Colorado’s Estes Valley has been a hub of rock climbing and mountaineering activity since the 19th century, so it’s no surprise that the area is chock-full of some of America’s most classic routes. Whether you’re looking for big alpine lines, bolted sport climbs, or high-country bouldering, there’s no shortage of high-quality rock in and around Estes Park.
In general, remember that Estes Park is at an elevation of just over 7,500 feet above sea level, and much of the climbing in the area is even higher than that. The high altitude can leave those who aren’t used to it feeling fatigued more quickly than usual, so give yourself time to acclimate before you jump on a project and expect to crush it. Many of the trad climbs in this area were established in the early days of climbing, so take those ratings with a grain of salt—and warm up on something well below your usual grade so you can get a feel for the area.
Ready to tie in? Here’s where you’ll find the best climbing around Estes Park.
The aptly named Lumpy Ridge is impossible to miss as you drive into Estes Park. The vast majority of the climbing here—including all the classics—is trad, so come prepared to plug gear. Approaches vary (some are up to a few miles, so bring water) but the trails are largely well maintained. As in many other parts of the Estes Park Valley, grades are rather stiff—there are few moderates here. Uber-classics include the Twin Owls’ Crack of Fear (5.10d) and George’s Tree (5.9) at the Pages Wall.
“The Book is the most popular wall at Lumpy for good reason,” says Colorado Mountain School guide Jake Gaventa. “It features over 70 routes with a high concentration of classics in the 5.8 to 5.10 range.”
Still, newer climbers will relish an outing on four-pitch Batman and Robin (5.6) on Batman Pinnacle. “For more moderates,” says Gaventa, “check out the ‘Left Book.’” From Estes Park, head north on East Wonderview past the Stanley Hotel, then take a right onto MacGregor Avenue. Once this road becomes Devil’s Gulch Road, follow it another half-mile to the trailhead.
Big Thompson Canyon
US-34 runs between Estes Park and Loveland, winding its way through Big Thompson Canyon and a healthy mix of sport and trad routes. Climbing here is of excellent quality on granite and gneiss, and short approaches (parking is typically just off the road, and access trails are reasonably obvious) mean that you can pack in tons of climbing. There’s a high concentration of classics at the Monastery, largely developed by local climbing legend Tommy Caldwell, where you’ll find steep faces and sticky slabs in abundance. The Steeple (5.8) and Wes Bound (5.10a) are two of the best. Keep an eye out for climbs established by Layton Kor, a famed climbing pioneer—and add a grade (or two) of difficulty to anything with his name on it.
The moment the snow melts, Emerald Lake is the place to be. By early to mid-June, the granite Emerald Lake boulders have typically emerged, revealing a few dozen boulder problems ranging from an approachable V1 to a diabolical V10. The Warm-Up Boulder and Beginner’s Lucky offer V1 and V2 problems, from which you can progress to Lobster Claw (v4) and Kneebar (V6). The highlight here is Whispers of Wisdom (v10), but there’s plenty to recommend the Emerald Lake boulders even if you don’t happen to be a superhuman. Park at the Bear Lake Trailhead in Rocky Mountain National Park, but make sure you get there early to get a spot as the lot fills up quickly especially when the temps are favorable for climbing. Follow the signs for Emerald Lake, and you’ll find the boulders just under 1,000 feet downhill from the lake itself.
Can’t get enough bouldering at Rocky Mountain National Park? Chaos Canyon has you covered. The approach is somewhat long and arduous—it’s along the Emerald Lake Trail and runs a little over two miles and gains 800 feet of elevation—but the concentration of problems here, ranging from V0 to V15, is well worth the effort. Potato Chip Boulder has a handful of warm-ups and moderates. Don’t miss Counter Attack (V5) at the Revenge Area or Tommy’s Arete (V7)—established by Tommy Caldwell, local climbing legend and star of the Dawn Wall—at the Automator Boulder. At least one (but preferably more than one) crashpad is necessary here; the landings are generally on jagged rocks.
