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Home >> Climbing Areas >> Southwest Desert Towers Tuesday, June 25, 2024 

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Desert Towers Tips
Suggested first desert climbs
Suggested climbs for return trips
dSuggested Desert Towers rack

The SuperTopos
Desert Towers Select
Free SuperTopo to Primrose Dihedrals
Other SuperTopos

Desert Towers Beta
Check weather
Find a campsite or lodging in Moab
Desert climbing info
Get to Moab
When to climb around Moab
Gear and guides
Rest days

The tenuous summit of Ancient Art
Photo: Chris McNamara

Desert Towers Rock Climbing Info

The sandstone towers of the Colorado Plateau offer airy summits in a setting of unrivaled natural beauty. There is nothing as aesthetic as a slender sliver of chocolate sandstone and nothing as exhilarating as standing atop it. In the desert, summit glory comes easy. While mountaineers have to slog up 10,000-foot snowfields to get that glory, desert climbers jam up a couple of hundred feet of rock. Not a bad deal.

That said, sandstone climbing is not for everyone. Few tower routes are easier than 5.10 and the rock is soft and can resemble dried mud. The continuous parallel cracks require unfamiliar strenuous techniques; and you have to borrow gear from all your friends to find a rack big enough to climb safely. To get psyched for your trip to the desert, read Joe Puryear's ultimate desert road trip story.

Desert Towers Climbing Skills
Most of these towers are on Wingate sandstone. This rock is solid, for sandstone, but still potentially hazardous. Don't pull out on flakes, especially if it has rained or snowed recently. It is best to wait a day after a storm as the rock is weaker when wet. Watch for loose blocks in cracks and on ledges. Face holds may be rounded or sandy, and take some getting used to. Solid crack climbing skills are necessary. The cracks are generally vertical, have poor rests, and few face holds. The leader needs extra endurance to hang out in strenuous positions in order to place gear at least every 6 feet. Most climbers use athletic tape to protect their hands from abrasion.

Gear and Equipment
Sandstone cracks are mostly parallel-sided, which means they accept cams and often reject nuts and hexes. Although it's tempting to run it out to save strength, protection has been known to pull out of this rock, even from textbook placements. Be conservative, and borrow or buy enough gear so you can protect adequately. A basic tower rack is two-three sets of cams, from sub-finger to fist size, a set of wired nuts, and many slings. Each SuperTopo notes where other gear is needed. Two 50-meter or 60-meter ropes are standard for rappels. Always back up every anchor, including bolted anchors. While most of the classic desert climbs have good bolts, there is no such thing as an absolutely bomber bolt or cam in sandstone. Be cautious.

SuperTopo Free Climbing Rack For Desert Towers
Here's the rack we at SuperTopo bring when we climb Desert Towers. This is just to give you a general idea of what to bring.
1 set of BD stoppers
1 set of DMM Peenuts

1 ea HB offset brass nuts
2 sets of Metolius Master Cams to #5
1 set of offset-Aliens (1.75”)
2-4 sets of Black Diamond Camalots #0.5-3
1-2 each of Black Diamond Camalots #4 and #5
1 60m x 10.2mm lead rope
1 60m x 7.7mm rappel rope

BD Oz quickdraws and 20 extra lightweight biners
10 shoulder length slings
climbing harness

Petzl Gri Gri 2 or Trango Cinch belay device
Petzl Reverso 4 belay device
approach shoes
free climbing shoes
Meteor or Half Dome helmet
single gear sling

Metolius belay gloves


Non-Climbing Gear
If the route does not have a lot of chimney, I use a hydration pack. Long pants and good approach shoes or boots are strongly recommended for the often cactus-filled approach trails and the bushwacking descents. Sunscreen and sun hats for warmer periods, and warm gear and rain gear for anytime in the late fall through spring, where you can expect anything from hot periods to rain or snow. Don't forget the headlamp! On multi-pitch routes, many people get hung up behind slow parties or take longer on the descent than they expect. A headlamp is essential to get out of the canyons if it gets dark. A small knife is handy to remove old webbing at rappels. A cell phone could potentially save your partners life in an emergency. A small GPS device will help you find the crags and parking. Don't forget the camera!

