World’s best rock climbers find their own Augusta National at Rifle Mountain Park
Rifle’s limestone paradise continues to attract sport’s elite climbers
Nick Smith and Colette McInerney sought refuge from a moderate afternoon mist by setting up underneath a massive, arching limestone dugout.
Nearby, crystal-clear water rolled gently downstream in East Rifle Creek. Their van, modified into living quarters, was one of many such vehicles at Rifle Mountain Park that day.
After meticulously locking themselves into carabiners and roping meant for fall protection, McInerney began her ascension. Smith, offering verbal guidance called “spewing,” belayed for McInerney.
“Nice!” Smith said to McInerney. “Get all the way through this bit.”
Her objective isn’t scaling the entire jagged canvas in one go. Instead, she’s projecting: acclimating her senses to every move, every nook and cranny she’ll eventually use to scale this diverse, natural-stone face.
The route, called Simply Red, is one of more than 500 interspersing Rifle Mountain Park, which, over the years, has grown into one of the premier rock-climbing strongholds in the country and, perhaps, the entire world. No hike necessary. Just park your vehicle next to the wall and get to work.
McInerney has been finding her way up this classic 5.13.d-scale route for the past two weeks. Difficulty, based on things like stamina, movement and rock-formation type, ranges anywhere from classes 1-5, with additional sub ranges for difficulty beyond 5.
Any routes between 5.13-5.15s are the most difficult.
“There’s sections that you will keep falling on, but you just keep going up again and again until you perfect it and don’t fall,” she said. “Right now, I’m in the middle of this process.”
The voluminous routes are a big reason why The North Face climbers come here and why Wolverine Publishing releases a thick climbers guide solely for Rifle Mountain Park. It features a detailed synopsis of just about every climbing wall and their routes Rifle Canyon offers, including short biographies on some of the rock climbing legends in the area.
McInerney, 40, is a bonafide professional climber. Sponsored by Black Diamond Equipment, she also films for National Geographic and HBO. Some of her content was filmed right here in this isolated canyon.
Smith, 34, helps manufacture rock walls all over the world, does work for The North Face and is a former sitting member of USA Climbing. He said, at one point, he was sitting at the Starbucks in south Rifle devising a plan to get rock climbing sanctioned for the 2020 Olympics.
“We’re dead in the middle (of the United States) here,” he said. “I feel that really positions us pretty well to be a popular destination for rock climbing.”
Rifle Mountain Park sits smack dab in the middle of rocking climbing hubs Salt Lake City and Boulder/Denver and boasts the greatest concentration of 5.14-scale walls in the nation. It is to rock-climbing circles what Augusta National is to golfers.
“This area has some of the highest concentration of difficult rock climbing in the United States,” Smith said. “ Truly, it’s pretty competitive with the world, as well.
“The best climbers in the world do come here to Rifle Mountain Park.”
Assistant Parks and Recreation Department manager Austin Rickstrew said Rifle Mountain Park’s popularity continues to grow, saying, “It’s always been busy, but it’s only getting busier.”
Year-to-date numbers from September show Rifle has already sold 227 nonresident annual passes — and another 128 Garfield County and Rifle resident passes — this year alone. The annual passes alone account for $18,335 in revenue.
Year-to-date numbers also show Rifle has garnered $66,079 in camping and parking revenue alone this year. In 2021, this number was $59,457. In 2020, it was $57,587.
“I’d say 75% of visitors are rock climbers,” Rickstrew said.
Rifle resident Josh Bassett works inside the Rifle Cowork space downtown on Third Street. It was there he met both Smith and McInerney, who just so happened to be well-known figures in the rock-climbing community.
McInerney said she wakes up in the canyon around 7:30 a.m., brews some coffee and sips it on her way to town, works remotely from Rifle Cowork until about 1 p.m. then heads back to Rifle Mountain Park and climbs until dark.
“Basically, you have a big group of people that come here for a season,” she said. “Most of them that make it work are remote workers.”
Rifle City Manager Tommy Klein had no idea the park’s level of popularity with the climbing community. Regardless, he said it truly brings it home when he hears about pro rock climbers coming into Rifle to work remotely and enjoy a globally-renowned rock climbing haven like Rifle Mountain Park.
“You have the creek right next to the roadway; you have rock climbers up 1,000 feet in the air. You travel up the canyon a little more, and you have families camping and picnicking,” he said. “Then there’s the White River National Forest, where people can ride motorcycles and ATVs.”
“It’s such an asset and an absolutely beautiful spot.”
One recent September morning, Klein met up with Smith, McInerney and Bassett to discuss how the city can cater more to this scene and develop ancillary commerce. They’d speak about the potential for using the Ute Theater to host a major rock climbers event and bolstering the downtown area. This could look like adding a brewery, perhaps even an outdoor gear shop.
“I think it would bring attention to Rifle and the recreational activities we have in the area and, hopefully, bring people who have not been to Rifle to our community,” Klein said. “It would also be good to connect with the climbers. It always seems like they’re out there in the park.”