The birthplace of REI, America’s first climbing gym, and The Mountaineers, Seattle has long had its roots in the world of rock climbing. The city might be known for its prolific amounts of rain, but it is also known for its proximity to world-class crags and mountains. From overhanging sport climbing to high-quality bouldering and technical trad climbing reminiscent of Yosemite, Seattle holds lifetimes of fun and challenge for the local climber. Here are my top picks for climbing in and around the beautiful Emerald City.
1. Exit 32
Also known as Little Si, Exit 32 is one of Washington’s premier sport climbing crags, and just 30 minutes from downtown, turns into Seattle’s outdoor climbing gym on sunny afternoons and weekends. Located just outside the town of North Bend, you’ll find some of the city’s strongest climbers here projecting difficult routes on the steep overhanging walls. Climbs in this area range from 5.8 to 5.14c, but Little Si is certainly known for the World Wall and its concentration of high-quality 5.12-5.14 routes. The wall goes into the shade around noon, so climbers congregate at this crag on summer afternoons and winter mornings. Because of the overhanging nature of the World Wall, climbing in the rain is possible, although some routes begin to seep after heavy downpours. Little Si has a great section on Mountain Project, and a guidebook is available either in print or for download through the Rakkup app.
Long heralded as “The Best Crag in the Universe,” and nestled in the sleepy town of Index just an hour east of Seattle on Highway 2, the Index Town Walls are home to hundreds of steep, technical granite routes. Climbs range in length from one to six pitches. Index is mostly for the intermediate to advanced climber, but beginning trad leaders can cut their teeth on routes such as Great Northern Slab and Toxic Shock, and the notoriously sandbagged Godzilla (5.9). While summer might be the driest time in Index, it’s also the hottest; the best seasons for climbing are spring and fall, though finding a dry day can be a challenge. Index’s newest guidebook, just released in September 2017, has dozens of routes that have been previously undocumented, and is definitely worth checking out for intrepid climbers of any level.
3. Gold Bar
Gold Bar is quickly becoming known not only as some of Washington’s best bouldering, but as a destination for boulderers across the country. Only an hour from Seattle and just down the road from Index, the Gold Bar boulders are lauded for their solid fine-grain granite and fun problems ranging from V0 to V11. These boulders are grouped together in several different areas, the closest to the road being the excellent Five Star Boulder, with over a dozen routes anywhere from V2 to V11. For beginners, or indoor boulderers transitioning to real rock, we recommend starting at The Sanctuary. As long as it’s dry, you can boulder year-round in Gold Bar, opting for forested areas in the summer and clearings (such as The Clearcut) for winter sun. Check out Kelly Sheridan's updated Central Washington Bouldering for maps, route descriptions, and more.
4. Seattle Bouldering Project
Located just south of Seattle’s downtown, the Seattle Bouldering Project is Seattle’s most popular climbing gym, and one of the premier bouldering gyms in the world. Whether you’re a first-timer or a professional climber, this gym will have something for you, including a wide array of lessons, yoga classes, and a full gym with weights and machines. Route setters are known to be constantly innovating and switching up holds around the gym, so there’s always something new to climb. SBP, as it’s known to locals, even boasts a hang-out spot — the West Wall Bar — serving up beverages, coffee, and food to hungry climbers. Check out their many events throughout the year as well; SBP’s Halloween party is not to be missed.
5. The UW Rock
Rising out of a pit of pea gravel just south of Husky Stadium on the University of Washington campus, the UW Rock is one of the first artificial climbing walls ever constructed in the U.S. On any sunny day in Seattle, you’ll find some of the city’s climbing legends traversing the five-walled concrete structure, busting out a free workout when they can’t get to a local crag. Beginners are welcome too — there are no rules and no designated routes on this structure, but a great number of holds, soft landings, and a fun social scene.
6. Exit 38
This crag isn’t hard to find if you remember the name — Exit 38 is named after its exit off I-90, and is one of Seattle’s most popular crags. This crag is just over a half hour from downtown Seattle, boasts beautiful forests and views, and is a great spot for groups, families, and beginners: a massive selection of moderate sport routes line the cliffs just minutes from the parking lot. Intermediate climbers will find a great deal of 5.10 and 5.11 pitches to play on as well, though they might want to check out Exit 32 (above) for more selection. There are three main crags at Exit 38: Deception Crags, Far Side, and Mt. Washington. We recommend Deception Crags for your first trip, as it’s the easiest of the three to access — both Write-Off Rock and We Did Rock are great places to start for routes in the 5.5-5.9 range. More details are available in the Exit 38 Rock Climbing Guide, or on Mountain Project.
Little Si is where Washington’s overhanging rock is found, Index boasts its vertical and techy granite, and Darrington…Darrington is where slab climbers can get their dose of friction and runouts. In the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest a little over an hour from Seattle, the granite domes that surround the small town of Darrington are home to two- to ten-pitch routes ranging from 5.7 to 5.11. Bring your entire quiver of skills to these domes and expect full adventure: gear is sparse, bolts are sparser, and routes typically require double-rope rappels to descend. Three O’Clock Rock is one of the most accessible areas and a great place to start; additionally, Dreamer on the Green Giant Buttress is one of the most classic routes in the area. For more information, check out this great online resource.
8. Vertical World
Known widely as America’s first climbing gym, Seattle’s Vertical World opened in 1987 with nothing more than rocks glued to plywood walls. They have since updated their facilities, moved to Interbay, and are now Seattle’s premier indoor rope climbing gym. Anyone is welcome here: first-timers can learn to belay, climbers can get their workout on the auto-belays dotting the gym, and seasoned climbers can test themselves on the 5.13 routes that scale the overhanging walls. Vertical World offers a wide array of yoga and fitness classes as well, and personal training programs are available for athletes looking to up their game. Compared to SBP, this gym has more of a family feel, and their youth climbing team is one of the best in the country.
Rock climbing gear
Don’t let gear stop you from getting started with indoor or outdoor climbing — there is always a way. If you’re headed to SBP or Vertical World, shoe and harness rentals are available. Bouldering is certainly the easiest outdoor discipline of climbing to get started with: grab a bouldering pad, some friends, and head out with your shoes and chalk bag. Here is what you’ll need for the other areas:
- Exits 32 & 38: 70m rope, 12 draws, shoes, harness, helmet, ATC, personal anchor system
- Index: 80m rope, standard rack & draws, shoes, harness, helmet, ATC, personal anchor system
- Darrington: double ropes (for rappelling), small rack & draws, shoes, harness, helmet, ATC, personal anchor system