Indoors, at Portland Rock Gym and The Circuit, new climbers can find just about everything needed for a day of bouldering—except, well, real boulders. For Portlanders with the curiosity and callouses to take their newfound skills to the crag, challenging clusters of basalt hide less than an hour or two away.
Without the gym’s color-coded tape to mark routes, every crack and crevice outside is fair game. Even small crystals can serve as footholds. Real rock offers endless approaches to the same face, along with endless challenges. Ranked on a scale from V0 to V12, outdoor routes (or problems) rated V1 or V2 might feel like the 3s and 4s in the gym. Learn to top out by climbing over the boulder, and don’t forget to plan a way down.
Gear up: Besides chalk and hard-toed climbing shoes, outdoor climbers should bring along crash pads (miniature versions of the Circuit’s springy floor), a brush to clear moss and lichen, and trustworthy friends to use as spotters. A tin of Angelina’s Skin Doctor or other salves can repair torn skin and build callouses.
Where to go: Find problems on the rock, not while planning your trip. We asked expert climbers and route setters at the Circuit and Portland Rock Gym about their favorite spots. Here’s our top three.
1. Carver Boulder Field
Tucked in the Portland Metro Gorge just 20 minutes from downtown, the Carver Boulder Field crams in more than 300 problems. Most of Carver’s boulders are basalt, one of the better climbing surfaces, explains Circuit staff member Chris Marsallia. Smoother and safer than sandstone, basalt offers porous, grippy holds. (As a bonus, the area set the scene for part of the Twilight films.)
To warm up, head to Bonzi Boulders, the thickest collection of V0 to V4 problems. Later, tackle the V7 Scary Spider. “It’s physically demanding and mentally challenging,” says Marsallia, “kind of like going through a divorce.”
Carver sits on private land owned by the Carver Climbing Club. To climb, you must be over 18. Sign up for a Carver membership and fill out a waiver at the Portland Rock Gym or Circuit Bouldering Gym. A lifetime membership costs just $8.
2. Bridge of the Gods
Near Cascade Locks, on the Washington side of the Bridge of the Gods, follow a horse trail and lose yourself in the trees. At this underdeveloped bouldering site less than 50 miles from Portland, climbers are always discovering new problems.
Royce Porter, head route setter at the Circuit, spent the better part of a summer tackling the left-leaning arête on White Lines (V5). At the crux, he clung to a foothold invisible except for a chalk marking. He worked his way to a ledge three feet from the top, and swung up, finally “sending” the climb. Not satisfied with one ascent, he returned again and again into the winter, until it felt routine. Now, it’s his favorite route.
“The skills that I learned from that climb I have used to send other climbs,” he says. “The problems at Bridge of the Gods are all pretty stout with few warm ups, but really high in quality.”
3. Rocky Butte Boulder Field
Along I-205, the Boring lava field is littered with basalt chunks forged from volcanic activity. To get to the boulders, hike from the freeway to a secluded cliff called The Schwingus, where the North facing rocks stay cool throughout the summer. The site comes littered with trash and exposed to the noise of freeway traffic, but it offers a number of short climbs.
Still want to stay indoors? Head to Tigard on Friday from 5:00 p.m. to 10:00 p.m to preview The Circuit’s brand-new 19,000 square-foot gym.