Climbing in Rocky Mountain National Park: Bouldering, Cragging, and Alpine Routes

climbing in rocky mountain national park

Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP) is home to some of Colorado’s best climbing. With a rich history of climbing and mountaineering, the park offers iconic alpine peaks to summit such as the face of Longs Peak, “The Diamond.” From pristine boulders to high peaks, the park is a destination for all climbers.

A Few Things to Note:

  • There is a $25 entrance fee into the park unless you have an Annual RMNP Pass, or Annual Parks Pass.
  • Dogs are only allowed in developed areas of the park, such as parking lots and campgrounds. They are not allowed on trails to any climbing areas.
  • If you are planning on camping in the park, there are designated campgrounds, or you can obtain a wilderness permit and camp in the backcountry. If you are looking at doing a high peak, hiking in and camping near the base of the climb can be a nice way to reserve energy for the climb.
  • Fires are prohibited, cooking stoves are allowed.
  • Pack out all trash, and discard of wastewater 200 feet away from any water.
  • If you are camping in the backcountry, pack out all toilet paper, dig a 6-8-inch cathole, or pack out human waste via a WagBag or similar product.
  • Fishing is permitted with a Colorado Fishing License in the park – a fun camp activity.
  • Certain areas might be closed due to various reasons, so make sure to check these closures when you are planning your trip.
  • Due to the popularity of RMNP, trails are being overrun and eroding very quickly. To avoid furthering any damage, stay on the trail and follow Leave No Trace guidelines.

Bouldering: Chaos Canyon

With well over 100 boulder problems in the park, and one area containing a large majority of them (Chaos Canyon), RMNP might just be one of the most epic bouldering landscapes in Northern Colorado.

At just over 10,000 feet of elevation, Chaos Canyon is full of highly featured boulders varying from steep, slabby, to overhanging. There are two main areas: Upper Chaos, and Lower Chaos. Lower Chaos takes about 45 minutes, and Upper Chaos can take over an hour to hike to from the Bear Lake parking lot.

Lower Chaos:

Lower Chaos is the first area you’ll come to on the trail once you reach Lake Haiyaha. There are 61 boulder problems just in Lower Chaos. There are quite a few warm-up options available in Lower Chaos as well. This can be fun if you are going with a larger group and want to disperse while someone is projecting something hard.

The warm-up spots: Revenge Area, Bushpilot Warm Up Boulder, and Warm up Boulder.

Upper Chaos:

Continue on the main trail around the Lake, past Lower Chaos. The Trail ends on the North side of the lake, and you’ll see a smaller climber trail heading West. Follow this over some boulders and through a meadow. You’ll pass some solitary boulders on the hike, but the main area still lies ahead. From here, maneuver over a talus field that will take you to the main area.

A Crag Day in the Park: Fern Canyon Rocks

While a lot of climbing in the park requires full day, or even multi-day endeavors, there are some hidden areas in the Park that allow for some fun, low stress, single-pitch trad and sport climbing. One area comes with a decently short approach compared to anything else in the Park (only 2 miles!).

Getting There:

  • Once in the Park, get onto Bear Lake Road.
  • After 1 mile, turn right onto Moraine Park Road.
  • Continue to Follow signs to Fern Lake Trailhead.
  • Hike for 1 mile until you reach Arch Rocks Campsite. From Here, hike up a talus field to the base of the cliff face.

Fern Canyon Rocks climbing is comparable to Lumpy Ridge, just outside the park. The routes here are pretty stout; the majority of routes are rated 5.10-5.13. On the main cliff face, called “Rock of Ages” there is nothing easier than a 5.10b. This face is also where you can find a few of the only sport routes in the Park. Another face here, called “The Lost World,” is filled with some more moderate climbs. Complete with one 5.6, a scary 5.8, and the greatest grade of 5.9+, this smaller crag is a great warm up before heading over to “Rock of Ages.”

