My 5 Favorite Winter Climbing Areas in California
Just as the summer months here in California (July-September) are a great time for alpine climbing and hiking in the Sierra Nevada, the winter months (November-February) are great for some desert rock climbing! It almost feels like my training for climbing cycle around these different seasons as well. When March starts rolling around I tend to be going on longer runs and hikes, getting ready for longer alpine days. Then in August, we all start training hard for bouldering, because the winter time is when the bouldering gets good!
Also, I lied, just a little. Not all 5 of these places are in California. 4 of them are, but the last one is in Nevada (eh hem) Red Rock Canyon. I couldn't in good conscience leave this area out because we travel to it almost just as frequently as some of the other climbing areas in the winter.
There is a mix of all kinds of climbing in the different areas below. There are some places that are primarily bouldering and some are primarily sport. Then some areas, like Joshua Tree, have sport climbing, trad climbing and bouldering. So there's something for everyone. Michael and I like them all, though, in the winter we tend to focus on bouldering. We do try to get a bit of sport climbing in as well.
This list isn't at all comprehensive, and I tend to be a bit biased toward southern and central California, because that's where I am located. So if you have another local climbing area you love to go to in the winter, hit me up in the comments!
Let's just lead with this one. You know I want to. You've heard about it before. In fact, I recently wrote a post about my 10 favorite bouldering problems in Bishop for the V0 to V3 boulderer. This is probably the place we go to the most in the winter. It is about a 3-4 hour drive for us, it's easy to find camping, and there are thousands of bouldering problems. In fact, according to my guidebook, there are over 2000 problems here. Even after going here for 3 seasons now, I feel like I've barely touched the surface too. We tend to climb in The Happies, The Sads, and The Buttermilks the most since they are easy to get to and we already have a lot of projects there, but I know there are a ton other great areas too.
- Type of Climbing: Bouldering (although you can find Sport and trad climbing not far from the Bishop area)
- Where: Bishop is located in the Eastern Sierras off of the 395
- Where to Stay: There are a lot of options. You could try and find a free spot in the area called The Tablelands. This is a good area close to both The Sads and The Happies. Please note, you aren't allowed to sleep in the parking lot for the Sads and Happies. You could camp in some of the free areas near the Buttermilks (although it gets pretty cold there at night since the Buttermilks is at a higher elevation). There are also some established campgrounds like "The Pit" or officially the BLM Pleasant Valley Climbers Campground. There is also the Pleasant Valley Campground. A lot of the other official campgrounds in the area end up closing in the winter, so just keep that in mind if you are looking around. Of course, you could also stay at the hostel in Bishop or a hotel, which might be really nice if you are in town for longer than a weekend.
- Approach: Practically none for the most popular areas. Some areas require a bit of a hike, but there is plenty of climbing without an approach.
- Guidebook: They actually just updated the old guidebook! It's not being sold on Amazon yet (at the time of this writing at least), but it is easily found in one of the outdoor stores like Wilson's in Bishop, or you can even find it up in Mammoth Lakes. Alternatively, there is a smaller book called Bishop Bouldering Select that you can buy off amazon, but honestly, I'd just buy the big book. It has all the good stuff and then some.
- Related Posts: My 10 favorite bouldering problems in Bishop for the V0 to V3 boulderer
It will get pretty cold in the winter in Bishop, so it's best to bring plenty of layers and a down jacket, especially since you will be sitting around in between "burns". We also like to bring a thermos filled with tea or coffee around with us. When it's really cold, we tend to shy away from the Buttermilks since its at the highest elevation and can sometimes have a lot of snow.
Definitely check this area out, if you haven't already. People travel all over the world to climb here. If you're lucky enough to live in California, its right in your backyard!
Joshua Tree, California
This is another great winter climbing spot in California, and it has a little bit of everything for everyone. According to one of my guidebooks, there are over 3000 routes and boulder problems here. We have some friends who primarily like to boulder, and sometimes Joshua Tree is a nice compromise when say Michael and I want to do a bit of trad or sport climbing as well. I've mostly done sport and trad (and mixed) climbing here, but we have gone bouldering once there too and it seems like there is plenty to offer. Most of the climbs are also pretty easy to get to as well. You just need to be willing to deal with crowds (it seems like a lot of people from LA hit this area up and so camping can be complicated) and be prepared for a bit of wind (its known to get windy there from time to time).
- Type of Climbing: Sport Climbing, Trad Climbing, Bouldering
- Where: The climbing is located inside of Joshua Tree National Park
- Where to Stay: Things are a little trickier in Joshua Tree. The campgrounds tend to fill up quickly if you don't get there early. If we are able to come up Thursday night or Friday morning we are usually able to find something inside of the park, but if we come late Friday we usually end up camping on the BLM land just out side of the National Park area. For more tips on dispersed camping, check out these tips on dispersed camping 101.
- Approach: practically none for most areas. Some areas require a bit of a hike, but there is plenty of climbing without an approach.
