Carderock is probably the most popular climbing spot in the Washington, D.C. area. Fast access from the nearest highway and even faster access from the parking area, plus dozens of clean, well-established routes of all types and difficulty levels (up to 5.13c), make it so. In addition to all that, the spot is popular with climbing classes and outings for companies, clubs, and school and church groups. Better climbing on more crags with longer routes and smaller crowds can be found a short drive away on the Virginia side of Great Falls, but Carderock endures as the region's favorite climbing destination and is still a nice place to climb. Just don't be surprised if you show up on a nice afternoon and find that all the best routes already have ropes on them.
The cliffs here get up to 60' in height, but most climbs are in the 40-50' range. Despite that and the fact that Carderock is primarily a toproping area, the climbing is not easy for its type (single-pitch leads and topropes). Schist is the predominant rock type here, and it is slick. Although there are several cracks and corners, the majority of the routes seem to be face climbs. And when you also consider that the popularity of the area results in the holds getting a bit smoother each year and that many routes were rated before YDS expanded beyond 5.9, you begin to see why the area has a reputation among many climbers for sandbag ratings. Most of the ratings have been corrected, but if you climb here, you still may find yourself thinking the route is at least a grade harder than its rating, even on a toprope. Further complicating climbing here is that the ground features a lot of loose dirt and sand. Keeping shoes clean can thus be a problem, and many people bring a carpet swatch with them.
Carderock is a year-round crag; even winter afternoons can be nice since the cliffs face southwest and can warm up nicely throughout the day. Fall is the nicest time to climb, and summer is probably the least pleasant (after cold winter days); the summer humidity makes both the rock and climbers slippery. Easterners know this well, but others may not be aware that Eastern summer humidity is the type that can have you sweating profusely without your even exerting much effort. It can be really nasty.
Carderock consists of two main crags: Jungle Cliff and Hades Heights. It was my original intent to make an area/range page for Carderock and separate mountain/rock pages for Jungle Cliff and Hades Heights, but I came to see doing all that as unnecessary.
A Class 3 gully (often used to access the crags) splits the two main crags and thereby defines them. Jungle Cliff, the northern crag, turns into a diminishing rock pile at its northern end. Hades Heights, for climbing purposes, runs south to where the Potomac River meets the cliffs, but the rock actually continues beyond that point for a short distance, and there are a few routes that now typically can only be reached via rappel or by a sketchy traverse over the water.
Combined, Jungle Cliff and Hades Heights have more than 60 routes in an area whose length you can walk in about five minutes (another reason the spot can seem so crowded). I will spare you a list of them all. The photos do, however, depict and describe some of the routes here, including those that I have climbed.
From I-495, take Exit 41, just north of the Virginia line, heading west on the Clara Barton Parkway. In about a mile, take the exit for Carderock. Go left over an overpass and turn right at the stop sign. Drive to the last parking lot.
A sign near the restrooms indicates the way to the Billy Goat Trail. You can follow the trail as it winds around the north end of the cliffs and reaches the base area, or you can descend the easy, obvious gully that divides Jungle Cliff from Hades Heights.
It should take no more than five minutes to get from your car to the crag.
No admission fees, but the area is on NPS land and all regulations for C&O Canal NHP apply (see links section).
The park closes at dark. Do not alter the rock in any way to place gear. Beware poison ivy and copperheads.
C&O Canal NPS site
An excellent resource for the area is Eric Horst’s Rock Climbing Virginia, West Virginia, and Maryland. The section on Carderock provides photographs and one-sentence overviews of the routes.
Another great guidebook is Carderock Past and Present, published by PATC (Potomac Appalachian Trail Club). The PATC guide fits nicely into a pack pocket and is full of excellent photographs that help locate the routes.