When winter approaches and the temps cool down, climbers from the Front Range flock to the warm weather haven of Shelf Road. This limestone mecca has so much to offer that you can always find excellent rock climbing at Shelf Road.
From November through early May, Shelf Road comes to life. 60-degree sunny days are a common occurrence. There’s nothing quite like climbing in a sports bra in January. For this sun-lover, it’s simply heaven.
Each winter, climbers transition from the cracks at Indian Creek and the canyons of the Colorado foothills to some of the best limestone in the country. In fact, as one of the best climbing areas in Colorado, Shelf is locally treasured by climbers all over the Front Range.
It’s not uncommon to find me here on the weekend. And with thousands of routes, I’ve spent several years investigating the best Shelf Road rock climbing.
About This Guide to Rock Climbing at Shelf Road
Be in the know and climb like a local. With an entire blog dedicated to getting outside just like a local, I’ve got you covered with this comprehensive guide to rock climbing at Shelf Road. Here’s what we’ll cover:
- Basics for rock climbing at Shelf Road
- The best climbing areas at Shelf Road
- Camping options
- Where to find the best food nearby
- Additional tips and tricks
Shelf Road Basics
Shelf Road is located near Cañon City, about 2.5 hours south of Denver. It’s a beautiful area featuring limestone cliffs, so expect lots of pocket-pulling. Shelf is almost completely sport climbing – trad climbing here is dangerous due to brittle limestone – and there is a small section of boulders as well.
The trails to the crags are some of my favorite. Forget about those loose, sketchy, tiresome climbers trails. Shelf Road climbing access is well-developed and easy to navigate.
Shelf Road is very dog-friendly, so bring your furry crag buddy along! Just be aware that there is a lot of cactus around, so watch out for your dogs getting a paw or faceful of spines – and watch yourself, too!
Local Tip: The rock at Shelf is sharp, so be sure to bring your hand salve if you’re planning to spend a few days there.
Best Climbing Areas at Shelf Road
The vast expanse of Shelf Road rock is split into lots of areas, and some of these crags are pretty huge. Because each area encompasses a lot of climbs, you’ll find routes for a variety of grade levels at most crags. Here are some of the best areas to climb at Shelf Road:
With a huge range of great climbs, The Bank is one of the most popular areas at Shelf Road. This means it is also usually super busy! But since there are so many climbs, you can just keep walking down the cliff band until you find something open that looks fun.
Jasonbecker.com (5.10-) offers fun moves to introduce yourself to climbing at The Bank. Gen X ation aka Musso Route (5.10d) provides sustained 5.10 climbing on a great face.
Maybe the most classic climb at The Bank is Number 1 Super Guy (5.11a) which has an incredible – and photogenic – roof section. Lime Street (5.11b) is a more technical 5.11 with a burly compression finish, and No Rest For the Wicked (5.12a/b) is an excellent climb if you want to push your grade into the 12s.
When you start walking from The Bank parking area, you’ll turn a corner and the road and see Cactus Cliff beckoning across the way. This area gets tons of sun and truly has something for everyone, from 5.7 to 5.14.
Crynoid Corner (5.7) is a cool dihedral at the end of the cliff that makes a wonderful beginner lead. For a fun warm-up, La Cholla Jackson (5.8) delivers. Three-Quarter Ton (5.10b/c) is a fantastic flaky climb that a 5.10 leader will love.
A crack climber stuck in a sport climbing area will feel right at home on I Claudius (5.11a). Use your strength on Muscle Beach (5.11a) or Lats Don’t Have Feelings (5.11d). Tits Up (5.12b) rewards fancy footwork while The French Are Here (5.12c) is more powerful.
Sand Gulch is a moderate paradise, with climbs ranging from 5.8-5.12. The area is split into a few different walls which face different directions, making it easy to seek out shade or sun.
Enterprise (5.9+) is an excellent warm-up before moving on to harder stuff. Suburbia is a stellar climb (5.10b/c), but be solid at the grade because the bolting can be heady. Metropolis (5.11d) starts hard right off the ground and is fun the whole way up. Freeform (5.12a) is a fantastic route that requires both strength and technique.
The Gallery is made up of Menses Prow, The Far Side, and Mural Wall. The Far Side and Menses Prow have more moderates, while Mural Wall is known for its 5.12 test pieces.
Check out First Blood (5.8) for a cool warm-up crack. Pueblos Gringos (5.10a/b) is super polished but super fun, while Menses (5.10d) lets you test your sloper technique. Flakeus Maximus (5.11a) is amazing, especially if you love crack. If you want to test your vertical 5.12 skills, The Mural (5.12b) is a classic.
Local Tip: Crack climbing at Shelf Road is a painful, sharp experience. Trad and sport climbers alike will grumble, but don’t fret – there are plenty of fun moves in between painful jams.
