Columbia's Limestone Blocks

James Barnett stems his way up The Scoop (V4) of the Labyrinth in Columbia, California.

James Barnett stems his way up The Scoop (V4) of the Labyrinth in Columbia, California.

It's rare that the words “adventure” and “bouldering” are used to describe the same climbing area, but deep within the limestone corridors surrounding the small town of Columbia, California, adventure bouldering is exactly what you’ll find.

About two and a half hours east of the Bay Area, the boulderfields of Columbia Junior College and Columbia State Park sit among a dense oak woodland. That means poison oak, ticks, mountain lions, and moss. However, those brave enough to venture into the nearly four-square-mile maze will also find some of the best bouldering in California.

Although the area is practically unknown to the American climbing community, there is a strong tradition of highball bouldering and free-soloing in Columbia. With zero tolerance for fixed anchors and cliffs that offer virtually nothing by way of natural protection, you either boulder it, solo it, or leave it for the next guy. Columbia’s strong ethics were first established in the late 1970s and early 1980s by climbers such as Ron Kauk, Dave Yerian, Walt Shipley, Phil Bone, Dimitri Barton, John Yablonski, Michael Campana, Preston Birdwell, and Chris Falkenstein. These climbers produced some of California’s hardest boulder problems, high above Columbia’s treacherous landings. This notoriously unforgiving terrain can easily turn a 10-foot problem into a risky undertaking, yet Columbia’s earliest climbers—with nothing but a towel to wipe their EBs—pushed standards up to V9 on problems that top out 30 feet above the talus.

While the problems in Columbia are usually high off the deck, they’re also extremely high quality, featuring some of the best fine-grained limestone and marble this side of France. The advents of crash pads and sticky rubber, as well as the recent infl uence of a wiry climber by the name of Ben Pope, have sparked newfound enthusiasm toward bouldering in Columbia. In the last five years, Pope and a small crew of less than 10 local climbers have increased the number of problems from 50 to more than 250.

For clarification, I’ve broken the climbing areas in Columbia into four fairly distinct sections. It would take at least two days to visit each of the four areas, and allowing a full day at each destination will provide the best experience.

(Click here to see more photos of Columbia bouldering by Dean Fleming.)

Daniel Forbes doesn

Daniel Forbes doesn

The Labyrinth

Columbia’s aptly named Labyrinth has got to be one of the strangest bouldering areas on Earth. Seriously, you’ll expect to see David Bowie juggling a crystal ball around every corner. It’s weird, it’s easy to get lost, it’s a bit dangerous, and we all love it. Not only is the Labyrinth a bizarre place to explore, it is also endowed with some of the area’s finest boulder problems. Throughout the Labyrinth’s nearly 500 square yards of spectacular limestone passageways, you’ll find 25-foot horizontal roofs, Thailand-mimicking tufas, and arête-slapping madness. Perhaps the best feature of the Labyrinth is its ability to dry relatively quickly after a heavy rainstorm. In many of Columbia’s areas, dense foliage and thick moss keep moisture on the problems for days. In the main Labyrinth area, you can literally climb five minutes after a five-day storm.

The ticklist:

  • Underworld (V2)

  • The Scoop (V4)

  • The Rose (V6)

  • Grave of the Underpants (V6)

  • Miner’s Bane (V7)

  • Complex By Design (V8)

  • Ares’ Curse (V9)

Lance Kimball gets close to the 25-foot topout on Happy Face Dihedral (V0) of the Lower Arboretum.

Lance Kimball gets close to the 25-foot topout on Happy Face Dihedral (V0) of the Lower Arboretum.

Columbia State Park

Unlike every other sector in Columbia, the state park resembles a traditional bouldering area. The routes are spread out among flat, grassy meadows, the topouts are clean, and the descents are easily spotted. The state park is home to some of the best moderate boulder problems in Columbia. In fact, there are more three-star routes in the V0 to V3 range in Columbia State Park than there are in the other three Columbia bouldering areas combined.

The park itself is also cool. Founded in 1852, the town of Columbia—turned California Historical State Park—is still the kind of place where you can pay for groceries with gold dust or buy a shot of Wild Turkey from a guy wearing a six-shooter.

