For most of us locally, it begins as we cross up and over the giant Cascade Mountains: The great divider between the wet and mild western part of Washington state and the dry, hot eastern part. As with most climbers and adventuring people in the region, the greater Seattle area and the western part of the state is home. Local climbers can only cross their fingers in hopes of a dry streak if planning to split to the local crags. The granite rock is amazing, but the season is short. For most, making the two-hour drive from Greater Seattle to the small Bavarian-styled village of Leavenworth is more than worth the effort. It presents a landscape of picturesque beauty, an environment of ideal temperatures and granite quality as brilliant as the mountainous scenery. This is Leavenworth.
As you drive along two-lane roads almost the entire way over, you are thoroughly surrounded by snow-capped mountains, dense forests and rolling foothills. It never seems like the long haul the actual car time makes it out be. Before entering the town of Leavenworth, you will pass through Tumwater Canyon, which notably comprises of some of the first area problems from the 90s. Adjacent and towering over the roads are also some of the first multi-pitch lines in the state, put up in the late 40s and early 50s on what is known as Castle Rock. Continuing on and just as you enter town, you turn down Icicle Creek Road (known locally, as the Icicle) into the Icicle Canyon. You have arrived. While cruising through the canyon, the stoke to simply go adventure this magnificent wilderness builds. Above all else, the motivation of getting on Leavenworth rock is palpable.
For many boulder climbers new to the area, the inaugural first boulder up the canyon will also be the first you attempt. This is the ultra-classic Fridge boulder zone. It presents gym climbers with the stiff, if not harsh, local grading and a feel of the complexities and diversity of the climbing area. With excellent rock quality and tough lines, your first time out can be quite eye-opening. From zone to zone, rock texture and structure ranges substantially between the riverside problems and those located in the dense forests. After your initial go, however, your experience only grows.
As you continue up Icicle Creek, a road that runs beside the river which splits the canyon mountains, you will be surrounded by roadside boulder problems and classic trad walls conveniently consisting of minimal approaches. Take your pick. The more you explore, the more you find the uniqueness in area climbs that will test your every ability. Cars line up on both sides on all weekends during the season, which means outside the hot summer months. More and more, the area is becoming very popular with the non-Pacific Northwest climbing community. Outdoor enthusiasts not only come for the climbing, but also for other mountainous outdoor sports. Popular activities include mountain biking, backpacking and, depending on the timing, ski touring.
Spending the weekends in Leavenworth, either camping in or outside the canyon, is all part of the experience. Walking along the Icicle at nights you will mostly find climbers teaming up on roadside camp spots with a nice, steady fire uniting the group. If, however, you are lucky enough to know a seasoned local, you can explore to more remote spots that present privacy and views that will leave you in awe upon first morning light. It is always worth the adventure of finding those tent spots for the nights. Every morning in Leavenworth is sure to kick off days full of possibilities and an endless nature of which to roam.
Leavenworth is a place for outdoor enthusiasts and climbers to bond and explore together. But for us climbers, it is more than the routes, the problems and the diversity of rock. It continues as a growing destination, but retains itself locally with small town community vibes in its vast open wilderness.
To note, just beyond the canyon mountains that surround Leavenworth is the blissful backpacking region know locally as The Enchantments.
Climber, photographer based in Seattle