For climbs in the 5.11-5.12 range, The Gym is the place to be. It also has several 5.10s to warm up on, but it isn’t the best crag for beginners.
The Crack of Dawn (5.10b) could be a trad climb, but it’s bolted since it’s at Shelf. Crystal (5.11b) is super aesthetic, and The Raw and the Roasted (5.11) is a long route with awesome moves and varied climbing. The Gym Arete (5.12a) offers tough but great face climbing, and you can get your steep fix on The Ejection Seat (5.12b/c) and Head Cheese (5.12d).
Beginner Rock Climbing at Shelf Road
For the uninitiated, near-vertical walls with high first clips are a bit intimidating. Sometimes I come here just to be a top rope hero (especially while I was recovering from my climbing accident).
Shelf isn’t exactly the ideal place for your first outdoor lead. For that, I would check out climbing at Clear Creek Canyon instead. However, after you’re cozy outside, there are a lot of routes to get excited about. Alternatively, offer up your rope and bring along a more experienced friend. Everyone loves Shelf!
If you’re nervous, bring a stick clip. Some of the first bolts are dizzyingly high here. Stout moves off the ground can lead to deck falls. The good news is, falls are generally clean, so Shelf Road is a safer spot to really push yourself.
Menses. Cactus Cliff, and The Bank are the best areas for beginners. The Bank and Cactus Cliff see more traffic and many of the 5.8s and lower get pretty slick. Arrive early if you want to hang at Menses, most of the routes fill up quickly.
Grab the Shelf Road Rock Climbing Guide Book
Psst…I’ll let you in on a little secret. Mountain Project doesn’t do the best job with this area. There are simply too many climbs and not enough photos to get oriented. It’s best to use this guide to Shelf Road rock climbing and pick up a comprehensive guide book – Shelf Road Rock.
Use the Shelf Road Climbing guidebook to get oriented and stay found. You can always double-check with good old MP, but typically the info to get you oriented is sparse at best.
Camping at Shelf Road
You’ll find two main campgrounds at Shelf Road – The Bank and Sand Gulch. The Bank campground was expanded with an entirely new loop in 2019, nearly doubling the sites available. All the campsites at both campgrounds have picnic tables and fire rings. ($10 per night or $20 for the group site)
The two campgrounds are far enough away that you will need to drive from one to the other. If you’re climbing at The Bank or Cactus Cliff, The Bank Campground is where you’ll start your approach hike from. The Sand Gulch campground has the trailheads for Sand Gulch, The Far Side, and Menses Prow.
Local Tip: The Sand Gulch campground just has a single pit toilet for everyone, while The Bank campground has two pit toilets near the campground and an additional two at the large parking lot.
Where to Eat and What to Do in Cañon City
Cañon City is the closest town to Shelf, and though it’s pretty small, you can totally find some yummy places to eat or grab a beer. Pizza Madness is perfect for when you’re wrecked from climbing and want to stuff your face with cheesy goodness. Cañon City Brews & Bikes offer local beers on tap alongside burgers and sandwiches. And The Lost Cajun is great on a cold day when gumbo, jambalaya, or lobster bisque will really hit the spot.
If you need a rest day from climbing, but still want to spend time outside, visit Royal Gorge in Cañon City. The highest suspension bridge in the country spans the Arkansas River at 956 feet in the air. It is free to walk the bridge itself, and you can also pay for a gondola or zip line ride. Even the nearby hikes here offer up killer views.
More Tips for Rock Climbing Shelf Road
If you’re making your first visit to Shelf Road, here are some tips for getting the most out of your climbing trip:
- You can chase the sun or the shade. Depending on the weather, you can find crags with blazing sun or areas that won’t see the sun all day. The Bank, Cactus Cliff, and Menses Prow are great places for warm rock, while the Far Side and the Dark Side will keep you cool.
- Lots of different ways to approach crags. The layout of Shelf Road features many long cliff bands with valleys in between, so you can usually get to a crag from several directions. However, the easiest way is listed in the guidebook or sometimes on Mountain Project, so check those for the direct route.
- Approaches can get icy. Even when the rock is warm in the winter, the approaches can stay icy and muddy. It’s mostly not too bad, but microspikes can help, especially on the trail down to The Bank, which gets super slick.
- You can get cell service, depending on your provider. Unlike some climbing areas, which are black holes of cell reception, you can often get at least a little coverage at Shelf. Verizon seems to do better out here.
- There is another pit toilet at Cactus Cliff. In addition to the pit toilets at the campgrounds, there is one on the way to Cactus Cliff that is way less crowded.
- Speaking of cactus, be aware that they are everywhere! Shelf is a desert environment, so watch your step to avoid getting spines in your clothes and skin. And always scope out the ground before you set your rope down.
Rock climbing at Shelf Road lets you enjoy outdoor crags year-round in Colorado. Skip the Colorado climbing gyms, and head out for a day in the sun at Shelf instead.