A dirtbag’s guide to climbing in Moab, UT

Ian Carroll
Climber Dude - Author: Pierce Martin - CC BY 2.0
Climber Dude - Author: Pierce Martin - CC BY 2.0

If you consider yourself a rock climber of any experience, you have to make a trip to the desert paradise of Moab, UT. With a year-round climbing season, incredibly kind locals, and an unhealthy abundance of places to climb, Moab is a must for any climber. Whether you’re a die-hard tradster, a sport-superhero, or just getting your feet wet for the first time, the desert has climbing to blow your mind and bump your grade to the next level.

Just another Moab day!

Climbing in Moab
Climbing in Moab

I had been rock climbing in Moab for nearly a month, and it was my last day. My legs dangled off either side of the ledge. I was belaying my partner Mark who had just walked across what climbers here affectionately call “the sidewalk”. It’s a narrow sandstone spine, about three feet wide with a sheer drop for hundreds of feet on either side. When you walk across, there is no protection until you get to the other side, a fall here would be serious.

Now Mark stood at the base of a corkscrew of compressed mud and sand. The tower looked contorted into an improbable spiral, high above the desert. We both were way out beyond what we had imagined this place would be. This tower looked like something straight out of a Dr. Seuss book. We were sure this was as crazy as it could possibly get. This was it.

Just then, a guy flew over my head with a roaring of the wind. He made a sharp curve to come around directly at the tower where Mark was now cowering in fear. As his wing grazed past, mere feet from the spire, he shouted “Just another Moab day!” That was the moment when I knew I would be coming back to Moab for the rest of my life.

Where to stay

If you’re considering making your first trip to the desert paradise that is Moab, UT, you should sort out your accommodation first. There are a ton of ways to stay in the Moab area for cheap, or even free if you know where to go. If you’re going with a vehicle, you’ll be good to go. It’s definitely best to have four-wheel drive and high clearance in the desert, but people make it work with all kinds of cars. If you want to stay in Moab proper, you’re going to have to pay for a place, and there are lots of hotels, as well as some campgrounds of varying development.

Setting a tent
Setting a tent

Here are three great places to check out if you’re looking for cheap places to pitch a tent or park your rig.

  • Willow Springs Rd.

Willow Springs is probably the most convenient free campground in the Moab area. It is about 11 miles north of town and offers sprawling areas for dispersed camping. There are various types of bathrooms scattered around the area but no water. However, low trees for shade can be found, and most people get good cell and 4g reception at Willow Springs. The downside to Willow Springs is that you are a little way from town. The plus side is its free, legal, and great for big groups or leaving camp up for long stays.

  • Potash Rd.

If you want to camp beside climbing, then you can’t beat the Jaycee campground just past Wall Street. We’ll talk about how radical Wall Street is in just a bit, but for now, just know that you’ll have all styles and grades of climbing lined up for the picking less than five minutes from your tent. Camping here isn’t free, but it’s affordable, and the location is incredible. If you’re into it, Potash road does extend for miles into the canyon along the Colorado River. One could definitely find a quiet corner to tuck their van away in for the night.

  • Kane Creek Rd.

Kane Creek road runs parallel to Potash road, but on the other side of the Colorado River. There are some really cool designated campgrounds along here as well as some dispersed climbing. Much like Potash road, Kane Creek extends for quite a ways, and there are a number of turnoffs that trek up into the surrounding canyons. Not hard to find spots for the night.

Where to climb

  • Wall Street
Wall Street Climbing Area on Utah State Route 279 – Author: Michael Grindstaff – CC BY-SA 3.0
Wall Street Climbing Area on Utah State Route 279 – Author: Michael Grindstaff – CC BY-SA 3.0

Undoubtedly the closest and most accessible climbing area to Moab is Wall Street. Located out on Potash road, less than ten miles from downtown Moab, this spot has a bit of everything. From easy, slabby sport climbing on fun sandstone edges, to crusher lines up thin, beautiful cracks in Wingate sandstone.

Here, many of the climbs are so close to the road that the belayer literally is on the pavement. Slow down when you see the sign warning you to do so. Everyone will appreciate it, and you’ll probably be too busy staring at the cliffs to drive safely anyways.

If you go to Wall Street and it’s not raining, expect it to be packed. Really, it’s like a giant party all the time. You’ll meet lots of great people, share plenty of beta, and maybe be able to borrow a cam or two if you’re short for a climb. If you’re a solo traveler and need to meet new climbing partners, suit up and walk down Wall Street. You’ll be climbing in no time.

  • Indian Creek
Climbing at Indian Creek climbing area in Canyonlands near Moab, Utah – Author: Crystal – CC BY 2.0)
Climbing at Indian Creek climbing area in Canyonlands near Moab, Utah – Author: Crystal – CC BY 2.0)

The Creek’s reputation is international and is what brings many climbers to Moab in the first place. Don’t be fooled though, Indian Creek is a solid hour from Moab for most vehicles, and there is no water once you’re down there. If you’re planning on climbing in Indian Creek while you’re in the Moab area, plan to spend several days down there at a time. If you’re new to desert crack climbing, don’t expect to be able to swing more than three days in a row though. The climbing in Indian Creek is stout and will leave you feeling obliterated at the end of each day.

That being said, this is one of the best places you could possibly learn to place gear and climb cracks. If you can do it here, you can do it just about anywhere. There are a number of campgrounds in Indian Creek as well as nearly infinite space to make camp for free. Just make sure that you don’t camp at the entrance to the Creek. It’s a no-camping zone until you pass the Ranch. Creek Pastures is usually the best campground if you’re looking to meet new friends.

  • Towers
Fisher Towers, Moab, Utah, at sunset. The corkscrew shaped Ancient Art spire can be seen shaded in the center of the photo – Author: Greg Schaefer. – CC BY 3.0
Fisher Towers, Moab, Utah, at sunset. The corkscrew shaped Ancient Art spire can be seen shaded in the center of the photo – Author: Greg Schaefer. – CC BY 3.0

There are way too many places to go climbing in Moab area. As you might have expected, I’m not even going to be able to scratch the surface here. But one thing that every desert virgin definitely needs to do is climb some towers. They are incredibly unique to this landscape, mind-bendingly exposed, and all around captivating objectives that will make for excellent stories.

Some of the most popular towers to climb are Owl Rock, Ancient Art, and Castleton Tower. However, doing a proper google search will lead you where you need to go. Be aware that climbing towers is generally riskier and more sandbagged than other climbing. The nature of towers and of their first ascensionist makes the grading pretty stiff and the routes pretty spicy.

Moab’s climbing season

Climbing in Moab
Climbing in Moab

The best part about rock climbing in Moab, UT, is that the season goes all year long. In the summer it is a little hot to climb in the days, and you’ll find yourself chasing the shade. In the winter it’s pretty cold at night, and you’ll find yourself chasing the sun. But there’s really no time of year when you can’t find stellar climbing in the Moab area. Although the high season for many businesses in Moab is the summer time, the high season for dirtbags is undoubtedly Thanksgiving. This is due to the ever-growing popularity of Creeksgiving, a traditional time for desert dirtbags to gather, climb, and party their faces off deep in Indian Creek.

If you’ve never been to a Creeksgiving, you should go. You’ll have an abundance of awesome climbing partners and a wild time. The temps will be perfect, and the weather will be five stars. Within a week of Thanksgiving, be ready for the town to empty out and all the climbing partners to run back to their day jobs or head on to Joshua Tree or Potrero Chico.

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ian-carroll is one of the authors writing for Outdoor Revival