Beyond the FringeLooking for scenic beauty, great weather and even better rock? Put Northern California on your road-trip radar.
We’re now officially off the grid, I said to Doug Englekirk as his bald head ricocheted off the ceiling of my Toyota 4×4. We bounced up the last 200 feet of jumbled granite boulders to the climbers’ camp at Shuteye Ridge in the southern Yosemite region. I stepped out into the crisp alpine air and saw the familiar dark, looming silhouette of the 400-foot High Eagle dome curving eastward into a deep green pine forest. Waiting for us outside his Jeep at the single site was Grahm Doe, a tattooed giant with short brown hair and big mitts. He is the guidebook for the area. Grahm is always the first guy in every spring, crashing through the last snowdrifts, wielding his chainsaws and clearing logs for the rest of us. We shook hands, racked and packed, then set off down a faint trail towards High Eagle’s giant southern face.
It was Doug’s first trip to Shuteye, and while he ogled the undulating, black-and-yellow streaked 300-foot south face of High Eagle, replete with golden knobs, plates, incuts, buckets and 70-meter 5.12s, I had my eyes on the virgin domes below.
Grahm opened up and told us he’d recently put up a moderate sport route, the best for its grade at Shuteye, over on 557s Dome. Of course I had to do it. But first Doug sent the long, gently overhanging Illuminati (5.12b) on High Eagle, then exhausted himself attempting Swing Town (5.13a) on the even steeper cliff called the Aerie, and finally used up his reserves with an onsight of Atmosphere (5.12c). After that, we took the cross-country trip through the brush down to 557s Dome, and worked our way over to Grahm’s new route: the one-pitch, 18-bolt, 200-foot See You in Heaven (5.10a). Located on the south face, this ladder of reddish-gold plates, knobs and horns turned out to be one of the best routes I’ve ever done, anywhere. What Grahm neglected to tell me until we got back to the climbers’ camp that evening was that he hadn’t yet sent it. Oops.
My trips up to Shuteye Ridge had alwaysbeen full of wild discoveries, first ascents and routes that fell into the best ever category, and yet there was no guide to this paradise. No crowds, no developed camping, no coffee shop. Wondering what else was lying beyond the fringe, I decided to find out by spending my weekends road tripping to all the forgotten crags that were sleeping in the pages of outdated California guidebooks, and maybe even seek out some new rock along the way.
I traveled Highway 88 to Calaveras Domes, southwest of Tahoe, a destination that climbers have largely forgotten, huge domes and amazing 10-pitch routes like Wall of the Worlds (5.10c), one of the best multi-pitch climbs in the state, and shorter classics like Wings and Stings (5.7) and the iconic Gemini Cracks (5.9).
I also spent a few weeks at Sonora Pass, north of Yosemite, with various partners, mainly Brandon Thau. We explored the basalt columns furrowed with cracks at the Grotto, west of Sonora, and the high alpine, knobby granite of Hummingbird Wall, perched high at the summit of Highway 108. And we hit up everything in between.
Inspired by one of the out-of-print guidebooks for the Sequoia/ Kings Canyon National Parks, I made several visits. While the Parks are not as frequently traveled as their well-known neighbor Yosemite, to the north, they sure have a lot to offer aficionados of granite cracks. The main attractions are far off the beaten path, with 10- to 16-mile approaches through poison oak and dense brush. But there are plenty of worthy roadside attractions to choose from, too. We ended up taking the path of least resistance and climbed several multi-pitch classics on Moro Rock, juggy sport routes on Buck Rock, long crimpy slabs on Little Baldy, and stellar face and crack routes on Chimney Rock and Spire. Where else in the country do 300- to 900-foot domes and spires play second fiddle?
The East Side has pretty much everything except big walls, right? Hit the Whitney Portal Buttress and you’ll be surprised to find excellent 11-pitch routes up pristine white alpine granite. If you’re seeking fall colors, just plan your visit between October and November. And, no, we didn’t encounter any other climbers. Only fishermen.
Visit the beaches and forests of the north coast if you’re into hard bouldering (or nude bouldering!), remote crags and limestone. Or hit the Beaver Street Wall in the heart of San Francisco, and slither up its unique, smooth-as-glass, red-striped rock.
As Chris Summit and I explored, the project grew into a book, which demanded endless hours at the computer and night classes on Photoshop, Indesign and Illustrator. Finally, California Road Trip, a Climber’s Guide, Northern California was complete. We were able to resurrect some select crags in quite a few areas where guidebooks have gone out of print: places like the Needles, Calaveras Domes, Kern River crags, Kings Canyon and Sequoia, Southern Yosemite, Courtright Reservoir, Tollhouse and the Shaver Lake vicinity, and the Sonora Pass Highway.
