Red Rocks’ Climbing Crags

Red Rocks is an amazing area in which to climb. With thousands of established and well maintained climbing routes, there are plenty of places to go, plenty of routes to absorb the climbers that flock to this area in droves, and plenty of places to play. There you can hone your skills, relax in some lofty perches with inspiring views and foster that love of getting on rock.

With a little research ahead of time, it is not difficult to find climbing crags in the Red Rocks area that can meet the variety of ability levels in your group AND keep you in the shade or in the sun. On hot days, shade helps to keep the rock “sticky.” On cold days you are wearing puffies, and the sun helps to keep fingers with feeling in them. The desert is strange that way… it can be very cold in the mornings and evenings and very hot at mid day and in the afternoon. It’s a place of extremes.

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Descending from a climbing crag after a day spent on the rock.

The Red Rocks sandstone formation is really unique to climb. Its crags are often incredibly airy places, perched high above the desert floor up steep gullies with the most amazing views of the landscape.

Where the black varnishing happens on the wall , there are flakes to catch and pull on with your fingernails and finger tips and to wedge your toes against for purchase.

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The black patch on the wall of this crag is the “varnish” that happens in the desert with the oxidation of minerals leaching through the rock. It is very hard, and gives interesting “flakes” on which to pull and step.
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The sandstone gets eroded in fascinating ways, giving you flakes to grab, pockets to use, and balancey areas where only the palm of your hand will do to keep you perched on the rock.

Where the rock has eroded through the washing and sandpapering of erosive flash floods, often at the base of routes, but also high up cliff faces, the routes help you practice your slab techniques. On slab, you’ll work on your balance, your trust issues… and remove fingerprint ridges from your finger tips, leaving them smooth as a baby’s bottom!

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There are little cracks, that give the slightest of edges for your feet to grip, and larger cracks that you can push and pull back against to work your way up a route. Flexibility (as Monika demonstrates here), and balance are key.

Where the huecos develop, there can be fun overhung bits, great places to do knee bar rests, and fun underclings to use.

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Steve hangs out under a cleft in the rock, puzzling how to climb up, through and over the lip at Mass Production Wall.
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Popping out of a cave above Calico Tanks. There are caves to explore and airy hangouts to sit in, taking in the vistas of the canyon itself.
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Bill steps up from a series of pockets, little huecos, in the sandstone wall.

Perhaps the most fun feature that develops on the Red Rock rocks is the crack. Cracks can be very wide and make stemming up a “chimney” super fun. Cracks are awesome for the trad climber’s placement of gear, and for using fingers and fists to climb the otherwise impossible flat & smooth cliff faces. Cracks can also be fun, when they run diagonally, to pull back on or walk up on, on a route.

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The crack to the right is a route that some of our group climbed at Coco Crag.
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Nathalie hauls gear up with her to place as she lead climbs a route.
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Chris is all set with a skirt of gear, ready to trad climb a crack route. One look at everything he has to carry, and you know why the emphasis in the development of gear over time has been on its light weight to strength ratio!

The Red Rocks area was incredibly fun, fascinating, challenging and inspiring to explore… whether it be on two wheels, two feet or on a rope. I loved our time there, hanging with some fun, kind, inspiring people, pushing my outdoor climbing level with so much learning, and experiencing a place like no other. 

I’ve come away with great respect for the rock and for the geological processes that sculpted and created it with such beautiful artistry. And I’ve come away with smooth fingertips….my phone will never recognize me again…. and a wonderful pattern of little bruises all over…. but I seriously loved it there.

Many thanks to our wonderful group of climbing friends for nurturing along the weakest link and showing her a great time! And those of you that couldn’t make it this trip, know that you were missed!

In the following posts, I’ll show you some of the beauty of these crag sites, and the fun stuff we had to climb.


If you go…

  • Passes cost $15/day/vehicle of $30 for an annual pass. They are available at the main gate and they take credit cards.
  • Hitting the crags early is good for a few reasons (8:30/9:00am).
  • Line ups into Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area can be very long. The booths are highly inefficient and the park’s solution to this problem is to post signs in the lineup area that say “Ask question at the Visitor’s Centre. Not here.” There is no “pass holder” bypass lane to skip the wait and drive through. We saw lineups around the 10:30-noon time that extended far down the highway, out of the park that would have taken a good hour to get through.
  • Parking is also an issue at the trailheads/crag bases. Getting there early means that you will get a spot.
  • If you don’t get a spot, circle around the parking lot and pounce when one becomes available. Most people are driving the route. They get out, stretch their legs, snap a few photos and drive on to the next parking lot. The turnover is high.
  • Starting early also means that you can climb when the rock is cold and sticky. This is the desert, and the days can get quite hot. And the rock’s black varnish can melt shoe rubber (and burn fingers!).
  • Desert Rock Sports rents crash pads, if you’re into bouldering. It has a small room at the front of the store where it sells consignment clothing and gear. This is a great place to pick up a backpack, a puffy coat and technical clothing.
  • Mountain Project is a terrific online resource for up to date info on routes, and to find out about new routes that have been developed and are not yet in the guide books. Red Rocks is a climbing Mecca with thousands of routes. New routes go up regularly, so any guide book will be out of date, guaranteed. Do some research ahead of time to save yourself time and to make your trip there more suitable to you, your group and your climbing style.IMG_2862
  • The guide book that we used is Red Rocks A Climber’s Guide, by Jerry Handren. It breaks the climbing down, crag by crag, both inside the Red Rock Canyon park and outside in the Calico Basin and beyond. It includes multipitch trad routes and sport climbing routes. Routes indicated with a red dot are safe for sport climbing. Routes indicated with black dots are old routes, possibly with old bolts that have not been replaced. Consider the black routes mixed climbing, and bring along trad gear backup.

