A sentiment often repeated by road-weary, die-hard weekend warriors in the San Francisco Bay area is, “the rock climbing here sucks”. Now when we say “here,” we mean within a distance that is reasonable for a day trip. While the Bay Area likely boasts more world class climbing gyms than any other urban area in the country, and possibly even the world (there are at least 8 within an hour’s drive of San Francisco), the local rock is, shall we say, lacking.
If strictly plastic pulling is your thing, the Bay Area is mecca. If not, you can expect to log some serious time behind the wheel over the course of a season to get to the good stuff. What’s worse, nature plays a cruel trick on us by offering up mostly dry, sunny days during the cooler months. So if you’re too tired from the work week, burnt out on driving or sick of knee-baring at Jailhouse, expect your FOMO filled weekend gym session to be blessed with sunshine (and probably some guilt).
What if you live in the Bay Area (like I do) and are really jonesing to go touch some rock, but really don’t want to spend 8-14 hours in the car for compact granite in Yosemite, Tahoe or Bishop? Our options are limited, but here are a few tried and true local crags nearby that have the odd rough gem to climb.
For decades this place has been an oasis for Bay Area climbers looking for a decent over-hang to desperately cling to (but probably grease off of). It’s a place for visiting strong men and women to go try one of the few hard relics bolted in the early 90s and have their picture taken climbing against a scenic background over the Pacific Ocean (and probably get poison oak on their way to Endless Bummer) and nudists (mostly middle-aged men) to go to take their clothes off (and probably play frisbee) without getting hassled. The funny thing about Mickey’s is that even though the rock is damp from either fog, humidity or ocean spray the majority of the time, there are actually some very high-quality sport climbs there; some of them quite challenging in the 5.12-13 range.
Pinnacles National Park
The rock at Pinnacles looks like petrified mud pocked marked with shallow dimples and slippery cobbles of all shapes and sizes embedded in and protruding from its porous, crumbly surfaces. Despite its appearance, and reputation for being chossy, the rock is decently solid on most of the north and west facing walls and quite fun to climb on! Pinnacles’ most popular formation, The Monolith, hosts classics from 5.8 to 5.14 like P.O.D. (Post Orgasmic Depression- 5.10d) and Jimmy Thornburg’s Lard Butt (5.13c). The decades-old ground-up ethic (that’s still upheld by first ascentionists there today) has produced some pretty spicy run-outs on some of the easier, slabbier climbs, so it’s a good place to go to practice committing to heady leads, or throwing down a top rope and leaving it up for most of the afternoon while others wait in line.
Pinnacles has beautiful vistas, a drier environment than other Bay Area crags, big birds of prey circling on thermals far overhead, and quite a few tourists and climbers on sunny, weekend days. If you’re trying to escape the lines in front of the classics and throngs of hikers stopped to gawk at the daisy-chain, belay-device clad climbers, there are some adventurous, off-the-beaten-path multi-pitch routes on some of the higher formations that will almost guarantee solitude. For me, Pinnacles will always hold a special place in my heart as the first place I ever sport climbed outdoors.
Castle Rock State Park
Castle rock is a bouldering area in the Santa Cruz Mountains with dense concentrations of dark green and grey sandstone boulders in a beautiful forest, a short hike from the parking lot. It’s been called the “mini Font” because of its well textured, rounded features that vaguely resemble Fontainebleau, Europe’s most famous bouldering area. While Font’s texture is fine like 80 grit sand paper, Castle’s is more like 5 grit sand paper, with little pebbles sticking out of some slopers (and into your finger tips). Castle’s main area isn’t quite on par with Font’s main area Bas Couvier, but you might find less human feces and toilet paper there than in France…
Some of Castle’s huecos and edges have developed a thick coating of grease and dirt over the years, rendering them rather slippery when the temperature rises over 55 degrees, but on cold, tacky days in the Santa Cruz Mountains, climbers can enjoy the thrill of sticking to holds one might think impossible to hang from. There are a handful of undeniably world-class boulder problems at Castle Rock like Sharma’s Arête (V9) and Eco Terrorist (V10), which is a solid contender for the best V10 in the state.
On one recent weekend I found myself really wanting to go rock climbing, but with a dinner commitment in the evening, my options were limited. After 20 years of climbing around the Bay Area, I felt like I’d exhausted most of my options for inspiring local challenges at the aforementioned areas. A session at Mortar Rock was not what I was in the mood for… A friend of mine Steven Roth, a Cal Berkeley student and transplant from Florida who has bolted some of the hardest projects in the Bay Area and climbed most of the hardest established lines since arriving just a couple years ago, suggested we check out a crag in Pine Canyon in the foothills of Mt Diablo. This is where he’d bolted and climbed a still unrepeated 5.13. Knowing what most of the local rock was like, I was a little skeptical as to the quality of the few routes at this cliff, but willing to suspend my prejudice to see something new. And with the cliff being just a 10-minute drive from downtown Walnut Creek, its proximity was unbeatable.
The fog was thick when we parked at the trailhead near the horse stables. Hikers and bikers lingered in the parking lot and walked along the trail, enjoying the mystical ambiance. Soon we broke from the main trail and into a side canyon, past a stream, over green cow-pasture-like grass and many gnarled oak trees. After only about a 15-minute hike from the car we arrived at the wall and a funny feeling took hold of me. Upon glancing at the two prominent bolted lines on the wall, the feeling materialized in my brain, shot down my spinal cord and spread out through my limbs and into my finger and toes and made them tingle with anticipation. It was a feeling I hadn’t felt in a while—I think it was inspiration. I quickly unpacked my gear and flaked my rope to warm up.
In all honesty, the warm-up kinda sucked- it was dirty and damp and the moves were awkward and insecure, but I could tell that the gems of the crag were better. Sure enough, the 5.12b Deliverance was all-time, climbing a distinct line of sculpted scoops and huecos, with a powerful and balancey crux mid-way up that I passed on my flash attempt, only to slip off the red-point crux another ten feet higher. I fell on a 12b! The climbing was so good though that I wasn’t the slightest bit mad at myself for having fallen.
After sending Deliverance second go, I hung my draws on its harder start- Steven’s yet un-repeated testpiece Dueling Banjos. I worked the moves on TR and enjoyed unlocking the cryptic and bouldery sequence. Once I’d more or less figured out the moves, I gave it a red-point attempt but fell on the crux down low on the route. After climbing to the top and reaching the anchors, my girlfriend Georgie generously encouraged me to give it another shot from the ground. After giving it a moments thought I decided to save it for a later date. I was not in a big hurry to be done with this hidden backyard oasis.
Driving back to Walnut Creek, I had that satisfied feeling of having spent the day testing myself on something inspiring outside… It got me thinking: how many more local rocks had I overlooked over the years? There are all those boulders hidden in the forest and on the coast in Sonoma, that new stuff at Mickey’s, even those nails hard boulder problems at Mortar Rock… and what else could I find if I looked hard enough? Maybe I didn’t have to go to Spain or even the Sierras to find a fun adventure and a new challenge- maybe I could just turn over the stones closer to home that I’d been stepping over and ignoring for years?
Spain is pretty freaken’ awesome though.
*Pine Canyon is closed to climbing from February 1st through July 31st for Peregrine Falcon nesting.
Author: MHW Athlete Ethan Pringle