Rock Climbing North Dakota? Great Plains Get Guide

Pancake-flat for most of its expanse, and blessed with rich earth and waving grains, North Dakota is the antithesis of alpine. But this month a crew of Great Plains explorers have made public a goal to fund a guidebook that will reveal the rare rock-climbing routes found along buttes and river valleys in the state.

Vertical rock over great plains
Vertical rock over great plains; photo by Christopher Deal

Climbing is real, if limited, in North Dakota. In all, the group — the North Dakota Climber’s Coalition — cites six established climbing areas, three of which “are becoming full-size crags with sport and trad routes and even some really great boulders,” said Dakota Walz, the Fargo-born founder of the coalition. (Yes, that is his real name.)

“Between boulder problems and routes I would estimate a total of about 70 climbs and counting [in the whole state]. So not a lot, but about 70 more than you might expect,” Walz said.

A printed guide to these areas is the thrust behind a Kickstarter called the North Dakota Rock Climbing Development & Guidebook. The project seeks $2,500 in support, and whatever money is raised will be matched by North Dakota state tourism funds.

Dakota Walz tackles Square Butte
Dakota Walz tackles Square Butte; photo by Matthew Eckleberg

Beyond serving as a resource for “everything you need to know to climb in North Dakota,” the book promises to include sections on camping, finding supplies in remote North Dakota counties, and “which types of snakes to watch out for” when hiking to the cliffs.

Midwest Climbers Get ‘Vertical Jones’

Resourcefulness is required by anyone seeking to climb in the Midwest. I know this firsthand, growing up in Minnesota where the vertical stone is also rare.

A common weekend mission entailed hours of driving through flat landscapes to access small crags.

But the climbing bug was real. I was obsessed, despite the available (lack of) topography. Indeed, in 1997, along with Sean McCoy, the current managing editor of GearJunkie, I founded “Vertical Jones” magazine as a college journalism student.

Chimney Butte north dakota
Chimney Butte; photo by Matte Eckelberg

The magazine’s black-and-white printed pages covered the sport crags, top-roping venues, and boulders of the region, from river-valley basalt to the surprisingly epic “sea cliffs” along Lake Superior.

We climbed frozen waterfalls in the cold months and drove west on road trips to find taller challenges and real mountains to apply our skills.

North Dakota Rock Climbing

Walz has an Instagram account full with photos of climbing destinations beyond North Dakota. He travels to deal with his own “vertical jones.”

But in his home state of North Dakota he is making do with the geology in a flat region of oil fields and agriculture as far as you can see.

What will you get on a climbing trip to the state? Walz said “99% of the rock in North Dakota is soft sandstone with an average cliff height of about 40 feet.” The tallest routes reach as high as 85 feet, and some granite boulders exist on the plains.

climbing north dakota
‘Red Cloud Crack’ route (5.10); photo by Matthew Eckelberg

There are bolted sport climbs. His group has pioneered trad routes, including butte-side lines with hand-cracks and roofs. The “Gift of Life” (5.10b) and “Step or Stone Breath or Bone” (5.10) are sample route names.

Future Of Climbing In Flat State

Beyond the guidebook, Walz writes for The Climbing Zine as a Midwest contributor. A recent article is titled “Vertical Desires in the Midwest Flatlands.”

“The climbing community is so small here it could fit into a van if we crammed hard enough,” Walz said. “But there is a crew of about ten of us out here developing the area.”

A future project entails working to open a rare limestone cliff in western North Dakota. It is currently closed to public access “due to littering and partying issues” of locals, Walz said.

Square Butte and the Milky Way
Square Butte and the Milky Way; photo by Jonathan Trites

“We are considering cleaning this area up for the North Dakota Climber’s Coalition’s first advocacy project,” he said. And so the march continues, a quest to develop an alpine sport in one of the flattest places on Earth.

–Support the North Dakota Rock Climbing Development & Guidebook project.

Stephen Regenold

Stephen Regenold is Founder of GearJunkie, which he launched as a nationally-syndicated newspaper column in 2002. As a journalist and writer, Regenold has covered the outdoors industry for two decades, including as a correspondent for the New York Times. A father of five, Regenold and his wife live in Minneapolis.