When planning a rock-climbing trip in the USA, most people will head to the world famous climbing areas: Yosemite, Joshua Tree, Moab, Bishop. But if you’re looking to travel somewhere where outdoor tourism can have a positive impact on the local community, then the Central Appalachia region should be top of your list.
Breaks Interstate Park: The best up-and-coming rock-climbing destination in the USA?
Located at the heart of North America’s oldest mountain range, the Central Appalachia region spans parts of five states: West Virginia, Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee and North Carolina. The region’s abundant natural resources and diverse ecosystems have long made it an outdoor enthusiast’s paradise, but rock-climbing has only recently been developed. Breaks Interstate Park and Grayson Highlands State Park are two up-and-coming climbing destinations where striking landscapes meet quality rock, friendly communities and great infrastructure. Whether you’re a die-hard boulderer or sport climber looking to find some flow, these areas have much to offer.
Bradly Mathisen going for the move on "George Foreman Grill" (7a+) in the Upper Lodges area at Breaks Interstate Park © Jesse Cheers
Scenic sport and trad climbing at Breaks Interstate Park
Breaks Interstate Park is one of the most spectacular and welcoming climbing destinations in the USA. The Park is centred around the Russell Fork River Gorge (on the border of Virginia and Kentucky). At present, you’ll find over 350 single pitch sport and trad routes up to 8b on bullet sandstone here. The main park infrastructure is built on top of the gorge, meaning that lodging, food and parking are just a 10 minute hike from most of the climbing crags. But as you drop down into the gorge, you quickly feel secluded and achieve soul-satisfying views at the top of most routes. Because the development has only just begun there is vast potential for establishing new routes and first ascents.
Start your climbing trip at Pinnacle Rock, by far the most accessible crag at Breaks with just a two minute approach! You’ll find a good concentration of high quality sport routes between 4a and 8b here (and possibly some harder projects), ranging from technical vertical walls to powerful caves. Despite its accessibility, the crag still feels pretty quiet and secluded, and offers amazing views.
If you’re looking to hike out a little further, Eastern Prospector Trail is a winding cliffside path providing access to nearly 70 sport, mixed and trad routes from 4b to 7c. The rock quality here is particularly good, with predominantly vertical routes that get taller the further along you go. The Western and Lower Lodges areas are ideal for those climbing in the mid 6s and 7s. Western Lodges is a wave of steep sandstone, characterised by pumpy routes with an excellent flow, 6b+ to 7c. Lower Lodges, just five minutes further on, is a crag of fantastic yellow-orange sandstone providing continuously flowing and sequential face climbing. Head here for long routes, a secluded setting and fantastic views.
To climb at Breaks you’ll need to sign a waiver in advance, which can be found on the Climb Central Appalachia website. There are many accommodation options available in the park, from camping to rented bungalows. While Breaks is climbable year-round, we recommend visiting in spring or fall for the best sending conditions.
Aaron Parlier on the crimpy "Sundance Kid" (6a) at Grayson Highlands State Park © Jesse Cheers
The best bouldering in the Southeast: Grayson Highlands State Park
If you want your climbing trip in the USA to include some bouldering, then head to Grayson Highlands State Park. Located in the highlands of Virgina, about a 2.5 hour drive southeast from Breaks, the Park is characterized by its windswept mountain meadows full of grazing wild ponies and awe-inspiring views. Thanks to the area’s slight altitude it’s the perfect summer bouldering destination, although you can also visit in late spring and early fall.
Grayson’s is a fantastic place to practice outdoor sports from hiking, to mountain biking, horse riding and even fishing. But the bouldering—said to be some of the best in the Southeast—is what draws climbers here. You can choose from 1000 problems between 4 and 8c+ on rhyolite and a unique conglomerate rock. Arrive ready to pull hard as the climbing is typically steep and powerful, with plenty of crimps, flakes, edges and piches. You’ll need fresh skin!
Start your trip at the Listening Rock Trail, a looped trail meandering through boulderfields and past stunning lookout points which brings you to the foot of many classic lines. This is a great place for beginner and more advanced climbers alike, especially if you’re looking to get in some quality mileage at the beginning of your trip.
Those heading to Grayson's in search of scenic climbing won’t be disappointed by the Highlands Bouldering Area. This area is known for its incredible mountain vistas full of wild ponies, as well as highball problems on angular smooth rock. If you’re climbing at the grade, Horizon Line (V6) is an absolute classic: a tall, exposed highball offering intense yet picturesque climbing.
The Boneyard Area is a huge, relatively secluded area home to some of the best boulders at Grayson's. Head here for varied conglomerate boulders in a peaceful wooded setting that will challenge you no matter the grade!
Aaron Parlier cruising up Moonlight Sonata (6a) at Grayson Highlands State Park © Jesse Cheers
Breaks and Graysons are some of the hidden gems of US rock climbing. Both these areas are still under development, and we highly recommend connecting with the local climbing community and asking someone to show you around. The Central Appalachia Climbing Coalition, an organization aimed at developing and protecting the climbing in the region, is a good place to start finding information and contacts.
* * *
Words by Faustine Wheeler
Many thanks to Bradly Mathisen for providing us with all the information on the area and many useful contacts. Thanks to Jesse Cheers for the beautiful photos.
* * *
Bradly Mathisen is a transplant to the Central Appalachian region, yet from his first visit to the area the rolling mountains have felt like home. Over the 10 years he's lived in "the coalfields" he has developed over 350 routes across 5 different crags as well as co-founded the Central Appalachia Climbers Coalition to help promote and protect access to these climbing resources. Beyond the access work, the CACC has a mission to utilize climbing as a vehicle for community, health and economic growth in a region with a history of poverty and struggle. Brad continues to live and climb in Central Appalachia with his unusually suppoprtive wife and their three kids.
Cover image: Bess Mathisen climbing at Breaks Interstate Park © Jesse Cheers.