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The Sandstone Alps

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Three essential ingredients for climbing at the San Rafael Reef: Faith, Hope, and Clarity (5.8 R), Sinister Slabs.

Kennan, Tim, and I knew all this, speculating that the Reef might be the least popular climbing area in Utah. But we came anyway, each with a personal agenda. Kennan thought the colorful slabs would make for great photographs, though he was worried about the low-angle climbing. For Tim, on brief leave from family life in North Carolina, this was the only climbing outing of the year. He was free as a bird for a few short days, and the higher and the wilder the climbing got, the more he liked it, as long as he didn’t have to lead and it wasn’t too difficult. As for me, a longtime desert explorer, I was looking for something completely different than familiar towers and splitter cracks. Long, easy, fast-paced climbs to wilderness summits sounded right to all of us. Plus, a few climbers we knew loved the place, and we were determined to find out why.

Fifty feet higher, feeling increpid, I reached a big ledge and followed it back, pulling like a draft horse against the rope drag. I found a pothole, sat down in a braced position, yelled a plea for caution that no one heard, and began to hip belay. Kennan and Tim reached me quickly, following simultaneously on our skinny twin ropes. They climbed some sections no-handed.

After our initial surprise at the risky tactics required, we settled into an alpine-like routine for a few more pitches— about five total, including the two we climbed before we lost the trail of belay bolts. Finally we reached a broad slickrock ledge, unroped, and scrambled the rest of the way to the top of the fin.

It was a true summit. To the west, the rock dropped vertically into a notch, beyond which lay another tall fin. Steep talus slopes led down on two sides into shadowy slot canyons that emptied toward the washes near our camp.

To the east the view was vast: a sprawling patchwork of squat mesas and desert crust, etched with washes and a few narrow dirt roads. On the far horizon we could see the La Sal Mountains above Moab, and to the southwest, the Abajo peaks above Indian Creek. To the north, distant semis glinted in the sun on I-70.

We were happy and proud, having completed our first route at the Reef—rated 5.6. As with every climb we did on the trip, a modest rating had delivered an immodest amount of satisfaction.

On the rhino horn of Knights Errant (5.8)

Rather than ask for tick lists, our basic plan was to climb aesthetic-looking lines to major landmarks and summits. We adopted this mountaineering-style approach from the area’s greatest pioneer, Paul Ross, who calls the Eastern Reef “the Sandstone Alps.”

Ross is a 74-year-old British expat with a first-ascent list that would fill this magazine (over 500 and counting), in Great Britain, New Hampshire (including the famous Prow on Cathedral Ledge and Vertigo on Cannon Cliff), and now the Utah canyonlands. A new-route addict since the 1950s, Ross was once a regular climbing partner of legendary Brits like Joe Brown and Chris Bonington. After retiring to Palisade, in western Colorado, Ross began climbing regularly in the Utah desert. Beginning in 2002, he systematically explored the striking—and previously untouched—slabs of the Eastern Reef, and in the 10 years since has done more than 150 new routes. Ross loved being able to cover so much virgin ground so quickly. The routes here are the longest in southeastern Utah, and as in the high mountains, most of the climbing is under 5.9.

The Sandstone Alps—with that phrase in mind, the whole Reef climbing experience made sense. Natural, eye-catching lines led up the major faces and ridges. The terrain is vast and undulating, so just as in mountaineering, conventional belaying may alternate with scrambling and simul-climbing, while anchors occasionally consist only of “a firm 1895 stance.” You move up pitch by pitch, or sometimes together, always keeping in mind the old adage, “the leader must not fall.” Often the second, too, must follow this rule.

Chasing potholes on pitch three of 1,000 Feet of Fun (5.6), Three Finger Canyon

Camp lay in a dirt crater near the mouth of Three Finger Canyon, the southernmost of the three major canyons that penetrate the Reef. The next big slot north is Uneva Mine Canyon, then Little Spotted Wolf, all with climbing. Between the main canyons are many distinct slabs and buttresses, plus narrower slots that cliff out high in the Reef, exposing big, steep walls. It all adds up to a vast amount of climbing terrain, and an explorer’s paradise.

