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The 5 Best Trad Climbing Areas in the United States

America is so stacked with epic traditional climbing areas, it took me days of going back and forth in my head to come up with this final list. We truly live in a trad climber’s paradise, which is only confirmed by how many international climbers come here to plug pro.
Joshua Tree National Park(Photo/Elaina Arenz)
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The United States has abundant rock types — granite, sandstone, and basalt — that lend themselves to amazing straight-in cracks. We have sunny, stable weather in many of our trad climbing areas (especially in the Southwest), which makes for great long-term stays. And we have legendary routes, from single- to multipitch, climbs so striking and iconic (High Exposure, Astroman, Bastille Crack, Casual Route, Supercrack, Illusion Dweller, etc.) that they’re essentially household names.

We also have a deep history of traditional climbing. In America in the 1960s, a push to free existing aid routes began. And the 1970s brought the clean-climbing revolution in which we ditched rock-scarring hammers and pitons for passive protection. The ’70s also saw the invention of Friends, spurred by the parallel-sided cracks in Yosemite. These spring-loaded camming devices revolutionized climbing protection and opened routes and trad climbing areas that were previously unthinkable.

Trad climbing can be intimidating to break into. The gear is expensive, it’s a slow apprenticeship, and there are myriad decisions to be made on every lead. The best way to ease in is with protectable routes below your physical limit. And climbing at well-traveled areas where the rock is clean, and there may be in-situ anchors to guide the way or for lowering and rappelling.

With that in mind, we picked five mega-destination trad climbing areas in the country. They are known for their amazing climbing and for having great, easily protected options at friendly grades. This meant leaving out other equally stellar areas like Indian Creek, Devils Tower, The Needles (California and South Dakota), Eldorado Canyon, Seneca Rocks, Index Town Walls, and so on. Mostly because the best climbs there tend to be 5.10 and above or have trickier protection — things to aspire to as you cut your teeth in the traditional climbing arena.

The 5 Best Trad Climbing Areas in the United States

1. Joshua Tree National Park, California

A climber in Joshua Tree National Park, a standout trad climbing area
(Photo/Austin Beck-Doss)

J Tree is a climber’s wonderland, a rocky plateau of quiet beauty in a remote corner of Southern California. Jumbles of boulders, spires, ridges, fins, domes, and walls beetle from a high desert studded with the twisted, towering forms of the eponymous yucca plants. The area’s quartz monzonite has an amazing texture. You can smear just about anywhere. And it’s riddled with cracks, seams, chimneys, water grooves, and other classic granitic features. Many of the walls are plated in a porcelain-hard patina studded with friendly horns, nubbins, chickenheads, and crimps. J Tree has long been Southern California’s cragging proving grounds, with routes from 5.0 to 5.14 (including 5.13+ trad climbs) and decades of history.

The routes are often short. Some blur the line between highball bouldering/free soloing and micro-leads. But there are so many that you could climb in this single trad climbing area for a lifetime and never run out. Many of the climbs are heady, with spaced-out bolts or cracks that flare just a hair too much for deep pro. But there are also stacks of splitter cracks, as well as safe mixed bolt-and-gear leads that take bomber cams or reassuring nut and RP placements.

There is no experience quite like topping out a Joshua Tree dome at sunset, watching the desert sky electrify with brilliant oranges, reds, and yellows above a hallucinogenic landscape of Joshua trees stretching to the horizon.

