Since Colorado Mountain School was founded in 1981, we’ve witnessed an explosion of climbing gyms across the country. These massive, ever-changing indoor facilities not only make it convenient to train year-round, but often serve as an easy introduction to climbing. While these thriving community hubs have been growing, we’ve simultaneously seen a grand expansion of outdoor bolted “sport” routes. It’s only natural that evolving gym climbers eventually set their sights on the vast, great outdoors.
The Greater Denver Area provides adventure seekers with a wealth of climbing options to keep them exploring for a lifetime, all within a short hike, bike or drive from home! From cryptic Flatirons mega-rigs to moderate Boulder Canyon clip-ups to the bullet hard gneiss rock formations of Clear Creek, the Front Range has variety for everyone. But with so many great venues, crags, and routes, where should one start? Four of our AMGA-Certified Rock Guides shared their recommendations of local sport routes for those looking to expand into outdoor lead climbing.
Clear Creek Canyon (CCC), Golden, Colorado
Not all sport climbs are bolted the same. It’s important to remember when transitioning from the lead climbs at the gym that “sport” climbing outdoors might have some runouts, or long pitches between bolts. To avoid runouts for your first outdoor lead, which we highly recommend, it would be worth trying out the Clear Creek schist and gneiss at a well trodden crag like the Canal Zone.
The Canal Zone gets busy on the weekends so check it out mid-week for some nice shady climbing that is really easy to get to. If weekends are your only time to send, get an early start to beat the crowds–and the sun. Located in the mouth of the canyon and with only a 15-minute approach, this small crag boasts a large number of moderates with plenty of bolts to feel out the Clear Creek flavor. With plenty of routes in the 5.8-5.9 range and a couple quality 5.10 and 5.11’s, it’s a worthy option to get to know the outdoor scene.
When you’re new to outdoor cragging, it can also be nice to have some other people around to learn from. The busy crag can provide a lot of good lessons on what to do and what not to do in terms of etiquette, stewardship and technical skills. I’ve always found if you are stoked to learn, fellow climbers are stoked to teach, just make sure you always take advice with a grain of salt–unless of course you’re getting it from a professional.
North Table Mountain, Golden, Colorado
Known for its sun-exposed walls, North Table Mountain is an exceptional cool-weather crag for new outdoor climbers. With about 450 densely packed routes from 5.5-5.13, a tame approach, reliable cell reception, and views of Golden and Denver in the distance below, this crag’s popularity comes as no surprise.
One of the most distinctive attributes of North Table is its potential for top-down access. It is possible to reach the anchors for many of the routes here by taking the hiking trail to the top of the plateau. You will likely witness other climbers reaching down to set up top-ropes off the loose rocks above without any form of protection; this is not recommended! Accessing routes from above at this crag is a great asset, but make sure you have the tools and skills to do so safely before attempting to do this on your own.
Climbs at North Table are generally no longer than 50-60 feet. This means that you shouldn’t have to worry about being out of sight or ear-shot of your partner like you might at other crags. Sport routes here are also generally well bolted, though one should still take caution above ledges and bulges whenever climbing outdoors.
For many in the Denver area, North Table Mountain serves as an ideal first outdoor climbing destination. On a busy Fall afternoon you might even mistake the atmosphere for that of your local gym, but don’t let that fool you; real-world hazards still exist here!
Performance Park, Estes Park, Colorado
This little crag has a very European feel as it is close to downtown, directly behind the performance stage in Estes Park. The crag was developed by a Colorado Mountain School guide who had the vision, whilst enjoying a musical performance, to see the cliffs behind the stage as a potential beginner sport climbing venue.
This is definitely an outdoor lite gym to crag venue. The parking is in the Performance Park car park and is only 50 yards from the crag where there are also toilets. The route finding is pretty simple once you find the performance stage. Remember though this is not a climbing gym, so do have extra vigilance; draws are not in place, routes are not color coded, the floor is not padded and holds can break off. Your due diligence to access issues must start at this crag, checking if you are allowed to climb here on any given day. For example, it’s closed on Sunday mornings for church.
There are 18 routes here from 5.4 to 5.12 and all are well bolted for the leader of the grade. For example, a 5.5 is bolted for a 5.5 leader, not a 5.11 leader. The first bolts are low to the ground and on most routes are close enough to prevent heart palpitations due to the runout. The climbs range from 40 to 65ft and at the top of each climb there are lower-off chains. The crag even has a mini multi-pitch climb on the right side.
Don’t expect a wilderness climbing experience at the Performance Park. It does get busy and you will have an audience of tourists walking past, but this is an excellent venue to take your first venture into outdoor climbing.
Boulder Canyon, Boulder, Colorado
Boulder Canyon cuts into the granite of the Boulder Canyon Batholith providing a window into the ingenious rocks of the ancient Colorado Rockies. There are numerous top-rope, sport and traditional climbing crags up and down both sides of the canyon. One popular sport climbing area that is bolted in a beginner-friendly manner is the Bihedral. CMS isn’t permitted to take clients to the Bihedral area, but you may see one of our guides there on a #guidesdayoff making this venue still worthy of this list.
This is a south-facing crag that you tend to want to avoid in the summer because of the intense sun, but boasts a great number of well-bolted, moderate, slab climbs as well as some high quality multi-pitch options. If you aren’t familiar, slab climbing is anything less than 90 degrees / vertical. One of the advantages of practicing your outdoor climbing on slabs, like those found at the Bihedral, is that it helps avoid getting the dreaded forearm pump as slab is more foot-intensive than arm. This way you have plenty of time to think through your clips and any runouts.
It is a little tricker getting up to the Bihedral; the trail is well worn and easy to follow but there is a short, exposed fourth-class scramble near the top. It’s worth wearing good approach shoes (we like La Sportiva TX line), or avoiding entirely it if you’re climbing with anyone not used to a little exposed scrambling.
Flatirons, Boulder, Colorado
Chasing shade in the height of summer or sun seeking in the depths of winter, the Flatirons are a sport climber’s dream zone! Home to some old school test pieces and some modern mega-pitches, this place has it all and has its own ubiquitous style that demands respect. If you’ve hit some of the crags above, practiced outdoor sport and are ready for some tougher grades, we’ve got some route recommendations just for you.
If I’m seeking a great warm-up for some mid-winter project I’m working on in the Dinosaur Mountain zone, I typically head up to The Hand and spin a few laps on Cardboard Cowboy (5.11b). This Paul Glover and Hank Caylor mini-pitch packs quite the punch and is a great intro to the unique Flatirons climbing style; small crimps, body english and power! If this didn’t get your blood flowing check out the old school, sandbagged, Power Bulge (5.12c) just down the way.
With outdoor sport climbing, there is a lifetime of adventure waiting for you. There’s literally thousands of sport routes up and down Colorado’s Front Range. Heck, Boulder alone has over 1,000 according to Mountain Project! And with a little bit of instruction, you can start ticking them off.
If you’re an experienced gym lead climber looking to open up a whole new world of climbing, check out our self-paced, online Gym-to-Crag course. Not yet leading but want to get climbing outside? Our 1-day Learn to Lead Sport course held in Denver or Boulder is right up your alley.
Are you ready for the next chapter of your climbing?