To the uninitiated, Western North Carolina may seem an unlikely haven for rock climbers. The region’s Appalachian Mountains, smoothed by roughly 480 million years of erosion, lack the vast granite faces of the younger Rockies or Sierra Nevada.
But to climbers, the secret is definitely out.
Mike Reardon, executive director of the Carolina Climbers Coalition, has lived and climbed around Asheville for 20 years. He calls WNC a destination area with a variety of climbing not found elsewhere.
“We have Laurel Knob, which at 1,300 feet is the tallest rock face on the East Coast. We have boulders, walls and ice climbing, and much of it is year-round,” Reardon says. “People walk away from here able to climb anything.”
As one sign of the region’s burgeoning popularity, Chimney Rock State Park reported a big jump in climbing permits issued for day climbers in 2019 at Rumbling Bald in Lake Lure. Nearly 12,000 permits were issued that year, up from fewer than 7,000 in 2018. Jane Clark, an administrative specialist for N.C. Parks and Recreation, notes that the 2019 expansion of the Rumbling Bald parking lot may have contributed to that jump. (Although climbing access has remained open during the pandemic, permits fell to less than 7,500 in 2020, a drop which Clark suggests may have been due to the closure of the privately owned Chimney Rock attraction at Chimney Rock State Park for several months.)
To ease the burden of crowded climbing spots like Rumbling Bald, the CCC is helping to open two new areas later this year: the McKinney Gap Boulders in Burnsville and Chimney Rock Village Boulders in Chimney Rock. The new spots, Reardon says, further his organization’s goal of conserving the natural environment, promoting safe climbing and preserving access to areas in North and South Carolina.
The Burnsville location is part of the 750-acre Bald Mountain Creek Preserve, managed by the Georgia-based Southeastern Trust for Parks and Land. Over 20 boulders are available for climbing, as are several rock overhangs. Oriented toward the north, away from the summer sun, and located at over 4,000 feet in elevation, Reardon says the McKinney Gap Boulders are particularly suitable for summer climbing. The CCC is currently working on a 1.5-mile hiking trail at the site, with some boulders found less than a quarter-mile from the parking area.
And the Chimney Rock Village Boulders offer views of the surrounding Hickory Nut Gorge, more than 50 boulder problems (climbing routes), a small waterfall and plenty of parking. A half-mile hiking trail to the site on Round Top Mountain is almost complete, with a grand opening scheduled for Wednesday, Nov. 17.
Reardon says the rest of the Hickory Nut Gorge area is rife with climbing possibilities, rocks and crags. While most of the gorge’s climbing spots are currently private, he notes, the CCC will be focused on “peeling back the onion” of access in the years to come.
“The troubling thing is, when land does come up for sale, people are asking too much. We can’t pay over market price,” Reardon says. Properties in the area are often targeted for housing development or mineral exploration, he says, driving up costs beyond the CCC’s “shoestring budget.”
But the network of knowledge and relationships that the CCC has accumulated over the past 25 years, Reardon continues, aids greatly in the group’s conservation work. For example, the coalition was able to learn almost immediately when Rumbling Bald property adjoining the state park became available and offer fair market value for the land.
“The deal went through just like any other private buyer: We were the first buyers interested, we made an offer and were lucky enough to have it accepted,” Reardon explains. “It’s through our strong partnerships that we can quickly identify what land is important for both conservation and recreation.”
The Chimney Rock boulder field is on Chimney Rock Village land, but the CCC was able to create an easement to provide access. Again, Reardon credits that success to his group’s reputation and the willingness of partners to help. “We have never completed a project such as this completely on our own,” he says.
Those who take up climbing, Reardon says, often grow to care deeply about conserving the places they climb. That’s the case for Elaine Elliott, founder of Instagram climbing page and media production company Steep South.
Elliott, who has been climbing for eight years, lives in Chattanooga, Tenn., but visits WNC to practice the hobby. Steep South’s second film, Filling the Void Chapter 2, focuses on Rumbling Bald and discusses how conservation and tourism, as well as justice, equity, diversity and inclusion initiatives, all play a role in securing climbing access to areas currently unavailable to the public. She says a main goal of the film, set to premiere in spring at The Riveter climbing gym in Fletcher, is to show the unique biological features of the Hickory Nut Gorge — and the fragility of the flora and fauna that inhabit it.
“Climbers are really good at respecting the land and keeping it maintained, but they may not know the specifics of the wildlife and ecosystem,” Elliott says. To this end, the film features stunning footage of Rumbling Bald’s cliff face, as well as information from biologists about the rare species that live there, including the Hickory Nut Gorge green salamander and the wildflower white irisette.
“Because it’s warmer, because of the unique fissure caves and the way the rock was formed, because it’s a gorge, these unique systems combine to make a diverse ecosystem of plants and animals,” Elliott contines. “It’s cool to be aware of that and also to be aware of how quickly it could be gone through development or deforestation. Steep South is a place to gather excitement about these fun places, but the films are meant to remind people that they need to get involved to protect them.”
Climber Liz Taft, who has lived in Asheville for four years and volunteers with the CCC trail crew, says the region’s growing climbing scene may help with that conservation. Having climbed all over the country, as well as in South America and Italy, she says WNC is special in pairing a pristine environment with a strong leave-no-trace ethos.
“We try to have a small impact, so you might not notice us, but as climbing becomes more apparent, the community grows with it,” Taft says. “I’m hoping that as the community grows, we’ll get more people to come out, get involved and come together as a community to open more spots.”