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North Tahoe

A Rock Climber's Guide

By Josh Horniak

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North Tahoe Guidebook


Situated near the north end of the Sierra Nevada mountain range, the Tahoe region is a dramatic and geologically diverse area that extends from the oak-dotted grasslands of the foothills to the rugged peaks along the crest. High mountaintops, colorful alpine meadows, majestic forests, swift rivers, clear lakes, blue skies, and rocky outcrops await those with an adventurous spirit and a love of nature. Offering activities like skiing, mountain biking, trail running, whitewater rafting, hiking, fishing, camping, and rock climbing, this year-round playground caters to all manner of outdoor enthusiasts. Those coming to climb will be especially delighted by a diverse collection of world-class climbing. The routes range from long, adventurous trad routes to brief, bouldery sport lines. Whether you like moderates, testpieces, overhangs, slabs, or cracks, with more than 1400 routes to choose from, there is something here for everyone.

The Climbing Areas

This guidebook has been divided into seven chapters, each covering a different climbing area in detail.

  • Auburn Quarry aka Cave Valley - A newly developed limestone sport-climbing area. Ideal for winter climbing when the rest of Tahoe is under snow. Single- and multi-pitch face climbing in a pleasant locale.
  • Bowman Area Crags - The most extensive sport-climbing area in the guidebook. More than 250 routes with difficulties ranging from 5.6 to 5.13.
  • I-80 Corridor Crags - The largest region in the guide, offering a potpourri of smaller cragging venues with differing elevations, exposures, and styles.
  • Donner Pass - The centerpiece of the North Tahoe region. World-class single- and multi-pitch climbs in a beautiful alpine environment overlooking Donner Lake. Novice to expert level sport and trad routes with quick, easy access.
  • Cold Stream Canyon - A remote and pristine cragging location with a car-crushing approach. Home to a nice concentration of crack and face climbs. Some of the best 5.11 and 5.12 routes around.
  • Truckee River Canyon - An unusual combination of granite, tuff, and basalt outcrops that offer a variety of mostly single-pitch sport and trad routes. Overall, the steepest climbing in the guide.
  • North Shore Crags - Home to a number of small and extremely convenient venues with iconic views of Lake Tahoe. Primarily short routes that are generally toprope friendly, with fast and easy access.

About this Guidebook

This guidebook covers a broad geographical region in the vicinity of North Lake Tahoe, between Auburn, California to the west and Reno, Nevada to the east. The book describes more than 1400 rock climbs, which span the full spectrum of climbing styles and grades, from multi-pitch traditional adventures to clip-and-go sport climbs. Information on all the classic and previously documented areas, such as Donner Pass, Big Chief, Rainbow, and Indian Springs, has been thoroughly researched and expanded, to include pitch length, grade, gear recommendations, and a description of each climb, as well as detailed approach and descent options. The new and previously undocumented areas of Bowman Valley, The Emeralds, and Cold Stream Canyon – each area alone containing hundreds of climbs developed by dedicated locals during the last ten years – are included for the first time in print.
The information in this guidebook has been compiled from first-hand experience during my 25-plus years of climbing in the Tahoe area. To bring the climbing community a full and accurate accounting of the many exceptional routes the area has to offer, I have personally climbed nearly every pitch in this book. It is my hope that this guide will not simply chronicle North Tahoe’s climbing but also will inspire a greater appreciation and love for this exceptional region.
Supporting material for this guidebook can be found at the website www.tahoeclimbing.com. This material includes interactive maps, route and area updates, access issues, alerts, and guidebook corrections.

When to Come

The optimal climbing season varies at each climbing area, depending on the elevation and orientation of the cliffs. Generally, the summer and fall offer the most favorable climbing conditions, followed by spring and then winter. See area introductions for more specific details.


Early spring weather can be variable. However, as summer approaches, expect sunny, clear skies and pleasant, cool temps. At the higher elevations, winter usually relents sometime in late April to early May, but it is not uncommon for significant snowpack to remain until early June. South-facing crags with roadside access, of which there are many, are good early-season venues. The lower-elevation crags, like Auburn Quarry and River Rock, are also good options at this time of year. Higher in the mountains, the climbing areas of Twin Crags, Road Cut, Black Wall, Indian Springs, and The Emeralds tend to be the first to come into condition.


During the summer months, clear, sunny weather is almost guaranteed. As the summer progresses, however, temperatures can rise above the mid-80s, exceeding comfortable climbing conditions. Fortunately, as most climbing areas reside between 5,000' and 7,000' in elevation, a light breeze can keep a shady crag comfortable (or downright chilly) even at the height of summer.
In the late summer, severe thunderstorms can form over the Lake Tahoe region. Usually forming in the afternoon, the storms bring gusty winds, hail, flash floods, and lightning. Always get the latest forecast before departing for a climbing area. If thunderstorms do develop, get off the mountaintop and seek shelter.