One landmark near camp captured our attention. On the south wall of Three Finger Canyon, a rhinoceroshorn- looking thing jutted into the void, catching the early morning light when the canyon was in shadow, and showing up as a black silhouette in the afternoon. It looked like a novel “belay station in the sky,” but the approach climbing looked so horrendous that we gave up on the idea. Then, thumbing through Folsom’s loose-leaf notebook one morning, we learned that the horn was in fact a belay stance on a 5.8 route called Knights Errant. Adding to the intrigue, for the first ascent, Paul Ross had recruited his old friend, one of the world’s most famous living mountaineers. Clearly, if Sir Chris Bonington had come all the way from Britain to climb the Three Fingers rhino horn, it was worth an attempt.

The direct approach to the horn was a series of overhanging cracks that look so rotten and dangerous that we doubted even Bonington would attempt them. But out on the slabs to the left, a hanging ledge lay pasted to the steep and blank-looking sandstone. On closer inspection, the slabs were not as steep as they’d looked, and went at 5.6, with some wellprotected 5.8 climbing near the top.

In short order, Tim and I were lounging on our sought-after perch, halfway up the climb. On the summit push, however, conditions deteriorated. A section of slot thrashing on exploding footholds challenged my will to continue, until I recalled Ross’ concept of the area. I imagined Bonington battling upward, like he would on some ice-choked chimney in the Himalaya. Heat and sand replaced the cold and snow.

Another breezy day at the Reef

The trip was half over, so our next mission was to help Kennan do some serious photo shooting. My girlfriend, Jen Perez, was to arrive with two other climbers, Lizzy Scully and Scott Norris, but when I checked in with her by phone, she mentioned that she wasn’t driving her truck as planned. They’d be arriving in Lizzy’s van.

I became immediately apprehensive, as one does when events take a small turn that some part of your subconscious knows will irrevocably tip the scale of things. Scully’s van— “The Hooptie”—was a weak vehicle. She argued that it got great gas mileage and was awesome for camping in, but camp where? It had so little ground clearance that it bottomed out when entering suburban driveways. To allow it to enter into our plan was, in retrospect, not just a reckless oversight, but an actual affront to the area, a gesture of disregard for the good will the Reef had so far shown us.

We resupplied in Green River, rendezvoused with Jen, Scott, and Lizzy for a beer at Ray’s Tavern—so far, so good— then led the posse back toward the Reef. Beyond the highway, we turned onto some mellow dirt roads, taking it slow, but eventually noticed that we hadn’t seen the Hooptie for a while. We found it bogged down two miles back—for the second time, apparently. The road didn’t really get rough until a fork several miles further, but the Hooptie was proving to be even lamer than I’d remembered.

“Is that important?” Lizzy asked at the next major stop in the action. Scott had emerged from under the vehicle holding a large plastic panel that had been dragging from the undercarriage since the last minor wash. By now our distain for the Hooptie had softened into pity. We parked the battered minivan, piled all the gear we could fit into our truck, and in a couple of carries, shuttled the B Team to base camp.


Climbing’s magic moments are always fleeting, and though Jen sided with us, the footloose, go-with-it feeling that Kennan and Tim and I had found at the Reef soon faded. The weather turned: A violent sandstorm hit us the next evening, and then we actually got flash-flooded on our climb of the gully-like 1,000 Feet of Fun. Scully and Norris were good sports, at least in front of the camera, for approximately one and a half days. But it was clear that they just didn’t like the soft rock and runout pitches that are Reef climbing. Hated the whole experience, in fact.

Our campfire reverie gave way to sarcasm and contention. The distinction between sand and sandstone was much discussed. We were accused of a literal kind of sandbagging. The route we thought was a choice romp, they thought was a choss ramp. Some of us found the place totally enchanting, and some… just didn’t. In the end, we agreed on one thing: “The Reef is not for everyone.”

After a few climbs, Scully and Norris decided to leave, several days early, and headed to Castle Valley or Indian Creek. Once they were out of earshot we wished them a fine wilderness climbing experience—socializing on the Castleton traffic jams, or grooving at the drum circle at Bridger Jack. In our heart of hearts, though, we knew that the B Team had a point. There is some splitter sandstone in the Utah desert… but not here.

We waved goodbye to the Hooptie as it high-centered its way toward pavement and crowds and solid rock. Maybe there was something slightly wrong with us, but the softness of the rock actually made the climbing feel gentler. It made us feel at home. We turned our backs on the status quo, squinted up at the Reef, and geared up to climb another big, sandy slab, all by ourselves.

Jeff Achey is the features editor of Climbing. He has climbed soft rock before.

RECOMMENDED ROUTES describes an extensive selection of routes at the Reef, but they are a bit hard to sort out, and the star ratings are all over the map.