The Basics

  • Season: Autumn through spring. The park can see snow and bitter winds in the dead of winter. Plan accordingly, or climb down at Indian Cove (which is much lower) on the coldest days.
  • Camping: Plenty of campgrounds are available. The best ones in the rocks are Hidden Valley and Ryan Campground. Time your stay with a full moon for an otherwordly experience.
  • Guidebooks: The park has 6,000-plus documented roped routes. So for first-time visitors, a good option is a book like Best Climbs: Joshua Tree National Park, which narrows the field down to 250. For the full menu, go for Joshua Tree Rock Climbs.
  • Recommended routes: Overhang Bypass (5.7), Mental Physics (5.7 PG13), Sail Away (5.8-), Touch and Go (5.9), Bird of Fire (5.10a)

2. Shawangunks, New York

The Shawangunks, New York
(Photo/Wikimedia Creative Commons)

The Gunks is New England’s best-known cragging zone. It’s famed not only for its bomber quartz conglomerate — essentially quartzite, an über-hard sandstone — but also for its overwhelming steepness and monster roofs. It was here, in 1935, that overhanging rock climbing in America began. This was spurred by the legendary German climber Fritz Wiessner, who put up the area’s first documented climb, Old Route (5.5).

Weissner and other early Gunks climbers like Hans Kraus, with whom he put up the staggeringly steep High Exposure (5.6) in 1941, were climbing on semi-unreliable hemp ropes and had only soft-iron pitons for protection. It’s good that the rock delivers plentiful deep, incut jug handholds via the horizontal cracks that lace the walls.

Climbs here are no longer than two to three pitches. Still, the ratings are stout, and you need to be good at rationing your energy. This includes factoring in when and where you’ll stop to place protection, which often remains invisible until you reach that next horizontal. Fortunately, many pins remain in place from the piton era, and the cliffs are extremely popular. You should have a trail of chalked holds and fixed gear to follow on the classics.

If you can climb on weekdays. On weekends, an influx of climbers from New York City and other East Coast metropolitan areas makes this trad climbing area a bona fide junk show.

The Basics

  • Season: Spring through autumn (though summer can be hot and muggy).
  • Camping: The American Alpine Club’s Gunks Campground is the way to go. Unless you have beaucoup dollars for a resort stay at the Mohonk Mountain House.
  • Guidebook: The comprehensive Gunks Climbing lists 600-plus routes — more than enough to keep you busy for a trip or two.
  • Recommended routes: Horseman (5.5), High Exposure (5.6), Limelight (5.7), Cascading Crystal Kaleidoscope (5.8 PG13), Bonnie’s Roof (5.9)

3. Tennessee Wall, Tennessee

Tennessee Wall climbing
(Photo/Ryan Bode)

This was once a backwater area in which the climbers found themselves harassed (car break-ins, etc.) by the locals who live along the Tennessee River. These locals perhaps didn’t understand this newfangled sport in 1984 when the first routes went in. But the T-Wall has since evolved into a trad climber’s paradise.

The sandstone is fused, iron-hard, multi-hued Southeast perfection. And the cliff faces due south in an unbroken bluff, soaking up winter sun all day, high on the gorge rim. While there is a handful of fun mixed and sport climbs, the main “jam” is the cracks, which come in all shapes and sizes. There are brilliant moderate corner cracks with slammer hand jams and velvety finger cracks splitting monolithic faces. And there are monster roof cracks — some fearsome off-widths — put up by the driving force in T-Wall development, Rob Robinson.

The climbing is a single pitch to fixed anchors up top, and the cliff is dense. You can get a ton of rope lengths done in a day with very little walking between climbs. There may be no better place in the country for sheer trad climbing mileage, with stacks of classics in the 5.8 to 5.10+ range to sink your mitts into. All with just enough face relief in the form of edges, ripples, and horizontals to keep things varied and interesting.

The Basics

  • Season: Autumn through spring (note that there are, however, hunting-season closures).
  • Camping: There are primitive and pay camping options in the area’s Prentice Cooper State Forest, including along the road to the crag.
  • Guidebooks: Rockery Press will send you a free “best-of” PDF to the T-Wall, or you can purchase the full Chattrad guidebook.
  • Recommended routes: Nappy (5.7), Prerequisite for Excellence (5.8), Golden Locks (5.9), In Pursuit of Excellence (5.9+), Cake Walk (5.10a) 

4. Yosemite National Park, California

Yosemite Valley Glacier Point
The view from Glacier Point Overlook; (photo/Clint Sharp)

The Valley needs no introduction. It’s the Granite Crucible, the proving ground for generations of climbers. It’s the home of the world’s most famous monolith, El Capitan, which has the world’s most difficult big-wall free climb, the Dawn Wall (VI 5.14d). And in 2017, Yosemite saw the world’s most famous free solo — that of Alex Honnold on Free Rider (VI 5.13a).

