Such great heights: 10 great places to learn to rock climb, from Idaho to Maine

Rock climbing, one of the country’s fastest growing sports, not only builds physical strength and mental focus, but also can lead you to some beautiful places, says Chris Santella, author of “Fifty Places To Rock Climb Before You Die” (Abrams Image, $24.99).

With the increasing popularity of climbing gyms and the addition of climbing to the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo, interest is booming.

He shares some favorite U.S. climbing spots that are welcome newer climbers with Larry Bleiberg for USA TODAY.

Horse Pens 40, Steele, Alabama

Horse Pens 40 in Steele, Alabama, is one of the top spots in the country for bouldering, a style of climbing done without ropes or harnesses.

These natural rock shelters in the Appalachian foothills are renowned for their bouldering, a type of rock climbing without ropes and harnesses. “It’s one of the top bouldering spots in the United States, a very unique little ecosystem there,” Santella says. Located about an hour north of Birmingham, it’s particularly popular in the fall when it hosts the final event in the Triple Crown of Bouldering.

More information:  horsepens40.tripod.com

Bishop, California

Santella says Bishop, California, offers a "good mix and stunning scenery with crazy oversized granite boulders and the snowcapped Sierra in the background."

This area on the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada mountains offer an array of climbing options: bouldering; sport climbing, which uses anchors permanently fixed in the rock; and traditional (trad) climbing, which has climbers using removable protection gear. “You have a good mix and stunning scenery with crazy oversized granite boulders and the snow-capped Sierra in the background,” Santella says.

More information:  bishopvisitor.com

Earth Treks, Englewood, Colorado

Earth Treks, located south of Denver, is the mother of all climbing gyms,.

While you can find climbing gyms across the country, this one just south of Denver is worth a special trip, says Santella. With 53,000 square feet, the massive facility has a dedicated bouldering area, a cadre of climbing instructors and even extras like childcare and yoga. “This is special.”

More information:  earthtreksclimbing.com/englewood

City of Rocks, Idaho 

The granite spires found in Idaho's City of Rocks National Reserve erssemble skyscrapers, towering 600 feet above the ground.

This national reserve near the Utah border is worth a trip for the scenery alone. Named by gold miners heading to California in 1849, its granite spires look like skyscrapers, towering 600 feet above the ground. “It’s a fascinating area from a geologic and geographic perspective. There are so many rocks to climb,” Santella says. Many visitors come for August’s Idaho Mountain Festival, a celebration of climbing with top athletes and gear manufacturers in attendance.

More information:  nps.gov/ciro

Red River Gorge, Kentucky

Kentucky's Red River Gorge is well known in the climbing world for both beginner-friendly terrain and more challenging sections

This designated geological area in Daniel Boone National Forest is prized for its climbing routes and rock scenery. The park, located an hour southeast of Lexington, is well known in the climbing world for both beginner-friendly terrain and more challenging sections. “It’s a place where you can find a lot of fellow climbers,” Santella says.

More information: fs.usda.gov/recarea/dbnf/recarea/?recid=39458

Acadia National Park, Maine

Acadia National Park offers climbers a spectacular seaside backdrop.

This popular New England park is one of the few places where you can scale seaside cliffs, Santella says. “The granite is good for climbing. In some areas, you need to start at low tide.” The area also has guides, instructors and climbing schools, making it particularly welcoming for beginners.

More information: nps.gov/acad

Devil’s Lake State Park, Wisconsin

Wisconsin's Baraboo Range will challenge your notion of what the Midwest is supposed to look like.

If you think the Midwest’s flat and featureless, you need to visit this spot in the Baraboo Range, an hour northwest of Madison. The area has been attracting climbers since the 1940s, and although known for its challenging terrain, it also has easier spots for newbies, Santella says. Many routes have water views, while climbing is on ancient Precambrian rock exposed during the last glaciation.

More information:  dnr.wi.gov/topic/parks/name/devilslake

Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming

“Pictures, as beautiful as they are, don’t do it justice," Santella says of Grand Teton.

It’s possible to climb Grand Teton, the towering peak which gives its name to the park. A guided multi-day trip up the 13,770-foot mountain requires several climbing disciplines, but offers an incredible reward: a view of 14 different mountain ranges in four states, Santella says. “Pictures, as beautiful as they are, don’t do it justice.”

More information: nps.gov/grte

North Conway, New Hampshire

The White Mountains' Upper Refuse takes enthusiasts hundreds of feet off the ground over several pitches, ot roped sections.

Santella calls this town the Jackson Hole of the White Mountains, offering visitors a wide range of outdoor opportunities. One favorite traditional climb is Upper Refuse, which takes enthusiasts hundreds of feet off the ground over several pitches (roped sections). “For some, it may be the most amazing experience of their life; for others, it’s terrifying.”

More information: northconwaynh.com

Smith Rock State Park, Oregon

Oregon's Smith Rock State Park is considered the birthplace of American sport climbing.

Located about 25 miles north of Bend, this spot became popular in the 1980s and is considered the birthplace of American sport climbing, Santella says. The world’s top climbers come on pilgrimages to try dizzyingly difficult routes, but the park also offers much easier options. As an outdoor hub, Bend also has a large climbing community with instructors and guides.

More information: oregonstateparks.org/index.cfm?do=parkPage.dsp_parkPage&parkId=3

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