10 11 Must See Cliffs in This Lifetime…
As a nearly lifetime climber, I am in love with cliffs and all things about them. I have been lucky enough to climb and experience them all over the world. From the small to the truly colossal, they are all fascinating to me. There are so many amazing places, that it’s nearly impossible for me to whittle it down to only ten (okay 11), but here goes in no particular order.
1.) Tonsai/Railay in Thailand
This whole area just seems otherworldly to me and I’ll never forget the feeling I had when the long-tail boat I was in came around the corner from Ao-Nang and I saw this place for the first time. I thought I’d steamed into a Hollywood movie set or something out of my own artistic imagination. These huge rock formations just rocket out of the ocean or mere feet from it on beaches of soft beautiful sand. Some look like colossal mushrooms with tangles of jungle foliage sprouting out on top like funky hats or toupees.
For a climber, this is heaven. The steepness of the rock makes for a very strenuous, but exhilarating type of climbing and I had to learn a few new techniques to make better use of the features and save strength. I’m a ways down the road from my twenties (or thirties etc…) after all, but have no plans to quit or slow down.
Even if you don’t climb, this whole area is just magical to experience. Access is only available via long-tail boat from nearby Krabi/Ao-Nang unless you’re part of a boat tour from elsewhere or happen to have your own canoe, kayak, sailboat or yacht. I don’t. Transport cost isn’t bad. Accommodations there are limited and tend to be pricey compared to many other areas in Thailand. Tonsai is cheaper than Railay in most cases and you won’t find electricity there during the day. If you need a guide or want to try climbing for the first time, or indulge in a little fun deep water soloing, then ex-pat Elke and the crew at Basecamp Tonsai are a fantastic place to start.
2.) Wadi Rum and Petra in Jordan
These two areas are not exactly right next door to each other, but neither are they far by road. In the grand scheme of life, I can’t imagine going all that way to see one and then miss the other. Petra is that place you saw in Spielberg’s classic adventure movie Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, where they rode out of a narrow slot canyon into a big opening and saw that temple carved out of solid rock on the side of a cliff. That structure as it turns out is called The Treasury and is only one of dozens such carved out of the rock in this hidden valley located in southern Jordan. Petra is a World Heritage site and you’ll find accommodation, restaurants and other amenities in the town of Wadi Musa just outside the gates.
I spent three full days on foot here exploring in the dead cold of winter (it snowed) under-dressed and wearing sandals but it all kept me spellbound, so I didn’t mind the frozen feet. Originally inhabited by the Nabateans more than 2,000 years ago and later by the Romans and others, this place feels ancient. If you’ve a mind, there are options to explore via donkey, carts and camels too. I found that the rock here has incredibly beautiful colors and textures that sometimes almost feel painted on.
Wadi Rum is much more desolate and greatly more expansive feeling. It’s a big place with huge towering cliffs and wider valley floors. There are sand dunes and other features to climb and explore. The Bedouin that live here are wonderful people and hosts. This place also feels ancient, but in a much different way. There aren’t temples and tombs carved into the stone like Petra, just this sense of a very old dry landscape and ecosystem.
3.) Yosemite National Park
No list like this would be complete without including the Granddaddy and world famous icon of America’s National Park system, Yosemite. El Capitan skyrockets more than 3,000 feet straight out of the valley floor and dominates the whole valley with its size and shape. At the end of the Valley proper, you can see Half Dome book-end things with its unmistakable shape. In fact, the whole valley is lined end-to-end with incredible cliffs and escarpments, any one of which would be a huge draw all on its own. For rock climbers, the world over, Yosemite is virtually a required pilgrimage and has been for decades now. While bolt-protected sport climbing has somewhat eclipsed the kind of traditional crack climbing routes that define Yosemite, no climber of any type worth their salt doesn’t dream of climbing here.
I began making my first climbing trips to Yosemite in the late 70’s as a teenager just out of high school and while it was pretty crowded then, it was nothing like the hordes of tourists you’ll find there today in summer months. In my first forays to “The Valley” as it’s called by climbers, I lived for weeks in Camp 4 under a tarp stretched between two trees because I was too poor to even afford a tent. But poverty has never stopped dedicated climbers from all parts of the globe coming to Yosemite and testing their skills on its colossal granite walls.