1,000 Feet of Fun (5.6), 5 pitches, Three Finger Canyon; FA: Ben Folsom and Mark Owen, tandem solo up and down, December 2002; accidentally retrobolted (mostly anchors) by Paul Ross and Layne Potter during the second ascent, June 2003 With an easy approach, moderate climbing, and decent rock and protection, this is probably the most user-friendly route in the Reef. Protects with mid-sized cams, including the crux hueco climbing on pitch four. Much of the climbing is 5.0. Rappel the route with two 60m ropes.

Firebird (5.7), 3 pitches plus scrambling, Forgotten Buttress; FA: Ben Folsom & Maura Hahnenberger, November 2008 The Forgotten Buttress—just north of Little Spotted Wolf Canyon—is Ben Folsom’s gift to those who’d appreciate better-protected Reef climbing. There are three other generously equipped lines here (5.6 to 5.8), plus a sportier 5.10.

Runout Ridge (5.7), 5 pitches plus scrambling, Triple Buttress; FA: Paul Ross, Layne Potter, March 2006 This is an excellent introduction to truly R-rated Reef climbing, with mostly good rock and interesting position. There is one bolt about 100 feet up the first pitch, plus a little gear before that. If you find this pitch unpleasant, retreat with the knowledge that most Reef climbing will not be your cup of tea. The crux second pitch poses a comparable psychological challenge, and the rest of the route is easier cruising. The well-named Triple Buttress is the second formation north of Three Finger Canyon; Runout Ridge is the leftmost of three buttresses. Begin among boulders a short way up the slot canyon to the south. Rappel the route, with some downclimbing at the top.

Death By Chocolate (5.8), A0, 9 pitches; FA: Paul Ross, Layne Potter, September 2003 Long, clean, and probably the area’s second most popular route, this climbs the tall, striped slab that’s very conspicuous as you approach the Reef from Green River. Located two canyons south of Little Spotted Wolf, the slab is not so obvious during the approach, so keep your bearings. The A0 is a rappel after pitch three, which ends at an exposed stance below the well-protected crux. Most of the route is sub-5.6 cruising, with one to three bolts per pitch.

Curiosity Killed the Cat (5.9+), 6 pitches, Three Finger Canyon; FA: Steve Rydalch, Paul Ross, June 2009 An introduction to the steeper pothole climbing at the Reef, with a testy first pitch. After the potholes, a long and varied journey up slabs and hanging grooves takes you to the top of 1,000 Feet of Fun, the descent route.

Lance Bateman on pitch one (5.12) of an outrageous, unfinished new route in Ladder Canyon


Getting There: A dirt road (CR 1028) that roughly parallels the Reef provides access to all the climbs. Reach the northern end of this road directly from I-70, or reach the south end of it from Hwy. 24, about 7 miles south of the interstate. The dirt road is passable in most passenger cars most of the year, but gets very slick in wet weather.

  • North access: Use this approach for climbs such as Death by Chocolate and climbs near Little Spotted Wolf Canyon. Drive west on I-70 from Green River, Utah. About 2 miles west of the exit for Hanksville and Goblin Valley (Hwy. 24), before a rest-area exit and just before the interstate crosses a wash, take an unmarked dirt exit on the right that leads to a gate. Go through the gate, and then follow the left branch of the road into the wash and under the highway. This section is sandy and might require 4WD. Once under the highway, the road improves. Accessing this road from eastbound I-70 avoids the sandy underpass. For climbs near Little Spotted Wolf Canyon, there’s a pullout and single-party campsite on the right, 2.1 miles from the highway. The Uneva Mine Canyon spur road branches off to the right about 2 miles further. The Three Finger Canyon spur branches off about 6 miles from the highway.

  • South access: Use this for routes as far north as Uneva Mine Canyon. From I-70, take Hwy. 24 south for 7.3 miles. Just after mile marker 153, turn right onto a very straight dirt road. This soon begins to wind north, reaching the (unmarked) intersection with the Three Finger Canyon spur, 4.1 miles from Route 24. It’s 6.4 miles to the Uneva Mine spur. The spur into Three Finger is 2 miles long and requires high clearance, especially in its last half. The Uneva Mine spur is shorter and not as rough, except for the last quarter mile to the obvious parking area. The very rough hill beyond is best walked even if you have 4WD.

Camping: The southern access road off Hwy. 24, Three Finger Canyon road, and Uneva Mine road all give access to free, primitive campsites. Don’t expect to find firewood or water at the Reef, but you may get cell service.