Autumn is a stellar time to visit Tahoe. The temperatures, cool and crisp, are perfect for sending, and the weather is fairly stable. Summer vacation is over, the crowds have left, and the mountains become tranquil. One can expect excellent, dry conditions until late October.


Nearly all of the annual precipitation recorded in the North Tahoe region comes between the end of October and the beginning of May. Fortunately, the storm periods are generally brief, lasting from a few days to little more than a week, and are interspersed with fair conditions that can prevail for as long as three or four weeks. During these breaks, lower-elevation crags such as Auburn Quarry and River Rock are good options. At the higher elevations, much of the precipitation falls as snow, which sticks around until the spring. However, during drier winters, Twin Crags, Road Cut, Black Wall, Indian Springs, or The Emeralds may be in good climbing condition.

Where to Stay

The Tahoe region is a popular destination with many hotels, cabins, B&Bs, as well as campsites. Due to the vast assortment of options and the ever-changing landscape of availability, lodging information and recommendations are beyond the scope of this book.


There are numerous established campgrounds in the North Tahoe region, which are readily found on the Internet. This guide offers recommendations in some of the chapter or area introductions regarding dispersed camping when appropriate.

The camping season in Tahoe National Forest runs from Memorial Day through Labor Day, although some campgrounds remain open for public use outside of this period. With few exceptions, camping is limited to fourteen days per year within each campground. Dispersed camping (camping outside of developed campgrounds) is limited to fourteen days per Ranger District. Dispersed camping is not available on all forest land. For example, dispersed camping is not permitted in the Lake Tahoe basin. Check the local Ranger District to inquire about permissible locations.
Campfire permits are not required in designated recreation sites. However, a permit is required for all camping and cooking fires on undeveloped National Forest land. In periods of high fire danger, fire restrictions will be in effect. Check on current fire conditions with a Ranger Station before your outing.

For information regarding public campgrounds, use the following two phone numbers:
California State Parks 800-444-7275
The U.S. Forest Service 800-280-2267


Never before has access been such an important issue; participation in the sport of rock climbing has been increasing rapidly. The impact is visible: fixed protection on the cliff, trampled vegetation at the base, trail erosion, packed parking lots, garbage, human and pet feces, and noise. It is extremely important that climbers act responsibly and not abuse the access granted. Always keep an eye open for current details about crag access and restrictions: on the Internet, on signs, and from the climbing community. When relevant, detailed access information is included in each area's introduction and should be strictly observed. There is no formal access agreement for many of the climbing areas included here. Inclusion of a crag in this guide does not guarantee right of access but merely represents a description of the climbing history of that particular area. It is your responsible behavior and respect for existing access guidelines that will ensure future access.

Land Ownership

The North Tahoe area is made up of a patchwork of both public and private lands. Most of the climbing described in this book lies within the boundaries of Tahoe National Forest, an area of more than 850,000 acres northwest of Lake Tahoe that is managed by the US Forest Service. The Lake Tahoe basin itself is not included within the Tahoe National Forest and is instead managed by the Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit. Both agencies are responsible for the conservation, preservation, and restoration of this area. However, it is your responsibility to leave the crag and surrounding area in the condition you found them, or better.

Climbing Advocacy

Get involved and help preserve future access by supporting organizations such as CRAGS, The Donner Land Trust, and The Access Fund. These organizations have a long history of supporting the Tahoe area through advocacy, land acquisition, conservation, and education. Take the time to learn about the issues facing the areas in which you recreate. Educate others on the importance of minimizing impact and respecting wild places. Volunteer or donate whenever possible, your participation and generosity are essential in preserving and protecting the Tahoe landscape.

Bird Restrictions

Large vertical cliffs are favored nesting habitats for peregrine falcons. In order to protect nesting birds from inadvertent disturbance or harassment, please refrain from climbing routes near an active aerie. The nesting period begins in early spring and ends in midsummer. Official cliff closures will be delimited by markers at the base of a crag, but pay attention to bird behavior first and foremost. Peregrines are territorial birds and will defend their nesting region aggressively by vocalizing, circling overhead, and diving at (and sometimes striking) intruders. If nesting activity or behavior is encountered, you should abandon the route you are on and climb elsewhere.


A growing problem is the lack of sanitary facilities near most of the climbing areas; try to plan ahead before heading out. Whenever possible, make the effort to use the available toilets. If an emergency arises, please go far from the cliff and bury your business well. Follow the "leave no trace" principles (www.lnt.org) and deposit solid waste in catholes 6 to 8 inches deep, at least 200 feet from water, camp and trails. Pack out toilet paper and hygiene products.

Road Conditions

Contact the local Ranger District for road closures due to snow.