Every style of climbing. For every level of climber. Year-round. And all within a day’s drive. That’s Sierra Nevada.
Certain climbing destinations satisfy the thirst so well that you dream about returning year after year. Sierra Nevada is one of those kinds of places. Sierra is one of the most densely stacked mountain ranges for world-class climbing anywhere on the planet. With bouldering, trad climbing, sport climbing, multi-pitch adventures, alpine climbing, ice climbing and aid climbing, it provides every style of climbing at every level — all within a day’s drive.
Pros and Cons of Climbing in Sierra Nevada
A brief background of the Sierra Nevada
The Sierra Nevada is vast. Having rightfully earned a reputation among climbers as one of the best places to climb in the US, it’s a destination not to be missed. The Sierra Nevada is part of the greater American Cordillera, a range of mountains that form a near-continuous spine from to northern reaches of North America down to Antarctica. From elevations as low as below sea level in Death Valley (technically not part of the Sierra) up to 14,505ft at the summit of Mt. Whitney — the tallest mountain in the contiguous US — this range sees a lot of terrain change.
Meaning “snow-covered mountain range” in Spanish, it lives up to its name with its high elevations often covered in year-round snow. For climbers, this means year-round climbing opportunities in a variety of settings. The Sierra Nevada consists of five main areas for climbing: the Southern Sierra, the High Sierra, the Eastern Sierra, Tuolumne Meadows, and Lake Tahoe.
All in a day’s work
In Sierra Nevada, there’s every form of climbing under the sun, and all in a single day if you’re up for it. As a climber who loves all components of climbing, I often spend the first part of the day climbing in the alpine, somewhere around the Incredible Hulk outcropping, up in the High Sierra. Then, my afternoon is spent sport climbing in Owens River Gorge. I’ll wrap up the day at the world-famous Buttermilks or the Sads for bouldering, watching the beautiful Sierra sunset while being tested on some of the most incredible problems. While a big day, it’s just an example of what is possible in the kind of environment this place offers.
1. The Southern Sierra: The Needles and Shuteye Ridge
The Needles is where it’s at
I have only climbed in the southern landscape of the Sierra once, yet I find myself referencing the climbing here all of the time. While it may seem obvious to many climbers visiting this area, the Needles harbor one of the best-kept secrets in climbing. Of course, many climbers have heard of the Needles, but it’s still impressive how quiet this area can be for climbing. Perhaps it is the demanding nature of the climbing, with its delicate edges and challenging-to-protect cracks. Maybe it’s the notable lack of current information on this area; one of the only guidebooks available is The Needles Climbing: A Complete Guide by Kristian Solem.
Be ready for 5.9 and up
Sitting atop a ridge, overlooking the Kern River and Sequoia National Forest, the Needles command an intimidating presence on the skyline. Composed of eight or so formations (by climbers’ counts), the Needles are golden granite spires lightly coated in stripes of green and yellow lichen. Offering a great array of climbing, much of it requires comfort on your feet. Being able to smear on immaculate granite will be of great use here. Be prepared to climb 5.9 and up.
If you don’t want to step on the gas out of the gate, an excellent introduction to climbing at this grade is the Imaginary Voyage route. Offering convenient belays almost anywhere you want them, it provides a well-protected outing at a modest grade for the Needles. For those more comfortable with technical granite climbing, an excellent warm-up route is Igor Unchained, a sustained endeavor. The approach from the main camping area is around three miles. Many climbers stash gear so that they only approach and descend with gear one time. There are plenty of hiding spots! Need a guide? Sierra Mountain Center is your best bet for the Needles.
Where to camp in the Needles
Camping can be had around the Needles Spring area, just before the end of the approach road (where a high clearance vehicle is highly encouraged) and is available on a first-come, first-served basis. There is also paid camping ($26-$193 at the time of this writing) at Quaking Aspen Campground, where there are pit toilets, water and established campsites. It’s next to the Ponderosa Lodge, where you’ll find hot, cooked meals and other supplies, including water. Note, there is no cell phone reception in the Needles area.
