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Climbing Northward

Fall Road Trip North
 or Rocky Road Trip North
Words and pictures by James Moore 

Fall is here and finally the days are getting cooler, but also shorter. And while this means it's time to climb in the lowlands again, it also means it won't be around for long. Here are a number of notable crags all around Northern Washington region.

Just 60 miles north of the US-BC border, the Skaha bluffs are a popular destination for climbers of all abilities. If you're considering a trip there this fall, perhaps take an extra day to explore what the northern part of Okanogan County has to offer. The climbing in the Okanogan Valley is mostly on gneiss, the same type of rock as Skaha, but there is also some granite and granodiorite. Best of all, the mood of the crags in the Okanogan County is more secluded and adventurous. Expect to find safe routes, but also ones without chalk or crowds. In other words, it is not unlike climbing in the old days, except a bit safer.

There is no guide book for the half dozen crags in the area I'm writing about, but much of the route information is now available online, especially at the mountainproject.com site. All the areas mentioned here are currently on public lands (County, BLM or Forest Service), but there is some controversy about the county owned lands at Whistler Canyon, because there has recently been an announcement that the lands around the trailhead will be going up for auction this December. (For more information about the preservation of the Whistler Canyon trailhead, visit the Pacific Northwest Trails Association website.)

The climbing exposures are a wide range of east to south to west, and the approaches range from less than 5 minutes to a half-hour hike.

Whistler Canyon

I’ll begin by introducing Whistler Canyon. Anyone who has driven to Skaha to climb or just passed through Oroville has probably noticed the main cliffs of the Whistler Canyon Trailhead, as they loom 300' over the highway just 3 miles south of Oroville (14 miles north of Tonasket). In the past few years, the trailhead has been developed into a great portal to the vast public lands of Mt Hull for a wide range of outdoor activities. Trails here are part of the 1200-mile Pacific Northwest Trail and are extremely popular with local hikers, horseback riders, mountain bikers, and even a few climbers. The trailhead is easy to find -- there is a sign along Hwy 97 at milepost 329.2 pointing out the trailhead parking lot on the old orchard land just a few hundred feet up the bright white gravel driveway.

There are now about 75 established routes at Whistler Canyon, ranging from 5.3 to 5.12+,that range from 50 to 300 feet in length. The rock is both gneiss and granodiorite, and is often of excellent quality.  Most of the routes are bolted, but they aren’t climbed that often, so be prepared for possible lichens and loose rock (helmets and wire brushes are recommended). There are also rattlesnakes here (as there are at Skaha), so be careful where you tread from April to October (trekking poles are not a bad idea for combing the grass and bushes in front of you). 

More information about Whistler Canyon can be found here.

McLaughlin Canyon

Another popular climbing area visible from the Hwy 97 is the scenic and historic McLaughlin Canyon. The turn off Highway 97 is about 4 miles south of Tonasket at milepost 310.6. Coming from the south, take the first right turn immediately after the Janice Bridge crosses the Okanogan River and follow the Janice Bridge Rd. southeastfor 0.3 miles (alongside the calcium carbonate loading yard), then take the first left turnand drive 1.3 mile to the BLM parking lot in the middle of the canyon. Much of the land in and around the canyon is private, but the main mile-long valley to the south is BLM land. The local ethic for McLaughlin is for no fixed anchors, so come prepared for adventurous trad climbs on solid if sometimes brittle and rubbly gneiss. Routes range from 50 to 400feet in length. Be prepared to see rattlers from April to October.

Discover McLaughlin Canyon here.

Burge Mountain

 Burge Mountain is another gneiss crag located 13.5 miles NW of Tonasket. To get theretake the fork in the highway at the north end of Tonasket leading toward Havilla,. Drive toward Havilla for 12 miles, then turn right on North Siwash Creek Rd and head south for 1.5 miles. Park across from the pass-through in the fence to access the Forest Service land. Burge has over 75 established routes, from 5.1 to 5.11+ that are 50 to 360 feetlong. Although developed by some of the same old-timers who climbed at McLaughlin, Burge has the opposite ethic and has generous bolting. Burge also has some loose and dirty rock, so a helmet is recommended. One nicety: Situated at an elevation of 3,300 feet, Burge has no rattlesnakes.


Trail information for Burge Mountain can be found here.

Additional Areas

For the more adventurous, or those with more time, these three other areas are well worth checking out:

-Lower SW face of Mt Hull - 12 miles north of Tonasket on Hwy 97. A vast area of cliffs on public lands, with somewhat indirect access.

Information about Mount Hull can be found here.

-Middle Fork Toats Coulee - 36 miles west of Tonasket on Forest Service land at the edge of the Pasayten Wilderness (5250' elevation), a small crag of mostly bolted granite climbs (5.7 to 5.12).

Information about Middle Fork can be found here.

-The Kettle Valley - 60 miles east of Tonasket (just west of Curlew) this is an extensive area of granite cliff with hundreds of routes (some sport, but many mixed and/or trad) from 25 to 300' long.

Information about Kettle Valley can be found here.

As you can see, there’s a lot of rock to explore here. Next time you’re thinking about heading north to climb the crowded, chalk-painted holds of Skaha, think about stopping in on the seldom-visited more adventurous crags of the Okanogan. Visit once and you’re likely to become a repeat offender.

Photo: Overview of Burge Mountain Trails