I'll start by putting it out there: If I needed to become a sport climber, I'd be in the New River Gorge in West Virginia and (almost) not miss bouldering.  It's that good.

After last year's trip, like with Ten Sleep, we planned on spending more time in the NRG.  In Jeremy's words: "It's the best single pitch climbing I've ever done and I haven't even bouldered there yet!"

New River Gorge view from Endless Wall
Endless Wall, self explanatory.

The Rock and Geology

The NRG is composed of Nuttall sandstone, 98% quartz and harder than granite.  It's bullet hard.  It's like climbing on granite but with small, small crystals.  If climbing on granite and climbing on sandstone had offspring, it'd climb like Nuttall sandstone.

The NRG is a National River and one of the oldest in the world.  Erosion takes much longer than usual because the rock is so hard; the gorge is still only 900ft deep despite its age.  And unlike most rivers which fall to the bottom of their mountains as they flow and erode, the New River rose with the Appalachians and still follows its crest at 2000ft elevation.

New River Gorge Bridge
View from the NRG bridge.

The Climbing

The rock quality and movement are superb--it's technical, powerful, and varied.  We couldn't find areas that were chossy, which is often the case at other crags, where you get varied quality.  No matter where we went, it was like comparing the most amazing sport climbing we've ever done with slightly less than superb climbing.

It's the most bouldery rope climbing we've done but requires a lot of technique and finesse; being just a gym aficionado won't cut it.  You can't always muscle your way through the aretes and laybacks and very frequent hand/finger jams.  There's steep overhangs, face climbs, slabs, cracks, slopers, patina crimps, sloper crimps, sidepulls and you can bet on multiple of the above on each route.  You can have a bouldery start and then feel your stomach drop on exposed, slabby arete.  Your depth and breadth of climbing experience will be tested.  There's over 1600 routes, sport, trad, and mixed.  You're in heaven if you like to place gear (and we actually speak from experience--the trad was great).

New River Gorge Scenic Adult
Scenic Adult, 5.11c, Kaymoor. "One of the best routes I've ever done!" --multiple people in our party. It will test you on all types of movement in one climb.

Compared to Ten Sleep: I'd call Ten Sleep a destination climbing crag.  It's straight-up incredible fun, and somewhere we'll try to visit each year, and still sits in our top 3 North American sport climbing crags, but not something that'd entertain us as a home crag.  It won't scratch the power itch if you're a boulderer, and both of us prefer sandstone and granite to limestone.

Compared to the Red River Gorge: The Red has its gems, but caters to enduro, roof, gym-like climbing.  My eyes glassed over when people would say "the crux of the climb is pump management."  The New is more varied, more technical, and harder rock.  It's a shame the NRG is overshadowed by the RRG (but ssh, it's a great secret!).

Words of Caution

Don't go to the NRG if you want to add ticks to your list on your 1-week climbing trip.  You'll be hit in the head by a sledgehammer.  There's no vacation grades in the NRG; every send is legit and a proud send.  It will improve you as a climber.

The first bolts are insanely high, like at 20ft.  We actually ditched our 8ft stick clip and got a 16ft-er, and even then it was a reach for Jeremy.

New River Gorge bolt clipping technique
Practicing first bolt clipping technique.

The bolting's done by 6ft+ men, so I was told by a local.  Hanging draws was often reachy for Jeremy (5'9"), and I (5'4") would've had to venture into non-comfy or crux territory to hang draws.  It wasn't usually an issue unless I was attempting an onsight redpoint.  I rarely had trouble reaching clips once draws were in with the extra foot.

You won't z-clip here.  Unlike Ten Sleep, it's more committing, but for the most part well bolted to protect cruxes.  There's often 10-15ft runouts on easier climbing.  "80ft, 6 bolts" is common.

You'll probably hate yourself if you climb in the heat.  Sandstone + heat + humidity + very stiff grading will make you question your existence as a rock climber.

West Virginia?