It’s worth the trek to Shuteye Ridge
Further north, about three hours outside of Fresno (depending on road conditions), sits Shuteye Ridge, an expanse of granite outcroppings not dissimilar to the Needles, but with an even more remote and exciting feel. Given the effort it takes to drive to the locations here, it will feel all the more rewarding! On my only visit to this area, we had a 2016 Subaru Crosstrek, a car made to take on challenges. We found out just how much it could handle when we stopped short about a mile short of our intended destination. Was the climbing ever worth it, though!
The type of climbing in Shuteye Ridge
The climbing in Shuteye Ridge is a mixture of trad and sport(ish) climbing. Like the Needles, the bolt protection here can be spaced, with many of the large dome formations requiring slab technique with protection. It’s a reflection of the ground-up ethics that define much of the Sierra. Routes like Afternoon Nap are an excellent intro to the type of climbing offered up by Shuteye Ridge at a modest grade.
You can pretty much camp right next to the formations you choose to climb. It’s a good idea to plan to climb at one formation for a couple of days, rather than wasting time driving the maze of roads to find the next classic. Expecting to link several classics in a day is bold, given the amount of technical driving that is required. The current guidebook, Shuteye Ridge, California, by Graham Doe is my top recommendation for the area.
2. The High Sierra
Climbs that rival the European Alps
Atop the mighty spine of the Sierra Nevada, a maze of prominent and viscously steep spires and mountains form the great Sierra Crest, which contains the highest point in the contiguous US, Mt Whitney, at 14,505ft! For climbers, this section runs from the Sawtooth Ridge in the north to the Whitney area in the south. Larger than the European Alps, the High Sierra stands just as distinguished, with climbing equally as good as some of the Alps’ best spots. Yet, most of this wide expanse is entirely wilderness, meaning you will earn every good hand jam you sink into this pristine alpine granite.
The permit system in the High Sierra
Because of the permit system in place in most of the areas, you’ll find limited crowds. Yet, you must educate yourself and seek out the necessary permits for your desired route/mountain. I highly recommend you purchase or fill out your permit online ahead of time, as the amount of “walk-in” Ranger Station permits are severely limited, especially during the height of the season between late June and early September. One of the big advantages of climbing with a guide is that they take care of all the permitting for you, meaning you just show up and climb.
The east and west approaches
When starting any High Sierra objective, it is necessary to choose your poison in terms of approach. Most will find the US Hwy 395 corridor to be the most convenient (I’ve always approached from here). This highway runs along the east side of the mountains and offers better road access to higher elevations during peak season (spring/summer). However, despite these approaches being shorter, they’re very steep. Some approaches will have you gaining up to 6,000′ in under three miles! The western approaches are, by contrast, far less steep, but generally longer and require a greater deal of route finding.
Mt. Whitney’s East Face — a classic (and coveted) route
Beginning in the Whitney area, my favorite area is, of course, the highest peak in the lower 48 — Mt. Whitney. The east face contains a marvelous array of cracks and weaknesses that draw climbers’ eyes towards the summit. At only 5.7, Mt Whitney’s East Face Route is also one of the coveted 50 Classic Climbs of North America. The way true traditionalists climb this route is to utilize only passive protection when climbing it, the way I have tried to do it each time I’ve been back!
The Incredible Hulk
In the northern reaches of the High Sierra, the Incredible Hulk stands as one of the best outcroppings of granite anywhere. It would be right at home in Yosemite! Arguably, the route of choice here is the Red Dihedral. It’s a dozen or so pitches of sustained 5.10 climbing to the beautiful red corner on the upper reaches of the formation. To climb the Incredible Hulk, park at the marina in Mono Village and pay the $10 parking fee. The trailhead leaves from Twin Lakes/ Mono Village and wanders through variable terrain up steep drainages, talus fields and creek (or snow) crossings to reach the Hulk. Be sure to bring a map or GPS and consider camping to soak in the full alpine feel.
Many “easy” scrambles exist next to prominent peaks in the High Sierra. Overlooking the town of Bishop (more on that later), one can’t help but notice the distinctive peaks, like that of Mt. Humphreys. Its southwest and northwest face offers 4th class climbing (in reality prepare for low, exposed 5th class), with fantastic camping options at Humphreys Basin.
