Owens River Gorge

California high adventure: Owens River Gorge; the rock climbing’s always great at the gorge
April, 2002
By Matt Riddle
(Note: No live link)

Whether the sun is scorching or a blizzard is raging, rock climbers are comfortable at Owens River Gorge. Of course, mild, sunny days work as well.

A five-mile-long cut in California’s Owens River Valley, less than 180 miles south of Reno, Owens River Gorge is the perfect staging ground for climbers of all types.

“People come here from all over the world,” said Peter Croft, a climbing pioneer and guide from Bishop, Calif. “For a sport climbing area, this is the best place for weather.”

Owens is renowned for sport climbing (where bolts and hangers are pre-drilled into the cliff face for safety). The Gorge boasts 500 sport routes and 100 traditional routes (when you place protective gear into cracks in the rock face). The majority of routes fall in the more-difficult category of 5.10, but they range from 5.6 (easy) to 5.13 (very difficult).

“We didn’t realize that it would become one of the most popular sport climbing areas in the West,” said Marty Lewis, a climber largely responsible for many of the routes in the Gorge and author of “Owens River Gorge Climbs.”

The first climbers came to the Gorge in 1988, Lewis said, and his first trip into the Gorge was in 1989 when the Gorge was different.
“It was pretty desolate,” Lewis said.

Croft agreed.

“It was a pretty bleak place,” he said.

In the 1950s, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power pumped out the water from Owen’s River before it made it to the Gorge. Then, after climbers had been venturing into the Gorge, the DWP decided to let the river flow free again in an agreement with Mono County.

Now everything from lillies to oak trees have taken up root. The river is stocked with fish and a variety of wildlife can be seen in the Gorge.

“The fact that the river has come back has changed everything,” Croft said.

“I like it a whole lot more.”

Once the potential for the Gorge was realized in the early 1990s, climbers began to frequent the Gorge more and more.

“Attitudes changed and people realized it was a good place,” Lewis said. “We were just doing it for fun.”

What’s available

With the plethora of routes in the Gorge, climbers of any level will be happy there. For beginners and those trying to shed a layer of winter climbing rust, head to Negress Wall and Training Wall. The two walls are side by side in the central Gorge area. They feature three 5.6 routes and seven routes between 5.7 and 5.9. This area is also the most popular climbing part, so don’t be surprised if you have to wait for a climb. If so, just head up or down the Gorge. More difficult sport climbing can be found at the Great Wall of China or the Pub Area in the central Gorge.

“I like the safety of the bolts,” said Ken Letwin of Rancho Palos Verdes, Calif. “(Also) a lot of California climbing isn’t vertical.”

Letwin was making a stop on his birthday at the Gorge. He and his wife, Deb, and their two children, Amy, 9, and Luke, 5, were skiing at Mammoth Mountain, just north at Mammoth Lakes, Calif.

“It can be kid-friendly,” Deb Letwin said. “The weather is pretty good, too.”

There is an outhouse at the foot of the central Gorge trail, right at the base of Negress Wall. The Access Fund, a non-profit climbing organization, built it to appease the DWP. Remember, Owens River water comes out of a faucet somewhere in Los Angeles.

Traditional climbers can enjoy the Gorge as well. In addition to the more than 100 traditional routes, there are several mixed routes, where both traditional equipment and sport is needed.

Take care

For Gorge climbing, rock trundling is very easy. The upper rims of the Gorge are loaded with loose boulders ready for a shove to send them rocketing down onto to unsuspecting climbers. Stay on the trails.

Depending on the time of year, you might come across a nuisance plant: Stinging nettles. It’s short, dark green and leafy. With one brush on the skin, you’ll know within seconds that you touched it. But it is only a slight sting.

Rock climbing is inherently dangerous. If you aren’t familiar with rock climbing, consult a guide or take a class at a rock gym, like RockSport in Sparks.

Caption: Photos by Matt Riddle/Special to the Reno Gazette-Journal
Caption: CLIMB ON: Deb Letwin of Rancho Palos Verdes, Calif., climbs 5.6
Clip Jr. It’s a popular beginner climb at Warm Up Wall.
Caption: THE JOURNEY: David Hartley of Reno ventures down the Upper Gorge
approach on his way to an afternoon of climbing in Owens River Gorge.

If you go

o Directions: Take U.S. Highway 395 south past Mammoth Lakes, Calif. As you approach Bishop, take the Paradise exit east. After a couple hundred yards, turn left on Gorge Road. You will pass three parking areas within six miles. The road is paved, but the parking lots are dirt.

o The approach: The lower parking lot has the most family-friendly approach. The middle power plant road approach is an easy 1.5 mile paved road to the bottom of the Gorge. The central gully approach is the quickest and most used, however, it’s only for the fit. It’s steep with many lose rocks that can be easily dislodged. The upper Gorge is the most recommended. With only a short, steep part, the rest is easy trail.

o Camping: The DWP owns the Gorge and surrounding property. It doesn’t allow camping anywhere near the Gorge, but there are several free and pay campgrounds north and south of the Gorge. To the south, a free camping area is off of Pleasant Valley Road. There is also another free camping area just north of the Gorge at Pinion Site.

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