10 Reasons to Check Out Pennsylvania Bouldering

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This article originally appeared in the March 2015 issue of our print edition.

Pennsylvania Bouldering Guide Rock Climbing

Quick! Name the state you think has the best bouldering in the country. You may have an instant answer, or you may be experiencing some internal strife. Regardless, I’ll wager you have California, Tennessee, Utah, or whatever state is currently claiming Hueco Tanks on the tip of your tongue. Maybe even Washington or Colorado. Or Georgia or Alabama. It would be hard to argue against any of those pebble-wrestling heavens, yet that is exactly what I intend to do. In fact, I contend, dear bouldering geeks, that the state with the best bouldering in the whole US of A—hands down—is none other than that large swath of trees, rocks, and Yuengling between New York and Maryland, otherwise known as Pennsylvania. Some call it Rocksylvania. That’s right, the Keystone State, a mere afterthought in any rock climbing conversation since the advent of the activity, deserves a place atop your bouldering bucket list, and here’s why.

1. Variety 

The diversity of rock types found here is amazing, and it’s impossible to mention this array without first touching on the band of Triassic diabase that runs across the southeast corner of the state from Gettysburg all the way to Philly, gracing notable areas like Mount Gretna, Governor Stable, and Haycock Mountain. Southeast Pennsylvania and South Africa are the only places in the world with this type of rock. It demands a technical style to say the least; feet can be nonexistent, and some of the cruxes could be best described as circus tricks. It’s addictive, and any Quaker State local will talk your ear off about diabase. But if that’s not your thing, we have Deep South–style sandstone at a newly developed area called Coll’s Cove, near Ohiopyle in the southwest corner of the state. It rivals Rocktown and Stone Fort for quality. There are cube-shaped, house-sized blocks on grit sandstone in the north and central parts of the state, at areas like Elk that offer a different style of climbing in a remote setting on almost-too-blank rock. There’s the Gunks-like rock in the northeast at Mocanaqua and Francis Walter Dam. We have crimpy, water-polished schist in the Susquehanna River Valley, cobble conglomerate akin to Maple Canyon, and sharp quartz conglomerate that hurts so good to climb on. It’s all here, and it’s all amazing. And there’s so much of it!

Kyle Stapp Astroboy

Welcome to Wyom—err, Pennsylvania. Kyle Stapp tests his wide-crack skills on Astroboy (V5) at Governor Dick Park, Mount Gretna. Photo: Andrew Burr

2. Quantity

Case study: Within an hour’s drive of the capital city of Harrisburg, there are no fewer than six separate climbing areas, each with its own distinct character. One area may have as few as 20 developed problems, others as many as 300, all of high quality and only a microcosm of what the entire state has to offer. And the number of areas continues to grow. Every time I go to the gym I hear a new story about how someone uncovered a cluster on a previously unexplored tract of land in the northern part of the state, which leads me to…

3. Development

This state is a first ascensionist’s dream: First ascents are everywhere if you want them. Even some of the more developed areas have opportunities for undone variations and the occasional unseen boulder. And when you get into the newly found blocks and undiscovered boulder-fields (trust me, they’re out there), the opportunity to establish five-star lines of all grades is abundant. However, for much of the goods, you have to be willing to go on a bit of an...

Adam Hartman Scarlet Lady

Adam Hartman is spotted by wife Missy on Scarlet Lady (V4), Governor Dick Park. Photo: Andrew Burr

4. Adventure

To me, this is PA bouldering’s trump card. With an ever-growing national climbing community that’s constantly sharing beta via online route databases, guidebooks, climbing magazines (ahem), and a host of other tools at our fingertips, finding rocks to climb is easier than ever, particularly at the larger, more established areas. This is an amazing benefit to climbers, but on the other side of that coin, the potential for any sort of real adventure is dwindling. There’s so much unexplored wilderness in PA (in terms of climbing) that you can look at satellite images of a rock band, figure out how to get there, and then likely find a constellation of untouched stone. Of course, that image won’t guarantee those rocks are climbable, or even reachable for that matter. The woods in the more wild parts of the state are incredibly dense with vast regions containing no trails, no cell service, and virtually inaccessible patches of backcountry. That’s real adventure, and it’s alive and well here. Sometimes you’re blown away by what you discover, and sometimes you put in all that effort for nothing, but that doesn’t mean we don’t also have…