But the Valley isn’t only about cutting-edge gnar; in fact, it can be the mellowest trad climbing area in the world. Its slabs and fissures have been a beacon for technical climbers since the early 20th century. Here, on the slick, glacier-polished stone, you’ll have to hone your trad technique, refining the pure friction and straight-in jamming techniques climbers have relied on for decades.

The Valley is a zoo — it saw 3.3 million visitors in 2021 and has what is essentially a small city of campgrounds, lodging, employee housing, restaurants, visitor centers, and so on. They are plunked down on the valley floor, itself crisscrossed by roads and tourist trails. But step away from the chaos and get up among the cliffs where the vertical relief so abruptly starts. You’ll be transported into another, wilder world. It’s not hard to imagine rock climbing pioneers like Allen Steck, Steve Roper, Yvon Chouinard, Royal Robbins, Jim Bridwell, John Salathé, and so many others inventing modern climbing techniques as they picked off one iconic first ascent after another.

The Basics

  • Season: Spring through autumn. Summer can be blazing hot, especially on the south-facing walls; the locals go up to Tuolumne Meadows.
  • Camping: Climbers usually stay in the historic Camp 4. It operates on a first-come, first-served basis, though there are other options throughout the park.
  • Guidebook: Like Joshua Tree, the Valley is a vast area with tons of climbs. A great book for your first visit is Yosemite Valley Free Climbs, which features 230 routes.
  • Recommended routes: The Grack, Center (5.6), The Nutcracker Suite (5.8), Monday Morning Slab, Harry Daley Route (5.8), Braille Book (5.8+), Central Pillar of Frenzy (5.9)

5. Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area, Nevada

Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area in Nevada
(Photo/Elaina Arenz)

What climbers most commonly refer to as “Red Rocks” is surely one of the most fun trad climbing (and sport and bouldering) areas in the world. It’s all courtesy of the highly featured Aztec sandstone, with its panoply of vibrant orange and red tones and black, varnished, iron-rock desert patina. This rock is seemingly made to climb, with lizard-skin plates, horn-like crimps, and textured slopers on its faces. It houses brilliant, eye-catching cracks, seams, and corners in the smooth joints between facets. The angles vary wildly, from chill beginner slabs to endless vertical panels to wavey bulges to horizontal roof cracks.

Red Rock is best known among trad climbing areas for its multipitch routes on the peaks and in the canyons. Some tackle pure cracks like the chimneys of Epinephrine (5.9), and some mixed like Dream of Wild Turkeys (5.10a). There’s no feeling more satisfying than, on what appears from below to be a runout face, dropping a nut or RP deep into a slot between two iron-rock plates. And knowing that it’s strong enough to hold a truck — or a fall should you whip. Best of all, the climbs are stellar at every grade. This means as your trad and multipitch skills evolve, you’ll still be doing a classic, be it 5.6 or 5.13+. 

The Basics

  • Season: Autumn through spring. The area doesn’t see a ton of moisture, but always allow a day or two after precipitation to let the fragile stone dry.
  • Camping: You can stay in the park campground. It fills up quickly and offers little protection from the elements (hence its nickname, “Campghanistan”). There are plenty of cheap hotels and Airbnb options in Vegas if you don’t mind driving a bit (stay on the west side of town).
  • Guidebook: Red Rocks: A Climber’s Guide covers the Calico Hills and the canyons for a total of 2,300 routes.
  • Recommended routes: Cat in the Hat (5.6), Birdland (5.7+), Chrimson Chrysalis (5.8+), Epinephrine (5.9), Dream of Wild Turkeys (5.10a)
The New River Gorge, West Virginia

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