On the eastern slope of the Rocky Mountains, just before the massive cordillera gives way to endless flatlands, the tiny stream of South Boulder Creek has spent the past 70 million years slicing through ancient sand and mud. Down through the red, orange, yellow and purple layers, the persistent little stream has sculpted towering walls and buttresses, so narrow that its handiwork is nearly hidden from the eastern plains. Once you enter Eldorado Canyon, however, you'll appreciate all those years of hard work.
Located just south of Boulder Colorado, Eldo has been a historic center of American climbing for decades, witnessing the progression of the sport from aid to free climbing, and from fringe to mainstream. You feel that history as soon as you grab the holds, which have been rounded and polished by countless hands and feet. You can also sense that history when you squint upwards, searching for that next piece of protection: Eldo is not a sport climbing venue. While there are many bolts scattered about the canyon, nearly every route requires traditional protection, route finding skill, and sound judgment.
The author on “To RP or not to be” 5.11+ X
This is a quick guide to whet your appetite for visiting Eldorado Canyon, and to point you in the right direction. By no means is it comprehensive, but hopefully it'll get you stoked to check out my favorite crag!
Guidebook/ Local Beta:
The definitive guidebook is “Eldorado Canyon: A Climbing Guide” by longtime local Steve Levin. Now in it's second edition, this book sets a new standard for comprehensive and useful information, as well as beautiful photos and witty descriptions.
Since Eldo routes can be complicated and tricky to protect, I'd also recommend reading the description and comments on MountainProject.com. Originally ClimbingBoulder.com, this website hosts a nearly comprehensive database of routes, and nearly endless threads debating the precise letter grade of any given route... A bit tedious, but useful if you wanna tackle something at your limit.
Boulder is home of many climbers, but isn't really on the dirtbag roadtrip circuit due to the lack of convenient camping. The Boulder Adventure Lodge (a-lodge.com), located two miles west of town up Boulder Canyon, and about 20 minutes from Eldo, does offer hostel rooms and plans to open some camping in the near future (summer 2016). Otherwise, you can drive about 20 miles further up Boulder Canyon past Nederland and find dispersed camping in the National Forest.
Beyond camping, you might have luck with Couchsurfing.com in Boulder, or at least AirBnB.
Food and Gear:
There are no shops or cafes in Eldorado Springs, the town just outside the state park, so you'll have to drive up to Boulder. Here you'll find a huge array of cuisine to fit any sensitive dietary niche. Climbers love to stop at the Southern Sun brew pub for greasy burgers and strong beer. If there's a 45 minute wait, stop in next door at Neptune Mountaineering to buy chalk and check out their mini climbing museum with tons of cool photos and artifacts.
In downtown Boulder, Sherpa's restaurant is another favorite for hungry climbers. It's run by Pemba Sherpa, a former Everest guide, and you can peruse his collection of climbing guidebooks while you sit at the bar.
You'll find tons of info and recommendations on the CLASSICS at Mountain Project, but unfortunately you might find crowds on them as well, if you go on a weekend. So, if you're dead-set on Yellow Spur or Bastille Crack, go midweek or be ready with a backup plan. So, here's a few (relatively) hidden classics that might make good backups to the more well-traveled ones.
- Psuedo Sidetrack, 5.4
- Icarus, 5.6
- E.L. 100, 5.8-
- Body Tremors, 5.8 R
- Anthill Direct, 5.9 R
- C'est la Morte, 5.9
- Allosaur, 5.9
- Green Spur, 5.9
- The Metamorphasis, 5.10-
- Captain Beyond, 5.10
- The Serpent, 5.10
- Psychosis-Psycho Pigeon, 5.11-
- Doub-Griffith, 5.11
- The Wisdom, 5.11+
- After the Gold Rush, 5.12-
- The Book of Numbers, 5.12+
Approaches and Descents:
Eldo is a quite small canyon, but highly featured rock and decades of intense exploration have allowed it to be densely packed with amazing lines. The Bastille offers roadside cragging, and most routes are 10-20 minutes away from the parking lot. A few zones like Rincon and Shirttail are perched high on the hillside, requiring steep 30-40 minute hikes but giving them a more remote feel and spectacular views west to the snowy Continental Divide.
Forest Woodward follows “Le Toit” 5.11-, one of the many closely packed routes on the south face of Redgarden wall.
Descents vary, but nearly every long route (and some short ones) require complicated scrambling and navigation. The East Slabs descent, one option after topping out many long routes on Redgarden, is notoriously tricky and steep. Consult the guidebook, and bring a headlamp and some lightweight approach shoes.
The sun gets low in the west, time to start thinking about the descent.
It's possible to climb in Eldo all 12 months of the year, but fall is probably the most reliable season in which to travel here. Spring has great temperatures and long days, but it's the wettest season here. Summer mornings are consistently nice, even on hot days, but afternoon thunderstorms frequently develop over the Rockies. Winters days can be sunny and wonderful, but sometimes very windy. Whenever you go, pay attention to the forecast and come prepared for fast-changing conditions.
Matt Lloyd on “Guenese” 5.11- on a sunny winter day.
The cliffs of Redgarden wall and Shirttail peak are home to Peregrine Falcons, and select areas are sometimes closed to protect nests. In years past, the closures have been from February 1 to August 1, though they're always closely monitored and kept opened whenever possible. In 2015 and 2016 there were no closures on Redgarden, and so far in 2016 none on Shirttail. Check the BoulderClimbers.org for current closures.
Eldorado Canyon is a Colorado State Park, and charges an $8 fee per vehicle. An annual pass, good at all CO State Parks, is available for $70. Anyone with trailwork experience will appreciate the amazingly steep and well constructed trails in Eldo, and our user fees help support the the active park maintenance staff.
Any bolting in the canyon must be approved by park rangers, who are responsible for approving bolt replacement and upgrades. New routes requiring bolts must be considered by a community voting process, facilitated by the Action Committee for Eldorado (ACEeldo.org).
Colorado's Front Range is home to a great variety of crags, so if you visit make sure to check out the granite cracks and scary slabs of the South Platte and Lumpy Ridge, the enjoyable bolted lines of Boulder Canyon and Clear Creek, and the alpine wonderlands of Rocky Mountain National Park and Mount Evans. Closest of all to Eldo, the Flatirons feature the same bulletproof sandstone, but often arrayed into long meandering slabs, making for the best long 5.4-5.6 routes anywhere.
The striking aretes of Redgarden wall
Good luck and stay safe out there!
Photos from the Scott Bennett collection.