincorporated community famous for three things: its mountain resort; the incumbent mayor, Max II, a golden retriever; and two granite rock formations flanking the valley.
The larger of the two is Tahquitz Rock, one of the hotspots of modern free climbing in the 20th century. This historic granite monolith towering over Idyllwild was the place where the Yosemite Decimal System was developed. And it was on this very rock that in 1952, Royal Robbins completed the first free 5.9 in the country, Open Book. To this day it remains the benchmark against which all other 5.9s are measured.
3. Come to Suicide Rock for the history, stay for the variety
Right across the valley we have Tahquitz’s smaller brother, an outcrop called Suicide Rock. The high-quality white granite has been sculpted and polished by the elements into an multi-pitch haven.
Suicide Rock is perfect for summertime climbing because of its comfortable afternoon shade. Perhaps the highlight of the area is Paisano Overhang, a raucous 5.12c off-width roof crack that is one of the state’s classic climbs (among the many iconic rock climbs in California you can explore). This is where local legend and San Diegan, Randy Leavitt, demonstrated his famous Leavittation technique.
Even though San Diego is often rated as a top-ten best climate in the U.S., it still gets really, really hot here. When it does, we’ve got two options: flings ourselves into the ocean or drive 2.5-hours to Idyllwild. If you ask me, do both!
Tips for Enjoying The Full-on San Diego Climbing Experience
Where to get food and drinks in San Diego?
Close to the border, San Diego’s got plenty of great Mexican food beyond the usual suspects of tacos and carne asada. The stews and home-style meals in Super Cocina are definitely worth checking out. I live in Ocean Beach and Mike’s Taco Club is one of my favorite restaurants in the city. Their fish tacos and burritos are terrific. As for drinks, it should be mentioned that San Diego is a craft beer hotspot. Post-session you’ll have fun exploring another one of our city’s great features. My favorite local drink is Boochcraft, which is an organic high-alcohol kombucha. Delicious, refreshing stuff. They’ve just opened up a tasting room in Del Mar, which I I’m excited to try out.
Where to get rock climbing gear in San Diego?
Unfortunately, the gear shop I used to go to in San Diego closed down recently, but with climbing on such an upward trajectory, I’m sure someone else will fill in that gap soon. In the meantime, we’ve got Nomad Ventures, a popular local franchise which has stores in Escondido, Joshua Tree, and Idyllwild. What I like about Nomad is that their staff is comprised of climbers. People that work there really know their stuff about the sport, the gear and the area.
Is there a San Diego County climbing guide?
There is this old, but excellent guidebook written by Dave Kennedy and Chris Hubbard. It has a second edition, but we’re still waiting for a new book that will encompass recent developments in the county’s climbing scene. Apparently Chris Hubbard has been working on a new one for years now and we might see it in print soon. Can’t wait to get my hands on a copy!
Other bucket-list climbs near San Diego
if you’re looking to learn the basics of mountaineering, climbing Mount Shasta in NorCal is a great option. Nevada also has some must-climb spots: the climbing in Red Rock hosts a mind-blowing quantity of intermediate classics, and the climbing in the Sierra Nevada has year-round options for beginners and crushers alike.
Are you ready to discover the best rock climbing in California? Join Fabi today and experience a rad oceanside adventure in sunny San Diego!