DESTINATION GUIDE: Tensleep Canyon: A Wilderness Paradise

Off the beaten track, nestled high above the badlands of Northern Wyoming, lies one of America's most outstanding sport climbing destinations. Named because it lay mid-point - 'ten sleeps' - between two major Sioux Indian camps, Tensleep Canyon is a natural wonder of dolomite, towering out of a valley carved over millennia by the creek that runs through its centre. In recent years it has rightfully garnered a reputation as one of North America's very best places to climb, especially in high summer when its relative elevation offers amenable temperatures whilst much of the rest of the continent is too hot to bother roping-up in.

Tensleep Canyon at sunset, 98 kb
Tensleep Canyon at sunset
© Paul Sagar, Aug 2017

Tensleep features hundreds of established sport routes, with the potential for many thousands more. And it's not just about quantity; there are sectors and even entire crags where pretty much every line is in the three star range. The emphasis is on long, vertical to slightly overhung routes that test endurance and technical skill simultaneously. The dolomite rock climbs a lot like limestone (although the footwork is subtly different, and the erosion of the white rock often simulates 'tick' marks that aren't really there!), with plenty of pockets, edges, and between-buttress layback flakes to keep you entertained for months. The bolting is in general extremely friendly, giving many of the routes a gym-like feel. This has the nice effect of making it possible to concentrate exclusively on athletic performance, and not having to worry about dangerous falls or managing fear when aiming for the next clip.

Along with a generally laid-back Out West atmosphere, this makes Tensleep a perfect climbing holiday destination...if you are prepared to get there. The price of this dolomite paradise is its remote location, and the effort it will require to access. Northeastern Wyoming is a long way from any major airport (your best bet may be Salt Lake City, a mere 7 hours drive to the south-west), and a car is simply indispensible for both arriving, and for accessing crags and supplies when in-situ. The nearby town of Tensleep itself is tiny - population a mere 260 according to the welcome sign - and does not even feature a proper grocery store, only a gas station, a couple of motels, and the rather excellent Ten Sleep Brewing Company. But the upside of this isolation is a wilderness feel within five minutes of leaving the main Highway 16, and calm nights under the Milky Way, watching shooting stars as you relax next to the campfire.

And if you make it as far as Tensleep, there are some other world-class climbing destinations within striking distance. Wild Iris is 2.5 hours drive to the south (think Tensleep's thuggish cousin, with an emphasis on shorter but much more overhung and brutally powerful routes on the same Bighorn dolomite), and the iconic Devil's Tower about 3 hours further east. But be warned: once you make it to Tensleep, it's quite possible you'll end up choosing to just stay there for the duration of your trip.

Tensleep Canyon
© Paul Sagar, Aug 2017

The most famous and well-established climbing at Tensleep is the long run of walls on the west side of the canyon, especially in the areas known as Mondo Beyondo and Valhalla. These come into the shade about 1pm, and offer a staggering number of high-quality lines. The iconic Slavery Wall in Mondo Beyondo boasts classics like Wagon Wheel of Death (5.11b/6c), Burden of Immortality (5.12d/7c), Exo-atmospheric Kill Vehicle ("EKV") (5.12c/7b+) and School's Out (5.10d/6b+). Further along in Valhalla you can hit up Supperatic Pillar for the side-by-side megaclassics Hellion (5.13c/8a+) and Great White Behmouth (5.12b/7b), as well as great routes in the mid-range, like Silly Rabbit (5.11b/6c) and Big Yellow Butterfly (P1 5.10b/6a+, P2 5.11a/6B+). The good thing about this side of the canyon is that because all the routes run along the same stretch of cliff, once you've done the somewhat taxing 15 minute hike up from the highway, you can spread out and explore. There are routes from 5.6 (4c) all the way up into the hard 5.13s, and generally they are not too far apart, so this is a great option for a mixed-ability party.

For those seeking a pump challenge, and/or respite on hot days, the newly developed Crag 6 is well worth a visit. Outside the Canyon-proper but accessed by a short (15 minute) drive, this area is situated above Meadowlark Lake, and at 9,000 feet stays relatively cool on even the hottest summer afternoons. Coming into the shade around noon, it boasts climbs mostly in the 5.12-13 range (7a+ to 8a), although there are some truly excellent mid-range routes such as Dr Jeckyl (5.11c/6c+) and Mr Hyde (5.11b/6c) as well as a trio of excellent warm-ups in the 5.10 range. The main attraction, however, is Rap Stars Wall, a severely overhung (at least by Tensleep standards) wall of power endurance demanding dolomite, with lines starting from 7a+, up to Thugagra, a stout and long 5.13b/8a pump-fest.