Good First Desert Climbs
There are no easy climbs in the desert but the following list will introduce you to some of the more moderate climbs in the Moab Area. All these climbs in our Desert Towers Select guidebook. We encourage you to check out the FREE SuperTopo of Primrose Dihedrals to get psyched for a desert adventure.

Off Balanced Rock
One of the most incredible moderate chimneys in the desert.
Entry Fee
A good introduction to Fisher Tower rock and protection. Short, but bold.
Ancient Art
5.8 A0
Probably the most exhilarating summit in the desert and many people's first multi-pitch desert tower.
Otto's Route
The easiest significant desert tower. Wild moves on drilled pockets and chopped steps.
Owl Rock
Located right off the road in beautiful Arches National Park, Owl Rock is fun, popular and the easiest tower in canyon country.
Leapin' Lizards
Toprope this climb after climbing Entry Fee. A good way to get comfortable with Fisher Tower rock.

Chinese Eyes

Also in Arches, this challenging route ascends a left-facing corner with fingers, hands to (brief) squeeze.
Three Penguins
Incredible rock, relative to other Arches climbs with steep and sustained hand jams to offwidth.

Good Climbs for Returning Desert Climbers
Once warmed up to desert climbing, you may want to expand your tick list to the climbs listed below. All of these climbs are part of Desert Towers Select guidebook.

Castleton Tower, North Chimney 
Perhaps the easiest route on a major tower and the first pitch may be the best 5.9 in the desert.
  Even with numerous wide cracks, this classic route offers sunny exposure, good ledges, history, and fun climbing.
Jah Man
Great, varied climbing and a narrow summit make this an unheralded desert classic.
Fine Jade
One of the finest tower climbs. Although there are many cruxes, you will be rewarded with grand views of Castleton Tower and the La Sals Mountains.
Lightning Bolt Cracks 
This popular route follows excellent sandstone to a spectacular isolated spire.
Primrose Dihedrals
Located in the remote heart of Canyonlands National Park, this route is one of the most rewarding you will ever do.

The Big Bend Boulders offer the best bouldering near Moab. Located just after mile marker 8 on Highway 191, the boulders range from 10-20' tall and contain problems in the V0-V10 range. No guidebook is available so you'll just have to climb what looks fun. The Crack House offers one of the longer and stouter crack boulder problems anywhere. This problem is not published in a guide so go to Pagan Mountaineering and ask Brian or Janine for a handdrawn map.

Leave No Trace
Most of the towers described in Desert Towers Select are on public land, with the exception of the routes in Canyonlands and Arches, which are outside national parks and thus have limited regulation. Don't abuse this situation. Never drive off-road and when hiking stay on approach trails and off the crunchy, black cryptobiotic soil and vegetation. Don't add fixed pro and keep your rack from scraping against the rock. While rappelling or belaying, prevent your ropes from carving grooves in the rock. Rappel slings wear out quickly in this environment; be prepared to replace them with rock-colored webbing. Pitons destroy sandstone. All free climbs are 100 percent hammerless and most popular aid climbs should be done clean as well. Placing pitons or bolts, or leaving gear on a route, is illegal in Canyonlands National Park (Moses). Camp at established sites and minimize use of fires.

Castleton Tower access needs your help.
Photo: Grant Collier

Moab Essentials
The center of the universe for desert climbers is Moab, Utah, a former uranium-mining backwater, resurrected as a tourism and mountain-biking mecca. The Moab scene can seem antithetical to the desert experience on busy spring and fall weekends. Nevertheless, the town's services and modest nightlife make it a destination on most desert climbing trips, and there's no denying its spectacular setting.