The ticklist

  • Stage Coach Arête (V0)

  • Big Easy (V0)

  • Castle Rock Problem (V2)

  • Horse Trail Prow (V3)

  • Horse Trail Arête (V3)

Daniel Forbes cuts his teeth on The Fang (V5).

Daniel Forbes cuts his teeth on The Fang (V5).

Upper Arboretum

Columbia’s first V10, its best finger crack, and its most humbling technical face problem can all be found in the Upper Arboretum. Although it’s located just a short march up a gravel road from the Lower Arboretum—and is technically a part of the same geologic formation—the Upper Arboretum has a drastically different style of climbing than its southern sister. Some steep and pumpy lines exist in the Upper Arboretum, but, for the most part, tall and technical is the name of the game. Example: the aptly named Grandma Death (V10) involves precise slapping up the sharp prow of a 20-foot arête. In true Columbia style, the route ends with strenuous, committing laybacks and knee-wedging in a dirty offwidth.

Unfortunately, the Upper Arboretum can be totally overgrown with poison oak during the summer. This is also where the majority of mountain lion sightings have been reported. Accordingly, this area should be visited during winter, with caution and in groups.

The ticklist

  • The Autobahn (V0)

  • All American Finger Crack (V2)

  • Dan’s Exit (V3)

  • Panning For Nuggets (V3)

  • Cellar Door (V6)

  • Grandma Death (V10)

Daniel Forbes on Hiding in Plain Sight (V7).

Daniel Forbes on Hiding in Plain Sight (V7).

Lower Arboretum

The majority of Columbia’s historical ascents, highball boulder problems, insane free-solos, and steep jug hauls reside in the Lower Arboretum. Located a few hundred feet from the Columbia Junior College campus, this area is renowned as a place to train, often referred to as “the gym.” Incredibly steep problems like Triple Cracks (V6), The Pinch Problem (V7), and the 30-foot-long Falkenstein Crack (V2) have been pumping the forearms of eager college students for nearly 40 years. The Lower Arboretum also contains some of Columbia’s most diffi cult problems. One area known as the Dance Floor hosts two 20-foot-long, completely horizontal roof problems. These two beauties, Swing Dance (V10) and The Waltz (V11), have only seen a handful of ascents.

The ticklist

  • Dimitri Barton Memorial Flake Problem (V0)

  • Lobster Claw (V3)

  • Gold Wall (V3)

  • The Fang (V5)

  • Repent (V5)

  • Triple Cracks (V6)


The Beta

  • Climate: Columbia is usually climbable from November through April, with the best season from mid-December through the end of February, when temperatures routinely drop below 40ºF. Luckily, California’s winters are endowed with weeks of sunshine and crisp temperatures.

  • Camping: There are two campgrounds nearby, with the best (and closest) being the Marble Quarry RV Park. This is located just off Parrotts Ferry Road, about two miles from the Columbia College turn-off.

  • Getting there: From the Bay Area, take the 580 East until it turns into the 205, and then follow this to Highway 120. In the town of Manteca, get onto the 99 North for about 300 feet then exit back onto 120 East. Once you reach the town of Oakdale, turn left (east) onto Highway 108. Once in Sonora, head north on Highway 49. After a few miles, turn right onto Parrotts Ferry Road, following signs to Columbia State Park. For the Upper and Lower Arboretums, after about 1,500 feet on Parrotts Ferry Road, turn right onto Sawmill Flat Road. After one mile on Sawmill Flat, turn left onto Columbia College Drive. Park in the student lot, and pay the $1 fee when school is in session. The Lower Arboretum is a short distance down a nature trail that starts at the Toyon Building; the Upper Arboretum is accessed near the auto shop. For Columbia State Park and the Labyrinth, stay on Parrotts Ferry Road for just over two miles and park where indicated for Columbia State Park. Head into the Labyrinth from a large, dirt stagecoach road near the east end of the largest paved parking lot.

  • Guidebook: Every known boulder problem in Columbia can be found within the comprehensive guidebook Columbia Bouldering, by Dean Fleming and Daniel Forbes.