Nick Gooding climbing Thugagra (5.13b/8a) at Crag 6, Tensleep Canyon, 167 kb
Nick Gooding climbing Thugagra (5.13b/8a) at Crag 6, Tensleep Canyon
© Paul Sagar, Aug 2017

If you want to climb in the morning, the best options are Lake Point – which stays in the shade until early afternoon and requires driving a little way north out of the Canyon – or Leigh Creek, mostly shielded by trees (on Lower Psychoactive Wall especially), and which sits low in the south of the valley near the fish hatchery, and is considerably closer to the town of Tensleep than most of the crags. Both venues offer the usual range of difficulty and a high concentration of star ratings, with easy 15-20 minute hikes in.

For those wanting a bit more of an adventure, and to be rewarded with some great isolated climbing where it is not unusual to be the only party there all day, The Ark is worth the relatively tough 40 minute hike in (plus added trail finding fun and games, thanks to the local cows' predilection for knocking down cairns). A free-standing erratic pillar that long ago became separated from the main canyon wall, The Ark offers a fistful of long overhung lines that test your technical climbing as well as forearm endurance. In the shade most of the day except for a small window around noon when the sun sits between the main canyon and the pillar, this is an atmospheric venue requiring you to first scramble through, and then belay from, a dramatic boulder field at the base of the main climbs. New route Raiders of the Lost Ark (5.10+/6b) looks sets to become a classic alongside more established top-quality lines like Atheist Childhood (5.11b/6c) and its extension Born Again (5.11c/6c+), Joy of Heresy (5.11d/7a) and July Jihad (5.12b/7b), and a host of others in the 5.11+ to 5.12- range (6b+ to 7b). The adjacent Radhakrishna Pillar offers a couple of warm-ups at 5.10b (6a+) and 5.10c (6b), but be warned, they are pretty sandbagged compared to the rest of the sector.

Katherine Ammeriti on Women vs. the Eternal Masculine, The Ark, Tensleep Canyon, Wyoming
© Paul Sagar, Aug 2017

The Layout

The climbing in Tensleep is situated in and around the main canyon, which you drive into along Highway 16 after passing through the tiny town of Tensleep. As mentioned above, a car is absolutely essential to get there. Luckily, rentals are cheap in the US, and at the time of writing 'gas' was around 40p a litre in Wyoming. The best place to hang out and grab a beer, or jump on Wi-Fi, is the Tensleep Brewing Company, which does top quality micro-brews for around $3 a pint, and has a pizza van serving some evenings in the week. There are a couple of small restaurants and locals' bars in the main town, but there is no main grocery store. The gas station has free Wi-Fi and the usual array of American gas station junk food, but strangely they seem not to have hit upon the idea of selling camping-based food or supplies to the hundreds of climbers who pass through. So, for substantial living supplies, your best bet is to drive south to Worland (about 40 minutes).

If you want climbing gear, the nearest place is Wild Iris Mountain Sports in Lander, which is 2.5 hours drive away – but could be combined with a trip to the world-class climbing at Wild Iris. Bear in mind that there is no mobile phone reception when you get into the Canyon-proper (or indeed, in much of rural Wyoming), so the Brewing Company and the gas station can offer the only way to connect with the outside world. (Obviously, being able to totally disconnect may be a major attraction of Tensleep, although it makes updating your logbook a bit trickier.)

Nick Gooding climbing Joy of Heresy 5.11d (7a) at The Ark, Tensleep Canyon
© Paul Sagar, Aug 2017

The Surrounding Area

Wyoming is one of the most beautiful places in North America, offering spectacular mountain ranges, alpine meadows, cattle ranches, desert badlands, ancient canyons, and more. The Federal Government was still conducting a bloody and murderous war with the Native Americans in the areas around Tensleep deep into the 1890s, which gives you a sense of how isolated and rugged it was and indeed still is. (The state hosted some of the most famous defeats in US Army history, including the battle of Little Big Horn.) Wyoming is steeped in pioneer history, and the vast scale of the place puts Europe into a weird sort of perspective. The locals are generally very friendly and welcoming, but probably best not to trespass on their land – guns are big here, and property rights are defended vigorously. Wildlife abounds, but that also means you have to treat this like the American expedition that it is: no food left out overnight, or unattended, unless you want to make intimate friends with a bear. (No, really, you don't.) Campfires need to be carefully attended and put out thoroughly to prevent wildfires.

