Bouldering destination, Leavenworth, Washington is the most unexpected town outside of Slab City, California. Located along the scenic Cascade Highway #2 that bisects the state west to east, Leavenworth is a German-themed village that pops up practically out of nowhere amid the other small villages that dot the highway. Because of that, it’s a popular tourist attraction to see Washington’s very own Little Bavaria.
But while we climbers like our beer and brats, its 1000+ boulder problems set along the stunning Wenatchee River and Icicle Creek are an even bigger draw. Located on the edge of the dramatics Enchantment mountain range and Wenatchee granite mountains, Leavenworth holds a unique subset of granite called quartz batholith. This type of rock is gritty, textured, and bomber … except for the random schist veins.
The bouldering in Leavenworth is scattered across three main locations:
- Icicle Creek Canyon: The biggest bouldering area located between mile 3 and 9 of Icicle Road. The boulders are scattered across both sides of the road, stretching up into the mountains and down by Icicle Creek. Lots of variety to suit climbers of every ability. If you only have a few days, Forestland and Mad Meadows hold the densest concentration of climbing and claim home to many classic boulder problems.
- Tumwater Canyon: If you came into town from the west then you likely already passed by these boulders. Just north of Leavenworth, along 7 miles of Highway 2, you can find the boulders of Tumwater Canyon. Most are located right on the waters of the Wenatchee River, but a few of the areas span across the opposite side of the road. Check out Swiftwater for a great intro to Tumwater and with lots of grade variety to boot.
- Mountain Home Road: The smallest area with the least amount of traffic, Mountain Home Road lies just outside a residential area in the northeast foothills.
Leavenworth offers other tertiary locations, which one might call “alpine bouldering” spots. But these require a lot of stoke and planning to locate and approach.
The three main areas listed above have mild to moderate approaches. The best being practically car-side and the worst requiring approximately a 30-minute walk. Although you would be wise to include some time for getting lost, especially when hiking to The Airfield area.
In summertime and in the prime spring/fall seasons, you’ll likely run into lots of other climbers due to the density of most areas. The locals are friendly enough but often not as chatty as at other popular climbing areas, like the Buttermilks.
And when it comes to other climbers, make no mistake: people go to Leavenworth to climb, not socialize. Don’t mistake lack of interaction as standoffishness; it’s just dedication to the sport!
Specific description of climbing style
Leavenworth is best known for its bouldering. While there is a select amount of sport climbing on the low, rounded bluffs overhanging the bouldering areas of Icicle Canyon, it’s all relatively easy and uninspiring. While it might be a fun rest day activity, people generally don’t seek out Leavenworth for its sport climbs.
With luck, Boulders in Leavenworth is climbable an amazing 300 days out of the year. That said, the ideal season is the spring, after the snow melts but before temperatures get hot, and the fall, after the heat and humidity has left. Mid-September to October is the prime season for climbing in Leavenworth. Plus, you get to enjoy the best Oktoberfest outside of Germany!
Humidity can be high in the morning and late evening even in the fall. Mid-morning is a solid time of day for sending, after the humidity has dropped but before the midday heat rises.
If you’re there in the early prime season, right as summer faded into fall, be on the lookout for rattlesnakes lurking beneath the warm boulders. You might also spot some bull snakes around this time, which look similar but have no rattle, but fear not: the bull snakes are harmless.
Wenatchee Outdoors (an all-around great resource for all outdoor activities in the Wenatchee/ Leavenworth area) provides a great description and visual comparison of the two snakes. Well worth a look and read through before your trip to Leavenworth.
Rock climbing grade range
Leavenworth’s boulder problems range from V0-V14. Don’t worry, there’s only one of the latter … or should we say, ladder? That V14 is the famous Ladder Project that became The Penrose Step. The ladder is still even there.
But for those of us who don’t climb V14, Leavenworth has ample moderate and hard moderate climbs. Its shining grades are anything V4-V8.
Best local spot
Located right on the main highway into Leavenworth, not far past the Icicle Creek turnoff, you’ll find Good Mood Food —the go-to rest day or rainy day cafe. With its distinctly non-Bavarian flavor, it’s far enough off the tourist track to be a perfect rainy day hideaway with ample seating near outlets, free high-speed wifi, a full hot lunch menu, and really really good espresso.
Top boulders in Leavenworth
Schisthead (V2): One of those strange schist anomalies, this ultra-fun problem climbs up phenomenal holds to a huge, blind last move over the lip.
The Sleeping Lady (V2): Quite possibly one of the most photogenic climbs in Leavenworth, this bad boy hangs straight over the icy water of Icicle Creek. Scarily committing with a certainly wet and potentially fatal fall outcome.
The Sword (V3): High, fluid movements up jug crimps. One of the most secure highballs you’ll ever try.
The Real Thing (V4): One of Leavenworth’s first established problems (and thus a little stiff on the grade), this technical, crimp test-piece is perfect for getting you warmed up to the Leavenworth climbing style.
Tigerlily (V5): The single most aesthetic boulder in the area. This straight forward crimp line ascends perfectly horizontal cracks through a stripe-colored boulder.
Pimpsqueak (V8/9): Slap your way up an airy arete and then out onto the totally perpendicular roof of this upside-down L-shaped boulder.
