Keep on Climbing: Winter Bouldering Destinations
We’ve all been there: it’s cold outside and the local bouldering spots, if not covered in snow and ice, might give your fingers frostbite.
But you’re just plain tired of climbing on plastic and 4×4 drills lose their luster after a month or two. Don’t lose your momentum, though. When you desperately need to keep ticking boulder problems, you can find plenty of amazing boulders exist all over the warmer parts of the US. Here’s the beta for six different options, from classics to lesser-known gems. Just don’t forget the crash pads.
Above Photo: Derrick Krause
Photo: Derrick Krause
Located smack in between the Eastern Sierras and the White Mountains in central California, Bishop is a legendary climbing town with a huge amount of world-class bouldering on multiple rock types, styles, and grades, and all only a few hours’ drive from Los Angeles and Reno. Stocked with problems at a range of different altitudes, the Bishop area will throw classic after classic at you, all within a 30ish minute drive of downtown Bishop. Plus, located in a high desert region with sunshine nearly every day of the year, you’ll be able to climb basically every day – if your skin can handle it. The classic place to stay is the Pleasant Valley Pit Campground, more commonly known as the Pit, where sites cost $10 per day. With thousands of boulder problems littering the greater Bishop area, you’ll need a guidebook, such as Bishop Bouldering.
Start off your trip at the Buttermilks, a 35-minute drive up towards the Sierras from downtown Bishop. As you inch through the washboard ruts on Buttermilk Road (drive slowly!), you’ll run right into enormous quartz monzonite boulders, with legendary problems like Bowling Pin (V4). It’ll be on the chillier side since the Buttermilks lie at about 6500ft in elevation, but the ever-present sun will keep you from getting too cold, plus a little numbness helps when the skin on your fingertips feels like it’s going to slough off from sliding off too many highballs. If it gets too cold, head back through town and explore the volcanic Happy and Sad boulders at the Volcanic Tablelands, only a couple miles from downtown Bishop. The air will be warmer, too: up to an average high of 53F in January, perfect for sending. And don’t forget to fuel up before heading out: Great Basin Bakery is a great local stop for breakfast sandwiches and your daily espresso IV.
Hueco Tanks, Texas
Hueco Tanks is home to the best bouldering in the world, according to Mountain Project. But don’t take it from them—get yourself down to El Paso (the airport is only a few miles away) and check it out yourself. Once you arrive, you’ll need to rent a car and some crash pads from the local Mountain Hut, and then head to Hueco Rock Ranch, an American Alpine Club lodge that offers $10 campsites and $32 rooms a mile outside the park. If you’re an AAC or Access Fund member, they’ll discount your lodging, too. Getting in to the park itself can be trying: if you don’t make reservations a couple months ahead of time, you’ll be stuck getting up before dawn to wait in line at the front gate for one of ten daily unreserved spots to get in. We recommend showing up as early as 5:00AM, so coffee is critical to this operation. Because the whole process of actually getting to climb in Hueco is fairly restrictive, your safest bet is to book a spot on a tour. Don’t forget to tip your guide!
Once you’ve managed entry into the park, get ready for some of the best boulder problems in the world, riddled with—you guessed it—abundant huecos. Try the classic Nobody Here Gets Out Alive, a widely loved overhanging V2. As for winter temperatures, this is West Texas, y’all: a typical January day here brings temperatures hovering in the upper 50s.
Joshua Tree National Park, California
Joshua Tree National Park is a huge place, larger than the state of Rhode Island. About two hours directly east of Los Angeles, Joshua Tree’s status as a major national park means you’ll find all sorts of explorers here, from hikers to trad climbers to Jim Morrison devotees. But for pebble wrestlers, the easiest first trip to Joshua Tree starts at Hidden Valley Campground, a first-come-first-served campsite that costs $15 per site, located a few miles outside the west entrance to the park. With January highs reaching an average of 60F, winter’s the most popular time to visit Joshua Tree—so try to arrive during the weekdays before the weekenders get there. Fittingly for a desert, there’s no water access at Hidden Valley, so you’ll need to haul yours in, and plenty of it.
