Rock climbing

Northern New Mexico replete with both accessible and challenging rocks to climb

Reach for it

 By Olivia Harlow
Posted 10/7/18

There’s no better place to witness Northern New Mexico’s beauty than dangling from a cliff, high above the desert floor.

If you’re looking to dabble in a new sport and test your …

You have exceeded your story limit for this 30-day period.

Please log in to continue

Log in
Rock climbing

Northern New Mexico replete with both accessible and challenging rocks to climb

Reach for it


There’s no better place to witness Northern New Mexico’s beauty than dangling from a cliff, high above the desert floor.

If you’re looking to dabble in a new sport and test your adventurous spirit, try rock climbing. With that said, you won’t want to “sandbag” yourself by visiting crags that fail to offer beginner-friendly routes.

Perhaps the best way to do it is to find someone with experience -- who can set up “top rope” for you -- and head to climbing areas packed with easy options (the term “easy” is relative here, folks), where you can enjoy nature and exercise in a not-so-conventional way.

Standing on a thin slate of basalt, 80 feet in the air, wind whipping through the space between you and the wall, overlooking waves of mountains jutting from the horizon — you will never feel more alive.

Here are a few beginner-friendly crags to visit:

El Rito Sport Area

Situated north of the village of El Rito in the Carson National Forest, this crag is filled with unique, conglomerate rocks. Cobble “jugs,” or large holds for grabbing onto, make El Rito feel like you’re playing at a jungle gym.

There are 120 total climbs at the sport area, with over 30 routes ranging up to 5.9 grade. The sport area contains cobblestone climbing routes ranging in difficulty, with routes up to about 70 feet tall.

Some of the more classic and easier must-climb routes are along the Schoolhouse Slab, all of which are 5.7 grade. After a long day of scaling walls, the parking area is a great spot to chill out, camp with friends and take in the unmatched views of stars.

If you’re interested in venturing further, head to Little River Wall. This area offers 34 climbs, surrounded by cottonwood trees. Set up a hammock near its shady cave and stick your feet in the El Rito River.

White Rock: Gallows Edge and The Overlook

There are over 375 documented climbs at three main climbing hubs in White Rock, near Los Alamos. The go-to sport crag is The Overlook, but Gallows Edge offers more low-difficulty options.

At Gallows Edge, there are over 20 routes ranked 5.9 and lower. A 5.6 called Princess Buttercup, at the main wall at Gallows Edge, is great for beginners. Other classics nearby include The Fire Swamp and 99 Red Balloons, both 5.8s.

The Overlook is a bit more difficult, with few routes rated lower than 5.9. This could be a great spot to go for your second or third outdoors climbing experience. There are a bunch of “trad” climbs that are super fun on top rope, including a 5.8 called Polly’s Crack and a 5.9 called Box Overhang Left. You’ll find lots of climbs that require hand jams and “crack climbing,” or using your hands in a vertical position to follow crack lines in the rock.

Climbing at White Rock is not only fun, it’s beautiful. Whether you’re on a mission to “send hard” -- a phrase used for ascending difficult routes on the first go -- or relax, the area boasts gorgeous views of the Río Grande and the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.

Dead Cholla Wall

This Taos-based crag is arguably one of the most gorgeous climbing spots in the state. Propped along the Río Grande Gorge, you’ll have 360-degree views hiking in as well as while you’re belaying and climbing. There are only 25 total climbs on this wall -- just two 5.7s and three 5.9s for easier options -- but if you’re new to the sport, it’s the perfect amount to get “pumped” and dabble in the adventure. Because the crag sits high above the gorge, you’ll feel more exposed than you actually are, which adds to the thrill.

Because it’s a smaller crag, this is a great pit stop for a day trip to Taos. Want to make a weekend of it? Be sure to hit the Manby Hot Springs for a soak, run along the West Rim Trail, be on the lookout for bighorn sheep and get dinner at Orlando’s.

Las Conchas

Nestled in a high meadow of the Valles Caldera, Las Conchas is an easy-to-access little gem. Because of its higher elevation and cooler temps, the crag, with more than 150 climbs, is one of the more popular summer sport climbing areas in Northern New Mexico and is pleasant year-round. As with most climbing spots, there are few beginner climbs compared to the seemingly countless advanced routes. The easier stuff is top-notch, with shorter 20- to 30-foot climbs and pretty views of the Jemez. Some classics include the 5.7 plus Johnny Can’t Lead and a 5.8 called Crucible.

Park your car along the Las Conchas trailhead, and walk 10 feet to access the base of Cattle Call Wall. Want to make a weekend of your little getaway? Enjoy the frolicking in the pastures and camping closer to town at the Ponderosa Group Campground. Hit the Jemez or Spence Hot Springs and have a picnic in the meadows.

It’s all worth it

Climbing is a sport that, if you decide you enjoy it, requires a lot of time and energy to excel. You’ll need to build beastly forearms and calloused fingers – not to mention patience and bravery to overcome any fear of heights – to progress. Like with any new venture, it’s best to start small and prioritize having fun.

I’m by no means a hardcore climber. I have the forearms of a chicken, I’ve been known to freak out on a 5.7 top rope, and my fingers blister after barely touching the edge of sharp rock. But being married to someone who crushes 5.13 routes and V10 boulders means I’ve learned quite a bit about the sport. If there’s one thing I know for sure: This sport is thrilling and challenging for both mind and body.

And when you get to the top of a climb, hanging above the aspens, and look out at the world around you, there’s a feeling like nothing else in the world.

Just the facts

The grading system: The American climbing system is based on the Yosemite Decimal System, which ranges from class 1 (which is hiking) to class 5 (technical rock climbing). So, when climbing, you’ll see difficulties ranked as 5.5, 5.9, 5.10-plus, et cetera. Typically, climbing grades between 5.0 and 5.7 are considered easy (warning: you’ll almost never find climbs ranked under 5.6).

Climbs between 5.8-5.10 are considered intermediate, and anything higher is hard. 5.13 to 5.15 are for elites only. There’s no real method for grading a climb. It’s not universally based on how small the holds are, or how overhanging the rock is. One 5.7 with lots of “jugs” might feel totally different than another 5.7 with more “crimps.”

What’s the difference between bouldering and sport climbing? Replace the harness and rope for a crash pad. Bouldering is climbing shorter rocks that generally require more technical moves. Sport climbing is what you’re probably thinking of when you imagine climbing tall rocks.

What’s with the lingo?

There are all kinds of weird phrases used in the crags. Be prepared for jargon like, “That hand jam crack and toe hook were totally sick, bro!” Here are a few terms to know:

Crimps: a tiny grip, where only bent fingers are holding on

Jugs: a much larger “hold” that the entire hand can grip onto.

Top rope: Someone has already “lead” the climb and clipped the rope to the top of the route, meaning that if you fall off the rock, you aren’t going anywhere. This is what you’ll be doing as a beginner.

Lead climbing: Someone is “clipping in” quickdraws as they move up a climb, meaning that if they fall, they’ll fall to the last place they clipped in – generally about 5 to 10 feet apart. Someone will have to lead climb to set up your top rope.

Belay: The person on the ground is “belaying” the rope, pulling it tightly as the climber moves up the wall and “catching” them when they fall. Belay systems are top-notch and ensure safety for the climber, as well as the belayer.

This story first published in the Santa Fe New Mexican, a sibling publication of The Taos News. 


Private mode detected!

In order to read our site, please exit private/incognito mode or log in to continue.