Climbers use a universal number system to rate the difficulty of each climbing route, called the Yosemite Decimal System. Beginner rock climbs are in the 5.1 to 5.6 range, 5.7-5.10 are intermediate to advanced, and 5.11 and above are reserved for professional climbers. The hardest routes being climbed today are 5.15b. The letter at the end of the grade indicates the difficulty of that particular climb within the 5.15 range (“a” being the easiest 5.15 and “d” being the hardest).
LITTLE STONY MAN
Shenandoah National Park, Va.
This cliff band sits off Skyline Drive at 3,500 feet in elevation. The routes are long (nothing less than 80 feet) and most have a convenient ledge halfway through that offers stellar views of the valley below. Trails (including the A.T.) run above and below the cliffs, offering easy access and plenty of top rope anchor possibilities. All the routes are singlepitch, but they’re long, so bring a long rope and some endurance.
Best Beginner Routes: Chimney Cricket (5.3), Head First (5.6), Chimney in a Chimney (5.6)
TABLE ROCK MOUNTAIN
Pisgah National Forest, N.C.
Table Rock sits on the east rim of the Linville Gorge, offering routes on quartzite faces that stretch for 600 feet. There are a few top rope routes to be found on Table Rock, but the majority are mixed trad and sport. The need for placing gear can be a barrier for beginners, but go with a paid guide or experienced mentor and this could be the mountain that takes you from top roping newbie to multi-pitch fanatic.
Best Beginner Routes: Jim Dandy (5.5), My Route (5.6), The Cave Route (5.5)
Crowders Mountain State Park, N.C.
Sure, climbers have dubbed this popular rock “Crowded Mountain,” but there’s a reason why so many people love to climb here. More than 100 routes traverse Crowders, which sticks out from the surrounding piedmont flats like a hippie at a country club. The mountain peaks around 1,600 feet, but you feel like you’re climbing on top of a 6,000-footer. Quartzite fins stick out of the summit, creating a mecca of super-featured climbs that are easily rigged for top roping, thanks to an access trail traversing the summit.
Best Beginner Routes: Gastonia Crack (5.4), Big Crack (5.5), The Bear (5.7)
Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park, Tenn.
Few crags are as storied as Sunset, an 80-foot tall cliff band that stretches for a mile on the western rim of Lookout Mountain. The cliffs played a pivotal role in the Civil War as well as a pivotal role in southern rock climbing–Sunset is often considered the birthplace of sandstone. Climbers have been sending this cliff for sport since at least the 1940s, making it one of the oldest recognized crags below the Mason Dixon.
Best Beginner Routes: One-Ten (5.6), Airbrush (5.6), Blonde Ambition (5.7)
These urban crags offer stellar climbing with a fraction of the commute.
This is actually a 60-foot tall railroad pier made from massive granite blocks cut from the Belle Isle quarry, but local climbers have turned it into a sport-route training ground and established dozens of climbs ranging from 5.3 to 5.10. A lot of local climbers use the wall as a massive bouldering traverse (the base is 150 feet wide), while newbies often tick off their first sport lead here.
Best Beginner Route: Hooked on a Feeling (5.7)
Boat Rock consists of a half-mile of massive granite boulders sitting in the middle of an Atlanta suburb near the Chattahoochee River. The Southeastern Climbers Coalition saved the area from development by purchasing the crag. A number of easier problems are scattered throughout the field, which has become a haven for Atlanta-locked climbers.
Best Beginner Route: Easy Crack (5.1)
Harpers Ferry, W.Va.
Maryland Heights is a 100-foot cliff band overlooking downtown Harpers Ferry, just across from the Potomac. Most of the established routes are in the 5.2 to 5.8 range, so the area is perfect for beginners, as long as you’re climbing with someone experienced in leading trad. The cliff sits inside Harpers Ferry National Historic Park, so be sure to register at the visitor’s center, and local climbers would appreciate it if you left your bolts and chalk at home.
Best Beginner Climb: Hard Up (5.7)