The small town of Bishop, California, in the eastern Sierras is home to an astounding amount of climbing — both bouldering and sport. For that, this region has for years been a draw for both professional climbers and novices. Getting to Bishop definitely means driving, but the town itself is so charming, with plentiful climbing opportunities and close-by camping, that climbers will come again and again to get to know it.
On a map, Bishop looks close to well-known places like Yosemite or Kings Canyon national parks — but the Sierra Nevada range, with many peaks topping 14,000 feet, lies in the way. You need to cross that range either due north or south of it. In practice, this means that Bishop is as close a drive from LA as from Las Vegas: about 4.5 hours. From San Francisco, the drive will take you six hours. Mammoth Mountain, though, is 45 minutes away.
The Sierra Nevadas don’t just make for a stunning backdrop to your climbs in Bishop; they also keep away Pacific storms. That makes for clear skies that let you enjoy climbing in Bishop most of the year. Note that in December and January, you’ll have freezing overnight temperatures. Also, as with most desert regions, the summers can be pretty brutal; July highs can top 100 degrees.
Bishop’s Buttermilk boulders
Though there are several different areas to go climbing in Bishop, the town has become fairly synonymous with the Buttermilks, named for the dairy farming operation in the area in the 1870s. Huge mountains form the backdrop to this field of boulders, many of which are as tall as multi-story buildings. Professional climbers from the likes of Chris Sharma to Ashima Shiraishi to Alex Puccio have come to try the crimpy, granite highball problems on these massive boulders. (“Problems” is the term for climbing routes on boulders.)
The most famous of these boulders are the Peabodys, Grandma Peabody, and Grandpa Peabody. Grandpa Peabody has nine problems ranging from V4 to V16, none of which are for the faint of heart. While you may not be jumping onto one of these, it’s worth stopping to watch those skilled enough give it an attempt. The rough granite of the Buttermilk problems can make even the most seasoned boulderer whimper — so if you’re hoping to really send in this area, it can take days or even weeks for your skin to adapt.
The two other main bouldering areas are the Happys and the Sads, both located in the Volcanic Tablelands and full of problems with deep pockets and big jugs. Both these areas are a bit friendlier than the bouldering in the Buttermilks area. If you’re traveling solo, you can do many of these shorter problems with just one bouldering pad, unlike the highballs at the Buttermilks.
Owens River Gorge
Despite Bishop’s bouldering reputation, it also is home to California’s most concentrated sport climbing area, the Owens River Gorge. Just north of Bishop, this area has over 500 sport climbing routes ranging from 5.5 to 5.13c, which means they’re best for intermediate to expert climbers. It also has roughly 150 traditional, or trad, routes. Whereas sport climbing uses existing bolts, trad climbing involves carrying, placing, and then removing one’s own protective climbing gear.
Some climbs are as much as 150 feet high here, and the rock is tough, made of ancient molten lava, that offers plenty of ledges and crags. The 10-mile long gorge is broken down into six sections — North Gorge, Upper Gorge, Inner Gorge, Central Gorge, Lower Gorge, and Sub Gorge — with about a 5-10 minute approach to each. Most sections offer a mix of difficulty levels.
What to do after climbing
If you’re planning to stay in Bishop for more than a couple of days, you’ll definitely need a rest day or two. Soak your tired muscles in one of the area’s hot springs. Keough’s Hot Springs has a hot tub and pool fed by natural hot springs and costs $10 for a day pass. Other free, primitive hot springs abound in the area so check out one of the local guidebooks or ask a local for the best spots.
No visit to Bishop is complete without a stop at Schat’s Bakery, famous for its Sheepherder’s bread and other delightful pastries and goods. This place is pretty much packed non-stop, but it’s worth the wait. On any given day you’ll find climbers congregating at Black Sheep, ordering coffee and breakfast burritos and posting Instagram photos with the free Wi-Fi.
If you’re in need of gear or guidebooks, head to Eastside Sports or Mammoth Moutaineering’s Gear Exchange. For craft beers and delicious eats, Mountain Rambler Brewery is another favorite. Mammoth is also located just 42 miles from Bishop — so depending on the time of year you’re climbing, you can spend your rest day skiing!
Where to stay
These are a variety of lodging options in Bishop from hotels like Best Western or Motel 6 to primitive camping and everything in between. The Hostel California is a fun place to stay in town and only costs $25/night for a dorm bed (or more for private rooms). The Pit campground, located close to the Happy and Sad bouldering areas, is the go-to camping spot for climbers and makes for great socializing or recruiting of a climbing partner. At $2/night and a max stay of 60 days, this is a great spot for posting up if you plan to be climbing in Bishop for several weeks.
The campgrounds have picnic tables, fire rings, pit toilets, dumpsters, and recycling bins, though no water. Half a mile down the road from the Pit is the Pleasant Valley Campground with sites adjacent to the Owen’s River at $14/night. If you’re too cheap for the Pit, you can camp at the Buttermilks on Forest Service Land for free. There are no amenities, but you’ll wake up to gorgeous views and just steps from climbing.
Tips for first-timers
You’ll definitely want to get a guidebook to help you manage all the different options for climbing in Bishop. For bouldering, grab Bishop Bouldering for a complete guide to all the bouldering areas in Bishop and for climbing at Owens River Gorge, check out Owens River Gorge Climbs. Both can be purchased at Eastside Sports in town.
With so much traffic to these areas, climber ethics is important. Don’t park or drive on any vegetation and use the outhouses at the various climbing areas. Remember, leave no trace.