Getting There
Moab is in southeastern Utah, along US 191, about 30 miles south of I-70 (view map)

Air Travel. Moab has a small airport, about 15 minutes north of town, with pricey scheduled flights to Salt Lake City. The closest larger airport is the Walker Field Airport in Grand Junction, Colorado, about two hours drive. Most people fly into the less expensive Salt Lake City airport and rent a car for the four hour drive to Moab. The next closest major airport is in Las Vegas, a seven hour drive to Moab.

Car Travel. A car or truck is essential in the desert and the best place to rent a car is in Salt Lake City. Note that 4WD is not necessary, but some towers can be reached only with high-clearance vehicles. The topos in Desert Towers Select indicate clearly when a high-clearance vehicle is necessary.

Distances from:

Salt Lake City, UT: 4 hours
Denver, CO: 7 hours
Las Vegas, NV: 7 hours
Los Angeles, CA: 12 hours
Bishop, CA: 11 hours
San Francisco, CA: 18 hours

When to Climb
Spring and Fall offer the best climbing conditions. Winters are unpredictable and summers are scorching. Temperatures in the sun and shade differ dramatically. With no wind, 65° in the shade can mean 100° in the direct sun. Always bring plenty of warm clothes and water.

Fall: Climbing temperatures are often ideal from mid-September to mid-November with temperatures ranging from high-80s to mid-60s. It can be scorching in September, but few storms will be encountered.

Winter: Winters can be extremely cold, but climbable days do appear. Before heading to Moab, check the weather to make sure that the temperature is at least 60° for climbing towers and 50° for the crags, boulders, and Indian Creek. Snowstorms are frequent and may last for days. Nighttime temperatures dip well below freezing even in the best winter conditions although the area usually doesn't get more than a few feet of snow each winter.

Spring: Daytime temperatures begin to climb into the 60s and 70s in March. However, cold nights and possible snow can be expected into early April. Mid-April to mid-May offer good climbing temperatures, with more frequent wind and rain than in the fall.

Summer: Temperatures hover around 100°, but early morning ascents of towers are possible. Climb elsewhere.

Moab weather—five day forecast for Moab
Arches National Park weather—five day forecast for Arches or call Arches National Park at (435) 719-2299

Staying in Moab
Depending on the season, Moab is a great place to hang out. Climbers and mountain-bikers crowd the town in the spring and fall. Even the hot summers attract many tourists. Great camping abounds and motels are relatively cheap during the freezing cold winters.

Free camping off Potash Road.
Photo: Chris McNamara

There are a many commercial campgrounds in Moab, but most climbers camp near the approaches to their routes. The most popular spots are on the Potash Road/ Highway 279, less than ten minutes from Moab and right near the Wall Street climbing area. The road receives moderate traffic but is otherwise in a beautiful setting with each campsite up against a 100-400' wall. Sites are usually packed during peak season. Of those, about ten sites have privacy while the rest are right near the road. Directions: from Moab, drive North on 191 for a few minutes and turn left onto the Potash Road/Highway 279. After 4.1 miles you will pass the Jaycee Campround ($15, pit toilet, no water). At 5.5 miles you reach the Williams Bottom Camping Area ($10, pit toliet, no water, 17 sites). At 10.2 miles you reach the Gold Bar Campground ($10, pit toliet, no water, 5 campsites).

Other camping is available off Kane Creek Road, Highway 128 (the River Road) or Highway 313 (the road to Island in the Sky). Most of these have facilities such as picnic tables and toilets and charge $15 per site; none have water. Camping near Moses tower requires a backcountry permit from Canyonlands National Park ($10 or $30, depending on the site; call 435-259-4351 for details); many climbers prefer to camp just outside the park boundary along the approach drive.