At Hidden Valley, you’ll find high-quality boulders literally within the campgrounds, like Stem Gem, a V4 whose moves fit its name. Along the Hidden Valley trail, the namesake for the campground, boulders are littered everywhere—don’t be surprised if you drop off a problem to find a non-climbing audience admiring your skills, and don’t forget to drop as much climbing jargon as possible to make yourself look even more impressive. Drive deeper into the park and you’ll find classics like White Rastafarian, an overhanging highball V2 with a good landing zone, found in the Outback Valley north of HVCG. To explore as much as possible of JTree’s endless bouldering, check out Robert Miramonte’s 2nd edition of Joshua Tree Bouldering.
Horse Pens 40, Alabama
Horse Pens 40 is a sandstone sloper-fest situated in the northeast corner of Alabama, about a 45-minute drive northeast of Birmingham’s airport. Unlike the other spots on this list, HP40 is a private nature park owned by the Schultz family, who generously open the incredible boulders up to climbers. It’s hard to beat the convenience: the Schultz land includes a campsite, a shop, showers, and a restaurant a minutes-walk away from the boulders. One of the best things about climbing is the community we get to participate in, and the Schultzes are icons. Camping is $15 a night, but we recommend breaking out your dad’s coin collection: if you pay for camping with 1964 (or earlier) US Silver coins, they’ll discount your rate to $1 per night. In either case, you’ll want to bring cash; the Schultz family says their ATM is unreliable due to the weak landline connection.
Once you’ve settled in, apply your finishing moves to problems like Mortal Combat, a fun V4 arête, but don’t neglect your crash pad placement—without multiple spotters, you’re liable to land on Single Blade, the problem right next door. Luckily, with HP40’s growth in popularity, especially during the mild winters Alabama provides, spotters and pads and beta are never in short supply. Speaking of weather, you’ll run into January average highs of about 55F.
Mount Lemmon, Arizona
Just north of Tucson, Arizona, is Mount Lemmon, set into the Sonoran Desert. With a wide variety of climbs at different altitudes including sport and trad routes as well as boulder problems, Mt. Lemmon is a perfect place to climb basically anything you want, all winter long. With its proximity to Tucson, you don’t even have to camp, if you aren’t feeling like roughing it. Along the 27 miles of the Catalina Highway that winds through the mountains, though you can find abundant camping as cheap as $5 per night. You’ll need to have a car, though, because almost all climbing is accessed from the highway. Mt. Lemmon—and the Catalina Highway—wind 27 miles and access eight different general climbing areas, which will vary in temperature as you change altitude. In the winter, though, you’ll likely keep to the lower altitudes.
Along the Bear Canyon area along the highway, you’ll find a wide variety of high-quality problems in a surprisingly low-traffic area, like Aretey Done, a layback fest up a ten-foot arête. A ton of potential lies here, so Mountain Project will be your best bet to seek out specific beta on new problems. Access from the highway is easy; you can walk to any established boulder here in about five minutes.
Virgin Gorda, British Virgin Islands
If you’re looking for truly warm winter bouldering, you can’t beat the Caribbean. To get there, fly down to St. Thomas, then ride the ferry over to Virgin Gorda in the British Virgin Islands for about $40 round-trip. You’ll stay at the Guavaberry Spring Bay Resort, which lies right by all the best beach bouldering in the area. The resort provides a complementary crash pad for all guests, but a two-person villa costs about $268 per night, so this trip is best saved for a splurge. The main island climbing areas appear on the south side of the island, right on the beach. Fixed Pin publishes the guidebook for the area, A Guide to Bouldering and Traveling in the British Virgin Islands.
In Virgin Gorda, you can forget the warm clothes; the January average high hovers just shy of 80F. After your long journey to the island, warm up (even more) on Island Crack, a V1 hand crack with a sandy landing zone. But at twenty feet off the deck, don’t forget to put that complementary crash pad to work. There’s potential all over the beaches here, and you can cool off with a dip between goes. Just remember: rum is not good for hydrating.