“The canyon with two mouths.” That’s what Unaweep means in Ute, and it was so named due to its rivers flowing out of both sides, one flowing south and one north. In fact, it’s the only canyon in the world with a divide in the middle and streams exiting both ends. This spectacular, criminally under-visited climbing area quietly sits a few miles outside of Grand Junction, Colorado, and features some of the best granite climbing this side of Yosemite.
Unaweep Canyon boasts more than 2,300 routes with everything from multi-pitch trad routes to short, bolted sport routes. And, if ropes and harnesses seem too complicated, bouldering in the area is even more epic. The climbing is amazing, the views are spectacular, camping is free, and best of all, there are zero crowds.
The sheer number of routes means that Unaweep has no shortage of 4-star bolted lines.
Note though, that most climbers will want to bring a piece or two to supplement the bolts. Many routes are truly considered mixed, others are just “exciting” without the extra protection.
If face climbing is the name of the game, head to Mighty Mouse Wall. Warm up on Oil Can Harry (5.9, mixed) and be sure to hit Mouse of the Future (5.10, Mixed). The Space Balls Wall is mostly 5.11s, do not miss Lonestar (sport, 5.11) and Comb the Desert (Mixed, 5.11+) Also, check out the Sunday Wall for a good selection of bolted routes. This is the most popular crag in the canyon. The rock is excellent, and there is a great variety of routes up to five pitches. Start with either Harmony Dihedrals (4 pitches) or Sweet Sunday Serenade (3 pitches), they’re next to each other and both quality 5.9 trad routes. When looking to step it up, hit Echoes, it’s 6 pitches long, with two of them being 5.12+. Looking for something short? Get on Unknown Pillar. It’s one stellar pitch on zigzag cracks that goes at 5.10-.
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With cliffs ranging from 50 to 1,000 feet in height, Unaweep is blessed with some fantastic gear routes ranging from quick 1-pitch climbs to multi-pitch adventures. Do not miss the Mother's Buttress area. It’s loaded with gorgeous, sustained cracks on nearly flawless rock, and covered with an amazing selection of one-pitch cracks from 5.7 to 5.10.
If you’re looking to bump up the difficulty, Middle Mother has the best collection of single-pitch 5.11s in the canyon. Be sure to scope out Upper Mothers—it’s got a bunch of classics on it, including the most renowned multi-pitch route in all Unaweep: Questions and Answers. It’s a 5.10+ with three long pitches, excellent views, and some exposure. The climb has a bit of everything from liebacking up a clean dihedral, to well-protected face climbing and jamming up a perfect hand crack.
While the main cliffs are granite/gneiss, similar to the busier cliffs of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison, the bouldering near Unaweep is high-quality sandstone. Boulderers looking to tackle a wide variety of routes in one area would do well to hit up the Bone Park, which features more than 100 problems ranging from V2 to V10. Just one boulder there, the Plethora Boulder, has 13 problems of wildly varying difficulty, and all of them worth a special trip.
Season/When To Go
The best time for climbers to visit is in the spring and fall. If you’re willing to chase the sun and/or shade, there’s good climbing to be had all year long. The Upper Mighty Mouse/Space Balls wall stays in the shade until mid to late afternoon. Quarry Wall is usually shaded until about 1 pm depending on where along the cliff base you are. Mothers and Sunday Wall fall into the shade in the later afternoon. Generally speaking, the canyon has an east/west orientation. So, the walls on the north side of Highway 141 are sunny during cooler months, while walls on the south side provide shade in the hot summer.
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Excellent camping is found on BLM land all along Divide Road as well as up Colorado 141. Seeing the sun rise over the valley from the cliff tops is genuinely magical. It’s easier to find pure solitude on Divide Road, though if looking to unzip the tent and be bouldering within five minutes, 141 is the place to be. All camping is primitive, there is no water, remember to pack out what you pack in.
Rest Day Activities
Grand Junction’s quaint downtown is a wonderful distraction from being on the sharp end all day. It plays host to interesting shops, including two fantastic outdoor gear stores, good food, and public art to check out. Come nighttime, take in a show at the historic Avalon Theatre. Its rooftop terrace is the best in the city. Take in a movie at midnight or listen to live music at eh outdoor Las Colonias Amphitheater.
And since Colorado seems to be ground zero for artisanal microbrews, there is a staggering variety of craft breweries in town offering up seasonal libations for thirsty explorers. Edgewater Brewery offers tours, features live music and comedy shows, and most importantly, has a huge amount of award-winning beer. Rock Slide does trivia nights, has not one, but two happy hours daily and has been in town for over 20 years.
Part of the reason that Unaweep hasn’t seen an explosion in popularity is the lack of a modern, complete guidebook. KC Baum’s Grand Junction Rock was published in 1997, and Rock Climbing Colorado by Stewart Green only covers two crags: Sunday Wall and the Fortress.
Unaweep Canyon is located in western Colorado, almost to the border of Utah. From I-70 West, take the U.S. Highway 50 exit in Grand Junction towards Ouray (Delta, Montrose) south for about 8 miles. Turn west on CO 141 and continue up into the canyon. Highway 141 winds through Unaweep Canyon for more than 25 miles and is part of the Unaweep Tabeguache Scenic Byway.
Written by Shaine Smith for Matcha in partnership with Visit Grand Junction.