Northern California is still rugged and wild beyond the city limits. You can find solitude if you travel off the beaten path. If you haven’t explored it, hit the road.
Tom Slater teaches middle school on the Central Coast. He surfs, climbs and wields a light saber better than most.
GUIDEBOOK: California Road Trip, a Climber’s Guide, Northern California by Tom Slater and Chris Summit lists over 100 crags and 2,000 routes from the Kern River to the Oregon border.Kings Canyon/Sequoia Roadside Crags
AREA OVERVIEW: These parks offer steep valleys, deep caverns, giant trees and massive rock outcroppings, some rivaling Yosemite in grandeur. Classic formations like Tehipite Dome, Charlotte Dome, Angel Wings and Castle Rock Spire are legendary. You will find no shortage of climbing here. Even the roadside crags (like the 1,700-foot Moro Rock) would be considered major destinations just about anywhere else in the country.
AMENITIES: There are grocery stores and a good assortment of restaurants in Three Rivers (one hour away from Moro Rock). Wuksachi Village, a few miles north of Lodgepole, provides high-end lodging and a restaurant (20 minutes away). There is pay camping at Lodgepole, Potwisha and Buckeye Flat. Free camping is available in the National Forest between Kings Canyon and Sequoia, near Chimney Rock and Buck Rock climbing areas. For a rest from climbing, there are several options ranging from museums to tours of Crystal Cave and Boyden Cave. A $20 entrance fee, good for seven days, is required to visit national parks. Also, bears are a problem, so store your food properly (not in your car) or you may be fined $500.
CLIMBING STYLE: Sport and traditional.
SEASON: Fall and summer. Most crags are above 6,000 feet elevation. Raptor closures are in effect from Januar 1 to August 1. Parts of Moro Rock stay open all year.
GEAR: Full traditional rack, 12 draws, long slings, two 60-m ropes.
DIRECTIONS: From Fresno, take Highway 180 east into the park. From Visalia, drive Highway 198 north into the park (Ash Mountain Entrance). Little Baldy is six miles north of Lodgepole; Moro Rock is south of Lodgepole Campground. Just follow the many signs. Chimney Rock is 17 miles on the General’s Highway (Highway 198) north of Lodgepole, toward Kings Canyon. Turn south onto road 14S29, which is a paved, one-lane road. It is one mile south of the Montecito Lake Resort. You will find a sign that says National Forest Organizational Camps (Road 14S29). From here it is about three miles to the end of the road and the parking area. For Buck Rock, take Highway 180 East (Kings Canyon Road) out of Fresno. From the entrance to Kings Canyon, drive .7 miles past the entrance. Turn right onto the General’s Highway and travel about 7 miles toward the Sequoia National Forest boundary. Take forest road 14S11 (on the left), to Buck Rock Campground. At the campground, take a left onto forest road 13S04, staying left at each split, and continue on until it turns into the Buck Rock Lookout.
AREA OVERVIEW: The Whitney Portal Buttress is a huge, 1,000-foot tower of granite that offers 11-pitch routes between 5.10 and 5.12.
AMENITIES: Bishop/Mammoth have all you need. Several campgrounds off Highway 395. Whitney Portal Campground is also at the end of the road.
CLIMBING STYLE: Sport and traditional.
SEASON: Fall and summer are best. The crags are located at over 8,000 feet.
GEAR: 14 draws, slings and a full trad rack. A 70-meter rope is mandatory for some routes.
DIRECTIONS: From Bishop, drive south on Highway 395 until you reach the town of Lone Pine. Turn right onto Whitney Portal Road. This is the only traffic light in town. Drive this road about 12 miles to the Mount Whitney trailhead parking (the end of the road). Park here for the Whitney Portal Buttress. Hike the Mount Whitney trail as it contours east. After the trail turns west to Mount Whitney, hike under the Whitney Portal Buttress until reaching Carillon Creek. Head up and right to the buttress. Forty minutes with 600 feet elevation gain.
AREA OVERVIEW: A host of backcountry domes with featured granite and no crowds. This is a large ridge area running north to south, with awesome domes and cliffs on all sides. It is very secluded and scenic, with views of the highest Sierra peaks. Many domes are up to 900 feet high, with mostly slab climbing. Abundant walls offer vertical with some overhanging walls and caves. In contrast to its nearby neighbor, Yosemite Valley, the weathered granite hosts holds more like limestone, pockets, pinches, incut edges and drippy chickenheads.
AMENITIES: Oakhurst, an hour down the road, has a lot of food and shopping. There is also a movie theater, which can make the long fall/winter nights a little easier. Check out El Cid Mexican Cuisine, Pizza Factory and The Met Cinema.