Cremation of Care (V10): The descriptions in the guidebooks start with “OMG” and end with “bring, like, lots of pads.” A high and scare-all climb that powerfully squeezes up a beautiful blunt prow.
Turbulence (V12): If you climb the grade, this is a must-do problem tucked away down a rock slide on the banks of Icicle Creek. With a start nearly overhanging the water and a perfect rock shelf landing, there are no prettier hard-hards in Leavenworth.
How stiff is the grading?
In Kelly H. Sheridan’s guide book, he states,
I don’t care for grades […] In a perfect world, I would have ‘graded’ the beautiful climbs in this book like ski trails: green circles, blue squares, and black and double black diamonds.
That’s a pretty apt metaphor for the grading of the boulders in Leavenworth. It’s a bit all over the map. The unusual rock features yield a somewhat obtuse style of climbing. The grades here can be a tricky mistress. This is especially true of the lower grades. Don’t show up and expect to flash V3. Even the easier warm-up grades require a bit of creative thought and problem-solving. That said, some of the most stunning problems are the V4s that take you a couple of hours to figure out.
The upper grades are a bit more consistent but these problems are also a lot reachier. Be prepared to struggle a bit if you’re a hard climber on the shorter side.
Commitment is another factor that contributes to the somewhat stiff-feeling grades. A LOT of the moderates end with a crux dyno to the lip, so if busting big moves isn’t your thing, Leavenworth will feel harder.
Where to stay?
Hotels: Due to Leavenworth’s presence on the well-beaten retiree and tourist track, accommodation in town is well outside the budget of the average dirtbag. If you’re looking to stay in a hotel, you’re better off looking outside town toward Wenatchee and just making the small commute to climb.
RV Parks: Still expensive compared to RV parks in other locations. The cheapest RV park is the KOA on the east side of town behind the Safeway, but even that will cost you $22 per night. RV parks up Icicle Road are even more expensive, albeit they are a bit nicer than your average KOA.
Camping: Most of your camping is found up Icicle Canyon, and even that has been a contentious subject. Camping used to be allowed anywhere in the area, but it was then restricted to only the right side of the road (when driving up the canyon coming from Leavenworth). It’s a bit of a tossup as to whether to forest service has “No overnight camping” signs posted from year to year.
Either way, it is not considered ethical to camp at any of the boulders, so please do not think you can pitch your tent there.
If you’re having trouble finding a place to pitch your tent, there are two campgrounds up Icicle Road; Bridge Creek for $14 per night and Eight Mile for $16 per night. These are good options to fill up on drinking water even if you aren’t staying at the campground.
If you drive down the first road beyond Bridge Creek Campground, crossing the bridge and starting up the somewhat gnarly Mountaineers Creek Road, you can take the first right fork for the Bridge Creek Free Campsite (it’s not an official established site—just a large circular pullout with space enough for multiple cars. I think the name is pretty much given by the guidebook writer, as opposed to being an official FS title. It’s dusty from so much use and you may end up sharing, but hey, it’s free!
Vehicle Dwelling: By far the easiest way to live for free in Leavenworth! You can park in pretty much any of the pullouts along either Icicle Road without any issue. This includes the Forestland parking lot. For more remote and private parking, travel up Mountaineers Creek Road, just across the bridge from the Bridge Creek Campsite. This road isn’t the nicest to drive, but that generally means you’ll have a pretty easy time finding private spaces to park.
Avoid the major hiking trailheads, including both Fourth of July and Snow Creek, as the FSR doesn’t take too kindly to overnight parking there.
If you’re in a pinch in Leavenworth itself, the P6 parking lot on the west side of town allows overnight parking once in a seven day period. Always good to have a backup plan.
No matter where you end up parking, just be sure to be responsible with your waste and impact. Keep an easy vehicle dwelling possible for future visitors!
Best kept secret
Lion’s Head Park is a great place to relax in the town of Leavenworth and has public flushing toilets, a nice covered picnic spot, AND a local farmer’s market every Thursday night where you can snag some killer deals of fresh produce.
The park is located right next to the public library which is some of the only free parking in Leavenworth (although it is time-limited during certain hours). You can even access the free public wifi from the parking lot, which is pretty excellent for the dirtbag van dweller.
Other Leavenworth area beta
Crag Ethics: Please respect the strict ethics of the area. This means brushing your ticks marks, refraining from blasting music, and not smoking at the boulders.
Especially do your part to keep it clean. You’ll be hard-pressed to find climbing communities that have done more to preserve the sanctity and hygiene of their crags than Leavenworth. Thanks to the Leavenworth Mountain Association and Washington Climbers Coalition, organized crag cleanups are a regular occurrence. They also provide free port-a-potties at the parking spots for all the major climbing areas. If you can, donate to support these functions. If you can’t, at least use them for their intended purpose and do as guidebook author pleas:
Don’t make poopie in the boulders.
Nearby Rock Gyms: Leavenworth itself does not have a climbing gym, but the larger city of Wenatchee, just 20 miles east is home to the River Front Rock Gym. A modestly-sized laid back gym with both bouldering, sport, and training facilities. This is a great place to go if you need to get in some campus boarding during a string of rainy days.
They also have a cafe for you to sit, drink beer, and do some work if needed. Plus, their locker rooms are equipped with really nice showers, so it’s also a great way to kill two birds with one stone and snag a hot shower.
Now to you
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