Banjo and hillbilly jokes aside, West Virginia is gorgeous, especially around the NRG.  The trees are larger than you find on the Kentucky or North Carolina side, and there's no farmland to be seen.  At almost 2000ft elevation, the NRG is a bit more temperate than what you find in the rest of the Appalachians.

New River Gorge climbing approaches
Into the woods.

Fayetteville is surprisingly young and outdoorsy--half of town is outfitters for climbing, rafting, and mountain biking.  Fayetteville and the surrounding areas have a population of about 10,000.  There's local breweries and distilleries.  We got to the NRG in time for Bridge Day in October, the world's largest BASE jumping event.  Jumpers are allowed to take off from the 900ft-tall bridge, and upwards of 80,000 people come out to watch.

There's quite a few options for camping, mostly because of the river outfitters in the area.  We camped at the AAC campground, which is one of the most beautiful and well-built campgrounds we've ever stayed at.  If you're there for any length of time, it's worth getting an AAC membership for camping discounts ($20/night).

New River Gorge AAC campground
Hiding out in the woods in the AAC campground.

Photo time!

New River Gorge Area 51
Scoping out Area 51.
New River Gorge Endless Wall aretes
Arete lovers rejoice. There's endless aretes at Endless Wall. We loved them!
New River Gorge Idol Point Arete
View of Idol Point Arete 5.12a.
New River Gorge Great White Shark
Jonathan Guy on The Great White Shark 5.12c, Bubba City, reeling it in!
New River Gorge Under the Milky Way
Under the Milky Way 5.11d, Summersville Lake. The most technical arete I've ever done. Bouldery start to exposed, balancy, arete-straddling, "god I hope there's an 11d move if I just stand up with no hands."
New River Gorge Honeymoon Ladders
Scoping routes near the Honeymoon Ladders, Endless Wall.
New River Gorge Reckless Abandon
Reckless Abandon 5.11d, Summersville Lake. I dynoed on a rope)! I did the 11d variation, traversing left, using a super fun handjam to layback to pull around the corner. The direct is listed as 12a, but the crux is significantly easier if you're tall. Jeremy puts it at ~V5, I put it closer to V7. There's one known female ascent by a NRG local, who did it once, put it at 5.13, and hasn't been able to repeat it. I really wish guidebooks would point out wildly varying difficulty like this.
New River Gorge Michelin Man
Jonathan Guy on the super rad Michelin Man 5.11d, Bubba City. Climb the sloping rolls!
New River Gorge Summersville Lake
50ft boulder traverse at Summersville Lake. Helmet and harness helped less than a pad would have!
New River Gorge Apollo Reed
Jonathan Guy figuring out the moves on Apollo Reed 5.13a, Summersville Lake.
New River Gorge trad
We ate trad for breakfast. Well, we warmed up on easy trad a few days!
New River Gorge Driftwood Trail AAC Campground
 Driftwood Trail solo morning hike from the AAC campground.
New River Gorge Mutiny
Mutiny 5.11d, Summersville Lake. Awesome powerful arete climbing on pretty good holds. Last 2 bolts are slabby, balancy pressing against the arete on the left and crimping on the right (literally, I was doing thumb push-ups on the left).
New River Gorge Bullet the New Sky
Bullet the New Sky 5.12b, Endless Wall. My hardest lead yet! Easy-ish start to crux moves to pull around the arete, then sustained climbing, hugging and pinching the arete to anchors.

Other Top North American Climbing Destinations

To top my list, climbing destinations need to:

  • Have quantity of great rock quality and movement to justify a destination
  • Have a beautiful crag setting.  We climb in large part to escape the city and to enjoy the outdoors.  There are definitely ugly crags.
  • Have a comfy camping scene.  'Cuz we like glamping.  Camping for days on end in harsh, exposed conditions, or where camping is scarce, isn't fun.
  • Be close enough to essentials like showers and groceries.
  • Bonus: Cool local town.  You need rest days, and a place to chill and write blog posts is a big plus!

These locations fit the bill for everything.  Check the these links for my climbing guides: