Editor's note: Please taken precaution before climbing. Those without experience should not climb outdoors without proper instruction.
By Margaux Poupard
When it comes to the great outdoors, the Bay Area is unparalleled. There is always a reason to get outside and enjoy the city, barring Karl the Fog’s presence. Most sporty natives already know they can bike the Wiggle, hike around Lands End, and jog around Glen Canyon Park; but if you’ve ever wanted to scale walls like Spider-Man, you’re in luck. There is no shortage of outdoor spots as well as a couple indoor rock-climbing gyms to choose from.
Before You Get Started
If you’re new to the sport or trying to decide which form of rock climbing you’d like to try out, let me clear up a few differences and terms. Feel free to skip ahead if you’re familiar with the basics and curious about where to flex your skills outdoors.
Oftentimes, free solo climbing and bouldering can be easily mixed up. Both forms of rock climbing are performed without ropes or harnesses and rely heavily on chalk and your shoes to secure footholds and handholds. Unlike free solo, though, bouldering paths, or “problems” as they are called, cap at 20 feet in climbing length from top to bottom. Bouldering problems are commonly graded on a V scale, which is predetermined by route setters. The Vs are accompanied by a number that indicates the difficulty level, ranging from zero to 16. For example, a novice climber could master a V1 bouldering problem in a couple of attempts.
Some of the locations I mention below feature top roping, the form of rock climbing that uses ropes with belayers and carabiners connected to an anchor system. You should set up top roping at these spots only if you have experience doing so or are with people who do. If you’re interested in gaining top-roping experience safely, check out the two indoor gyms listed at the end of this piece that offer classes on it.
Everybody feeling like they’ve got a handle on it? All right, here’s the good stuff.
Photo by Doctor Popular
Corona Heights (Update: This wall is closed)
Full disclosure: the Beaver Street rock wall above the Corona Heights playground used to be a pet cemetery. But don’t let that minor, creepy detail deter you from checking it out. Beaver Street works if you want to set up a top rope. Walk until it dead-ends at De Forest Way, turn right onto the dirt path that leads to the stairs and a chain link fence, and set up your ropes there. If you’re bouldering, finding your route might take some extra brainpower. The red stone wall is radiolarian chert according to guidebooks and is heavily polished because it’s a fault face. Luckily, there’s a large crack down the middle where multiple climbing routes all top out at roughly the same place.
If you’ve ever been to the top of the Twin Peaks visitation area, not only have you seen the most breathtaking views of the city but also you’ve also been to one of the longest artificial walls (that you can also climb) in San Francisco. And it’s a real forearm burner. Below, where tourists usually snap pictures, you can get your sweat on. The wall is about 240 feet long and 15 feet high at its tallest point, so if you’re feeling a little vertigo, there’s a smaller wall on the east side that’s a little shorter but just as challenging.
Popular East Bay spot Indian Rock boasts beautiful views, and on a sunny day, lots of families and couples enjoy this huge hunk of rock. And of course, you’ll find plenty of climbers too. There are several areas to choose from, but if you’re starting out, head to the northwest corner of the rock. The two walls on the inside of that corner are known as the Pit, and you’ll have tons of bouldering problems to solve. This spot is especially appealing because the ground is covered in chipped bark, making it semi-safe for a crash landing if you don’t have a crash pad.
Cragmont Park is where early members of the Sierra Club Rock Climbing Section would come to train for ascents in the 1930s. You can still find evidence of retro leftovers from past training sessions. The 40-foot-tall rock has a variety of routes for climbers whose skills level ranges from beginner to advanced as well as anchors for top roping. Make sure you get there early if you go on the weekends; it’s still a hot spot for climbing groups. Oh, and use the bathroom before you get to the park. They have restrooms, but they’re not the nicest.
Photo by Doctor Popular
Mt. Tam has four slabs of rock to climb on – a great alternative if the East Bay is too hot or you don’t want to drive far. While most areas require ropes and a good amount of climbers use the routes to learn traditional climbing, there are bouldering possibilities. The Bootjack Boulders are newly opened for the public to climb on and are located about half a mile away from the Bootjack Picnic Area. The volcanic rock surface makes the difficulty level fluctuate between V2 and V6, so plot your route carefully.
From Ring Mountain, part of the Tiburon Ridge Trail, you can see Mt. Diablo, the Bay Bridge, and the world’s nicest jail, San Quentin. Covering six square miles, Ring Mountain is a nice place to explore, even if you’re not going to be spending your day bouldering. If you have the urge to climb something, though, there are two choices: Split Rock and Turtle Rock. Split Rock has a reasonably easier and lower angle that can be top roped or bouldered. But both allow for moderate, scenic climbs.
Between the beach and the bouldering, Stinson is an outdoor-aholics dream. Admittedly, parking can be a nightmare when the weather is nice, but if you don’t pull your hair out before you can find a spot, climbing here is completely worth it. Though it’s not what you’d call expansive, there’s enough problem solving for every experience level. Old Man Boulder has the most routes to choose from, but the smaller and excellently named Are You Experienced has the most challenging problems. Sand levels under all the rocks change constantly, so climbers should be aware of tide-level changes. Also, the rocks can get slick because of the moisture from the sea. In combination, both of these conditions could turn a casual climb into a difficult one pretty quickly.
Photo by Tom Cavnar
Castle Rock State Park
Have you ever wanted to walk through the enchanted forest of Fontainebleau in Paris? Well, Castle Rock is as close to it as you’ll get in California. With some of the most challenging and well-maintained boulders, it can be can overwhelming to know where to start, but here are a few standbys:
Magoos and Yabo Area
Before you get to Castle Rock, you’ll see a bunch of climbers popping off on Mr. and Mrs. Magoo or on Yabo Roof, both of which are mainstays of the park. There are lots of routes to consider that’ll keep you occupied all day.
Clustered around the rock are nothing but problems, problems you can climb. It doesn’t matter what part you start on; Castle Rock has difficulty levels everywhere, ranging from V0 to V7.
Goat Rock’s bouldering circuit is exciting for top ropers and boulders alike because this man-made rock requires a lot of literal on-your-feet problem solving. And similar to most climbing areas in the park, the circuits are helpfully numbered by difficulty level.
If you want to work on your climbing skills no matter what the weather’s like, or learn more with the safety of crash pads before you take to the rocks outside, you have several options: Dogpatch Boulders, Mission Cliffs in San Francisco, Great Western Power Co in Oakland, Ironworks in Berkeley, Diablo Rock Gym in Concord, and the Studio in San Jose are all owned by Touchstone Climbing, so a membership to one allows access to all. There's also Planet Granite in San Francisco, Belmont, and Sunnyvale and Bridges Rock Gym in El Cerrito.
If you have any favorite spots to climb that you’d like to share, mention them in the comments. Happy climbing!
Top image by Raul Diaz