Beyond climbing, the area offers a wealth of outdoor activities. Fishing and hunting are big here, and a trout or two should be easy enough to catch from Meadowlark Lake on the right day (check in locally for permit requirements). Mountain biking and All Terrain Vehicle exploration abound, as does the possibility of top-quality hiking. Yellowstone National Park and Grand Teton National Park are about seven hours drive away, and as they border each other you could easily spend a few days checking out the geysers, trying to spot a herd of bison, and then attempting The Grand Traverse of the Teton ridge. In the very unlikely event that you get protracted bad weather (late-afternoon summer storms are not uncommon, but mostly it's bone dry and hot), there is a free pioneer museum in Tensleep and a dinosaur museum in Worland. (Given that the latter is a majority Mormon town, such a museum could be an interesting experience – I don't know, because it didn't rain when I was there.) But really, you're in Tensleep: on your on days you climb, on your rest days you belay.


When to go...

Spring to autumn, as in winter the Canyon is closed due to ice and snow making it impassable. Peak climbing season seems to be July, when the rest of the country gets too hot and college students are on vacation. Things quieten down by mid-August, and it's then not unusual to have walls and sectors pretty much to yourself.

How to get there...

Not easy: a long drive is unavoidable. Best option is probably to fly to Salt Lake City, then hire a car. Jackson Hole is a bit closer, but less easily serviced by major airlines at affordable prices (although Jackson has the bonus of putting you on the doorstep of the Tetons). Alternatively, you could fly to Las Vegas and hire a car there, driving north through Utah and stopping off to climb at the hundreds of world-class venues the Beehive State has to offer, including the spectacular Zion National Park, or Bryce National Park. The superb conglomerate climbing at Maple Canyon is also pretty much directly on the way to Wyoming from Nevada. There is also of course top quality climbing in Nevada near Las Vegas, but it's a no-go in summer temperatures, which is when Tensleep is most attractive. Flying to the West Coast and driving is also possible – budget about 14 hours from San Francisco, for guidance.

Where to stay...

Most climbers wild camp off Highway 16 on fire road 8, usually accessed near the top of the Canyon just past Mondo Beyondo/Valhalla after you cross back over the creek. A couple of portaloos have been installed, presumably to stop the woods getting filled with poop, and these get cleaned out roughly once a week. Other than that you're on your own, so will need to fill up water supplies in the main town, pack in food from Worland, etc. Tensleep offers a couple of motels, and there is also an RV park with proper campground (i.e. running water, showers, etc.). In summer you can often sleep out without a tent, although be warned that Tensleep is essentially an elevated desert: it gets really hot during the day in full sun, but nights can be cold. Take a good sleeping bag and few extra layers. If you need a shower, Tensleep Brewing Company offers them for a mere $2, a genuine bargain as they are good.

What gear to take...

Tensleep is essentially a sport climbing only destination. There are a few not very well regarded multi-pitches, and the odd trad line, but most of what has been developed is high quality single pitch sport. 20 quickdraws will be enough for even the longest routes, and a 70 metre rope will see you through.

Guidebooks and information...

The classic guidebook for the area is Lies and Propaganda From Tensleep Canyon by Aaron Huey, who himself put up hundreds of the routes. It is, let's say, a little eccentric. Route descriptions offer not so much beta as a certain form of inspiration ("If you don't do this route you hate America, and your mom"), whilst star ratings are replaced with images of U.S. militarism, outlines of naked ladies, and pictures of cats. The whole thing is tongue in cheek, but if you are of a more politically sensitive disposition, and not so keen on libertarian propaganda, it may not be to your liking. Currently out of print, a blessed-by-the-author bootleg is, however, available for $25 at Tensleep Brewing Company, proceeds of which go to re-bolting and route development. If you want the most up-to-date and comprehensive guide, Huey has put out The Holy Tensleep Electric Koolaide 3-D Acid Test, which is a hardback guidebook, that comes with 3D glasses, and currently retails for $100…Alternatively, a good place to start is Rock Climbing Wyoming by Sam Lightner Jr., part of the Falcon Guides Where to Climb series. Lightner offers only a selection of routes and sectors, but probably has enough to keep you busy for any trip lasting less than a fortnight.

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