Alpine Rock

Rocky Mountain National Park brings out all trad climbers and mountaineers annually to test their skills on great alpine rock. Just under half (420 routes) of all the climbing in the Park is designated as “alpine” and another 300+ routes are trad. There is simply an abundance to choose from when planning a trip.

When climbing in this terrain, it is best to choose routes that are at least one-two grades easier than your trad leading limit. This way, you and your partner can focus more on good protection, route finding, and any inclement weather or other types of emergencies you might have to deal with.

La Petit Grepon:

This spire, despite how long the approach is, is quickly becoming one of the Park’s most popular alpine climbs in Colorado. There is a total of 4 routes that summit the spire. The South Face route is a lovely 8 pitches of spectacular 5.8 trad climbing. You can choose to spice things up a bit and climbing the Southwest Corner that goes up 9 pitches of 5.9. The other two are low 5.10 climbs, but with R and X protection ratings.

The Approach:

  • Park at the Glacier Gorge Trailhead. This is about a mile before the Bear Lake Parking Lot.
  • Follow signs to Loch Vale, then you’ll see signs for Sky Pond. Follow these for about 4 miles.
  • Work your way up the talus field until you reach the base of Petit. You’ll see the larger Sharkstooth, and the Saber on the Right.

La Petit Grepon does get very busy during the summer months, so you will have the best luck if you plan for a weekday trip. Weather in the park is especially touch-and-go like any other alpine location. While climbing, always pay attention to your surroundings and be aware of any scary looking clouds. Afternoon thunderstorms usually roll in during the summer months – which is when La Petit is most accessible.

The descent does require 4 rappels, so make sure you start climbing early in the morning to avoid rappelling in the dark or during bad weather. Wilderness camping can ease the strain of a long hike in-climb-descend-hike out kind of day.

Pitch 1: (5.4, 165’)

There are two corner/chimney systems you can work up to reach a big, grassy ledge.

Pitch 2: (5.5, 100’)

Continue your way up another chimney off the ledge that lies in the center of the face. Belay from a large chockstone in the chimney.

Pitch 3: (5.7, 140’)

Continue through the chimney until you’re out of it and follow a difficult crack that leads up to another belay ledge known as the “Upper Terrace.”

Pitch 4: (5.6, 120’)

Follow easy terrain into a smaller chimney. Stem up and right. Belay from a ramp with a fixed piton.

Pitch 5: (5.8, 120’)

You can follow easier, but runout rock to the right (5.6 R). Step back left into the route. Head straight up into a steep crack to a V-slot. You’ll reach a big ledge on the Southeast Corner. Belay from a large block.

Pitch 6: (5.7, 130’)

Go up and right through a series of left-facing corners. You’ll come to a small stance on the Southeast Arete, often called the “Pizza Pan” belay stance.

Pitch 7: (5.7, 160’)

Follow the steep crack up to a ledge on the East face. Follow the system up to a good ledge just short of the ridge crest, summit line.

Pitch 8: (5.6, 90’)

There are 2 corners you can go up, stay on the right and easily climb to the summit.

Descent:

As stated before, the easiest (and safest) descent is to make 4 long rappels back down to the base. To make these rappels, you must have TWO 60m ropes. If you are comfortable using half-rope or twin-ropes systems, I suggest doing so to lighten the load. Just make sure your belay device(s) do well with thinner ropes.

The Guide Books

“Rocky Mountain National Park: High Peaks” by Bernard Gillett is one of the best resources for alpine rock in the Park. This volume includes over 375 routes, and a chapter that lists over 130 ice and mixed routes on these peaks. This book is very intuitive to use, easy to follow, and can withstand being thrown in the pack. To complete the Bernard Gillett set, I highly recommend “Rocky Mountain National Park: Estes Park Valley” to explore climbing on the stellar granite cliffs surrounding the main Park.

For Bouldering, “Bouldering Rocky Mountain National Park and Mount Evans” by Jamie Emerson is a great go-to. I personally enjoy this book because it dives into the history and climbing culture that has been established in RMNP.

 

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Is Longs Peak Hard to Climb?

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