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Know Your Land, Pt. 2: Climbing on State and Municipal Lands

Submitted by camhead on 2014-12-23

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by Paul Nelson

This is part II of a series on land ownership in the United States as it relates to climbing. For part I, click here.


In the early 1900s, Chief Justice Louis Brandeis referred to states as “laboratories of democracy” in reference to how individual states can experiment with a wide variety of laws and policies without affecting the rest of the nation. Sometimes it seems like various state parks’ policies toward climbing take a similar approach.

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If he were alive today, he would totally reopen the Mushroom Boulder, man!

On one end of the spectrum is Smith Rock State Park, Oregon, one of the most climber-friendly parks in the world, with manicured trails, terraces, signs, and pit toilets at the bases of crags. The park realizes that its main user group is climbers, and caters to that group. Hueco Tanks, TX, also recognizes that climbers make up the bulk of its user base, but also seeks to protect Indian rock art and ancient dwelling sites with a notoriously restrictive tour and reservation system. An even worse case scenario is a place like Natural Bridge State Park at the Red River Gorge in Kentucky, which briefly allowed climbing in the 1990s before completely banning it and removing all bolted routes, for political and archaeological reasons (If you've been paying attention in this series, you're starting to see that land ownership at the RRG is complicated.

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The birthplace of American sport climbing, Smith Rock

Most state parks across the nation fall between Smith Rock’s open tolerance and Natural Bridge’s retroactive hostility. There are plenty that have never allowed climbing, and most allow it with reasonable restrictions. Most state parks across the nation tend to have good, but not great rock, although Smith Rock and Hueco Tanks are still world-class destinations. Trad climbing may have been born on Yosemite granite, but American sport and bouldering came into their own in state parks.

As diverse as “laboratories of democracy” can be, it is impossible to categorize state parks as uniformly as national parks or wilderness areas. But here are some broad characteristics: most state parks are small, and centered around specific natural formations or attractions. Because cliffs are pretty, a lot of state parks make rock formations their main features, and their boundaries are dictated by where the awesome rock is. Geographically, state parks allowing climbing are distributed throughout the United States wherever there is rock, but because there is less federal land east of the Rockies, it seems as if the farther east one goes, the more climbing there is in state parks.

Because of their smaller size, many– maybe even most– state parks tend not to be focused on preserving pristine wilderness or wildlife as much as national parks are. You might find more signs, more paved or graveled trails, and more crowds of tourists milling around than in national parks, and on busy weekends, solitude might be hard to come by. But the plus side of this is that state parks tend to cater more to visitation than preservation than many national parks, which can benefit climbers!

By far the largest state park in the nation is the Adirondack mountain range in upstate New York, which occupies nearly a fourth of New York’s total area, encompasses entire cities, and operates much more like a large national forest than a small state park. The Adirondacks were not created as a tourist or recreation destination, however. Rather, the park was originally designated to protect a huge watershed of mountain springs and rivers that eventually get piped off to New York City via an impressive system of aquaducts. The city of New York realized that buying and protecting mountains, meadows, and forests was the cheapest was to secure a water source, and today, over a century later, New York still has some of the best and cleanest water of any major urban area. Fortunately for climbers, the Adirondack watershed also contains some amazing rock and ice.

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Some Brooklyn hipster will eventually be drinking this.
Texas is also an interesting case for state parks. Although our image of Texas is wide, open spaces, nearly all of the state except for a few national parks in the far west is privately owned, and usually off-limits to climbers who don't want to be shot at. This is actually because Texas entered the union as a sovereign nation, and ceded no land to the U.S., in case you’re interested. Most states, even those in the East, have climbing scattered throughout federal land and state parks, but climbing in Texas is almost exclusively controlled by the state (for some reason, Big Bend and Guadalupe national parks do not have much developed climbing). And these state parks are tiny! Hueco Tanks is only a few square miles in size. Other less-famous parks in Texas like Enchanted Rock, with its Joshua Tree-style granite domes, the steep limestone bouldering of McKinney Falls, or the toprope-only conglomerate of Mineral Wells are similarly miniscule.
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Everything is not, in fact, bigger in Texas
In the end, state parks are might not have the mythical grandiosity that national parks have, but they can have some great rock– even some of the best in the world for those more concerned with quality than quantity. Even those areas that have less than world-class rock are great getaways for climbers in places like Wisconsin, Missouri, and yes, even Texas. And the only other option in many of these places is sneaking onto private land, which, trust me, you do not want to do in Texas.

