Shelf Road Climbing Area:  The BLM and the Climbing Community Scale the Heights of Partnership

By Mark Hesse

The Shelf Road climbing area, located approximately 11 miles north of Canon City, Colorado, along the Gold Belt Scenic Byway, is recognized as one of America’s premier sport-climbing areas.  More than 30,000 climbers from across the country, as well as a large number of international climbers, visit the area each year to test their skills on the challenging limestone cliffs.

The Shelf Road climbing area was “discovered” by climbers in the mid-1980s.  The area now boasts over 800 routes of varying difficulty.  Its characteristic bulges, solution pockets, and other uniquely weathered features offer a wide selection of high-quality routes. 

Women carrying a rock tied to a pole down a slope as part of a volunteering event.
Rocky Mountain Field Institute volunteer event.  (RMFI)
Relatively undeveloped, with a mix of public land and historic ranches, the area provides sanctuary from the congestion and noise of the Front Range.  It is situated in the protective shadow of nearby Pikes Peak, making it a warm retreat during the winter months when most other regional climbing areas are typically locked in a deep freeze.  In addition to having these unique characteristics and recreational values, the area at-large is one of the most interesting geologic sites in the region.  The nearby Garden Park Fossil Area is one of the most important Late Jurassic vertebrate localities in North America. 

One major characteristic that makes the Shelf Road climbing area so special, as many visiting climbers have noted, is that it is one of the best managed and cared-for rock climbing areas in the nation.  Certainly climbers were fortunate to begin with.  Apart from private property conflicts at Cactus Cliff (since resolved) and the initial “ethical” debate amongst climbers regarding the use of expansion bolts for protection (a technique that was adopted by European climbers to develop similar limestone cliffs), the area was relatively “issue-free.”  And unlike nearby Garden Park, the cliffs at the climbing area (made up of Paleozoic sediments) hold relatively minimal paleontological interest.  The site just so happened to be an extremely appropriate location for a “magnet” recreation area.

Working with the BLM in the early 1990s, the climbing community, led by the nonprofit Rocky Mountain Field Institute (formerly the American Mountain Foundation), helped to put in place a world-class infrastructure that now consists of approximately 5 miles of climbing access/hiking trails, two developed campgrounds, and access roads and parking areas.  You only need to look at other U.S. climbing areas that lack this infrastructure to appreciate what has been accomplished as a result of this partnership.

Photo of men using  tools to cut into the side of a slope.
An RMFI volunteer event.  (RMFI)
There are several key reasons why the partnership at Shelf Road has been so successful.  Representatives of the climbing community have participated with the BLM in virtually every stage of the area’s development.  And much of the work was done proactively in anticipation of the area’s popularity.  Adequate funding is another key to success.  The area’s location along the Gold Belt Scenic Byway helped the BLM to secure necessary funds to support the construction of the campgrounds and to support vital trail work.  The purchase of Cactus Cliff by the Access Fund in 1999 (the parcel was subsequently transferred to the BLM) opened up public access to one of the most popular cliffs.  And, the Rocky Mountain Field Institute’s (RMFI’s) ongoing commitment to the stewardship of the area provides a dedicated volunteer workforce that continues to help maintain the area today.  Since 1992, the RMFI has mobilized over 1,200 volunteers from within and outside the climbing community who have in turn contributed over 10,000 hours of “sweat equity.”

The Shelf Road climbing area, however, remains a work in progress, as significant management challenges remain.  As it continues to grow in popularity, the area is facing increasing pressures.  Despite these challenges, the future of the area is bright because of the strong partnership that remains in place.  With this as a foundation, Shelf Road will continue to stand as a testimony of what can be accomplished when a user group works cooperatively in partnership with land managers to achieve a common goal.

Mark B. Hesse is the founder and past director of the Rocky Mountain Field Institute, a nonprofit environmental service, education, and research organization based in Colorado Springs, Colorado.  Hesse serves on the RMFI's board of directors and consults on special projects and programs.