Climbing in Eldorado Canyon

WORDS • SAM TAGGART

Look for chalk on the walls in Eldorado Canyon. Hidden to the untrained eye, whitewashed handholds shoot upward just off the road, dotting the sides of the towering sandstone spires until they dissolve out of sight. Like cairns on a hiking trail, these markings reveal climbing routes meant for testing yourself in one of Colorado’s most stunning state parks.

Here, only 30 miles from Denver, climbing routes are plentiful and the access is easy. Just steps from the parking lot begin a handful of ambitious, world-class climbs, while hundreds more lie waiting deeper into the canyon. From the ground, skyscraper walls of red rock tower up to 700 feet overhead, offering traditional, top rope and sport ascents in every direction. Passersby heading out on a day hike in the park can’t help but look upward in awe at climbers in the midst of a route; unbeknownst to them, they’re pointing out some of the most sought-after routes in North America.

Eldorado translates from Spanish as “a place of fabulous wealth or opportunity.” Ute Native Americans who lived in the mountains of Colorado sought respite and spiritual healing in the waters of the nearby hot springs; settlers in the 1800s established successful ranches, farms and small business, including major logging operations, in the shadow of the canyon; and, in the early 1900s—the canyon’s Golden Era of tourism—it was advertised to high-end visitors as the “Coney Island of the West,” offering two hotels, three swimming pools, two grand ballrooms, roller- and ice-skating rinks, cabins, stables and other attractions. In 1907, Eldorado Canyon saw roughly 40,000 people on any given day.

But it wasn’t until the 1960s that rock climbers began to flock to “Eldo,” as the locals say. Singlehandedly, Layton Kor, a committed free-climber ubiquitous in his era, seemed to be the one who brought the canyon just south of Boulder into the spotlight. Kor called Eldo his training ground, frequently practicing free-soloing, a type of climbing that avoids the use of ropes, harnesses and other safety measures, on routes that are now time-tested classics. Marking first ascents without the use of protective devices, Eldo prepared Kor for notorious climbs in locations such as Yosemite and Monument Valley, Rocky Mountain National Park and in the desert around Moab; meanwhile, it was just beginning to earn a reputation of its own in the climbing community.

Today, the diversity of single- and multi-pitch climbing in Eldo attracts a global clientele. Many of these visitors are top athletes yearning to ascend the plentiful slabs, cracks, chimneys, dihedrals and other cruxes found in the park. However, it’s the population of local climbers, ranging from beginner to expert, in Denver and the surrounding area that get to dive deeper than the rest; they’re the ones who have since popularized the more than 500 established routes strewn throughout the narrow, winding canyon.

For Kevin and Laura Capps, the never-ending list of climbing possibilities in Eldo made choosing a location for their permanent home and guiding business effortless. From their Golden, CO, household—just a 20 minute drive from the towering rock walls of Eldo—the Capps operate their company, Denver Mountain Guiding, which provides private lessons and guided adventures across Colorado’s Front Range. Living here, the Capps have organized their world around climbing experiences, both personal and professional and with access to top-tier ascents just a short drive from home, they wouldn’t have it any other way.

“Colorado, more specifically, the Front Range, offers so many areas with different types of rock and [climbing] styles,” says Kevin Capps. “When we go to Eldo, we like to trad climb and place gear; we usually climb stuff that’s a bitter taller, more multi-pitch climbs. Switching it up and doing different climbs is what keeps us so interested in this place. To dial a climb down and be able to send it to the top is really fun; but to be doing different styles of climbing is really ideal.”

Eldorado Canyon is a bona fide microcosm of Colorado climbing experiences. For determined athletes that want to attempt various types of climbing routes in a single day, beginner, intermediate and expert climbers will find plenty of suitable ascents; for visitors seeking heart-racing, multi-pitch climbs that top out to some of the most stunning views in the Front Range, there are classic routes pioneered by Kor and others who realized the bounty that Eldo provides. Specifically, the Wind Tower offers most of the prime beginner routes while the prominent Redgarden Wall, a 700-foot-tall monolith, boasts classic lines for various skill levels. On the Bastille buttress are more technical, steep climbs as well as one of the most popular, overhanging routes, coined “Your Mother,” featured in the video above.

Climbing in Eldo, is a transformative experience. Stepping between the walls of the canyon, with the churning waters of South Boulder Creek drowning out the noise of the outside world, visitors are immersed in a natural landscape that’s beenenticing visitors, such as the Ute Native Americans, since before the first settlers arrived in North America. Littered with history and tales of climbing greatness, it’s clear that what’s offered here continues to excite even the most experienced rock climbers.

Regarding the first ascents of Kor and others, Kevin Capps is still in awe at how they came to be. “Someone would just walk up to a climb without a rope or a harness and just scramble up it. You don’t’ see that as much anymore. It’s even more impressive considering on newer routes a lot of the holds can break more easily because no one’s touched them before.”

As hand holds are whitewashed with chalk in this renowned climbing destination, one thing remains: the challenges presented by these towering, vertical walls of rock persist, presenting climbers with the same feelings of fear and self-doubt faced by the pioneers of the area. “Eldo is a popular place to get scared,” says Capps. “I have a lot of memories of being really scared there, then overcoming that fear and switching my mindset to keep going.”

Eldorado Canyon is ripe with opportunity, where first-time climbers and veteran athletes can be tested amongst one of Colorado’s finest landscapes. Stunning views of the Continental Divide, the immersive sounds of South Boulder Creek, the comings and goings of families on hikes and climbers setting up at varying crags all add to its allure. By no means is this place hidden—rather, its proximity to Denver puts it right in the spotlight, right where it belongs.

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