Kentucky: state of mountains, mines, and impeccable scenery. This region of Appalachia also happens to be one of the best places to rock climb on the east coast. Red River Gorge (RRG) features some fantastic routes in sandstone cliffs forged many moons ago by a tumbling river.
It was the perfect place to spend a long weekend.
Armed with bug repellent, climbing gear, lots of crag snacks, and two competent friends, I enjoyed hour upon hour in this wild space. Muir Valley, named after the “Father of the National Parks”, was a serene location with enough shade to make the Kentucky heat bearable.
I still sweated.
But it was so much fun to climb real rock – to be 100 feet above the ground hyper-aware of every movement and rock feature. The wildlife was present, but unobtrusive, although I did get to watch a snake eat a mouse.
Nothing quite beats climbing on real rock. While I thoroughly enjoy my local rock climbing gym, gripping raw granite while puzzling my way up a cliff face is a whole other type of adventure.
During my year of travels, I only climbed a handful of times. Getting back into climbing shape has been a gradual process, so Sugarloaf Mountain in Maryland seemed like the perfect place. This local crag is short-ish (35 feet?) with easy routes and a simple approach. It was supposed to be hot, so Lauren, my climbing buddy, and I headed out early to avoid the heat.
On the hike to our spot, we passed a wild raspberry bush. I couldn’t help but pause for a little taste. They were cool, tart, and delicious – one of nature’s little surprises.
The next couple of hours passed along quickly; time was eclipsed by the flaking of rope, placement of gear, and the motion of scurrying up the rock. There is something so beautifully methodical about climbing outside. At the same time, the climbs I did at Sugarloaf felt so natural and rhythmic. I let myself relax, happy for the shade provided by the tree cover.
I was reluctant to leave, but knew that the high heat of the day was fast approaching. This trip rekindled by love for outdoor trad climbing. Over the past year, I’ve put in quite a few miles hiking in the wilderness – over 320 to be exact. Now, I feel like it’s time I put in some vertical miles. There’s simply so much rock to conquer!
I entered the Mojave desert in the dark, and I mean truly dark. With no street lights and an overcast sky, my car headlights were barely able to cut through the night. The Joshua Trees stood like silent pillars, welcoming me into their world as I zipped down the highway. My peripheral vision caught flickers of these madman-looking trees (which are, in fact, not really trees).
Entering Joshua Tree National Park in daylight was an entirely different experience. The unique setting drew my attention, causing my to pull over one too many times on my way to a popular hiking trail. The trees were bold, owning their differences while the rock in the background looked like a giant had simply dumped it in huge piles. To top it all off, the desert flora was in full-bloom. I geared up for a wonderful day in paradise.
After a mile of hiking, I decided that I had never experienced beauty quite like this. I am, at heart, an explorer. I thrive in places where I can discover. Joshua Tree – or JT as the locals call it – was an entire world rife with nooks, crannies, and interesting things to see. I wandered around the rocks, finding familiar shapes in the formations, and scrambling over nooks and crannies. Every so often I’d stumble across a new desert flower I hadn’t yet seen. The Joshua Trees themselves seemed to stand guard over this special wild place.
Scientists predict that within 100 years, there may be no more Joshua Trees in the park due to climate change. How sad to think that future generations may be missing out on this national park’s namesake.
I touched the trunk of a young Joshua Tree and wished it luck.
The thunderstorm the night before was disheartening. I was planning on kicking off part II of my journey with some epic climbing at a world class crag in Tennessee. I lay awake in bed picturing rain-soaked sandstone that would hinder upwards movement. Nevertheless, there was some promise of sunshine the following morning, so my brother and I loaded up our gear and headed on our merry way.
Though not an official national park, the Obed is considered a national wild and scenic river, falling under the same jurisdiction as my beloved park services. After minutes of hiking along the upper ridge, I began to settle into a familiar rhythm. Outside air, river sounds, soggy leaves underfoot… Home.
The climbing was good, but the day was even better. Sitting on a rock, chatting with strangers, and munching on trail mix brought me into a relaxing sense of freedom. My brother did most of the hard work, leading routes while I belayed at the bottom, watching the birds of prey circle overhead.
And then I thought, “This is only day 2 of part II – there is much more to come. This world is so big and longs to be explored.”
I let out a sigh of contentment before I scarfed down a Clif bar.
A rock climber can’t go to Moab, UT and not climb a desert tower. It’s like a chef visiting France and not trying any food, or a ballet dancer going to New York and not viewing a Broadway show. Though I haven’t done much climbing during my trip around the country, I figured that I couldn’t pass up spending a beautiful day enjoying a classic area climb.
That’s how I ended up on Ancient Art. This sandstone tower corkscrews up into the air with an artistic flair. While spectacular to look at from the ground, encountering this spire up close was absolutely breathtaking. There was so much air on both sides of me. The desert and its ancient formations stretched as far as the eye could see.
Getting to the top is only the beginning. Rappelling hundreds of feet is the perfect conclusion to an extraordinary ascent.
It’s days like these where I think, “I love my life.” It’s hard not to when you’re surrounded by paradise.