Climbing in New Hampshire

When I talk about New Hampshire to people from other areas, one of the first things I hit is the quality of our outdoor recreation. Here in Claremont, I can ski, hike, flyfish, and access brand-new mountain biking trails all within ten minutes of my house. And that’s not uncommon for our state – both Lebanon and Portsmouth ended up in the final 64 for Outside Magazine’s “Best Towns” contest.

So yeah, we get it… New Hampshire is an awesome place for outdoor enthusiasts. But I’d like to drill down a little deeper on one sport in particular – rock climbing. Climbing trips were my first real introduction to the state, and the sport continues to be my favorite way to experience New Hampshire’s woods. And as with fishing, hiking, biking, and skiing, New Hampshire has some truly awesome rock climbing.

Climbing is usually understood by the general public in one of two ways – either the plastic walls of a climbing gym (check out EvoRock in Concord for a great gym), or a photo or video of women and men thousands of feet in the air in places like Yosemite Valley.

But climbing is a hugely varied sport, with all sorts of different disciplines. And here in New Hampshire, like perhaps no place else (at least on the East Coast), we can access each of these disciplines at the highest levels of quality. A trip around our state reveals some of the best climbing destinations in the country, all within a few hours of each other.

The Whites

The big cliffs up in the White Mountains – Cannon, Cathedral, Whitehorse – are some of the most impressive climbing areas on the East Coast. Fittingly, a University of New Hampshire student is credited with really breaking New Hampshire’s climbing into the main stream. In 1969, Joe Cote published the first guide to the climbing in the Mount Washington Valley, making the big granite walls accessible to climbers from all over New England. Since then, climbing in the Whites has exploded.

Cannon's slabs, smooth in the morning sun.

Big and bold – Cannon in the morning sun.

For climbers who live north of the Mason-Dixon Line, these cliffs offer some of the only true “big wall” climbing opportunities within reasonable distance. And while gear management and the technical details of these cliffs can be intimidating, the climbing itself is often relatively approachable, and extremely rewarding. Plus, there are a ton of guide schools in the area that can help even those with no climbing experience whatsoever. 

Rumney and Pawtuckaway

If you’ve ever climbed in a climbing gym, you’ve had exposure to the more “pedestrian” forms of climbing – single-pitch roped climbing and bouldering. As with big-wall climbing, New Hampshire boasts some amazing single-pitch and bouldering.

Tucked away in the southern most portion of the White Mountain National Forest, a few miles from Plymouth, is Rattlesnake Mountain. By New Hampshire standards, it’s a pretty modest peak. But for climbers from the Northeast, it’s a one-of-a-kind spot known by a different name: Rumney.

Katie sizes up the climbs at Rumney's Waimea cliff.

Katie sizes up the climbs at Rumney’s Waimea cliff.

Rumney (“Rumney Rocks” officially, but no one calls it that) is home to some of the absolute best climbing on the East Coast, hands down. Dozens of crags (cliffs) means hundreds and hundreds of established lines, with high-quality rock, straightforward access, and killer views. Nearby camping and swimming complete the New Hampshire experience. And, as with all really good climbing areas, Rumney has something for everyone, from the true beginner to the most seasoned pros. I think for as long as I climb, I’ll think of Rumney as my favorite climbing area.

When we think rock climbing, we think ropes. Duh. But some climbing doesn’t involve ropes. Huh?

Bouldering is perhaps the simplest of all climbing disciplines. As the name implies, bouldering pits a climber against a short, hard “boulder problem,” where the object is to scramble up to the top of a boulder, protected by foam pads on the ground. If big wall climbing is a marathon, and roped single-pitch is like running the mile, then bouldering is the 100 meter dash – short, athletic, and challenging.

Boulderer in Pawtuckaway - borrowed from

Boulderer in Pawtuckaway – borrowed from

If you live near the Seacoast, and you’ve got an interest in climbing but a fear of heights, you’re in luck. Pawtuckaway State Park, 30 minutes from Durham, boasts phenomenal bouldering of all difficulties. With about 20 different areas, there’s enough bouldering there to hold you over for a long, long time. And, like every other climbing area in the State, Pawtuckaway is beautiful for climbers and non-climbers alike.

The Hidden Gems

The White Mountains, Rumney, and Pawtuckaway are climbing areas that, on their own, would make a state worthy of a visit. To have all three of these areas within a few hours of each other makes New Hampshire into a true destination for rock climbers. But, in many ways, these cliffs only scratch the surface of New Hampshire climbing.

As you may guess from the state motto, there’s rock everywhere. And industrious climbers, with a sense of adventure and an eye for good lines, can go find new places to climb almost every time they step out of their doors. Some of my favorite memories here are from days spent bushwhacking through New Hampshire’s public lands, scouring hillsides for cliffs and boulders with my closest friends. Some days, we find nothing to speak of, except more beautiful woods. But plenty of times, we’ve come across a perfect little cliff or boulder, unknown to the keepers of the climbing internet.

The author sizes up a new problem, found off a little state road in Western New Hampshire.

The author checking out a new problem, found off a little state road in Western New Hampshire.

A good friend of mine, who scoured the Upper Valley for climbing for many, many years, used to say that he never knew whether the next great climb was right around the corner. This is the true magic, for me, of New Hampshire climbing – limitless potential for exploration, in a place that feels so much like home.

For more information about climbing in New Hampshire, other than Stay Work Play’s website, a great place to start is Mountain Project (Google it) or a local gym or outdoor store. If you’ve got questions, don’t hesitate to get in touch with me! Drop a comment below. 

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