Mike Reardon

It’s winter and the lull in Hickory Nut Gorge tourism has set in. For rock climbers though, the crisp winter is the prime season to visit the region, when the air is crisp and the friction of the rock allows for less slippage. If area business owners, residents, and agencies wish to attract more visitors during the cold months, the Carolina Climbers Coalition believe we offer a solution to abate the slow season; more climbing access! 

Will Avent climbing Rumbling Bald (south).  Photo by Mike Reardon

The Carolina Climbers Coalition (CCC) is a 25 year old nonprofit with a mission to protect, preserve, and enhance climbing in the Carolinas and beyond. We are area land owners, and own a tract of boulders at Rumbling Bald (south) off of Boys Camp Rd. that is open to public hiking and climbing. We also work with State Parks like Chimney Rock, agencies like the Town of Lake Lure Parks and Rec, and other nonprofits like Conserving Carolina to create sustainable access to existing or new climbing areas. In Hickory Nut Gorge, we have worked for decades on land acquisition for public access, trail building for hiking and climbing access, trash clean up, trail maintenance, cliff hardware replacement, biological surveys, rare species impact mitigation, and graffiti removal. We are always looking for members and volunteers; come join us! 

Much of our work in Hickory Nut Gorge has focused around Rumbling Bald (south). As Hickory Nut Gorge’s largest open climbing resource, it boasts over 400 climbing “routes” and over 2000 boulder “problems”. These climbing routes and boulder problems attract visitors from all over the south east, and help fuel several area business or programmatic needs. We host an annual climbing competition here in February called The Rumble, attended by 200-400 people each year. When Chimney Rock State Park acquired Rumbling Bald (south) in 2010 and the CCC purchased an adjacent boulder field, the State Park built a parking lot that we all thought would suffice for years. We were all blatantly wrong. Just a year after the lot was built, it would fill by 9:00 AM during winter weekends by climbers visiting the area. With considerable community support and strong leadership with Chimney Rock State Park, the Rumbling Bald parking lot was tripled in capacity this past year. 

Hickory Nut Gorge is now certainly on the radar for regional climbers, but it has all the ingredients to be a world class climbing destination if more resources were opened to public climbing access. A climber driving down the main strip in Chimney Rock will look to their right and left in awe at the climbing possibilities pasted on both sides of the gorge. Upon further inspection, the glee is met with disappointment as these cliffs and boulders do not have legal climbing access.  Although permissible climbing is improving in Hickory Nut Gorge, the big picture view of Hickory Nut Gorge climbing looks pretty grim. Climbers can only legally access an estimated 30% of the natural climbing resources that grace the gorge. The effect of these public and private lands being inaccessible means that climbers will spend less of their winter months visiting and spending money in Hickory Nut Gorge. A 2017 economic impact study by the Outdoor Alliance showed that rock climbers visiting the Pisgah/ Nantahala National Forest region for climbing activities spent $13.9 million in the region, and rock climbing tourism supports 170 full time jobs, or $4 million in job income. If Hickory Nut Gorge tripled its amount of accessible rock climbing opportunities, we could expect the economic impact to triple as well. The primary challenges of expanded climbing access are permission and a place to park. These challenges offer great opportunities for even more partnerships to emerge that will enable more climbing access and more economic opportunity for local businesses.  

Due to several key partnerships with Lake Lure Parks and Recreation, Chimney Rock State Park, and Conserving Carolina, the CCC has been successful in expanding legal rock climbing at Little Bearwallow Falls, Buffalo Creek Park, and Eagle Rock via the Weed Patch Mountain Trail. We hope the new, sustainable access we have collectively created in these areas can be the model for building infrastructure for expanded climbing and hiking access to several other rock destinations that grace Hickory Nut Gorge. This current and future expanded climbing access will lead to enhanced visitation for Hickory Nut Gorge, especially when the temps are low and friction is good!  

Mike Reardon is Executive Director of Carolina Climbers Coalition.