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Git off mah limestone!


  1. Adirondacks, NY
  2. Blue Mounds, MN
  3. Cooper's Rock State Forest, WV
  4. Crowders Mountain, NC
  5. Delaware Water Gap, NJ
  6. Devils Lake, WI
  7. Enchanted Rock, TX
  8. Hueco Tanks State Historical Area, TX
  9. Malibu Creek, CA
  10. Mineral Wells, TX
  11. Moores Wall (Hanging Rock State Park), NC
  12. Mt. Magazine, AR
  13. Rumbling Bald (Chimney Rock State Park), NC
  14. Snow Canyon, UT
  15. Smith Rock, OR
  16. Tennessee Wall and Suck Creek, TN (Prentice-Cooper State Forest)



It might seem like climbing in city parks is the polar opposite of the grand, big wall national park experience. And yes, there are several city parks around the US that actually do have climbing on them, right in the middle of grass, swingsets, and urbanites picnicking. Though not the best climbing, Central Park offers the novelty of bouldering in New York City, and Bull Creek, in a suburb of Austin, TX, has some cool pockety boulders nicely lined with soft wood chip landings just a few minutes from the parking lot.

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If Rat Rock got Ashima this strong, it can't be that bad!

By and large, the most common type of climbing in city-owned parks is bouldering, for obvious reasons– cities tend not to be built around huge cliffs, but erratic boulders can be anywhere. Some urban bouldering areas are really good, and might almost be considered destinations, or at least worthy of quick stops by roadtrippers (Boat Rock, Atlanta, comes to mind, though it is technically owned by a climbers’ coalition and not the municipality). But many others can retain, that, um, “urban” feel. In the days before NYC gentrified, climbers would joke about the objective hazards of dirty heroin needles laying around Rat Rock in Central Park. And Stoney Point, Los Angeles has even been used as the occasional site for adult movie shoots (the link is SFW)!

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Yosemite it is not, although a lot of the Stone Masters honed their edging skills here.

Beyond this, there are some really classic areas owned by municipalities that go well beyond just boulders in urban environments. Ever hear of a place called Rifle? This epicenter of hard limestone sport in the U.S. is actually owned by the town of Rifle, Colorado, which maintains campsites, picnic areas, and a quaint dirt road that winds underneath steep limestone. Another noteworthy swath of municipal limestone is along the Barton Creek Greenbelt in Austin, Texas, where urbanites can catch quick after work sessions along a multi-use creek trail.

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The only picture of Rifle I could find without screaming ColoRadGuys.

Of all public lands that offer climbing, municipal areas tend to be the smallest, least classic (with the obvious exception of Rifle), and are usually just as heavily regulated as state parks, if not more so. Should you find a patch of chossy rock in your own local park or publicly-owned river bottom, you could certainly put up routes, but it is very likely that if you are caught by local authorities they would immediately prohibit climbing. Most urban climbing areas that allow climbing have that access because of historical precedent. That said, if you live in an area where climbing is legal within your city limits, you know that it is a special privilege to be able to climb an outside urban boulder, no matter how chossy or unclassic it is.


  1. Barton Creek Greenbelt and Bull Creek Park, Austin, TX
  2. Indian Rock, Berkeley, CA
  3. Rat Rock and other bouldering areas, Central Park, New York City
  4. Reimer's Ranch, Texas (formerly private land, was purchased by Travis County, TX in 2005)
  5. Rifle Mountain Park, CO
  6. Stoney Point, Los Angeles, CA
  7. Tonkawa Falls, Crawford, TX

Finally, though there is no climbing within its city limits, the city of Lander Wyoming, deserves special mention, since it allows dirtbag climbers to CAMP in its city park between their sessions at nearby Wild Iris or Sinks Canyon.

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