Published on: 05/23/2023
What and Where Is Shelf Road?
The climbing area known as Shelf Road is a network of desert canyons in South-Central Colorado. With over 1,000 sport climbing routes of all difficulties and conveniently located to Denver and Colorado Springs, Shelf Road is a hugely popular destination known for sunny, year-round climbing conditions.
Brief History of Shelf Road Climbing
The rock climbing areas at Shelf Road are owned and managed by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM). The area was originally scouted, and a few traditionally developed routes were put up by rock climbing pioneer Harvey T. Carter in the early 1980s.
The first bolted route was reportedly hand drilled by Charlie Fowler and friends in 1985. However, serious development started the next year with the advent of new top-down bolting techniques imported from Europe.
Thanks to a devoted crew of local and visiting climbers, by 1990, all the major areas had been explored, and there were hundreds of new bolted sport climbs. New route development continues today, although at a slower pace.
Shelf Road Climate and Weather
The dry, semi-arid climate in the Cañon City area promises over 250 days of sunshine a year and winter high temperatures often in the 40-50 deg. F range (4 – 10 deg. C). That means large weekend crowds when other Colorado climbing spots are too cold or snowbound.
On the other hand, summer averages can be from the mid-80s to 100s. Generally, rock in the direct sun is difficult or impossible in those conditions. But most areas at Shelf have shaded climbs for at least part of the day so that you can climb here all year long with a little careful planning.
Types of Climbing at Shelf Road
Shelf Road contains one of Colorado’s largest concentrations of moderate sport climbing routes, with over 1,100 listed in Mountain Project and the top guidebook.
While you can find some 5.13 (7c+) testpieces on Shelf’s vertical limestone, the walls aren’t generally steep or long enough to set the burlier climbs you’ll see at Rifle Mountain Park or some of the top European limestone crags like Ceuse and Siurana.
That makes Shelf the perfect place for sport leaders seeking 5.7 (4c) to 5.12 (7a+) grades. The climbs here predominantly lie in this beginner to advanced intermediate range, where most recreational climbers also land.
The first routes in the Shelf area were climbed using traditional protection, and you’ll find a few trad climbs documented in the various guide books. Indeed, the limestone walls have many cracks and crack systems with fair to good gear placements.
However, the rock at Shelf is somewhat brittle, so smaller pieces in shallow placements have been known to blow out and fracture the limestone. There are certainly some fun and worthy trad routes at Shelf Rd, but most people visit here for the sport climbing.
Although Shelf is primarily a sport climbing destination, enticing limestone blocks are scattered here and there on the hillsides and canyon floors. A few of these boulders and problems have been documented in various guide books and online.
The highest concentration of blocks and boulder problems are located in the dry wash below the Bank area climbing walls. You’ll also find a few nice boulders in the Sand Gulch area.
Rock Type and Features
The rock at Shelf Road comprises limestone deposits from the bottom of a sea that existed for millions of years before the rise of the Ancestral Rocky Mountains. Water carved the canyons out of the limestone over time to create the hard, flaky, and sometimes crumbly features that often prove ideal for rock climbers.
As the limestone erodes, it forms pillars and corners, cracks, flakes, razor-sharp edges, and pockets varying from mono to full-hand size. The crags generally run within a few degrees of vertical, without any long, continuously overhanging walls. That means a lot of sustained, strenuous crimping with delicate but positive feet.
Climbers can find quality sport routes from 5.5 (4a) to 5.14 (8b+) at Shelf. It’s a great area for teaching new climbers and leaders while still providing a challenge for more experienced practitioners with its technical face climbing on small edges and pockets that test your footwork and crimp strength.
Most Popular Areas at Shelf Road
The Gallery is the furthest south area at Shelf and contains several popular walls, including Mural Wall, Menses Prow, and the Far Side. The climbs tend to be steep and sustained, with the largest concentration in the 5.10+ (5c) to 5.12+ (7a+) range. You can access the Gallery from Sand Gulch campground.
Classic Route: Monet – 5.12a (7a+)
Accessed from the campground with the same name, the Sand Gulch area has two main walls, Contest Wall and Freeform Wall, with classic routes on continuous vertical panels of pockets, cracks, and horizontal seams. With around 130 routes, this area may be a little less crowded during busier times.
Classic Route: Suburbia – 5.10b/c (6a/6a+)
The Dark Side
You can access The Dark Side from The Bank parking or campground. Named for both its north-facing aspect and the black patina on the bullet-hard limestone. Routes at the Dark Side can be a good option in warmer seasons thanks to plentiful shade.
