The sport of rock climbing is gaining popularity worldwide, especially in Oregon, and the Umpqua Valley is a prime destination for those who like a little less traffic on their route.
In the recreational paradise that is the Umpqua Valley, there’s certainly no shortage of outdoor activities pursue, from world-class fishing to unrivaled hiking and rafting (see related articles). But there’s another pursuit that doesn’t get nearly the attention of our more renowned pastimes even though it provides equal thrills, challenges and scenery.
People have been rock climbing in the area since the late 1950s, and as the popularity of the sport has grown worldwide, especially in Oregon, it’s catching on more in the Umpqua Valley. Though Smith Rock near Bend often steals the spotlight as the most popular rock climbing destination in the state, the Umpqua Valley offers climbers unique geological features and a variety of challenging climbs – without the crowds often found elsewhere.
The lack of climbing traffic is not to say the rock climbing spirit isn’t alive and well in the Umpqua. Indeed, local climbers support and educate both new and experienced climbers who are curious about routes that only a handful of people have ever climbed. They don’t shy away from a challenge, despite having public access issues, closures on popular climbing routes for long periods during the year, and uncertainty about what the future of rock climbing looks like in the Umpqua Valley.
Rock climbing in Oregon has a century of history behind it. The sport dates back to the 1920s when climbers, armed only with rudimentary techniques and equipment, scaled Rabbit Ears on the Rogue River. That was the first recorded rock climb in Western Oregon.
By 1958, before the North Umpqua Highway was even constructed, the sport had made its way to the Umpqua Valley. Gary Kirk spearheaded the first technical climbs along with Norval Ferguson and Walt Coady. Together they made the first ascent of Eagle Rock. From 1958 through the 1970s this group of climbers worked to establish routes using only a combination of aid- and free-climbing techniques on two rock spires – called “Old Man” and “Old Woman” – along the North Umpqua River.
From the 1960s on, the Umpqua Valley has been a place of first ascents. “The most significant change I’ve seen is the sheer number of routes and first ascents,” says Greg Orton, who has been climbing locally since the early 1990s and has taught rock climbing at UCC. “When Harold Hall and I wrote our first guide to climbing on the Umpqua in 1995 there were about 70 established routes. Our current guide, Rock Climbing Western Oregon, Volume 2: Umpqua inventories nearly 250 new first ascents between 1995 and 2007, and now there are well over 400 climbs throughout Douglas County.
More than half of those are located on the Callahan Mountains, where the Tyee Sandstone cliffs boast Oregon’s largest concentration of climbing routes outside of Smith Rock. “We have the potential to become a destination climbing area of primary importance,” Orton says. “If one would consider Smith Rock as Oregon’s Yosemite Valley for climbers, the Umpqua would be Oregon’s Tuolumne Meadows (a lesser-known climbing area of Yosemite).”
Beyond the vast concentration of climbing routes, the Umpqua Valley also is popular among climbers because of its unique geology. Roseburg sits just a few miles west of the convergence of three different geologic provinces – the Coast Range, Klamath Mountains and the Cascades. This provides climbers in the area with options that range from the Tyee Sandstone west of Roseburg to volcanic pillars of cooled lava to the east.
If there is one obstacle the local climbing community has had to overcome, it’s gaining public access to prime climbing areas, according to Orton says. “Douglas County is unique in that 65 percent of our 400-plus climbing routes are on private timber lands,” he says.
Still, there are examples of the climbing community and private companies working hand in hand to preserve climbing access without impacting timber company operations. For example, just east of Glide the Honeycombs are situated on private timberland. While the welded rhyolitic tuff formations have less climbing surface than the Callahans, they have become a go-to spot for both local and visiting climbers.
The Honeycombs feature some climbing routes that are popular among beginners, despite foreboding names like Edge of Fear, Double Jointed and Stone Ship. The Southwest Oregon Climber’s Coalition is helping construct trails and fund restroom facilities on site.
Orton believes timber companies and the climbing community can enjoy a symbiotic relationship. “Forest Edge Investments, LLC. has purchased the Honeycombs for the purpose of managing it for timber and as a climbing destination, and I’m a strong advocate of managing the two together,” he says. “The best rock climbing obviously occurs in dry rocky habitats that historically experienced short fire return intervals resulting in more open Douglas-fir/pine stands, madrone, knob cone pine, and sunnier faces. When these stands are allowed to miss a typical disturbance cycle the rock becomes shaded and climbing suffers.”
There are plenty of public land options in the Umpqua Valley. Just east of Roseburg, the Umpqua National Forest hosts more than 150 established climbs spread over 11 climbing areas. And Orton is happy to share a few of his favorite climbs.
“The primary rock formations attracting climbers to the Umpqua are the shallow intrusive rhyodacitic welded tuffs that form Old Man Pinnacle on the North Umpqua River and Acker Rock outside of Tiller,” he says. “Climbs on the forest are primarily long multi-pitch climbs requiring an advanced level of climbing experience, and routes such as Dilley’s Delight, The Prize, HangTen, Eagle’s Dare and the Peregrine Traverse, the state’s longest climb, have become Oregon classics.”
Reflecting on what makes rock climbing in the Umpqua Valley special, Orton says, “What first comes to mind is the friendliness and openness that our local communities have shown climbers over the years. We have always felt strong community support when we’ve hosted climbing-related events in Roseburg. There is an open friendliness I see among climbers that I don’t see in some of the busier climbing destinations. You cannot climb on a busy day on the Umpqua without meeting and talking with everyone. I think it’s something unique to our area.”
Where To Climb
Where: Located 90 minutes southeast of Roseburg in the Tiller Ranger District of the Umpqua National Forest.
Highlights: Acker Rock features two of Oregon’s longest routes and has an almost 600-foot rappel, which is also one of Oregon’s longest rappels. At the top of Acker Rock sits the historic Acker Rock Lookout, which is available to rent August through November.
Type of Geology: Coarse, shallow intrusive quartz latite volcanic plug.
Number of Established Climbing Routes: 17
Where: 6 miles east of Glide.
Highlights: Weathering has exposed many finger pockets, cracks and fissures, which resemble honeycombs.
Type of Geology: Volcanic pillars.
Number of Established Climbing Routes: 57
Where: East of Roseburg, near Little River and Cavitt Creek.
Highlights: Jurassic Park is made up of around a dozen rocky outcrops and spires. Many of these rocks have never been climbed before.
Type of Geology: Coarse-grained rhyo-dacite with large grains of quartz.
Number of Established Climbing Routes: 10
Where: East of Roseburg, near the headwaters of Steamboat Creek.
Highlights: McKinley Rock is a dome-like andesitic dike formation that sits at almost 400 feet tall. Offers climbers a “big wall” feeling. Also has the possibility of first ascents.
Type of Geology: Coarse-grained dacite.
Number of Established Climbing Routes: 9
Where: East of Roseburg, near Little River Road.
Highlights: Unique 120-foot tall hexagonal pillars. Local climbers focus on preserving the visual integrity of the columns. Located 15-feet off a forest service road.
Type of Geology: Columnar dacite.
Number of Established Climbing Routes: 10