Rock climbing in New England is like one of those mouth-watering penny-candy stores I used to hang out in as a kid. We don’t have the really big stuff — no looming 14,000-foot peaks, no El Capitans.
But we have a little bit of everything, and the best of it is enough to challenge the best climbers and boulder enthusiasts out there.
“The more I climb across the country, the more I realize how special climbing in New England is,” said Tim Kemple, an accomplished climber, photographer, and author of “A Bouldering Guide to Pawtuckaway State Park in New Hampshire.”
“Where else in the country can you drive two hours, in any direction, and be at different types of areas with so many different types of climbing? You can pick your adventure on any given day, or any given weekend.”
That’s especially true during the fall months, when cooler temperatures create better grip on indigenous rock. Still, you don’t have to take our word for it. Check out these areas for yourself.
Lincoln Woods State Park, Rhode Island
The Union’s smallest state comes up big for the bouldering crowd in this area just north of Providence.
“Nothing else in the state compares to Lincoln Woods,” Joe McLoughlin said.
McLoughlin knows — he wrote the book on this public, 627-acre urban jewel, “A Bouldering Guide to Lincoln Woods, R.I.” Lincoln Woods is a veritable five-star amusement park of bouldering problems primarily ranging from V0 to V7 (or novice to advanced intermediate), with lines that reward the technically adept and the powerful alike. For the past decade, some of New England’s premier climbers, drawn by mild temperatures, have tweaked existing routes, creating a few nasty challenges in the V8 to V10 range.
“I can’t think of a better place in the Northeast to go and train and do circuits,” Kemple said. “There are just so many problems and variations in a small area.”
The climbing comes in slabs, traverses, overhangs, and cracks. A few high-ball routes require total concentration. Bring along a pad and a spotter with an unwavering attention span. The sharp-edged Rhode Island granite will grate fingertips — calluses are a big plus. Plan on having company, from mountain bikers, trail runners, and equestrians to people walking Fido, not to mention the beer cans, graffiti, and other urban flotsam. But you’ll also find other climbers who can show you a wide selection of lines in your comfort zone.
Getting there: Lincoln Woods State Park, 401-723-7892 (riparks.com/Locations/LocationLincolnWoods.html). Climbing waiver required. From Providence, take Interstate 95 north to Route146 north to the Lincoln Woods State Park exit, and follow the signs.
Rumney, New Hampshire
“Rumney’s got the highest concentration of 5.14s in the United States,” said Joe Kinder, a Maine-based climber and contributor to New England Bouldering. “They’re beautiful routes. Beautiful and intimidating.”
Testimonials like that will get the adrenaline pumping for most diehard burners. Toss in The Fly, a 25-foot 5.14d widely-considered the single-hardest route in the country, and an excellent variety of sport crags for all abilities, and you’ve got a world-class destination. Overlooking the Baker River, Rumney’s cliffs, on the southern flank of Rattlesnake Mountain, have drawn climbers from throughout North America and Europe for a quarter century.
In the past decade, however, the area has blown up. The result is phenomenal routes being sent by phenomenal climbers. Many faces offer multiple routes, allowing an intermediate to climb close by folks ascending 5.14s and learning the ropes, so to speak.
Rumney’s climbs are characterized by shorter routes, tough holds of metamorphisized schist, and few options. Waimea, on the west end, rules. More spectacular routes include Livin’ Astro (5.14c), China Beach (5.14a/b), and Technosurfing (5.12b). The Main Wall is another favorite, though sometimes closed for falcon nesting, as is the Bonzai Wall. The Meadows features superb 5.9 crags, but can range up to 5.12c. Into bouldering? Visit the Pound and the Blackjack Boulders.
“Rumney’s a place where any person can go and spend a week climbing, and absolutely enjoy it,” Kinder said.
For exceptional, traditional, multi-pitch climbing, head north to Cannon Cliffs in Franconia Notch, or east to Cathedral Ledge and White Horse Ledge, just outside North Conway.