- Guidebook: I feel like there are a ton of guidebooks for Joshua Tree. I actually have 3 of them. Joshua Tree Rock Climbs is probably the better one, but it must be out of print because it is really expensive on Amazon. Try calling up some climbing shops to see if you can find a copy. This is the biggest guidebook for JTree that I have. Alternatively, we also have The Trad Guide to Joshua Tree which has this authors 60 favorite climbs from 5.5 to 5.9 in it, and we have Falcon Guides Best Climbs Joshua Tree National Park.
- Related Posts: I wrote about my first trip climbing in Joshua Tree back in December 2014.
Definitely check this place out too. It's a classic. This is one of the areas where rock climbing got started!
New Jack City, California
This is another favorite of ours, particularly if we want to go on a "day trip" climbing somewhere, although you can camp here as well. New Jack City has some great single pitch sport climbing, over 450 different routes ranging from 5.6 to 5.13, and isn't usually as busy as say Joshua Tree or Bishop.
- Type of Climbing: Sport Climbing
- Where: New Jack City is located near Barstow, California
- Where to Stay: We tend to never have issues finding a place to camp up in New Jack. There are campsites fairly close to the climbing and are a first come first serve kind of deal.
- Approach: Practically none
- Guidebook: There is a New Jack City guidebook, which ironically we do not have. We have a book called Southern California Sport Climbing that has a small section on New Jack. We tend to also use the Mountain Project app when we go there too.
- Related Posts: Sport Climbing: New Jack City.
While this area is not as big as some of the others, I still highly recommend checking it out if you like sport climbing and live in the SoCal area.
Echo Cliffs, California
Arguably, this place is great to go to year round. However, the summer can be hot, depending on the day and winter temps might be just what you need to send. It is known as one of the premier sport climbing areas in Southern California and is home to over 200 climbing routes. This is a great place for intermediate climbing, you'll find a majority of the routes are in the 5.10-5.12 range. The routes are long too, so bring a long rope! We usually lug around our 70 meter rope here, although you can probably get by with a 60 meter just fine too.
- Type of Climbing: Sport Climbing
- Where: Echo Cliffs is located in the Santa Monica Mountains
- Where to Stay: Camping at Echo Cliffs is illegal. We usually day trip it to Echo or find campsites near the coast or in Santa Monica Mountains.
- Approach: There is actually a bit of a hike to get to Echo Cliffs, about 30-45 minutes, but its pretty easy and definitely worth the trudge. Also I like to think the longer hike helps keep the place less busy.
- Guidebook: We use the guidebook Sport Climbing in the Santa Monicas or the Mountain project app. I don't know if there is a specific guidebook just for Echo Cliffs. You could also buy, Rock Climbing Santa Barbara and Ventura.
- Related Posts: This was one of the first dates I ever went on with Michael back when we first started going out, Sport Climbing at Echo Cliffs
This place is fun and I wish I would spend more time climbing here. Every time we have been its been really great and crowds have been low.
Red Rock Canyon, Nevada (sorry I know, not California)
Ok ok ok. I know. It's not in California. Ok, are you over it now? I'm sorry. Really. BUT, I couldn't in good conscience leave this area out because we spend so much time here in the winter season as well and its not a super long drive from California. From the Central Valley it takes us about 5 hours to get there which is perfectly doable for a weekend trip. There is also all variety of climbing here and it is all super excellent. There are over 2000 climbs here and the rock quality is fantastic. The only downside is that you really need to pay attention to the weather before driving out here. If it rains, DO NOT CLIMB, its very easy to break holds off of a climb after it rains here. We've driven up one weekend on a Friday and its rained Saturday morning and so we didn't get to climb. Sad. But, when you do get to climb, it's worth it.
- Type of Climbing: Sport Climbing, Trad Climbing, Bouldering
- Where: Red Rock Canyon is located just West of Las Vegas
- Where to Stay: We've somehow always managed to get a campsite (usually thanks to friends) at the one campground nearby, but it is limited, so have a backup plan. I haven't done a ton of research but I would bet there is some desert backcountry land you're allowed to camp on somewhere nearby, and also, there tends to be pretty cheap hotel rooms in Las Vegas. I've seen some go for about $28 per night on hotels.com because ironically, less people like to go to Vegas in the winter, which means cheaper hotels.
- Approach: Pick your poison. You can find short and long approaches here.
- Guidebook: We have 2 guidebooks. For sport climbing we have the Red Rocks A Climbers Guide, and for bouldering we have Southern Nevada Bouldering II. Although we utilize mountain project a lot as well. I'm sure there are probably other guidebooks out there too since its such a big area.
- Related Posts: The Other Side of Las Vegas: Red Rocks Climbing and Mountain Biking
Its always so hard for us to choose what to climb when we go up here. We really like the bouldering and we really like the trad and sport... so sometimes we bring everything. :)
Anyways, this is by no means an exhaustive list of great winter climbing areas in California, and I'm limited to my own experiences. These are just perhaps some of my favorites that we continually go back to year to year.
Some other notable winter climbing areas:
- Owens River Gorge
- Alabama Hills
- Lizards Mouth