In warmer months, you can go up into the higher country of Tuolumne and the cliffs there take on a whole different flavor. The landscape there is dominated by huge domes and dome-like escarpments composed not of clean solid granite, but of a sedimentary rock. For climbers, the rock in Tuolumne requires a different set of skills and techniques than classic The Valley down below. Even if you’re not a climber, this place is magical and I’d highly recommend including it on any itinerary to Yosemite.
Since we’re talking about itineraries, timing your trip to Yosemite is critical, because I think half the known galaxy now descends here every vacation season. Besides, it gets pretty hot for climbing in the valley, although Tuolumne at around 9,000 feet is probably perfect. For the trivia buffs out there (although not a trivial matter), Yosemite has a sister valley to its northwest called the Hetch Hetchy Valley. Unfortunately, it was dammed in 1923 to provide water and power, mainly to the San Francisco Bay Area, so today remains mostly under water.
4.) Stawamus (Squamish) Chief in British Columbia Canada
This 2,000-foot granite escarpment rises out of Howe Sound at the town of Squamish between Vancouver and the world-renowned ski resort of Whistler/Blackcomb. In fact, it’s almost exactly halfway between the two. It’s such a huge dominating presence in an area packed to the gills with natural beauty and outdoor recreational opportunities. Squamish bills itself as “The Outdoor Recreation Capital of Canada” and not without merit. This enormous cliff includes many smaller satellite crags of varying sizes such as the Smoke Bluffs, Papoose and Cheakamus Canyon. These are where I learned to climb as a teenager and I’ll always have a special fondness for this area. So many wonderful memories for me here over the years and many return visits.
To get the best unobstructed view of The Chief massif proper, head over to “The Spit,” where world-class kite-boarders congregate in season to sail the spectacular winds and seascape at the end of Howe Sound. Just down the road from the main escarpment, lays gorgeous Shannon Falls and now a convenient tram to the top for those unwilling or unable to make the steep hike up the backside in order to enjoy the incredible views from the top. If you’re a rock climber who has been to Yosemite then you’ll feel right at home here as the rock in Squamish is mostly very similar to that found in the Yosemite Valley (aka lots of cracks and trad climbing, but tons of sport routes too).
If possible, take at least a few days to explore this area. If you don’t climb, then mountain bike, hike, raft, paddle, kite-board etc. around this incredibly rich, beautiful and diverse area. As much as I love participating in all those other activities in Squamish, for me, it’s still mostly about that big chunk of rock at the end of Howe Sound.
5.) Tour de Utah (Zion, Moab, Arches, Bryce Canyon, Capitol Reef, Cedar Breaks, Canyonlands, Monument Valley et al)
I’m listing this collection as Tour de Utah even though technically some of these fall outside Utah proper. It’s also a pretty big area, but I couldn’t bring myself to choose any one over the others. They’re all just amazing and from a larger global perspective, I see them as close neighbors geographically and geologically. If you started for example in St. George, Utah and made a big clockwise loop over several days or more, you could visit most of the places I’ve mentioned here. You could spend a lifetime in just this one corner of the world and hardly scratch the surface. This is an incredibly rich and diverse landscape tied together by diverse desert ecosystems that still have much in common.
In case you were wondering, I didn’t include the Grand Canyon anywhere in this list, but maybe should have because its cliffs and escarpments are second to none. I simply want to write about it separately at a later date.
The intense red-orange color of the rock in many of these places, combined with the incredible rock formations created by time and erosion are just an irresistible draw. They have a prehistoric quality that fuels my imagination and ignites my creative juices. I want to make images here more than I want to climb and that is saying something for me. While the views from up high on the cliffs are truly magnificent, I actually like the feeling of hiking around in the canyons, crevices and spaces in between the vertical rock even more. Something about it just makes me feel more a part of it than a visitor or even a trespasser.