Getting there: Take Interstate 93 north out of Manchester, N.H., to Exit 26 just north of Plymouth. Take Route 25 to Main Street. Turn right, and drive to Rumney, and Buffalo Road. Turn left. The main lot for the Meadows and the Parking Lot Wall is less than a mile. The lot for the Main Wall, Orange Crush and New Wave Wall is just up the road. Since the cliffs fall within the White Mountain National Forest, a fee is charged for parking. Check the information board at the main parking lot, and obey all cliff closures.
Pawtuckaway State Park, Nottingham, New Hampshire
“Pawtuckaway has an incredible variety of glacial erratics awaiting anyone with a brush, imagination, and thick calluses,” said Matt O’Connor, a Granite State native now living in Salt Lake City. “Bring the tape — if you are serious, your fingers will bleed.”
Chances are, you won’t mind. This heavily-forested, swampy park has “Blair Witch Project” etched all over it. The climbing is spellbinding, especially the myriad of boulder problems that require the nerve of a cat burglar, the agility of a trapeze artist, and the strength of a linebacker. There are some decent cliff climbs, especially Lakeside Crag and Devil’s Den, but the star of the show is the bouldering.
“The park is huge, almost 6,000 acres,” Kemple said. “It’s just a maze of mountain bike trails and dirt roads. We’re finding new boulders every week.”
Which means a bounty of new routes. Situated just off Route 101 as the highway barrels toward the coast, Pawtuckaway features two prominent boulder sections, Round Pond and Boulder Natural. “The rock is a nice, fine-grain, gray granite that lends itself to some nice, round, comfy holds,” Kinder said. “Pawtuckaway climbs very technically, very body-oriented.” You’ll need those technical skills to tackle Child of the Storm (V13), Stand and Deliver (V12), and Pawtuckaway’s classic rite of passage, Ride the Lightning (V6).
With its proximity to the University of New Hampshire, the park also has a teeming social scene. Just don’t go during black fly season (May and June). “It can be hellaciously buggy in the spring,” warned Kemple.
Getting there: Pawtuckaway State Park, Nottingham, 603-895-3031 (nhstateparks.org/visit/state-parks/pawtuckaway-state-park). The park is 90 minutes from Boston. Take Interstate 93 north to Manchester, N.H., then take Route 101 east toward Raymond to Exit 5. Follow signs to Pawtuckaway State Park.
Acadia National Park, Bar Harbor, Maine
Just imagine: The great salty expanse of the Atlantic Ocean at your back, thundering waves pounding the cliff base beneath you, and scary faces of granite at your fingertips. Can life get any better than this?
“When the rest of New England is hazy, hot, and humid, you get this nice sea breeze, and it’s just beautiful up there,” Kemple said.
Acadia encompasses more than 47,000 acres of Mount Desert Island’s granite-domed mountains and woodlands by Bar Harbor on Maine’s jagged shoreline. The area has a long climbing history, dating back to the 19th century. However, it has skyrocketed in the last quarter century.
The best-known wall is Otter Cliff, a breathtaking seaside escarpment reaching heights of 60 feet and stretching more than 500 feet, boasting a wide selection of moderate routes (check out Lynn Hill’s 5.10 Peak Performance). Another trendy spot is The Precipice, or South Wall of Champlain Mountain, which has terrific multi-pitch crack climbs along a 300-foot face of pink granite.
Earnest rock hounds, however, are increasingly migrating to Great Head for its exposure, its solid features chiseled by sea and ice, and a demanding collection of 5.10 to 5.13 climbs, including Kemple’s chilling Thicker Than Water (5.13). “It’s definitely adventure climbing at Great Head,” Kemple said. “Some of the climbs require a 4th class traverse to get to, with the waves crashing below your feet. Other climbs you need to rappel down to.” The faint of heart need not apply.
