Scaling New Heights: 5 Epic Rock Climbing Spots in Iowa



Are you tired of the same old climbing routes? Seeking a new challenge that will test your skills and push your limits? Look no further than these rock climbing spots in Iowa! From towering bluffs to hidden boulders, Iowa has a wealth of unique climbing opportunities that will satisfy even the most experienced climbers. So whether you’re a beginner looking to try your hand at outdoor climbing or a seasoned pro seeking a new challenge, put these destinations on your climbing bucket list.  

So grab your gear, chalk up your hands, and experience the thrill of climbing in the heartland.

Pictured Rocks County Park

Channel your inner adventurer in Iowa’s Maquoketa River Valley! The towering limestone faces that line the bluffs here offer some of the most exciting climbing opportunities, no matter your skill level. For beginners, Pictured Rocks County Park is the perfect spot to learn the ropes, while experienced climbers will be thrilled by the challenges awaiting them in “Wild Iowa,” as the area is affectionately known among local climbing circles. While spring and fall are the most popular times to hit the rocks thanks to mild temperatures, fear not: shaded routes mean that even summer climbers can get in on the action. And with top-notch rock quality and easy access to most routes via short hikes from your car, you’ll be scaling new heights in no time.

Pictured Rocks State Park. James C. Orvis, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Swing into action on Tarzan, one of the popular beginner routes. This spot showcases the thrilling world of sport climbing, where metal bolts provide a safety net for climbers who want to test their limits. Once you reach the top, you can even set a rope for your pals in your climbing crew to use as they tackle the climb themselves.

So what makes Tarzan a must-climb? For starters, you’ll be scaling a towering limestone outcrop covered in hand and foot holds galore, from pockets eroded into the limestone to rocky outcroppings that jut out just enough for you to get a grip. Then, as you make your way upward, you’ll be surrounded by the lush greenery of the nearby forest, with tree trunks serving as handy markers to track your progress.

Of course, don’t think for a second that Tarzan is a cakewalk. About halfway up the 50-foot route, the climbing gets more challenging, testing your skills and courage. But fear not newbie climbers – this is the perfect route for mastering your fears and building confidence. You’ll learn to trust your instincts, reach for that tricky flake of rock, and push yourself to the limit. Of course, be smart and use your own discretion. Beginners may want to pair with an experienced rock climber when attempting a new route.

Great learner route: Jane (next to Tarzan), 5.7:

Great expert route: Soul Ignition, 5.12

Great boulder route: Spicy Red Candy, V2-3

Indian Bluffs

Are you looking for a climbing spot close to Pictured Rocks but without all the crowds? Look no further than Indian Bluffs, a hidden gem just a stone’s throw away! While the hike to the crags may be a bit of a trek, the lush foliage of the surrounding forest provides some much-needed shade during the warmer months. And when the leaves fall, you’ll be treated to some seriously stunning views of the towering rock face above and the glistening river below.

A limestone cliff in Iowa during the fall.

But what really sets Indian Bluffs apart is its impressive limestone cliffs, which offer some top-notch sport climbing opportunities. While some areas are better suited for bouldering or traditional routes, you’ll find plenty of options for taking your climbing skills to the next level.

One thing to keep in mind: please respect any closures in the area, as the local climbing community has worked hard to ensure that access to this site is preserved for generations to come. And if you’re looking to make a weekend of it, you’re in luck – there’s tent camping available along the Maquoketa River beach on a first-come, first-served basis.

Great learner route: Spearhead, 5.7

Great expert route: C N Red, 5.11

Joinerville Park

Scale new heights at Joinerville Park – the ultimate bouldering paradise! This park has got it all – bouldering, bouldering, and even more bouldering. The limestone features here offer a fantastic blend of beginner and advanced routes, and they’re all just a short walk from the parking lot.

A climber scales a boulder in the forest.

Bouldering is an entirely different experience from regular climbing. With no ropes to hold you back, you’ll feel the rush of climbing freely while still managing your safety with cushioned mats beneath you. While boulderers may not ascend to the same heights, they often tackle more challenging routes with powerful reaches and tricky holds – making it an absolute blast.

And when you need a break from all the climbing, head over to the nearby town of Maquoketa for a delicious lunch or a visit to the local winery. If you’re up for a more extended stay, camping is also available at the park with a special permit.

Great beginner route: Field Trips and Drop Outs, V0+

Great expert route: The Ordeal of the Boats, V6+

Ozark Wildlife Area

You’ll feel like a climbing ninja at Hoot Bluff, the ultimate crag in the Ozark Wildlife Area. With some of the best routes in the area, this premier climbing spot may not have the most routes, but it certainly packs a punch.

Winter climbing is an absolute dream here, with the south-facing cliffs soaking up the mid-day sun and providing a toasty warmth that’s hard to beat. But in the summer, it’s about getting an early start to beat the heat. And while you’re scaling those towering cliffs, keep your eyes peeled for local wildlife like deer and turkeys – they’re a common sight around here.

If you’re a beginner, Hoot Bluff may not be the best place to start your climbing journey. But for experienced climbers, the advanced routes offer some unique challenges, including starting points in a small cave. And whether you’re into sport or trad climbing, the Ozark Wildlife Area has got you covered. Trad climbing, in particular, is a technical style that involves using removable gear to set temporary anchors, making it the perfect way to explore new terrain and pioneer routes and keeping you safe from falling.

Best learner route: To Di For, 5.7

Best expert route: Scarlet Tanager, 5.12

Backbone State Park

Backbone State Park is for you if you love rock climbing and fishing. Nestled along the Maquoketa River, it’s the northernmost climbing area around – and it’s packed with diverse routes that cater to every type of climber. Just ensure you sign in at the park office before climbing – safety first!

A cliff trail in Backbone State Park, Iowa.

Whether you’re into top rope routes, trad routes, or bouldering, this park has got you covered. But that’s not all. With 21 miles of hiking trails and some of the most spectacular trout fishing in the region, you’ll have plenty of other activities to keep you busy too.

And if you’re looking for a place to stay, there’s a campground featuring four-season cabins so you can rest comfortably after a long day of climbing and fishing. Additional activities include mountain biking, and there are even boat rentals available.

Great learner route: Stairway to Heaven, 5.7

Great expert route: Devil’s Hideaway, 5.11

Great boulder route: Synaptic Fission, V2-3

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