Sand Rock, Alabama: With Easy Access Comes Great Responsibility - Climbing Magazine

Sand Rock, Alabama: With Easy Access Comes Great Responsibility

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Sand Rock is offers beautiful sandstone climbing within the Alabama's Appalachian Mountains. 

Sand Rock is offers beautiful sandstone climbing within the Alabama's Appalachian Mountains. 

Sand Rock, or more formally Cherokee Rock Village, sits atop Lookout Mountain, Alabama, overlooking the sleepy town of Leesburg and Weiss Lake. Today a property of the Public Parks and Recreation Board of Cherokee County, the park offers a quarter-mile of wall-to-wall climbing on sandstone spires, featuring unlimited boulder problems, over 140 sport routes up to 5.13, ample topropes, and a scattering of trad routes. Dozens of primitive campsites line the back of the pinnacles, and there’s even a bathhouse with hot showers in the center of the 200-acre park. Sand Rock is a 1- or 1.5-hour drive from Chattanooga, Birmingham, and Atlanta—it sees 50,000 visitors a year, many of them climbers. Not surprisingly, this ease of access and proximity to large urban areas have almost been the park’s downfall.

Climbing history at Sand Rock reaches back decades. Around 1970, a rugged, rutted dirt road that ended a mile from the rock was the only way in, creating a strenuous hike for anyone dedicated enough to reach the stone, which lay on land owned by the out-of-state property holder Georgia Kraft. Those determined few first ascentionists, including Rich Gottlieb, Bob Chessen, Richard Tyrell, and even “Hot” Henry Barber, established the early classics and boulder problems. Climbers like Gottlieb held to a strict ground-up ethic—nuts, slings on horns, and other passive protection in lieu of pitons, toproping, etc. Classics from that era include the Pinnacle’s Comfortably Numb (5.9+; Gottlieb; 1979), the 25-foot roof crack Champagne Jam in the Grotto (Gottlieb on aid, 1978; freed in 1982 at 5.12c/d), and the Sun Wall’s White Gold (5.9+; Gottlieb, Jan Schwarzberg; 1980). Until the road was extended to the mountaintop in the early 1980s, Sand Rock remained a backwater. The road, however, would pave the way for overuse-related impacts including loss of vegetation, exposed tree roots, spider-webbing trails, graffiti, and trash.

In 1973, the local historian Colonel Robert N. Mann was tasked by the county with initiating a dialogue with Georgia Kraft in hopes of obtaining official public access. Kraft agreed to donate the 20 acres encompassing the major sandstone formations in 1974, with the stipulation that the site be developed into a public park and a road built to reach it. With a growing concern that 20 acres would be insufficient for creating a viable park, the county charged Mann with bargaining with Kraft for more acreage. Finally, in 1976, Mann reached out to the Nature Conservancy for assistance. By April 1977, the Nature Conservancy managed to purchase 180 additional acres from Kraft for $15,000, then transferred the deed to the county’s newly formed park board.

Enter the 1980s and ‘90s, with the birth of sport climbing and the V-Scale. A growing consortium of visiting Alabama and Georgia climbers was hell-bent on bouldering, creating new leads, and—with the ease of scrambling up the formations—developing topropes and sport climbs, including classics like the Sun Wall’s Dreamscape (5.11c/d; Chris Watford, Curtis Glass; 1989) and Misty (5.10c/d; Penny Jordan, Darrell Jordan, Brett Blackwedler; 1991), and the 5.11b Never Believe at Holiday Block (Greg Scott; 1995). Johnny Arms, the “Duke of Sand Rock,” holds the record for the most sport routes put up at the crag, including My Dog Has Fleas (5.9) on Holiday Block and Price Is Right (5.11a) at The Hole. While growing increasingly popular with Southeastern climbers throughout the mid-1990s, the area still remained an unpatrolled hotspot for lovers’ rendezvous and all-night partiers, accumulating trash, broken glass, and graffiti.

Micah Rein Hight, belayed by Wes Turner, climbs Too Pumped Chump (5.10a), Sand Rock, Alabama.

Micah Rein Hight, belayed by Wes Turner, climbs Too Pumped Chump (5.10a), Sand Rock, Alabama.