However, there’s an impressive array of options for any climber in Acadia. “The potential exists there for more, both scary and well-protected, easy-to-moderate trad and sport climbs,” Kemple said. “There’s definitely something there for everyone.”
Getting there: Acadia National Park, Bar Harbor, 207-288-3338 (nps.gov/acad/index.htm). The park is six hours north of Boston. Take Interstate 95 north to Augusta, Maine. From Augusta, take Route 3 east to Ellsworth and on to Mount Desert Island.
Shagg Pond, Bethel, Maine
Tucked away in the woods outside Bethel in western Maine, at the end of a leisurely 45-minute hike, is this relatively new mecca for climbers thirsting for steep granite sport routes. “Shagg Crag” a 200-foot cliff exposed on the southern side of Bald Mountain, offers arduous routes that rival any in New England.
“Shagg is absolutely one of the best walls I’ve climbed in America,” Kinder said. “The rock quality is just fantastic. It’s absolutely stress-free, fun rock climbing, with good, comfy, quality holds.”
Highlighted by an abundance of high-end, well-bolted routes, ranging from 5.11 to 5.13, Shagg is the great reward for every climber who has spent countless hours torqueing elbows and shredding fingertips in blind allegiance to the rock. The routes here will test your backbone, your technique, your muscle, and your stamina. But you won’t be bored.
“Shagg is really cool, especially for someone who’s a budding 5.12 climber,” Kemple said. “I wouldn’t tell someone who climbs 5.9 or even 5.10 to go up there. But if you fit in that realm of 5.11 or better, you’re going to have a blast.”
For intermediate climbers not easily intimidated, there are a handful of climbs, such as Late For Dinner (5.8) and Short Shagg (5.9), that won’t feel like they’re out of reach. There’s also some fine bouldering nearby at Jockey’s Cap, off Route 302 in Fryeburg, a stone’s throw from the New Hampshire border.
Getting there: Make sure your odometer is working. From Bethel, take Highway 26 to West Paris, turn east on Highway 219 and drive 4.8 miles. Take a left onto Truell Hill Road, cross a junction at 1.6 miles and continue north on Shagg Pond Road. At the 4.8-mile mark after that junction, look for an unmarked pullout, which doubles as the trailhead for the Bald Mountain Trail. Take the trail east about a mile and a half, always bearing right, to the crag.
Best of the rest
Most urban centers can compete with Lincoln Woods in Rhode Island, though Boston climbers can enjoy a decent crimping session at Hammond Pond in Chestnut Hill, Crow Hill in Leominster State Forest, or the exceptional Quincy Quarries just south of Boston.
Vermont, western Massachusetts, and Connecticut areas might seem conspicuous by their absence — that’s intentional. Vermont is a geological oddity. The pie-shaped Green Mountain State is squeezed between two of the Northeast’s greatest climbing destinations but is relatively devoid of top-notch climbing destinations. Those desperate for a pull on the rock can sample Wheeler Mountain, overlooking Lake Willoughby in the Northeast Kingdom and Bolton Valley off Route 89, just north of the state capital of Montpelier. The Notch Boulders, off the Notch Road, between Johnson and Stowe, offer a Tolkien wonderland of moderate, rope-free problems. The third annual Vermont Climbing Festival will be held Sept. 24-26, at Cochran’s Ski Area in Richmond.
Meanwhile, western Massachusetts and Connecticut have oodles of potential, but the best areas are mired in access issues. Plenty of climbers are bagging exceptional routes on private lands, but we’re not at liberty to disclose locations. However, some good news — Ragged Mountain in Southington, Conn., a longtime classic, has re-opened. Located southwest of Hartford, the Main Cliff of Ragged is a striking crag, with routes upwards of 100 feet (Resource: Ragged and Free guidebook, The Ragged Mountain Foundation; raggedmtn.org). Plus, there are reports that several climbing groups in the Berkshires of Massachusetts are working with private landowners to gain legal access to hotbeds such as Farley and Great Barrington. For updates, check out New England Climbs at NEClimbs.com.