In order to maintain bouldering access to the area, it’s absolutely crucial that climbers practice Leave No Trace etiquette, which includes not stashing crashpads at the boulders, despite the temptation not to lug those back and forth. Park at the Bear Lake Trailhead and hike to Nymph Lake. From there, take a left up some steep switchbacks to Lake Haiyaha, where you’ll see a visible trail on your right.
Climbing at Jurassic Park feels like a journey back in time, especially since the views are mostly of peaks and trees—including a great vantage point of the Diamond, Longs Peak’s iconic sheer face. There are a handful of trad routes here, but for the most part, you’ll find bolted climbs. Unlike many areas, where the ultra-classics aren’t super accessible to less hardcore climbers, the must-do here is a moderate 5.9.
Edge of Time is featured on the cover of a guidebook to the area—visit on a weekday and you’re less likely to wait in line to get on it. To get there, follow Highway 7 out of Estes Park and park at the Lily Lake parking area on the right-hand side of the road. You’ll see some of the climbs from the parking lot. Follow the well maintained Lily Lake trail and scramble up to the climbs.
Fall River Road
Slabby granite and long approaches mean Fall River Road is a moderate multi-pitch paradise. Much of the climbing is technically within the bounds of Rocky Mountain National Park, but thanks to the area’s relative remoteness, you’ll encounter far fewer climbers than in Big Thompson or in most areas of the park. There are a handful of bolted routes, and while there’s some opportunity to drop top ropes on single-pitch climbs, you’ll mostly find routes on gear of four or more pitches. Many of the best moderates are on MacGregor Slab. From the junction of Highways 34 and 36 in town, head north (as you would for Big Thompson). Once you pass the Stanley Hotel, start looking for your crag.
Looking for climbs with little to no approach? According to Gaventa, Performance Park is an “excellent venue for a couple of hours out or a quick evening session.” You don’t even need to leave town to get there.
The climbs are short—they range from about 30 to 60 feet—and relatively easy (there’s a number of 5.4-5.6’s), so this is a popular destination. The Amphitheater Wall is so named because it’s right behind the town’s outdoor amphitheater. Routes here are generously bolted and fairly true to grade, so this is a top-notch spot for a first outdoor lead. To get there, head west from downtown Estes Park on Elkhorn Avenue. Once you’ve passed the shopping, Performance Park is on your right (look for the Silver Moon Inn).
If you're new to climbing or just looking for some of that expert help, there are plenty of operations in Estes that will take you out with a guide.
If you're just looking for gear (purchase or rental), beta or you get rained out and need to climb inside, check out the Estes Park Mountain Shop.
Yosemite Decimal System
- Class 1
- Walking on an easy trail.
- Class 2
- Hiking a steep incline, scrambling, maybe using your hands.
- Class 3
- Climbing or scrambling a steep hillside, moderate exposure, a rope may be carried but not used, and hands are used in climbing. A fall could be fatal.
- Class 4
- Simple but exposed climbing. A rope is often used to protect a fall.
- Class 5
- Climbing terrain is technical and requires a rope and specialized equipment (unless you're that dude in Free Solo). Class 5 has a range of sub-classes, ranging from 5.0 to 5.15d to define progressively more difficult moves
- Class 5 sub-categories
- 5.1-5.4 - Easy - climbing suitable for beginners.
- 5.5-5.8 - Intermediate - Small footholds and handholds. Low-angle to vertical terrain.
- 5.9-5.10 - Hard - Vertical terrain, may have overhangs. These require skills that most weekend climbers can attain.
- 5.11-5.12 - Difficult - Technical and vertical, and may have overhangs with small holds. Requires dedicated training to reach this level.
- 5.13-5.15 -Very Difficult - Elite level stuff.
Written by Emma Walker for Matcha in partnership with Visit Estes Park.