Motels and Hostel
Moab has thousands of motel rooms. Expect to pay at least $65 for a double in peak season (spring and fall), and as little as $30 in winter. No-vacancy signs may be posted on spring and fall weekends. The Red Stone Inn (535 South Main Street; 800-772-1972) has HBO, laundry, and kitchenettes. The Adventure Inn (512 North Main Street; 435-259-6122) is climber-owned and has a friendly staff. Starting at $12 a night, Lazy Lizard Hostel is the cheapest way to get a roof over your head. It is located at the southern outskirts of town, east of U.S. 191.

Moab has dozens of descent restaurants and many fast food chains. In the winter months fresh, quality food is scarce. The Red Rock Bakery (74 South Main Street; 435-259-5941) has scones, excellent cinnamon rolls, good coffee, and also features local artists. The Moab Diner (189 South Main Street; 435-259-4006) is a typical greasy spoon with moderate prices. The cool funky, EklectiCafe (352 North Main Street; 435-259-6896) serves the best coffee and town and healthy, tasty breakfasts. Fat City Smokehouse (36 South 100 West; 435-259-4302) is a great, moderately priced steakhouse and the local hangout. Eddie McStiff's (57 South Main Street; 435-259-2337) is a favorite brewpub and has good pizza and pool tables; although it is a bit pricey. The other brewpub in town, the Moab Brewery (686 South Main Street; 435-259-6333) has good beer and typical pub fare. Alfonzo's (Main St. at south end of town), has the cheapest Mexican food.  The Subway (299 South Main Street; 435-259-SUBS) has reasonably healthy and inexpensive alternatives to burger joints. Also recommended are the Jailhouse Cafe, and the Branding Iron steakhouse.

The Fisher Towers from the road.
Photo: Lee Bergfeld

City Market
(425 South Main Street; 435-259-5181) near the south end of Moab, is the only grocery store and has beer and a good, cheap salad bar. The State Liquor Store (55 West 200 South Street) has the best (only) booze selection.

You can fill bottles at many gas stations and the Arches National Park visitor center. A popular spring, with a healthy flow of clean water, spurts from a pipe in a sandstone wall on the south side of Highway 128 (the River Road), just a few hundred yards from US 191.

Other Services
Moab has a few banks, a post office, and a laundromat.

Climbing Gear and Climbing Guides
The best selection of gear and climbing beta is at Pagan Mountaineering (59 S. Main St. #2; 435-259-1117). Moab Desert Adventures is the main guide service and offers group trips and private guiding to climbs and canyons within a two hours of Moab. Moab Cliffs and Canyons is another guide service in the area.

Approaching the offwidth on Chinese Eyes.
Photo: Chris McNamara

Rest Days
Moab is one of the world capitals of mountain biking. Dozens of great rides ring the town, but if you have time for only one ride, check out the Slickrock Trail. It's incredibly overcrowded, but those roller-coaster petrified dunes are a unique and wonderful experience. Great hiking is also plentiful. Check out the crowded Arches National Park hikes such as Delicate Arch or the Devils Garden. They're popular for a reason. Other good half-day hikes near Moab include Negro Bill Canyon (Highway 128), Corona Arch (Potash Road) and Hunter and Kane canyons (Kane Creek Road).The Needles District of Canyonlands, just past Indian Creek, offers awesome multi-colored rock, trails winding along ledges on the sides of cliffs, and excellent long dayhikes/short backpacks like the Joint Trail. Backcountry skiing is possible in the winter in the La Sals mountains east of Moab. For awe-inspiring views of nearly unlimited climbing potential, drive to Deadhorse Point State Park or Grandview Point in Canyonlands National Park.

Nearby Climbing Areas
Indian Creek: One of the best crack-climbing areas in the universe. Unfortunately most climbs are 5.10 to 5.12 (bring a ropegun!)
Wall Street: Located off the Potash Road, this is one of the few cragging areas that can be considered too convenient as you are almost belaying on the road (watch out for big rigs). Great mixture of crack and face climbs and most people's introduction to the area's sandstone.
Mill Creek: The prime sport-climbing in the area with excellent edging up black sandstone. A great escape from the summer heat.

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