CLIMBING STYLE: Sport and traditional.
SEASON: Fall and summer are best. The crags are located at over 8,000 feet.
GEAR: Full traditional rack, 30 draws, long slings, two 60-meter ropes.
DIRECTIONS: From Highway 41 north in Oakhurst, continue to Bass Lake Road (222), and turn right. The intersection is marked with signs. After a few miles 222 turns into 274 (222 goes right, but stay left). About five miles from the Highway 41 intersection, turn left at the small street sign for Beasore Road, just after a big sign on the right for the Pines Resort. Go up Beasore about 10 miles to the intersection with Central Camp. Turn right at a large brown metal sign on the right at the intersection. Central Camp is a good dirt road. Follow it downhill for about three miles to an intersection. Stay left. After about three miles you’ll encounter a 170-degree switchback on the left and a small wood sign that says Shuteye Lookout. The road cuts back hard left and is easy to miss. If you get to Central Camp, you’ve gone too far. Travel up Shuteye Lookout road about 3.8 miles through two creek crossings to High Eagle Dome parking. After the stream crossings the road will split into a Y. Straight goes to Brown’s Meadow and is marked. Left continues up the mountain to the Shuteye Lookout. The last 200 feet before High Eagle is a bit rough, but once through, you will see the huge dome and an obvious pullout on the left with a large fire ring. This is the climbers’ camp. Approaches for Shangri La, High Eagle, The Talon, Hobbit, 557s and The Aerie all start here. High-clearance vehicles are recommended.
OVERVIEW: This area is situated in the Sierra Nevada at 4,000 feet elevation. The two main domes, Calaveras Dome and Hammer Dome, are almost mirror opposites. Calaveras is a huge 1,500-foot dome, while Hammer Dome is a mere 500 feet high. Both offer superb climbing. Some climbs are one pitch while others are all-day adventures, true Grade IVs. To the west of Calaveras Dome you’ll find the Hidden Wall. It offers modern sport routes from 5.12a to 5.13b on overhanging granite. Don’t climb here before July 1 due to falcon nesting.
CLIMBING STORE: Mokelumne Adventure Co. (209) 223-2250; Tahoe Sports Ltd.
AMENITIES: Roadside camping is close and free, but primitive. Bring everything you need. Look for Mokelumne, White Azalea and Moore Creek. Check out Ham’s Station in Pioneer for food.
CLIMBING STYLE: Mostly traditional, with sport climbs on Hidden Wall.
SEASON: Spring, summer, fall and sometimes in winter on Hammer Dome, depending upon road closures, snow, ice, etc.
GEAR: A rack up to 4-inch, doubles of everything. It is even wise to carry a light rack up the face routes.
DIRECTIONS: At the junction of Highway 88 and Highway 49, you’ll find the town of Jackson. From Jackson, take 88 east 18 miles past Pioneer, and at the top of a hill (past Ham’s Station) turn right on Ellis Road (FS 92). Drive 10 miles on this rough paved road down to the Mokelumne River (30 minutes). You will cross several concrete bridges. Look for a rock cairn across from the lowest toe of the low-angle slabs of Hammer Dome. Hike uphill for five minutes and you’ll reach the talus below Old Smoky.
For Hammer Dome: Follow directions as for Calaveras Dome, then park on the east side of the rock in the dirt turnout before the bridge. It is next to the aqueduct by the PG&E plant. Don’t drive up the hairpin turns. If you hit the Salt Springs dam, you’ve gone too far. Hike along the faint trail that parallels the aqueduct for about 10 minutes. When you reach the tunnel, climb up and over it and fourth-class to the ledges above. You’ll be almost directly below the classic Gemini Cracks (5.9).
Sonora Pass Highway
OVERVIEW: The Sonora Pass Highway is full of quality crags in a wide range of elevations. Table Mountain is a popular basalt climbing area that has both trad and overhanging sport routes. The Donell Vista Boulder has short granite routes in a parking lot. Column of the Giants is a sport area with a large cave and very steep routes. Chipmunk Flat is high alpine granite located near the summit of the Pass. The rock is very featured and the routes are well bolted. Portions of the Sonora Pass Highway close in winter due to snow.
AMENITIES: Jamestown and Sonora have everything you need. There are many gas statios along Highway 108 and several small mountain towns have restaurants and small markets. There is a small store in Strawberry. Pinecrest Lake Campground shows summer movies in the outdoor amphitheater. With great swimming and fishing, the lake is also quite the scene during the summer months. There are many primitive campgrounds along Highway 108 and its side roads. Check out Pie in the Sky Pizza in Sugar Pine.
CLIMBING STYLE: Traditional, sport, bouldering.
SEASON: Summer, spring and early fall. The higher crags may only be open in summer and fall.