With the formation of the Chattanooga-based Southeastern Climbers Coalition (SCC) in 1994, Sand Rock started the slow creep toward change for the better—so slow, in fact, that the results wouldn’t be fully appreciable for another 25 years. From the outset, the SCC-organized trail days seemed like a lost cause. As quickly as climbers could pick up trash, more took its place. The vandalism was unstoppable, with new graffiti overlaid on the old graffiti. There were no permanent bathroom facilities, and any porta-potties and dumpsters were usually capsized in a post-midnight drunken frenzy, with climbers—who were not the vandals—using ropes and pulleys to right them.

In 2005, Sand Rock was vetted, then used, as a filming location for Matthew McConaughey’s climbing scene in the film Failure to Launch. The scene, filmed on the Holiday Block’s That Eight (5.8) and Rabies (5.11), features a distracted Justin Bartha on belay, Bradley Cooper soloing an adjacent route, and McConaughey decking after an iguana bites his finger. Dazzled by the prospect of Hollywood coming to Alabama, local leaders scrambled to pave the access road. In the years to follow, the park board raced full-throttle into developing the park, to include construction of a pavilion and a road encircling the site. Immediately following the initial phase of construction, the board secured a National Park Service Land and Water Conservation grant to build a bathhouse. The use of federal money cemented the area’s preservation, in perpetuity, as a public space.

Controversy ensued as the park was closed for construction from roughly 2009 through 2011, while climbers, the largest user group at Sand Rock and its sole stewards, were spurned in the planning phase of the expanding infrastructure. Then, once the gates reopened, climbers had all but vanished: From 2011 to 2013, the park saw perhaps only 3,000 visitors annually, very few of whom were climbers, a 50 percent reduction from its heyday. In fact, the main users appeared to be the drug addicts who’d found a secluded haven in which to indulge their vices. With no park staff on site, vandals continued defacing the boulders while all-night parties raged and trash accumulated. However, there was also opportunity here—a chance for a local climber and an SCC rep (in this case, me) to become involved with the park board, to which I was appointed in 2015. Reestablishing the connection with the climbing community was paramount to the future success of Sand Rock.

By early 2015, efforts to bring climbers to the forefront of the long-term upkeep and management of Sand Rock were paying off. With a renewed alliance with the SCC and a new climber-centric vibe, the park board was able to save its most prized asset. The climbing community re-emerged, local interest was piqued, and the Cherokee County Commission—responsible for appointing park board members—incrementally increased capital-improvement funding. This let the board hire a full-time park manager and add two full-time positions in order to keep the park staffed 24/7 for maintenance, bathroom upkeep, security, and manning the camp store. The log cabin at the park’s entrance, unused except for storage since its construction, officially opened for business in 2016, providing a drive-thru window for guests to pay for day use or overnight camping. By 2017, the store carried a full line of climbing equipment, crashpad rentals, camping essentials, basic food supplies, and souvenir T-shirts and stickers.

A Southeastern Climbers Coalition–led graffiti-removal and trail day.

A Southeastern Climbers Coalition–led graffiti-removal and trail day.

Visitors now come in droves to climb, hike, camp, ride horses, get married or scatter ashes, or just to volunteer to clean something. Trail days are again a regular thing, and graffiti and glass shards are mainly bygones. Hundreds of Scouts earn badges for community service and climbing on a monthly basis, while volunteering for park upkeep and conservation projects during their stays. College groups flock to the area for weekend climbing, and outfitters, including REI, purchase commercial permits for guiding and instruction. The new challenge at Sand Rock is managing its explosive growth—though this time, at least, it’s growth by a user group that cares about the area. The Sand Rock climbing pioneers of the 1970s certainly couldn’t have foreseen the present-day inundation of visitors. The experiences of being alone in a wilderness setting are at risk of disappearing without conscious mitigation of the area’s swelling visitor numbers—up to 50,000 a year in 2018 from an estimated 8,000 to 10,000 in 2013.

If your journey ever brings you to Sand Rock and you find roped-off areas with revegetation signs, erosion-control measures underway, new belay platforms, reinforced staging areas, or updated climbing hardware, fear not! This is the evidence of a resolve between climber organizations like the Access Fund and the SCC and the park board to preserve this beloved area for generations to come.

Sand Rock Beta

Total Climbs

200+

Type

Sport climbing; Bouldering; Trad climbing

Guidebook

Dixie Cragger’s Atlas

Season

September to June