A Day’s Drive: A Midwest Rock Climbing Guide
Rock climbing, both as a hobby and a workout, has exploded in recent years alongside the rise of functional fitness movements like November Project and Ninja Warrior. Yet Hoosiers might be surprised to learn that they need not travel to far-off locales to scale cliffs. Central Indiana alone sports three climbing gyms.
For newcomers to the sport, local adventure group DNK Presents kicks off its Indoor to Outdoor Rock Climbing Program on October 11. The program includes four instructional classes at Epic Climbing Gym and culminates in a weekend trip to the Red River Gorge in Kentucky.
Once you’re hooked on gym climbing, there will come a time when your hands itch for real rock. Modern gyms do their best, but they still can’t come close to the experience of climbing outdoors—the hike back to the crag, the bite of the rock, and the inevitable “Elvis leg” that comes when you suddenly realize you’re no longer in the controlled environment of a gym. But the swell of triumph when you top that boulder you’ve been struggling with for the last hour makes it all worth it. So where do you go to feel that rush? Here are a few places within a 5-hour drive of Indy:
Red River Gorge | Slade, Kentucky (4 hours)
The history of climbing at “The Red” stretches back decades. But over the past 10 years, the area has become known as a world-class destination for sport climbing. (This term describes what most people know as “climbing”—on a rope secured to anchors in the wall with someone belaying them to prevent falling. We’ll cover “bouldering” in a minute.)
The Red features dozens of crags and over 1,500 routes, ranging in difficulty from beginner to Chris Sharma. There are a handful of fantastic guidebooks to help you plan your climbs, but especially if you’re new to the sport, a guide or a group of more experienced friends are a must.
Where to Stay: As far as lodging and food are concerned, Miguel’s and the Red are practically synonymous. Miguel’s Pizza (1890 Natural Bridge Rd., Slade, KY, 606-663-1975) has acres of parade ground available to pitch your tent on. It’s only $3/day and also includes pay showers, bathrooms, and shelters where climbers gather and make their own meals.
Where to Eat: Eating Miguel’s after a day at the crag is a staple of the Red River Gorge climbing experience. Red River Rockhouse (4000 Route 11, Campton, KY, 606-668-6656) is another great place where you can grab some gastropub-style fare, with ingredients and beverages produced by local farmers and artisans.
Rest Day? Enjoy some good hiking and explore the various natural arches throughout the Red River Gorge. There’s also plenty of hiking, mountain biking, and quaint shops to keep you busy for days.
Holy Boulders | Pomona, Illinois (4.5 hours)
Thanks to the tireless efforts of the Illinois Climbers Association, southern Illinois sports one of the best bouldering locales in the Midwest. (Bouldering is climbing without ropes, typically no more than 20 feet from the ground, on boulders or smaller walls and rock formations. Climb with spotters and crash pads beneath you to be safe.)
The sandstone boulder field is at its best when temperatures start to drop in late September. Wear a nice puffy coat, gloves keep your hands warm between climbs, and enjoy the friction that comes from cool, dry temperatures. In fact, the ICA is holding Holy Boulders: The Fifth Testament, its annual competition on November 4th.
Where to Stay: You can find cozier lodging nearby in Murphysboro, but for the full experience, park at the Cedar Lake Trailhead, and hike the trail into the Shawnee National Forest. Look for a dispersed campsite with a fire ring. Since it’s a national forest, you can pitch your tent wherever you think looks nice. Just treat the woods with respect and leave no trace.
Where to Eat: Refuel with some tasty, authentic Mexican at Taqueria Pequena (105 S Appleknocker Dr, Cobden, IL, 618-893-1353), but keep in mind they’re cash only. There’s also the nearby Yellow Moon Café (110 North Front St., Cobden, IL, 618-893-2233) for some lighter fare, or Mase’s Place (5162 Hickory Ridge Rd., Pomona, IL, 618-684-8000), a small town version of Hard Rock Café with a better cook manning the grill.
Rest Day? Don’t forget to enjoy the fact that you’re climbing in the middle of southern Illinois wine country. Take a stroll on the Shawnee Wine Trail to experience some of the local wines.
Muscatatuck Park | North Vernon, Indiana (1.5 hours)
Just a short drive from Indy, Muscatatuck Park is a hidden gem in southeast Indiana—perfect for a quick day trip to grip some real stone. It’s one of the only legal climbing areas in the state, with walls and boulders cut from the famous southern Indiana limestone.
Also, there’s almost no approach. You park at Vinegar Mill, walk down some stairs, and the Heinousness Wall stretches out to your left. You’ll see plenty of chalk marks ticking off the common problems, but you can also just putz around on the wall for some easy, fun bouldering.
Where to Stay: Pitch a tent at the Muscatatuck Park campground (325 North State Highway #3, North Vernon, IN, 812-346-2953) for $15/night, or for a bit more, you can plug your camper or RV in at one of the 32 hook-up sites. The camp showers are warm, clean, and feel incredible after a long day of bouldering.
Where to Eat: Don’t leave town without grabbing a pie at Lakeside Wood Fire Pizza (4105 N St Hwy 3, North Vernon, 812-352-7854). And don’t skip the housemade ice cream while you’re there.
Rest Day? Muscatatuck Park isn’t far from Brown County, and is similarly beautiful during the autumn bouldering season. Hike along the riverside trail and take in some breathtaking views, or check out the nearby Calli Nature Preserve.