A Quick and Dirty Guide to the Best Rock Climbing in Placer County

June 7, 2019

Northern California is home to some of the best rock climbing in the West, and Placer County is right in the heart of it. From sport climbing crags down in the Sierra foothills to adventurous multi-pitch routes on the higher peaks, the region has something for every type of climber. Rock climbing was one of the reasons I first moved to Placer County, and the region hasn’t disappointed. Even within the same county, every spot has a unique character worth exploring: Where else can you clip bolts in steep volcanic caves, spend hours on multi-pitch trad adventures, and top out 20-foot granite boulders within a one-hour drive? Consider this your local’s guide to the best rock climbing spots in Placer County, with insider tips on who will love it there and what to know before you go.

Donner Summit

When it comes to Placer County climbing, Donner Summit tops the list in terms of quality, quantity, and variety. This world-class destination features trad, multi-pitch trad, sport climbing, and bouldering on pristine granite all in one scenic location overlooking Donner Lake. Trad climbers will love the classic routes on Snowshed Wall, Black Wall, and Grouse Slabs. Those looking for premier sport routes will enjoy Star Wall, the Peanut Gallery, and Space Wall. Finally, any climber will find something to like at the more than 250 boulder problems scattered around School Rock, Grouse Slabs, and the famed Saddle Boulders.

You can get to most of the climbing from parking spots along Donner Pass Road, while a few dispersed walls are accessible via I-80 closer to Boreal Mountain Resort. The climbing season generally starts around May and ends in November, varying with each year’s snowfall.

Big Chief

You’ll find this collection of high-quality sport climbing crags in Tahoe National Forest along CA-89 between Truckee and Olympic Valley. Big Chief boasts the highest concentration of sport climbing in the Tahoe area, with more than 100 routes primarily in the 5.10 and 5.11 range. Big Chief’s well-bolted routes involve face climbing on heavily featured and blocky terrain. The volcanic rock cliffs offer a bit of everything, from overhanging caves to steep, technical slab. Climbers can get to the crags via Forest Service Road #6, open late spring or early summer (depending on the snowpack) through the fall.

The Emeralds

Situated along the clear-blue waters of Jordan Creek and Lake Spaulding near Emigrant Gap, The Emeralds climbing area features excellent sport routes in a sublime mountain setting. This is the place to be from March through December, especially on hot summer days when temperatures are peaking down in the foothills and an escape to cooler climbing weather—and world-class swimming holes—is top of mind. Climbers of all abilities can enjoy these vertical to overhanging granite cliffs: Sport routes in the 5.8 to 5.12 range dominate the lineup, with a few easier trad routes in the mix.

Cave Valley/Auburn Quarry

Long sport routes on grippy limestone cliffs make Cave Valley a local favorite for climbing in the foothills. Located in an old limestone quarry that’s now part of Auburn State Recreation Area, the crags were off limits to rock climbing from 2004 to 2012 until CRAGS (Climbing Resource Advocates for Greater Sacramento), the Access Fund, and local climbers joined forces to lift the ban. The 50 or so routes range from 5.6 to 5.12, with the majority in 5.10 and 5.11 territory. Climbs in the quarry involve technical face with large, blocky features as well as thin vertical slabs. Three miles from downtown Auburn, Cave Valley makes for a great climbing spot from fall through spring.

Rainbow Boulders

Just off I-80 between Cisco Grove and Kingvale, this collection of 14 high-quality granite boulders boasts the best bouldering in the county. With short approaches, few crowds, and a beautiful setting close to the Yuba River, the Rainbow Boulders are ideal for getting the Tahoe climbing feel without driving all the way into the Tahoe Basin. Rainbow has more than 80 boulder problems with a good spread of difficulty from V0 to V11, including some classic highball problems on Trigantor Boulder and Sugar Cube. Most of the boulders are a short walk from the Loch Leven Lakes Trailhead near the Rainbow exit of I-80. Moderate elevation keeps this area accessible May through November most years.

Deer Creek Park

Deer Creek Park offers a collection of easily accessible boulders in the town of Rocklin. This former granite quarry was converted into a community park that now attracts climbers with about 50 bouldering problems and a few top-rope routes. Problems are heavily concentrated in the V0 to V3 range, with a selection of harder problems up to V10. Its low elevation makes Deer Creek great for fall, winter, and spring climbing, though summer isn’t totally off limits thanks to generous shade. Deer Creek Park is located 20 miles east of Sacramento near the Rocklin Road exit of I-80. From the parking area, all the boulders are within a five-minute walk.

As always when visiting a climbing area, respect private property and check for seasonal climbing closures—like the raptor closures that affect parts of Cave Valley and Donner Summit each year. And, of course, remember to make a solid effort to Leave No Trace when you’re out enjoying the places we all want to keep clean.

Written by Jenna Herzog for Matcha in partnership with Visit Placer County and legally licensed through the Matcha publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to [email protected].

Featured image provided by Visit Placer County