Be prepared for alpine climbing
Remember that this is the alpine! No matter how the beautiful blue California skies may make you feel, summer storms, rockfall, slipping on snow or ice, or breaking an ankle on steep talus can lead to a misadventure. Also, remember that alpine environments — especially those as dry as in the Sierra — need to be respected. Stay on established trails, and when traveling cross country, don’t forget to avoid trampling any vegetation (which you should be doing anyway!). Best to leave the furry friends at home up in these elements.
3. The Eastside of the Sierra
Plan your next climbing vacation to Bishop, CA
This is it, the place everyone talks about. The concentration of climbing in the eastern Sierra is far too great to sum up in a single article, but I’ll break it down into bite-sized pieces to get you started. Typically considered to extend from the Bishop area north to Mammoth Lakes, June Lake and finally, Lee Vining, this area is a seriously stacked climbing vacation waiting to be explored!
Beginning with the largest of the areas, which contains the vast majority of the rock climbing for the east side, the town of Bishop, CA, is the hub for the eastern side of Sierra Nevada. With a population of under 4,000, it’s a small town with a big name in the climbing world.
Bouldering at the Buttermilks
Bouldering is the first thing that comes to mind in the Bishop area. Not your thing? That’s alright because there are enough boulder problems here to please the most stubborn trad-dad. The Buttermilks are the main draw. Located west of Bishop, below the impressive, often snow-capped High Sierra, this picturesque location sits on Inyo National Forest Land and is one of the most photographed and visited bouldering areas in the world. The monzonite here has been compacted to form beautiful, crisp edges, roofs, and massive glacial erratics. Seriously.
The name of the game with many classic, hard boulder problems here involves “bouldering” 20ft or more above your crashpads. Yes, it’s a good idea to have multiple crashpads. Many people will find bouldering year-round here, but I tend to avoid visiting the east side in the summer as temperatures frequently reach 90 or higher. With this being a heavily visited area, it is worth familiarizing yourself with the regulations and local ethics, and learn how you can help support this area before you arrive. Access Fund has some helpful information here.
More Eastern Sierra bouldering: the Happys and Sads
Even more bouldering can be found further down the Valley, just north of Bishop in the Tablelands area, known as the Happy and the Sad Boulders. The Happys tend to have a more substantial concentration of bouldering for all abilities. The Sads, meanwhile, offer some easier problems but are largely challenging, hence their name.
Made of Volcanic Tuff specific to this valley, the look crumbly from a distance, but quickly gain your trust as you pull on perfect huecos and jugs to awesome, flat top-outs with often flat, easy to protect areas that rival many a scene at Hueco Tanks in Texas! Located mostly on BLM land, these boulders are surrounded by sensitive desert wildlife and plants, necessitating the need to stay on built trails and keep your stuff and pads located neatly. Best to leave the dogs at home, too. This area can best be enjoyed when it is far too cold in most of the other places in the Sierra Nevada!
The climbing at Pine Creek Canyon
Moving north towards the Sherwin Grade, located between Mt. Tom and the Wheeler Crest, Pine Creek Canyon sits proudly as an impressive granite canyon offering hard sport climbing, amazing single-pitch, long trad routes, and long multi-pitch adventures. Situated at 7,000ft, you may find early winter climbing here in the sun (or even a shady corner area during the summer), but the prime season is spring and fall. The main draw here is the Pratt’s Crack area, but other lesser-known areas offer up some spectacular climbing potential on immaculate granite.
The Owens River Gorge, a sport climbing epicenter
Further up the Sherwin Grade, encounter the pyroclastic flow that created this giant, rising hill out of the Owens Valley, where the Owens River cuts a huge scar down its center. This is the Owens River Gorge, a volcanic tuff that has been pressure treated in the Earth over millennia creating perfectly spaced edges and flakes that draw climbers from all over. The Owens is enormous and a mecca for sport climbing. Some trad exists, but clipping bolts is mostly the name of the game here. The Owens is split into three main areas: upper, central, and lower. Know that you will park at the rim of the gorge and hike down into the gorge properly. Many of the approaches involve crossing the river where recently, bridges built by climbers were removed by the Los Angeles Department of Water Power (LADWP). That’s right, Los Angeles County owns this gorge. Tread lightly here and never block paved roads or gates. Park intelligently.