One of the things I love about some of the national park is when they make designated areas off limits to passenger cars, but they remain accessible through park buses, tour buses, bicycles and by foot. In Zion National Park for example, you can have a great day cycling out from the main campground just inside the park gates (or even outside from the town of Springdale) and then going for a hike or climb before returning on your bike (or bus). Some popular hikes such as Zion’s famous Narrows get downright crowded at peak times, but like most hikes, the further out you go, the less traffic you’ll encounter. There are tons of lesser known hikes and places to explore here, so if you’re looking for some solitude, you can get that here too.
6.) Chimney Rock State Park in North Carolina
This beautiful series of escarpments may not have the grand scale of a place like Yosemite or Zion, but its cliffs are still magnificent and the views from the top are stunning. Looking south from the summit, the land flattens out and you can see a long ways out to the horizon in Georgia. Chimney Rock may not be as instantly recognizable as some places on this list, but if you’ve ever watched the 1992 movie “Last of the Mohicans” then you’ve seen some of it, including scenes shot at Hickory Nut Falls, on the tallest waterfalls in the Eastern USA. The hikes here are mostly pretty moderate on good trails and solid stairs. There is even a elevator that will take you from the parking area up to the gift shop and restaurant. Sure it’s a little touristy, but it’s well done and there is plenty to see and do here including rock climbing all over the nearby vicinity.
The main feature here that gives “Chimney Rock” its name in no way resembles a chimney. I’ve queried quite a few people about this and they all fail to make a close association with that item. What the flagship formation does very closely resemble (to Dell and I anyway) is a gigantic phallus. I somehow think a park of that name wouldn’t have quite the same cachet and marketing draw, so I get the moniker they went with … I guess. For those who have visited this park, what d you think?
7.) Smith Rock State Park in Oregon
One of America’s first sport climbing areas and just a drop dead gorgeous area whoever you are, Smith Rock is a must see destination for anyone who likes cliffs. There is a lot of beauty and opportunity for exploration all packed into a pretty small space. It doesn’t feel small though, it feels expansive and airy. When you first arrive, and view the escarpments from above at the rim, it seems like you’re looking at this huge, almost Himalayan scale mountain range. I mean, they’re not small, but the impression I get from them is out of all proportion due to their shape, color of the rock and surrounding landscape.
If you’re a climber then this is a wonderland of great quality routes all packed together. Some of these are pure icons of sport climbing in America and must-do’s on the “tick-list” of aspiring climbers. There are some very famous climbs here such as super photogenic Chain Reaction 5.12c and the world famous To Bolt or Not to Be, North America’s first 5.14a climb first free climbed by JB Tribout from France in 1986.
If you’re not a climber, then Smith Rock is still a magical place to hike, photograph and explore. Just sitting by the banks of the river at the bottom of the gorge is an idyllic way to spend an afternoon. Watch the climbers or take some lessons from local guides. The trails are user friendly and there is limited camping nearby. Most people think of Smith Rock as being located at Bend, Oregon, but it’s actually closest to tiny Terrebonne some miles down the hwy. If you’re in the Pacific Northwest of the USA and interested in cliffs (or just the outdoors) then this place should be on your list.
8.) Corcovado and Pão de Açúcar (Sugarloaf) in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
I have lumped these two incredible massifs together since they both live smack in the middle of fabulous Rio de Janeiro in Brazil. Even if you’ve never been to Brazil, these are still some of the most recognizable landmarks on the planet. 396 meter tall Pão de Açúcar because of its distinctive shape and location right on the beach, and the Corcovado because of the colossal famed statue of “Cristo Redentor” or Christ the Redeemer with his huge outstretched arms situated on top. Be warned – these are justifiably popular and often very crowded places, so time your visit well.
If you’re a climber or fairly fit adventurer, there are better alternatives to squeezing yourself into thinly disguised egg-crates called buses and trams to the top however. You can rock climb to the top of both escarpments instead. Even if you’re not very experienced, or you simply didn’t stuff your full complement of climbing gear into your round the world backpack, you can still hire guides and gear. Rio has some fabulous guides such as.. well Rio Climbing Guides and Ancoraue. I had one of my best experiences ever climbing both in a single day with Andrew Lenz there, but have also stayed in touch with Gustavo and others at both these companies. These are all great people and very competent guides, so you’ll be in good hands with them.