GEAR: Trad rack, sport rack, slings, long webbing.
DIRECTIONS: The Grotto
From Highway 108 at Jamestown, turn left on Rawhide Road and cross a one-lane bridge. Next, turn left on Shell Road. Dive through a couple of gates on a dirt road to a locked gate and parking. From the parking area, hike the dirt road for about .3 mile and then cut left up a trail past a power pole that is about 100 feet above the dirt road. Eventually you’ll talus hop through bushes to the base of Table Mountain. You will arrive at the Welcome Wall (5.10 to 5.11 sport routes) first. Hike left and drop down the short, third-class gully into The Grotto. Once there, you’ll find a wide variety of crack and face climbs from 5.8 to 5.12.
From Highway 108, pull into the Donnell Vista parking lot (north side of the road). It’s about halfway up the pass between Sonora and the true summit of the pass. On the granite boulders, you’ll find short 20-foot routes (5.8 to 5.10d). Bring gear to set up a toprope, or pads ifou want to solo them. Convenient if you’re just passing through. Minimal gear needed.
Column of the Giants
From Miwuk, it is approximately 38 miles. You will find a large sign on Highway 108 that reads Column of the Giants. It is a little over 10 miles from the summit of the pass if coming from the east side. Park in the lot. Then hike over the bridge. The trail will head left, and then make a big right turn. For the Hexentric (5.7), about 100 feet after this bend, leave the trail on its left side and skirt the right side of a low mound of rock. Then angle up the talus and aim for the dead tree visible on top of the hill. Hexentric will be the next small cliff to the left. For the Caves, continue down the main trail until it dead ends at the talus. Diagonal up over the loose talus to the obvious cave, where you’ll find about two dozen 5.12s and 5.13s. Delirious, the steepest 5.12a in California, is here.
Hummingbird Wall is approached from the small paved turnout a mile past the Chipmunk Flat. Head up the obvious brushy gully below and left of the climbs. The hike takes about 15 minutes. A half-dozen 5.8 to 5.10 high quality sport/crack routes go up amazing knobby alpine granite.
KINGS/SEQUOIA National Parks
Dry Run (5.5), Crystal Wall, Chimney Rock
Pop A Top (5.7), Crystal Wall, Chimney Rock
Duet (5.8), Chimney Rock Spire
Wall of Early Morning Fright (5.9), Chimney Rock Spire
South Cracks start to South Face (5.9), Moro Rock
Mowing the Yawn (5.10a), Buck Rock
Hair Today, Gone Tomorrow (5.10), Little Baldy
Levity’s End (5.10), Moro Rock
Ghost Rider (5.10c), Whitney Portal Buttress
Trivial Pursuit (5.12a), Whitney Portal Buttress
SONORA PASS HIGHWAY
Vista Flake (5.7), Donnell Vista, Sonora Pass Highway 108
Hexcentric (5.7), Column of the Giants, Sonora Pass Highway 108
Sidesaddle (5.9), The Grotto, Sonora Pass Highway 108
You Insolent Peasant (5.9), Hummingbird Wall, Sonora Pass Highway 108
Chicken Ranch Bingo (5.10a), The Grotto
Color Coded Quickdraws (5.10b), The Grotto
AC Devil Dog (5.10c), The Grotto
Rawhide (5.10d), The Grotto
Squeeler (5.11c), The Grotto
Ejection Seat (5.12a), The Grotto
Delirious (5.12a), Column of the Giants, Sonora Pass Highway 108
Flight Simulator (5.12b), The Grotto
Wings and Stings (5.7), Hammer Dome
Old Smoky (5.9), Calaveras Dome
Sea of Holes (5.10), Hammer Dome
Gemini Cracks (5.9), Hammer Dome
Wall of the Worlds (5.10c), Calaveras Dome
Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun (5.11), Hammer Dome
Silk Road (5.11), Calaveras Dome
Tsunami (5.11c), Calaveras Dome
Stone Giants (5.7), Hobbit Dome, Shuteye Ridge
Euphoria (5.10a), Shangri La, Shuteye Ridge
Waiting For Heaven (5.10a), 557s, Shuteye Ridge
Eine Kleine Nachtmusik (5.10a), High Eagle, Shuteye Ridge
Shangri La (5.11a), Shangri La, Shuteye Ridge
Cashmere (5.12b), Shangri La, Shuteye Ridge
Bioluminescent (5.12c), High Eagle, Shuteye Ridge
War Eagle (5.12d/.13a), The Aerie, Shuteye Ridge
Gray Matter (5.12d/.13a), The Aerie, Shuteye Ridge
Turkey Vulture (5.13a/b), High Eagle, Shuteye Ridge