Shelf Road is one of the most popular sport climbing areas in Colorado. It is located in south central Colorado, north of Canon City.
Shelf Road follows the old stagecoach route to Cripple Creek. Canon City built this toll road back in 1892. It twists north from Canon City along Fourmile Creek through valleys and canyons. Long bands of limestone tower above the road and line the rims of nearby canyons. The road through the canyons involves an elevation change from 5,330 feet at Canon City to 9,395 feet at Cripple Creek (a nice drive when tired from climbing). It is a dirt road, but easy, and passable with 2 WD vehicles. As I mentioned above there used to be a toll to use this road during the gold rush (30 cents for a horse and rider and 1.75$ for a stagecoach). It is free now.
The erosion resistant limestone cliffs, ranging in height from 60 to 140 feet high, were deposited almost 500 million years ago on an ancient sea floor. The hard limestone ranges in color from pale white to ebony black. The cliffs offer almost 1000 established routes that are mostly bolted, although there are a few traditional climbs. Grades at Shelf road are based on YDS (the most common system used in USA; link here for comparison). Some climbs in the same grade may feel harder or easier based on your style and preferences. All routes are located on public lands maintained by the BLM. The Rocky Mountain Field Institute and the Access Fund are involved in trail and area maintenance based on volunteer basis.
A little about bolting: to not add new bolts to already established routes (unless you get a permission from the first ascent party, or a community consensus). You can replace old bolts and anchors.
Shelf road offers year round climbing (my visit during Thanksgiving weekend appeared to be super popular with many climbers and very hot conditions). It is set in a high desert environment. The sun at this altitude can be quite intense. Fall, winter and spring offer the best conditions for climbing and camping. Summer can be hot, but you can climb on the north faces, or early in the morning. Bring plenty of water, and it can be very dusty. It does get over 300 days of sunshine, so remember sun block and hats. Local hazards can include rattlesnakes (typically a problem if you step on them or invade their space) and dogs. I think that the dog : climber ratio over here is the highest I have seen at a climbing area, and there is no leash requirement. Some dogs can be territorial and initiate fights (my Duchess got attacked when she was searching for a shady spot under a tree already occupied by another dog).
Climbing at Shelf is divided into several different areas/crags. All crags are accessible by well marked trails that begin at both Sand Gulch Campground and The Bank Day use area and campground. There is a closed road providing a short access to the Cactus Cliff which branches off after the turn off to The Sand Gulch and The Bank Campgrounds. As I mentioned this road is closed and there is no parking allowed. To access the Cactus Cliff (one of the most popular areas) you have to use The Bank Day Use area.
|The Gallery||The Gallery is a series of cliffs lining the canyon northwest of the Sand Gulch campground. The approach is about 1 mile long. The cliffs line the rim of of a Y-shaped canyon with routes in both branches. The Gallery features several climbing sectors: Mural Wall, Menses Prow, California Ethics Pinnacle, Bulge Wall, Incredible Hulk Boulder Area, and the Far Side.|
|Sand Gulch||Sand Gulch is comprised of two parts: The Contest Wall - has an easy approach from the Sand Gulch Campground, gets first sun, and it is a great place to start the day in the winter months, or late afternoon climbing in the summer. THe Freeform area is the west facing cliffs directly across from the Contest Wall. The area receives great afternoon sun.|
|The Bank||The Bank is located along the cliffs lining the canyon north of The Bank Campground. Park in a large lot and hike north on a dirt road that drops into a Trail Canyon. There is a small unofficial parking lot by the Piggy Bank wall offering a parking place for a few vehicles. The Bank has several sectors. Cactus Rose wall is on the left side of the wall. Piggy Bank, Bank Rob Area, Dave Dangle Wall, Surreal Estate Wall, Back to the Future Wall, and 2150 Wall are among the most popular ones.|
|The Dark Side||The dark looming area directly west of Cactus Cliff is known as The Dark Side. It is shaded and north facing, and offers many excellent routes on bullet hard black limestone. The Dark Side gives a different feel that the other areas at Shelf. Access to the Dark Side is from The Bank Day Use Area parking.|