The main draw for most is the Central Gorge, with prime areas including the Great Wall of China (China Wall) and Warm-Up Wall. However, this is also where you’ll find great crowds and a difficult-to-reach parking area where a 4×4 (or at least a high clearance vehicle) will come in very handy. My preferred area is the Upper Gorge, where you will find an easy-to-reach parking area (park off of the road!) and a short approach. The Lower Gorge is also similar in approach time and sports similar, less crowded crags.
In the Upper Gorge, I prefer warm-up areas such as All You Can Eat, then moving across the river to the Dihedrals where a fair amount of cracks and trad can be found. Further downstream, you will find other quiet walls such as Triple Play Cliff and Gorgeous Towers. Bring a 70m rope and a rope bag! And, you will leave covered in fine, volcanic ash at the end of the day. Shade or sun can be found by seeking specific aspects of the gorge at certain times of the day.
Climbing at Mammoth Lakes area
Continuing up the Sherwin Grade, more great climbing exists in the Mammoth Lakes area. Situated at over 8,000ft and known for some of the biggest snow years on record at Mammoth Mountain Ski Resort, you will find solitude at these climbing areas during warm days in winter and small crowds during the summer. If making a summer trip, without wanting to head straight to the committing High Sierra, Mammoth has the crags for you.
My favorite areas are the incredible alpine areas that surround the small resort town. Crags such as Crystal Crag offer up climbing in a traditional venue from 4th class scrambling to 5.11 crack climbs. The sport climbing area of my choice is Clark Canyon, between Mammoth Lakes and June Lake. The rock here is volcanic tuff that is far different than the tuff found in the Owens. Pockets and overhangs are the standard, with routes often being short. Wild Will’s Arete serves as a great warm-up, while multi-pitch route Pull My Finger offers some great pocket pulling high off of the ground while clipping bolts.
Bring your ropes for Locals Only and the Benton Crags
The road to get to Clark is often very rough, and a high clearance vehicle is highly recommended. This area was also devastated by a fire in 2016 and care should be taken around trees. East of Mammoth and west of the community of Benton are the Benton Crags. Similar to Joshua Tree, this quartz monzonite granite offers great moderate climbing at the Locals Only Crag with long (bring your 70 or 80m ropes) routes to bolted belays and great climbing in the sun with a remote, wilderness feel. Other areas such as the Ravine offer some harder sport climbing with camping on Forest Service Land right at the crag.
June Lake, a granite lover’s paradise
Further up the road is June Lake, where obscure cliffs are the name of the game. And while I have only been to crags without names, other long-time test pieces exist. It’s in June Lake where I seek the first season’s ice routes on areas such as Horsetail Falls, an excellent multi-pitch or single-pitch outing on a tremendous, frozen waterfall overlooking the town. This road is windy and steep down into town, so please do not speed, especially if coming here in the winter!
Ice climbing in Lee Vining
Further north still, we reach the town of Lee Vining, the northern reaches of the Eastern Sierra. Here, ice climbing is the activity to be enjoyed! The Main Wall in Lee Vining Canyon offers up some wide, low angle or steep ice that can often be easily rappelled with left v-threads or bolts. It is advisable to bring at least ten screws to this venue as routes (like with many ice routes) can be long.
Rest-day activities in the Eastern Sierra (including hot springs)
If seeking out rest-day opportunities in the area, then it’s hard to beat the many natural hot springs that dot the valleys. Many have release valves that allow you to control the temperature in the water. Please do not camp at the hot spring areas as they are under the control of LADWP and access can be threatened to these precious resources via the actions of a few. As previously mentioned, there is plenty of Forest Service camping just down the road near Benton.
