Maple Canyon: A visit to climbers candy land

A couple tests their skills on the routes at the Pipeline in Maple Canyon, Utah, on Saturday. On warm days, the canyon has several shady walls that attract rock climbers. (Jerry Painter photo)

Revisiting a favorite outdoor recreation area is like wearing an old sweatshirt — it feels perfect and you don’t mind if it’s a bit worn.

Friday morning, a friend and I drove south to Maple Canyon near the tiny town of Fountain Green, Utah, to climb rocks. In certain circles, Maple Canyon is world famous. It attracts rock climbers from everywhere. Indeed, we saw license plates in the parking areas from Texas and New York, and places in between.

Maple Canyon is weird. The rock is called conglomerate. Basically, it’s a natural cement mixed with cobblestones of all sizes, from marble size to bowling ball size and occasionally bigger. The narrow canyon walls range from a few dozen feet high to a few hundred feet tall. After eons of erosion, the walls are generally steep to very over-hung. In some cases there are cave-like features creating very challenging climbing.

You’d think that the climbing would be the same on every route, but most routes are surprisingly different. The rock walls offer a lot of pinches, pockets, crimps and full hand grips. You either grab the cobbles or the hole where a cobble has fallen out. The nature of the climbing is taxing on your forearms — steep and physical — like a fun jungle gym. It helps to be in shape to enjoy a full day of cranking on the rock. Grades range from easy 5.6 to near impossible 5.14.

Maple Canyon is on the east side of the Wasatch Range south of Mount Nebo and north of Manti, Utah — about 6 hours from Idaho Falls. Because of its elevation — about 6,000 feet — it’s a great summertime destination. There’s plenty of shade to be found in the forested canyon.

The canyon is shaped like a narrow tree with several branches. Each branch or fork has several walls with bolted sport routes. While I tell people that Idaho Falls is blessed with about a dozen climbing crags in the area, Maple Canyon has more than that in one side canyon. Overall, there are more than 400 routes, and most are just a few minutes walk from the canyon’s main road.

With all of these attributes, Maple Canyon is perhaps the most popular summer rock climbing area in the United States. Finding a campsite in the canyon’s limited Forest Service campground can be nearly impossible. Fortunately, there are sites near the mouth of the canyon and also several nice primitive and developed campgrounds about 30 minutes away along the Mount Nebo Loop Road. We stayed at a site on private land at the mouth of the canyon. It was shaded in the evening and mornings and uncrowded (except for jack rabbits), but we had to drive up the canyon to use the pit toilets. None of the campgrounds have water — bring a supply.

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So digging through a closet here at the Post Register, we found a box of an old booklet titled “10 Peaks in 10 Weeks” written by some joker. The booklet was published in 1995 and is a compilation of a series of stories printed in our now defunct “Let’s Go!” section where I visited the highest points in our 10-county area. While some of the directions and descriptions are dated, the high points are still the same. I visited peaks such as Borah Peak, Bell Mountain, Mount Baird and Kelly Mountain. Some are challenging and others are a fun romp. If you’d like to own a copy, we have a limited number for sale at the front desk of the newspaper (that is, unless there’s another hidden box of books somewhere). They’re cheap at $4.95 each.

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As is common this time of year, there are several fun activities this weekend. On Saturday, there is the ride with Laura Stark at 9:30 a.m. from the white ghost bike on U.S. Highway 26. There’s also the Super D mountain bike race in the Kelly Canyon area. Next weekend is the Wrun for Wray hill climb foot race at Grand Targhee. Also on the 23rd is Around the Rock 154-mile bike ride around the Teton Range.