Classic Route: Enchanted Porkfist – 5.11a (6b+)
Located just downhill from the Bank campground and parking, this area contains many sub-areas and nearly 400 routes. With a wide selection of easier and moderate routes, this is a fine area for beginning leaders and solid middle-grade climbers alike.
Classic Route: Number 1 Super Guy – 5.11a (6b+)
Cactus Cliff was one of the first walls at Shelf and is a popular winter crag thanks to its south-facing aspect. This area holds some of the tallest routes at Shelf Rd and over 150 bolted lines from 5.5 (4a) to 5.14a (8b+). The approach begins at The Bank parking area.
Classic Route: Illegal Smile – 5.11b (6c)
How to Get There
The easiest access to the climbing areas is from Cañon City and Fremont county road 9, also known as Shelf Road.
To get to Shelf Road from Denver, take I-25 south to Colorado Springs and Colorado State Highway 115. Turn south on Hwy 115 and continue to U.S. Highway 50, where you’ll turn west toward Cañon City. From there, turn north on Field Avenue into Country Rd 9 – Shelf Rd.
Refer to Mountain Project or another guide for specific directions to your desired area. The main parking areas and campgrounds should be reachable by any passenger vehicle, although the roads are prone to washing out during rainy weather.
Where to Stay
You can camp year round at Shelf Road’s two primitive campgrounds. Sand Gulch campground offers pit toilets and tent sites, but no water, electricity, or trash service. Be ready to bring everything you need and take it all out when you leave. The Bank campground has similar amenities, perched right next to the approaches for The Bank, the Dark Side, and Cactus Cliff areas, with a 10-30 minute walk to reach the climbing walls.
Campsites must be reserved online at the Recreation.gov page (1).
Less than 30 minutes away from Shelf Road popular sport climbing areas, this small city has a diverse variety of accommodations thanks to the large amount of tourist traffic that visits the region. Hotels and motels tend toward the lower end of the budget spectrum.
You’ll also find a number of cabins and more outdoorsy alternatives just up the road in the Royal Gorge area. That might be a good bet if you want to add river rafting, a via ferrata, or other outdoor adventures to your climbing vacation.
Colorado Springs is only an hour’s drive from Shelf Road, and has everything a medium-sized city has on tap. You’ll find a lot more options for lodging and food at all budget levels here compared to Cañon City.
What gear do I need to climb at Shelf Road?
Almost all climbing routes have bolts, hangers, and a bolted anchor with hooks or chains for lowering.
Aside from your personal harness, shoes, and other gear, you can climb over 95% of the routes at Shelf with a 60m rope and 12-15 quickdraws.
If you top rope, use your own gear and clean when you’re finished to save wear on the fixed anchors.
Shelf Road Rock: 3rd Edition (2) – The latest and most comprehensive printed guide book includes over 1,200 route descriptions from 5.5 (4a) to 5.14 (8b+). Covers all the most popular crags, along with lesser traveled areas like The Gym, The North End, and Spiney Ridge.
Mountain Project (3) – The most up-to-date free online guide with reliable area directions and information, route beta, and photo images. Install the app to download and view Shelf Road route info without requiring cell service.
Pikes Peak Alpine School (4) – Offers 1-2 day classes and guided climbing excursions at Shelf Road.
The Colorado Climbing Company (5) – Half- to full-day guided trips for groups and individuals
Front Range Climbing Co. (6) – Half-day guided trips with instruction for beginner to advanced climbers.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
The hardest routes in the area are rated 5.14a (8b+) in difficulty, with only a few at this grade, including Flight of the Phoenix on Cactus Cliff.
The elevation ranges from about 6,600 to over 7,000 feet at the most popular crags.
The Shelf Road Craggin’ Classic is an event organized by the American Alpine Club (7) which takes place at Shelf Road every year in October. Join your climbing tribe for clinics, live entertainment, food and beverages, and swag from gear manufacturers.
Shelf Road Sites
Recreation.gov (retrieved on 05/23/2023)
Shelf Road Rock – 3rd Edition
Sharp End Publishing (retrieved on 05/23/2023)
Shelf Road Climbing (retrieved on 05/23/2023)
Pikes Peak Alpine School (retrieved on 05/23/2023)
Climbing in Shelf Road
The Colorado Climbing Company (retrieved on 05/23/2023)
Shelf Road: Half Day
Front Range Co.
Shelf Road Craggin’ Classic
American Alpine Club (retrieved on 05/23/2023)