|The Vault||The Vault is located just off the trail that leads from The Bank Campground to Cactus Cliff. You will see signs along the trail. The crag faces both east and south, and gets great early to mid afternoon sun. The Wall is subdivided into Gem Wall and Cash Wall. The routes from far afar may look broken and of low quality, but looks can be deceiving. The wall offers many classics.|
|Cactus Cliff||Cactus Cliff is the most popular climbing crag at Shelf Road. The cliff is home to more than 150 routes and offers spectacular views. The access trail starts at The Bank Day Use Area. There would be a shorter and more direct approach from Shelf Road, but that is closed, and there is not parking. However, the approach trail from The Bank area is well maintained and gives you a quick overview of other climbing areas as well.|
|Spiney Ridge||Spiney Ridge is basically an extension of the Cactus Cliff. A small gully and drainage system separates the two formations. Spiney Ridge faces south and receives plenty of sun.|
|The New Gym and Gym||These two areas continue past Cactus Cliff and Spiney Ridge. They face east and north, so expect early morning sun, then shade. The Gym offers some of the steepest climbing at Shelf Road.|
History: the area was developed in the late 70s and early 80s by mostly Colorado Springs climbers. There is a nice description in the new guide book Shelf Road Climbing by Bob D’Antonio. Shelf is particularly famous for the “French Style” of establishing routes, from the top down with logical clipping stances. Climbing Magazine published article about Shelf Road in December 1987 “Surreal Estate”, which brought national attention. Today, Shelf Road is a world class climbing area with amazing routes, great camping and weather, and beautiful scenery.
The easiest approach is from Canon City, but you can also come via scenic drive from Cripple Creek. Canon City is easily accessible by major highways from all directions.
From Denver: Access I-25 and follow it south to Colorado Springs. Take exit 135 (Academy Drive) west to Highway 115. Follow Higway 115 to US 50. Follow US 50 west to Canon City. Distance: 115 miles, about 2 hrs 15 min driving time.
From Albuquerque and the South: Follow I-25 north through city of Pueblo to exit 101 and US 50. Follow Highway 50 west to Canon City. Distance: 375 miles, about 6 hrs driving time.
From Durango and the West: Take US 160 east to CO 112 north to Us 285. Follow US 285 north to US 50 east to Canon City. Distance: 311 miles, about 5 hrs 45 min driving time.
From Canon City: From Highway 50 in Canon City, you can turn north onto Dozier Street (at Wallmart) or head north on Raynolds Avenue. Travel north on either road as both will curve to the left and intersect Field Avenue. We used Raynolds for 0.8 miles and reached Field Ave. The road climbs a low hill and turns into Shelf Road. Follow for 10 miles to the Sand Gulch and The Bank turnoff. Turn left (west) at a marked turn and drive to the Sand Gulch Campground or The Bank Campground/Day Time Use Area.
There are no fees to park or climb at Shelf Road. There is a fee to camp (see below for more information).
The best guide book is Shelf Road Climbing A Complete Guide by Bob D'Antonio.
Shelf Road is infamous for badly behaved dogs. There is not leash law, which I like since Duchess does not like leashes, but not all dogs behave well. The guide book warns about aggressive dogs defending their territory, especially at Cactus Cliff where climbs are close together. Duchess got attacked when she was seeking a shady spot already occupied by another dog (therefore the made leash on the photo and given territorial status to my Duchess. I do have to mention that she did not create any fights. She just runs to me to hide).
Shelf Road has two scenic campgrounds. Both have bathrooms and information kiosks.
The Sand Gulch Campground offers 16 sites. It is set in a low area, near an open meadow and the Sand Gulch Climbing area. It is open year round. Fee: 7$ individual, and 14$ group site. No reservations; first come, first served. Bring your own water. Elevation: 6,450 feet
The Bank Campground offers 14 sites with spectacular views of Cactus Cliff, and west to the Sangre de Cristo mountain range. The Bank Campground sits higher and it receives early morning sun. It it closer to most climbing cliffs. The cost is the same: 7$ individual and 14$ group site. Again, no reservations, first come, first served. Elevation: 6,800 feet
BLM information on camping and directions