Last August, I journeyed up to Steele, Alabama for my first sport-climbing trip to a crag known (by some) as Sandrock. Despite the graffiti-drenched boulders defaced by locals, and an ungodly amount of broken glass strewn about the trails, I had an amazing time leading my first routes – but the most lasting impression from this trip was left by a small metal sign on the drive towards the mountain. It read “Little River Canyon,” and pointed towards the north.
After a few seasons slipped by, Niko and I finally made plans to check out the mysterious Little River Canyon. Perfectly timed with the release of the new Dixie Cragger for Georgia and Alabama, we were able to embark on an informed journey to the new crag. I practiced my light packing skills, tossed our gear into the trunk of our buddy Bo’s car, and spent the seven-hour drive up to Alabama dreaming of sandstone.
Naive about any camping situations available in Little River Canyon, our crew decided to stick to the free, and unbelievably scenic, camping at the top of Lookout Mountain, deep in the rural bits of Alabama. Things got a tad interesting on Easter morning, when we woke up to a passionate sunrise sermon held a few yards from our tent.
It must be noted that the small metal sign beckoning climbers to detour towards “Little River Canyon” is slightly deceptive. What we had imagined to be a quick hop, skip, and jump over to the crag from Sandrock was actually a 30-minute haul – but I enjoy leisurely mornings, so I had no complaints.
I was pleasantly surprised by the ease at which we were able to locate the climbs at Little River Canyon. Our main haunt was The Gray Wall, which is accessed via a discreet trail that sits right off the winding mountain road that runs through the preserve. Given that we were in a canyon, the approach involved a bit of scrambling, down climbing, and getting dripped on by miniature waterfalls.
At The Gray Wall, we were introduced to a crew of southern climbers who demonstrated a keen passion for Little River Canyon, which is actually a national preserve. The boisterous group welcomed us to ‘their’ crag with enthusiasm, and offered to let us use their draws on a few warm-up routes.
And by warm-ups, I mean a wide row of 5.11 climbing.
I hear there is just one 5.9 hidden somewhere in Little River Canyon, and a small handful of 5.10s are strewn about – which basically means that this crag is a destination reserved for more advanced climbers.
In my honest opinion, I believe the more demanding level of climbing is what has kept this crag as well preserved as it is. I saw nary a single spray of paint on the sandstone, nor any piles of wayward trash. Unlike Sandrock, this crag has evaded traffic from the masses, and retains its pristine natural glory.
It’s such a pure area that I honestly hesitated to feature it on the blog. So if this post inspires you to visit Little River Canyon to bask in the beautiful climbing, I implore you to exercise the utmost respect and land stewardship.
As for the actual climbing, this canyon delivers such phenomenal lines that our crew all agreed we’d probably never visit Sandrock again if we were in the area – Little River Canyon trumps it tenfold. I climbed my first 5.11a, a pumpy ledge-filled route called “Obsession” – admittedly on top-rope, and it was not a red-point. The boys climbed a handful of 5.11s at The Gray Wall, and then Niko briefly jumped on a burly overhanging route called “Tension.” We also fooled around on a quirky, short slab route that no one could conquer. Check out the photos:
The main event of our adventure was our time spent on the hardest section of The Gray Wall. The star of the show was Lion, a 5.12c sport route with stout movements and burly demands. The boys were eager to hop on it after watching a local climber, Rob, barrel through the cruxes. (Did I mention that Rob is about to turn 60, and crushes sandstone harder than I ever will? He was such a cool dude.)
In true Katie form, I hardly climbed as much as I should have. Instead, I busied myself by climbing up one of the 5.11 routes, clipping myself into a bolt using long runners, and hanging from the sandstone while waving my camera around at the boys as they climbed.
The trip was a huge wake-up call for me – it mercilessly reminded me that as a boulderer, I seriously lack endurance. Both Bo and I were pumped out every few moves on our climbs, and we both left the trip determined to improve ourselves. Thankfully, while we were totally shut down by lengthy climbs, we managed to not be conquered by chiggers (unlike my last trip to Alabama, when I ended up with chiggers nesting in my belly button, true story.)
Despite the harsh realizations, this trip got me incredibly stoked on sport climbing. My silence on the blogging front is a direct result of my newfound passion for training. Little River Canyon motivated me to dive into hardcore endurance training, and I have since spent every single day climbing to my limits. Last night, I red-pointed my first 5.11 in the gym, and practiced my lead climbing on a few easier routes. Today, I’m indulging in a rest day, after seven straight days of training.