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Pictured Rocks, Iowa – Rock Climbing

Outdoor Rock Climbing in Iowa

Where do you go outdoor rock climbing in Iowa? What can you possibly climb (other than at a gym) in this relatively flat midwestern state? Turns out there are quite a few places that still have exposed bluffs and cliffs worth bringing a rope along for. Iowa rock climbing areas include a few parks in the Driftless region of Iowa, including Backbone State Park, Pictured Rocks Park, as well as a few bouldering areas.

Pictured Rocks, Iowa Climbing

Iowa Outdoor Rock Climbing

Picture Rocks State Park, located near Monticello, IA features a plethora of maintained and bolted sport-climbing in Iowa limestone. There is a good variety of easier climbs and hard, challenging sport climbs. The location of the park is along bluffs by the Maquoketa River, so the surrounding areas drain into here and can leave the rock wet, muddy, and seeping for a few days after major rainstorms – so be prepared to occasionally pull on a pocket feature and come up with muddy hands. This place is best climbed at in the drier seasons such as fall and early winter.  

Equipment Needed for Sport Climbing

Climbing equipment is not provided by the park. The bolts and routes are periodically maintained by the Iowa Climber’s Coalition, but be aware you are climbing at your own risk and must evaluate your safety consistently. The basic sport-climbing setup includes the following equipment:

Quickdraws

Cleaning Gear: A personal anchor system or two slings, and locking carabiners

Harness

Climbing Rope

Belay Device

Helmet

Climbing Shoes

If you are not an experienced climber, consider hiring a guide service or finding an experienced mentor to evaluate your safety. Climbing is dangerous with no room for error and cannot be learned simply by reading online and watching video tutorials. Learning the ropes with an experienced climber allows for a second look at your safety systems and is paramount to a safe climbing experience

Chicago Wall & Gumby Walls – By the Parking Lot

The Chicago Wall & Gumby Walls are a short walk (not even a hike!) from the parking lot. Walk until you see a series of steps laid out on your right-hand side walking away from the car. These will take you to the Gumby Wall, which has a great introductory warm-up 5.7, among several harder climbs.

The Chicago Wall features a variety of harder climbs and is south of the boat launch.

Collins Wall, Wild Iowa Wall, Mild Iowa Walls – The Classics

Collin’s Wall, Wild Iowa & Mild Iowa walls are immediately accessible after hiking into the park along the Northbound trail from the parking lot. Do not miss this section of the park if you only come here once! This is where most of the climbing happens due to the easy approach and a variety of difficulties. Collin’s wall features several intermediate classics, as well as a traditionally protected crack climb if you brought a rack of protection. Wild Iowa wall is the next wall following the trail and features several challenging, but short climbs that you can project through without fear of not being able to finish. If you want immediate gratification for little effort, head over to Mild Iowa Wall which features two 5.8 grade climbs that offer somewhat challenging but relatively straight-forward climbing.

A Wall and the Comic Gallery – Some of the Park’s Tallest Climbs

Climbing at Iowa Pictured Rocks

This area features some of the tallest climbs in the park. It is one of my favorites, offering a choice of 5.10 + climbs that push you physically while offering a variety of sustained climbing similar to that of the Red River Gorge (except it’s limestone). The A-Wall features trick slab, long and dynamic movement often having to track hand and feet holds and some nice committing movement between bolts that finish at an inclined roof. The Comic Gallery has stellar overhung climbing that makes this park a definite classic.

Ice Cave Wall, Ship Rock & Flying Buttress

Further into the park, we reach what may be some of the “last” climbing sub-areas. Ice cave wall features one or two less-trafficked climbs, and Ship Rock has the classic “Tarzan” which is great for beginners, or for cold shoulder-season climbing days where you just can’t hang on to a 5.10 crimp-fest or any other thin, finger-numbing holds.

Windy Point

Did you get here much later in the day than you planned, and the east-facing walls are becoming a disadvantage without much sun? Or maybe you are looking for a West-ish facing wall in the early morning to beat the summer sun? Maybe you are not the kind of person who feels fulfilled by the shortest approach to climbs, and enjoys a bit of a hike? If any of these are considerations for your trip, Windy Point is a highly suggested destination within the park. It is only a 15-minute hike through to what is a really cool bluff situated amongst a meandering elbow in the river. The scenery, climbing, and lack of crowds make this place a real gem to get to, including the arete climb “Lesbian Knife Fight” and a stellar 5.9 right next to it, “Hollywood and Buck O’ Five”. Highly recommended to round out the experience at Pictured Rocks.

 

Nearby Places to Eat and Refuel

7 Hills Brewing Company
7 Hills Brewing Company

7 Hills brewing is an expansive brewery in a newly-remodeled warehouse space in the former printing district. It includes an expansive bar, a selection of cocktails made with local distillery vodka’s and whiskeys, as well as 7-Hill’s craft beers and a menu of delicious pub food. This brewery is one of the largest in the area and is worth a visit on the way home. 

Timmerman’s Supper Club

Looking to spend impress a significant other? Timmerman’s offers an upscale “supper club” experience with a panoramic glass wall overlooking the Mississippi River as it meanders. Great place to catch the sunset over a multi-course meal and drinks.