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    Pay careful attention to the red and black dots in the guide book.
  • Keep an eye on the clock, especially if you are doing multi-pitch routes. Cars left in the Red Rocks parking areas of the scenic drive after the park closes are subject to heavy fines. If you are planning a multipitch climb, you can get Late Exit Permits up to seven days in advance for multi-pitch routes on the Angel Food Wall, Ice Box Canyon, Juniper Canyon, Pine Creek Canyon and Oak Creek Canyon. Should you be doing an exceptionally long route on some of the big mountain walls, like Mt. Wilson, Hidden Wall or Rainbow Wall, you can get 1-3 day over-night permits. Call (702) 515-5050 to make arrangements.
  • Be sure to take a sunscreened lip balm. All of us had sunburned lips after the first day of climbing, despite applying (in my case) a regular Blistex lip balm that usually works like a charm. You will need one with sunscreen in it or your lips will blister, peel and crack. To put it in perspective, in the 30 years I’ve known Bill, he’s never had chapped lips. Not once. Until this trip.
  • Don’t forget sunscreen. Ears peel in the desert. Climbing helmets don’t cover them. Bring lots of water & salty snacks.
  • There is limited water. Water is only available at the visitor’s centre at the park gates and nowhere else at the park. If you run out, it is a 21km drive, through gawking sightseers, to get to the taps. There are no restaurants, food trucks or vending machines. Bring all food and drink with you.
  • All toilets are pit toilets. Toilet paper isn’t a given.
  • There’s TONS to do at Red Rocks that isn’t climbing. There are spectacular roadside turn-out scenic viewpoints. There are short trails and long trails. You can hike many of the canyons and climb to peaks. You can scramble over wonderfully grippy rock. You can road bike the loop road (no mountain bikes are allowed on the dirt trails). You can hike to important Native American artifact areas and learn fascinating human and natural history info from the signage throughout the park. You can stroll to waterfalls. And it is a photographer’s dream.
  • Drones were a real annoyance on this visit. They are allowed in this park, and people fly them to go where they cannot go themselves, to see into the nooks and crannies and over the sandstone formations. They also use them to watch the climbers, when they find them. They are loud, and sound like a swarm of bees, and they can really wreck the zen state of a good climb and break the concentration needed to sort out the puzzle of a route. At Calico Tanks, we were plagued by them for a good hour.
  • One last tip… as you swap back and forth from climbing shoes to belay footwear, check the recesses of your empty shoes for scorpions before putting your feet back into your shoes. They’re tiny, and the colour of the sandstone. A good tap or shake, and they’ll scurry away. Also, keep your packs done up with cinch cords and buckles. Entrepreneurial rodents (cute little things with big ears for staying cool in the desert) are quite savvy about where the climbing crags are, and where climbers plop their packs down for the day. They easily get in, and chomp away on tasty morsels.
  • Please remember that sandstone is very fragile when wet. Don’t go out climbing after it has rained. Let the rock dry out for 24 hours. From Mountain Project: “Holds rip off and climbs have been and will continue to be permanently damaged due to climbers not respecting this phenomenon. After a heavy storm the rock will remain wet, sometimes for several days. PLEASE DO NOT CLIMB IN RED ROCKS during or after rain. A good rule of thumb is that if the ground near your climb is at all damp (and not powdery dry sand), then do not climb. There are many alternatives (limestone, granite, basalt, and plastic) nearby.
  • Mountain Project is an excellent online resource with up to date info on the crags and the routes themselves. Explore these links:
    • The Panty Wall
    • Conundrum Crag
    • Coco Crag
    • Mass Production Wall

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      Greg & Chris

      Not all of these photos in my Red Rocks climbing posts are mine. Some of the credit goes to Chris Schell, an amazing rope runner and inspirational, very experienced trad climber  … and to Greg Funk, a most determined climber who can power up walls like nobody’s business with skill and an impressive amount of sheer force of will and determination! It was an honour to climb with, and be inspired by you both! Thanks for letting me share your pics!

12 Comments on “Red Rocks’ Climbing Crags

  1. Wow, looks like a real confidence booster. I’m impressed that you can scale those rocks–even if you lost your fingerprints in the process. Just looking at that one photo of you palming the rock gives me vertigo!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Even climbing up to the crags themselves to take in the views is worth it. There aren’t too many experiences like this in the world that let us feel like eagles. 🦅 This one still keeps us tethered to the ground… lofty, hard ground, but ground nevertheless. 😬

      Liked by 2 people

    • It really is something special. It gives you an entirely different perspective on the landscape and a huge amount of respect for those who challenge it and perform incredible feats on its vertical surfaces. I was really inspired by the people I was lucky to be with and to watch. They challenge not only the environment, but themselves as well.

      Liked by 2 people

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