Mountain guides in the area
If you are seeking a guide service here, it is hard to find any better in the country than at Sierra Mountain Guides. Hiring only AMGA trained or certified instructors and guides, you can trust that you will get the highest quality service and benefit from hiring an SMG guide. From backcountry skiing to rock climbing to ice and alpine, they do it all!
4. Tuolumne Meadows
Dip into Yosemite National Park
From Lee Vining, every time I drive up to Tioga Pass and see the Yosemite National Park sign, my heart always starts to flutter. Beyond the pass gate (which is often closed from November through May), it’s only a short, switchbacked drive down into the broad, granite dome filled valley that is Tuolumne Meadows, the high country of Yosemite National Park. The draw for many climbers is the mind-blowingly run-out granite domes on routes such as the Bachar-Yerian, evoking some of the hiking in San Diego, or the incredible views of Tenaya Lake from the moderate, Tenaya Peak. For others its the high, jagged peaks of Matthes Crest and Cathedral Peak.
Climbing the domes of Tuolumne Meadows
The first thing climbers will notice driving into Yosemite is the enormous domes jutting out of the landscape. These domes require a lot of friction climbing, and you need to be comfortable standing on the balls of your feet, clipping bolts that are typically spread quite far. Some cracks may offer a sense of relief as you place your stoppers into the constriction knowing that you will have to again venture off into the void to find your next bolt or anchor.
The Triple link-up, a main draw
I personally love Tuolumne for one objective: The Triple. Every year, I go back to complete the link-up of Tenaya Peak (5.5), Matthes Crest (5.7) and Cathedral Peak (5.7). Beginning in the Tenaya Lake parking lot, this stellar link-up involves some of the most mellow terrain in the area, while continually reminding you that you are nowhere close to done, so the need to move fast is always there! Currently, I sit at 8 hours and 32 minutes and hope to break 8 hours next year!
5. Lake Tahoe
Come for Lover’s Leap and Traveler Buttress
The furthest north that most climbers know of in the Sierra is climbing near Lake Tahoe. An enormous expanse of granite outcrops encircling the massive lake that bears the area’s name. The draw for most is the historic Lover’s Leap — a 250-600ft stretch of granite reaching towards the sky near US Hwy 50. Traveler Buttress, another of the 50 Classic Climbs of North America, is a huge draw for climbers to the area.
Stay for Bear’s Reach and Corrugation Corner
Other classic moderates such as Bear’s Reach (5.7) and Corrugation Corner (5.7, but I feel 5.8) offer up a delight to visiting climbers seeking moderate multi-pitch routes. The granite here contains amazing horizontal dikes that allow great stances and fun holds that make the rock feel like it was built to be climbed. The famous video of the late Dan Osman speed soloing Bear’s Reach is a classic “get-stoked” video to watch in preparation.
More challenging routes near Truckee
Up towards the town of Truckee and Donner Summit (site of the infamous Donner Party tragedy) you will find a whole host of hard, granite traditional and sport climbing from single pitch to multi-pitch. You will also find a great deal of excellent bouldering here. Exits 174 and 184 along Interstate-80 will get you to the crags where the Pacific Crest Trail serves as the main approach path to many areas. The Snowshed Wall and Black Wall contain a lot of the classic climbing for this area. Prepare for more challenging climbing where most climbs begin at 5.9.
Good-to-know info for climbing in Lake Tahoe
The season for climbing near Lake Tahoe is long but typically excludes the winter, as most areas are well above 5,000ft in elevation. If you plan on an extended stay, there are ample camping opportunities nearby on Forest Service Land. Tread lightly, as it can sometimes be difficult to tell public from private land, and some areas harbor tenuous land management situations. If you are looking for a guide service, then your best source will be Alpenglow Expeditions. They hold a high degree of respect from the guiding community and are top notch with local knowledge and highly skilled, certified instructors and guides.
Sierra Nevada has options by the bucket. Whether you want to go on a day of climbing High Sierra’s alpine classics or climb in Lake Tahoe, the US’s largest alpine lake, going out with a private, local guide ensures you get the most out of your adventure!