5. Easy Access

Dense forests aside, most of the established bouldering in Pennsylvania is a breeze to get to. So if trudging through head-high rhododendrons while dodging snakes and entire functioning societies of deer ticks isn’t your thing, don’t fret. There are areas here with the easiest approaches imaginable; just park the car, walk a couple feet, throw down the pads, peel open the guidebook, and get to climbing. Because we are (so far) pretty under the radar, often there are…

easy access

Kyle Stapp walks the easy and picturesque approach trail at Governor Dick Park. Photo: Andrew Burr

6. No Crowds

There are two things at play here. Pennsylvania climbing has had the misconception of being an oxymoron for so long that we haven’t been a big target for road-trippers. Also, there are so many bouldering areas (current tally is 25+ areas with several thousand problems) that there’s more than enough to accommodate the climbing populace. Plus, a lot of the more popular areas in the most populous parts of the state are spread out enough that, even on a busy day, you can find solitude. At the most recent Mount Gretna Bouldering Competition, 200 competitors showed up, and there were still entire clusters of boulders devoid of people. Certainly if traveling solo or hanging out in a small group is your thing, this is the perfect place for it. But there’s also
a rich…

Gus Laffey v8

No lines here: Gus Laffey climbs Trickle in Time (V8) at Mount Gretna. Photo: Andrew Burr

7. Community

In spite of not having one mega-classic, household-name, go-to destination, or maybe because of it, the Pennsylvania bouldering community is among the most tight-knit, friendly, outgoing, and welcoming climbing communities in the country. I’ve spoken with numerous people who’ve moved west or south in search of bigger and better things, and without fail, the first thing they say is that they miss the PA community. We don’t have a Red Rock or Yosemite or Eldo drawing thousands upon thousands of travelers from around the world, but if you find yourself out among one of our many world-class boulders and need some beta, a spot, or just someone to hang out with, you’re sure to find a friendly face with whom you can enjoy the…

8. Scenery 

This place is friggin’ beautiful. OK, sure, say I’m biased, but these rolling, single-lane, country backroads through forest and farmland can compete with the best in the East. Whether you’re here in October for the best bouldering weather and the height of leaf-peeping season, or in the dead of winter for the low temperatures and perfect diabase weather, or the rainy spring, or the sometimes oppressively hot and humid summer, the one common factor you’re sure to find is that this is one beautiful state. The mountains and river valleys where the majority of boulders are located are some of the oldest in the world, with a rural feel that will instantly make you realize why this place is lovingly referred to as Pennsyltucky, and for a lot of the country’s climbers, it’s…

scenery

Brian Brotherton on Classic slab at Governor Dick—The Original Route (V4). Photo: Andrew Burr

9. Conveniently Located

Smack dab in the middle of the East Coast Megalopolis, Pennsylvania climbing is within a day’s drive of three-quarters of the population. There are international airports in Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Harrisburg, and Scranton, and regional airports in many of the smaller cities spread throughout the state. I’d wager that wherever you land, you’ll have at least a half-dozen areas on your menu. But if I were you, I’d target…

v3 booken

The author spots Kyle Stapp on Left Bookend (V3). Photo: Andrew Burr

10. The Classics

 I’m all about choosing your own adventure. And you can go to Mountain Project or pabouldering.com to pick your poison and get beta (though their lists are nowhere near comprehensive). But my money is on Cole’s Cove, Mount Gretna, Governor Stable, Haycock Mountain, Sunfish Pond, and Elk. These deliver the best taste of all this state has to offer and will put you in that Keystone state of mind.